Domenico Ermanno Roberti: Hey Nicola, nice to see you. So, let’s start: what is Mikro?
Nicola Kazimir: I would categorize it as off-space. It's run by a collective. I don't know if it will always stay an art space or if we will continue to show exhibitions. At the moment we do raves: Mikro is a space for electronic music, and we also make contemporary art shows. Sometimes we also have concerts and musical performances, but mostly the raves finance the art exhibitions.
DER: In what way the raves support the art exhibitions?
NK: With Mikro, we first asked ourselves: what is the role of an off-space? What does the term off-space imply? Are you an off-space if you inhabit the same framework as a gallery or institutional space, and do you just do it in a smaller and even more precarious way? What could we do differently as an off-space? With Mikro, we started to do raves that are open for everyone. That was because we are coming from a deejay and musical background. We also studied visual art, but I think the first art genre we inhabited was music, electronic music.
My economy was deejaying, gigging. And while deejaying and gigging, I found it contradictory that clubs and techno spaces would describe themselves as open for everyone, while the door politics would be severely exclusive instead. Dress codes, appearances, race, or gender were and still are terms for selection at club doors, also here in Zurich. I really didn't like that, and with Mikro we tried to give back the possibility to the people to decide whether to stay or go. There is a clear reference to underground resistance, we have always said: “Music is the bouncer.” It’s our aim to have a very diverse crowd, not shaped by any kind of power structure or taste.
The same kind of thinking got adapted to the exhibition-making. While programs of so-called white-cube institutions might appear rather progressive, the same frameworks, its “door policy” excludes on so many different levels. A considerable part of the currently exhibited art requires knowledge of a certain set of references to begin with (acquired through a privilege mostly), which makes it largely inaccessible—also at Mikro. And then also the institutions have additional borders, their own “doors,” just because of the way they are set up. Someone from a working class family in Oberengstringen or just outside of the artscene, for example, would not go to the Kunsthalle, for a number of reasons. Think just about the opening times, everything seems rather exclusive. With Mikro, we tried to open up. Exhibitions are open 24 hours daily from their vernissage. This way the artwork itself isn't so secure anymore. It isn't in this isolated space, under surveillance, away from the people.
DER: Away also from certain ideas of “preservation,” in fact policing of the artwork that are still rather common elsewhere.
NK: Yeah, totally. At Mikro, you won’t have someone telling you “Hey, you can't touch it.” It’s a choice that challenges artists themselves. As an artist, you might have a tendency to feel overly protective of your own work. And then what happens when the artwork is in an unsupervised space, accessible to everyone? It can be stolen; it can be damaged. How do you handle this? As a leftist, progressive artist, I might have radical views on the relationship with the material world. But what happens when this impacts my own work? Can I leave it out there, not just exposed to people, but also to weather and other elements?
DER: And how did you find artists reacted to this?
NK: Very differently. There were artists that embraced this framework from the point of envisioning a show specifically for it. Almost site-specific. Some others instead would show exactly the same as if they were exhibiting anywhere else—a gallery, for example. We are upfront about it; we tell them there are theft and damage risks. Fortunately, it only actually happened very few times. Two times there was a theft, as I can recall. Once was a necklace, and the other it was also a little stone from Swarovski. So, it was jewelry basically. About damage, the weather might be unpredictable sometimes. And then there was this one time when there was a birthday party in the area, one kid turned fifteen. First time with alcohol. And they basically destroyed everything, not just the show but the whole neighborhood. In the same building, we have a center for school dropout kids, and I believe the aim then was to make them socialize among themselves, sometimes supervised sometimes unsupervised. They damaged the works of Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, but the artists took it very well, and the works were just replaced. They were actually even supportive and encouraging afterwards, adding that they found this curatorial framework especially relevant and that we shouldn’t stop because of a single episode.
And also, the event had an interesting turnaround. We talked to the kids, explained to them that what they did wasn’t cool, that their actions had also financial consequences on us. And they learned: times after they were still hanging around the space, but this time in a more respectful, almost protective way. It’s an experience that made us more aware of our context and surroundings, confirming that we aren’t just the usual art space that operates within its own four walls and its “assigned scene.”
DER: You don't think Mikro is part of the gentrification process of the area?
NK: Huh, tough question. To begin with, this building has been rented to us by the city for temporary usage, which in itself is a framework for gentrification. We have our studios and Mikro for a very affordable price, and in this we are indeed very fortunate. But I feel there are different practices that either work in favor of, or steer against the gentrification process of the area. This coffee right here [Auer & Co.] is probably the pure face of gentrification.
Yes, we are part of the same framework, but we believe it can also be used to build a community around it. We are near the ASZ, and during the corona lockdown, Mikro was turned into a food storage facility for low-income families, refugees, and sans-papiers by the ASZ. There are many living in this condition here in Zurich, who aren’t able to access social services because they don’t have the required paperwork. Over 1,500 people were queuing for food here every week.
