With the election of a new curatorial duo in 1994, the Shedhalle started with a fresh program which would establish the institution in the Zurich art scene as a catalyst for experimental, interdisciplinary practices at the intersection of art, discourse and political engagement. Until then, the Shedhalle had offered a more traditional Kunsthalle-style program. The new curatorial team not only changed the dynamics in the production of the exhibitions, it transformed the institutional foundation, turning the process into a collective endeavor: Artists engage in curatorial activities, curators are involved in administrative issues and the managers participate in curatorial projects as well; synergy, communication and egalitarianism characterizes the work philosophy of the institution with the shed roof. It is exactly this framework that permitted Ursula Biemann to take the approach on institutional criticism, started by Renate Lorenz and Sylvia Kafehsy, into new directions, properly said, out of the borders of the Shedhalle. After eight years of post-studio art education and practice during the politically active 1980s in New York, Biemann returned to Zurich to find an art scene she could not relate to and grabbed the opportunity at the Shedhalle to collaborate in the development of a new art context and discursive field. After starting as managing director in 1994, the curators Renate Lorenz and Sylvia Kafehsy asked her if she would like to do an exhibition “every once in a while”. This gave her the opportunity to develop several projects between 1995 and 1998 with one common binding denominator: postcolonial critique.
Colonial Cultural Representation and Production
For the attentive reader, the questions around postcolonialism are not something spectacularly novel today. The postcolonial studies established themselves from 1980 onwards in the academic field. While postcolonial theory based its reflection on the past and present of former colonies, it soon extended to encompass a discussion of the role of the former empires and of the colonial condition of their own societies. Nowadays, the calls to decenter and decolonize the art world have gotten more urgent. Politics, market, institutional programs and infrastructures have been in the middle of the decolonial endeavors within the art world.
Coming from New York where the postcolonial discussion in the arts was already in full swing, these questions at the intersection of postcolonial and institutional critique were already very clear to Ursula Biemann back in 1995 when she participated together with Tom Burr, Mark Dion and Christian Philipp Müller in the exhibition “Platzwechsel” at the Kunsthalle Zurich, which happened simultaneously with her first curatorial project at the Shedhalle. Referring to the Platzspitz Park, site of the Swiss National Expo in 1883 and of the Swiss National Museum which was opened in 1898, Biemann created hybrid ethnographic mise-en-scenes by letting a Kasakh-Turkish model present traditional hats from the museum’s costume department and presenting Turkish head coverings on the museum’s wooden dummies, highlighting the multiethnic configuration of the current population that remains unreflected in the displays at the Swiss National Museum. In her catalogue text, she analysed how the Swiss National Expo served to promote a specific idea of nation and looked at the role ‘otherness’ plays in constructing and disseminating this Eurocentric weltbild”[ii]. The influence of the Whitney Independent Study Program where she studied is palpable. Ron Clark, its long standing director, explains how the main characteristic of the program has been the recognition “that there are always social and political stakes involved in cultural practice. Art and culture are never neutral or innocent. They are always shaped or determined in some way by social interests.”[iii] Ursula Biemann is a strong proponent of this critical perspective which she articulated in her artistic and curatorial practice with the question of postcolonialism, in Swiss society and at large.
Switzerland has an oxymoronic relationship to colonialism. Because they did not ‘possess’ any colonies, it is taken for granted in the Swiss society that Switzerland had nothing to do with colonialism. This colonial myopia (or should we call it amnesia?) went so far that the Swiss Federal Council aimed in 2003 “to play a mediating role between African states and former colonizing powers”[iv] without recognizing their own participation in the transatlantic slave trade. With a new wave of cultural and historical research on the postcolonial issue in Switzerland at the turn of the 21th century, the Swiss colonial condition was reframed in the emerging concept of “Colonialism without Colonies” and contributed to the discussion a myriad of concepts such as “colonial complicity”, “Swiss imperialism” or “part time colonial power”.[v] In this context, a reading of the earlier curatorial projects of Ursula Biemann become once again relevant. At a time when the “self-understanding of Switzerland as a colonial power” was non-existent, Ursula Biemann brought to light the participation of Switzerland in the consequences of colonialism expressed in new schemes of the post-1991 international extension of capitalism, the formation of a global culture and the eruption of migration from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘centers’. To examine these new dynamics, she conceived and developed the exhibition projects Foreign Services (1995), Kültür (1996) and the media project Just Watch (1997) which aimed to reflect on questions about the production and representation of culture from a postcolonial feminist perspective. Instead of looking at the colonial past of Switzerland and Europe, Biemann directed her interest to “where new forms of colonialism was emerging through all kinds of economic and political mechanisms, through strategies of representation and the globalization of media which happened parallel to it.”