DER: Mikro is therefore an active part of its surrounding community.
NK: We try not to be hermetic and isolated, but to help and support our very local context where we can. At the same time, we do not want to turn any of our community work into virtue signaling. Our social media pages are very pragmatic: they announce raves and collect documentation of our shows. That’s it.
DER: And how do you balance your mixed program between raves and shows at Mikro?
NK: There is a degree of spontaneity with it. With time, we found that six shows are doable a year; we could do more but then we would have to cut into the budget. For the first time last year, we received public funding: before then everything was financed through the raves. It was, and still is, a very precarious financial situation. Until the funding, we didn’t pay ourselves a single cent. Everything went into the shows to pay for material and artists’ fees. Regardless of the context, we always pay a—admittedly symbolic—fee to the artists. It can be between 400-800 CHF, depending on the artist and on the available funding, or what we can make from a rave. And we aim to always have a decent budget for the exhibitions.
DER: How many people is Mikro made up of?
NK: Currently four. It is me and Flavio Audino, Luca Digilio, and Walid El Barbir (Les Points). We were twelve at the beginning, three artist collectives. Two all-female collectives and one all-male collective. The all-male one is the only one left. One collective imploded by itself and left the group for various personal reasons. Some others just stopped practicing for more ordinary jobs/artistic practices, or because they relocated abroad, or they no longer had the time to participate. Some are still honorable members of Mikro, though, and collaborate when possible. It was a time with different opinions, conflicts, and projects, which overall was a good experience in terms of groups, group dynamics, and self-growth.
DER: At the very core of Mikro there seems to be this search for inclusiveness. How is this reflected into the program?
NK: We have ratios in mind, but aren’t picking artists solely based on their identity. Our PoC ratio is very bad; this is something that we have realized and need to work on. Our FLINT* ratio compared to CIS males is pretty balanced instead, probably even favoring FLINT* by the end of this year. But to be clear, ratios don't solve the inherent structural problem, though they are one possible strategy to tackle it. The same applies for the curatorial work. I don’t curate all the shows; sometimes I'm just the designated technician or facility manager. We also receive ideas and projects from the outside, so there isn’t one curatorial, hegemonic position. It’s pretty fluid in that sense. I can even think of the possibility of giving the space to a curatorial collective to be run for an entire year or extend the amount of people running the space, for example.
DER: Until last year, you had funded the program almost entirely through the rave parties, until you finally applied and also received public money. How and why did this transition take place?
NK: We worked for four years entirely for free. We also struggle financially as artists, and we understood there was an imbalance between paying artists, giving them all, working the raves, the bar, then repainting the space, cleaning it, setting up exhibitions, curating, graphics, communication, etc., and not receiving any form of compensation. Therefore, we thought, hey, let's get this money, so we can pay ourselves as well a fair wage per hour. We do not distinguish between curator, graphic designer, technician—everyone gets the same money per hour. And then the second reason: this way we can also make shows that require more money. Such as the Bubble Chamber exhibition, which wouldn't have been possible without funding.
DER: And did you find any obstacles in applying for funding? Was it difficult?
NK: I found the Canton of Zurich the most uncomplicated. Pro Helvetia is more problematic for off-spaces. We still haven’t received the second half of the promised amount because we had to postpone a show. So, even if we made other shows in between and didn’t cancel but postponed, they were adamant.
DER: It seems that the system lacks flexibility.
NK: It definitely does. And, in addition to that, since last year a limit has been set on a maximum amount of funding available per space (City of Zurich). You can now get funded three times, after which your application will be automatically rejected. As Mikro, we are running until 2024, then we are allowed to apply one more time and that’s it. It forces you to think strategically to comply with the system. You ask for 15,000 CHF; some institutions might give you 2,000. In the end, the hardest part isn’t the application, that comes afterwards. How the single bodies handle the various processes, whether they are very tight in complying with their own regulations or more adaptable. And this is what I find hard to understand: as an artist-run space, we are clearly in the most vulnerable position and constantly in a precarious financial situation. If we decided to have a show that costs 2,000 to make, but the funding only arrives after the show is open, who provides the money to begin with? Out of our pocket? It therefore means you have to first apply to a regular job, to just have the money to be repaid. I understand that funding bodies want proof or guarantees for what they support, but there should be also alternative solutions available. For spaces like Mikro, not relying on big sponsors like banks or corporations, there should be different approaches.
DER: This means that, according to current rules, Mikro already has a closing date set.
NK: We thought this would have been our last year actually, but with all the contractual extensions during this time, it’s the end of 2024. Mikro was founded at the end of 2014, and it has been operating with the current 24/7 framework since summer 2016. It’s been a process of learning and unlearning for us.
DER: What will be the legacy of Mikro?
NK: We keep an archive of every art show, with the traditional form of documentation such as photography and texts. And then there are the livestream recordings, which is camera footage of visitors of the shows. Over the years, people did actually come at four in the morning to visit and discuss the art, which is kind of amazing. Faces aren’t visible in these recordings, the image is pixelated, though now we have stopped the recording as we felt it was becoming redundant. There is still the livestreaming on our website for every show, the notion of camera is still there, together with the possibility of visually accessing the space virtually, without physically being in it. This material will one day be edited to take a form we aren’t yet sure about.
DER: Do you also document the raves?
NK: What we like is that so many people are part of this process of documenting the raves. We should and want to do more by ourselves, but during a rave you’re busy with other more important things as an organizer. But I also think many people have recordings and memories of the raves. After every rave, we ask them if attendees are willing to share them with us, and then we archive them. I believe the impact of Mikro in the musical scene of Zurich has been much more relevant than the contemporary art one. I mean, it's a platform. But, in terms of electronic music, I think Mikro definitely contributed, kick-started, accelerated movements. Mikro played a part with other spaces to build an electronic music scene in Zurich which works outside of normative clubs and sounds played there. In the fields of contemporary art—I’m not quite sure what the legacy will be.
Probably, when Mikro is over, we might make a book, with essays, photos, and so on.
We could do better in terms of archiving of course. But I also like this notion of a decentralized database, from people through Instagram stories or videos or photos. Like a multiple perspective, a shared nostalgia, memories you can refer to and reuse.
DER: And you mentioned you have already been working on a new project for the Zurich scene.
NK: That's right. It’s also important to know there are no figureheads or external spokespersons for the media in this project—but members consisting of a lot of collectives and individuals, so if I phrase a sentence with “we”—I mean all members. It began in September 2019, responding to a search call from the Canton looking for a non-commercial practice to run an art space. The first question we asked ourselves was: what does the Canton define as non-commercial? And in this we found out that, for the Canton, non-commercial basically implies relying for the half part on unpaid—volunteer—work, and the other half subsidized, therefore paid. And also, that you don’t host corporations or make big money out of it. The available space is next to Hardbrücke station, in a decommissioned central laundry facility, the Zentralwäscherei Zürich ZWZ. Raumbörse Dynamo got this space for six years. We had to pitch the proposal in front of the Raumbörse Dynamo with already an intended internal structure, organization chart, a reflection council, a curatorial group, a daily activity plan, etc. Not an easy task.
The idea now is to have a decentralized cultural space, with which we attempt to erode hierarchies and power structures as much as possible through the use of technology, democratic voting processes, and transparency. It is almost oppositional to Mikro, which still relies on fairly aesthetic, hegemonic curatorial normativity centered on a collective. With Zentralwäscherei, all of this aims to be erased, in favor of a mixed program of art shows, craft workshops, theater pieces, all taking place at the same time. The only curatorial limits will be placed on the respect of basic human rights, as well as for-profit projects. Corporations will not be allowed; fascist and sexualized thinking won’t be allowed; gender/race ratios will be implemented. Other than that, it will be a very free platform for everyone, no borders. There will be an open kitchen and a bar that will also finance the space, though you won’t be required to consume anything to be there. No door policies, only pay-as-you-want pricing.
We want a space that is open for all and also that has different genres of curation without being tightened up by tactical or aesthetic decisions. And I'm looking forward to what impact that might have on the city, because it's a 1,000-square-meter space, which is quite big, and there are lots of young collectives that are interested on kickstarting new projects in it.
DER: Do you think Zurich is the right place for such a project?
NK: I could see it in other cities as well. Though Zurich really needs a project taking place on such a large scale, in a space of this size. Something in between a squat and an institution. Our hope is also that together with the public funding won’t come any sort of political obligation with it. Would be a pity if such a project got instrumentalized by politicians asking favors or censoring the program. We will see about that.
DER: How does the city support the project then?
NK: It provides the building rent-free and a budget of half a million for renovations. It might seem like a lot, but for 1,000 square meters with a kitchen, it is really nothing. We will have to do lots of unpaid, DIY labor.
DER: Is there an opening date yet?
NK: We were expecting the money by now, but due to corona the project got shifted back. Hopefully, by the end of the year construction work will start. If no neighbor files an appeal, of course. Until then, a spontaneous program of events might be set up to also help us test all the ideas we have in mind. The space will be available for this until 2026, then the building is planned to be demolished to make space for a new elderly home or a new public swimming facility, I’m really not quite sure, and I could be both wrong. We’ll see.
Nicola Kazimir is a DJ, producer, curator, space-owner, record label owner, and party organizer who works freely across platforms and communities. For Kazimir, these numerous positions are not static, and they can act fluidly and reciprocally as a whole, or as separate entities. His artistic and acoustic productions are mostly based on topics that include the institutionalization of rave culture, copyright, and dividualism.
Domenico Ermanno Roberti is an independent curator based in Zurich. His research focuses on the links between space and architectures of power, most recently on the notion of the interface as an agent in the exhibition mechanism of the work of art. In addition to being part of Roehrs & Boetsch, he is a member of the curatorial team of the OnCurating Space in Zurich.