Through the critical approach to the colonial condition of culture, Ursula Biemann added a further dimension to the institutional critique that characterized the Shedhalle program. She did not only take a critical position in relation to the art institution by trying to change the existing power relations that structure such cultural spaces, she also examined several other signifying systems, such as ethnography, advertisement, cultural collections, media and education. [vi] At the Shedhalle these questions were situated within the geopolitics of power and knowledge that is in their relation to the colonial dialectics between hegemony and subaltern regions.
Living the Locality
Biemann’s early postcolonial critique in these projects was strongly influenced by Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of borderlands,[vii] which was particularly useful to her understanding of neocolonialism with its transformation of national borders under the new configurations of outsourced industrial productions. In her video essay “Performing the Border” which she already started to work on around 1988 and finally released in 1999[viii], she took a scrutinizing look at the exploding globalization effects in the expanded border space between Mexico and USA documenting the sexualization of the new Mexican workforce, the fetishized female desires in the entertainment industry and sexual violence in the precarious law-free zone. The border is presented as a place where the boundaries of the nation and of female bodies collapse.
Moreover, beyond a mere critique, Biemann also wants to create new spaces. Taking as reference Anzaldúa’s “mestiza culture”, she considers of great importance “to forge new hybrid cultures, a product of several intermingled cultures that could occupy a third space in the imaginary. The collective imaginary is something we need to create and constantly cultivate. That might be more effective than focusing on the critique of racism”. This was also the goal of Biemann’s first curatorial project at the Shedhalle “Foreign Services” (1995) exploring the ways in which this dissolution of cultural identity materializes and what new forms emerge in its stead. The exhibition, workshops and film program presented positions on cultural representation, self-representation, orientalism in the media, hybrid education, aesthetics of cross-overs and the ambivalence of cultural identity and (des-)integration as well.”[ix] Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg engaged for example in their project “Domestic Services” with young migrant girls and boys who attend “integration classes” in Zurich’s primary schools. The kids brought one object and smell from their original home and one from their new Swiss home and they explained the meaning of these objects and smells in their lives. Through this remembrance exercise it became possible for them to connect the past to the present and at the same time experience an ambivalent and hybrid form of cultural identity in the social reality of Zurich.[x]
The theoretical reference to Bhabha’s “third space”[xi] or Anzaldúa’s “hybrid space”[xii] is not only a discursive argument in Biemann’s curatorial projects, it is more of a kind of guide to a concrete artistic and curatorial practice that Biemann reflects in her self-understanding as cultural producer. That’s where she located her position from where to develop different forms of interventions that serve as a prototype for social and political changes in our society. “It’s really a space of negotiation”, she says. “Kültür” (1996) is an excellent example for this kind of intervention and negotiation in social and political processes. Kültür was a two-year research-driven project with eight women artists and scholars from Istanbul. Responding to the massive transfer of labor-intensive manufacture of the European textile industry to cheap labor peripheries, Biemann’s curatorial model takes on the form of outsourcing artistic production to Istanbul, a new hotspot of the textile industry. From the initial discussions in Istanbul through the production and presentation phase at the Shedhalle, the project took a workshop format and transformed itself into a collective space of negotiating postcolonial relations. The Kültür participants put the research emphasis on the condition of migrant women at the urban and social periphery of the mega city, bringing to light the power relations and marginalization processes that structured the center-periphery relation. This focus permitted them to look at the tensions created by the global economic colonial order between modern, democratic, Western center and non-modern, migrated, illegal periphery. Kültür understood these power relations as constitutive for the cultural production as well. The following year, the group developed a new edition of Kültür for the young Istanbul Biennial, a further phenomenon of the globalization of and through art and culture. In all this, a critical consideration of locality and translocality played a fundamental role in their strategy of intervention in the globalization of Western aesthetics and values.[xiii]
The locality of culture[xiv] has taken different directions throughout Biemann’s career, but it has been almost omnipresent. From the Spanish-Moroccan borderland (Europlex, 2003), through the Sahara (Sahara Chronicles, 2006-2009) to the Ecuadorian Amazon (Forest Law, 2014), Ursula Biemann is always denunciating the space where culture totalizes and discriminates through concepts as gender, body or race and simultaneously, articulating the “creative power of counter-geographies”. She reveals culture at its fringes and consequently, she uncovers the spatialisation of globalization, hegemony and its dynamics of marginalization, making visible the micropolitics on the ground and going beyond the universal structures as nation and culture. It could be suggested that Biemann artistic and curatorial work is always looking at the “obscure and ubiquitous form of living the locality”[xv] of globalization.
Displacing and Co-Creating Culture
Twenty years later, Biemann’s curatorial and artistic practice still pursues these same questions in an ever shifting context, grounding them on intense and deep research and mustering an exceptional sensibility to the human condition. In her latest curatorial endeavor “Devenir University” (2019-2021), the artist commits to the co-creation of an indigenous university in the panamazonic post-conflict territories in the South of Colombia.[xvi] The project aims to integrate two worlds of knowledge that have been historically hierarchized through colonial epistemic violence: the Indigenous knowledge systems and Western modern science. In this juxtaposition, Biemann sees again a possibility for intervention in the coloniality of the world, this time by decolonizing indigenous epistemology from which we have a lot to learn about improving the damaged human-earth relations at these times of ecological breakdown”. Furthermore, her continuous reflection about locality has found new soil to grow in this epistemology that is defined as “territory-based, localized and deeply rooted in an inseparable ecological relation between culture and nature” which offer an alternative to the Western anthropocentric project and its conception of the natural world. In contrast, the indigenous empirical approach lies in a set of practices that connect different places, species, and meanings, which together form the territory they live in. Epistemic diversity is directly connected to the biodiversity in the territories. Hence, new ecological projects should be accompanied by the plurality of knowledge.
Biemann’s artistic work has experienced at shift from a feminist and postcolonial perspective on borders and migration, toward environmental concerns revolving around climate change and the ecologies of natural resources, but it has been continuously motivated by a “desire to critique the phallogocentric system we live in”. In her view it is the same logic, “whether it's the colonization of other peoples in the world or of women or of nature, it's still the same kind of ideology that has brought us there. It is systemic”. But today, she concludes, “artists should be less concerned with how institutional frameworks impact on the meaning of what artists produce and exhibit, the most important question now is how we can co-create the environment we want to live in”. The shift from a critical to a more caring attitude is something we can all contribute to.
Jose Cáceres is an historian and independent curator. He is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zurich, developing a decolonial critique to the idea of history from a Latin American perspective. Recent projects include the intervention Chile Despertó with Impresionante (Chile) at Volumes 2019, the documentary exhibition Chilean Revolt. A Chronicle at la_cápsula and Walmapu ex situ in collaboration with the collective Trop cher to share. He is enrolled in the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ZHdK
[i] We would like to express our gratitude to Ursula Biemann for her collaboration, support and critique. We (Arianna Guidi, Myriam Boutry and Jose Cáceres) had the possibility to interview her on 20th February 2020, our exchange transformed itself then into an ongoing conversation and discussion through the writing of this essay. Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are from the interview with Ursula Biemann, 28 February 2020.
[ii] Ursula Biemann, Ethno-x-centric on the National Expo and the National Museum, in Platzwechsel, Kunsthalle Zürich (Zürich: Kunsthalle Zürich, 1995), 51.
[iii] Independent Study Program: 40 Years, 1968-2008 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2008), 19.
[iv] Thomas David, Bouda Etemad, and J. M. Schaufelbuehl, Schwarze Geschäfte: Die Beteiligung von Schweizern an Sklaverei und Sklavenhandel im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert (Zurich: Limmat-Verlag, 2005), 188.
[v] See Patricia Purtschert, Francesca Falk and Barbara Lüthi, Switzerland and ‘Colonialism without Colonies’. Reflections on the Status of Colonial Outsiders, Interventions. International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 18, 2016, 286-302.
[vi] Here is visible the influence of the collection of essays “Writing Culture” which gave rise to a debate on the epistemic and political predicaments of ethnography that influenced not only ethnography and anthropology, but history, cultural studies and literary studies as well. See James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Ed.), Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
[vii] See Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera. The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).
[viii] Interview with Ursula Biemann, 28 February 2020.
[ix] Ursula Biemann, KunstproduzentInnen im Aussendienst. Ausstellungspraxis im postkolonialen Raum, in: Hors Sol. Reflexionen zur Ausstellungspraxis / Réflexions sur la pratique de l’exposition, (Zurich and Geneva: Shedhalle. 1997), 24. (trans. Jose Cáceres)
[x] See Ursula Biemann, KunstproduzentInnen im Aussendienst. Ausstellungspraxis im postkolonialen Raum, in: Hors Sol. Reflexionen zur Ausstellungspraxis / Réflexions sur la pratique de l’exposition, (Zurich and Geneva: Shedhalle. 1997), 25-27.
[xi] See Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 85 ff.
[xii] See Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 77 ff.
[xiii] See Ursula Biemann, Kunst. Feminismus. Migration, in Kültür: ein Gender-Projekt aus Istanbul / Istanbul’dan bir “toplumsal cinsiyet” projesi, (Zurich: Shedhalle, 1996), 6-9.
[xiv] See Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 1994)
[xv] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, p. 200. An example for the creative and sensitive use of theory and for the continuity for the search after locality is Remote Sensing (2003) where Biemann explores the globality of sex trade and the narrator repeats this quote to talk about clandestinity.
[xvi] See https://www.geobodies.org/curatorial-projects/devenir-university