|NEWSPAPER [02/05] - INTERVIEW WITH URSULA BIEMANN
Because of its diverse programme and the versatile people that have shaped the Shedhalle over the last 15 years, the Shedhalle has become an internationally acclaimed institution, which has even grown into a model case through its engagement in institutional criticism.
One of our concerns is to rehearse the developments, changes and motivations of its thematical, institutional and curatorial directions. For this purpose we interview those who were involved with its design and development and let them speak from personal, political and curatorial perspectives: above all, the curators, but also the managers, board members, etc. The idea is to establish an exchange about these topics in the form of an e-mail interview as an independent column in the Shedhalle Newspaper.
We started chronologically: the first issue contained an interview with Barbara Mosca (General manager 1987-1993), the second, an interview with Renate Lorenz (curator 1994 -1997) and a brief response from Sylvia Kafehsy (curator 1994 -1997). This issue contains an interview with Ursula Biemann who was both a member of the management and a curator of the Shedhalle between 1995 and1998.
INTERVIEW with Ursula Biemann
You were at the Shedhalle from 1995 to 1998 both as manager and as curator, while you went on with your artistic work. The fact that these activities overlap in an institution like the Shedhalle might be seen as the expression of a specific curatorial outlook. What do you think? How was collaboration understood at the time and what effects did this have on the concept of the institutional practice?
The combination of artistic and curatorial activities rooted in the concept of the “New Shedhalle Team”, as we came to call the “post-Lux/Mosca constellation”, suited me very well. During my studies at the Whitney Programme in New York this separation had been dissolved intentionally; in the weekly reading group those from artistic and curatorial fields came together at the same table for discussion. All of us were treated equally competent in the mediation of art. This proves that separation is an artificial construct. Many of the Whitney graduates later continued to organise exhibitions and other events. It is often necessary to create a field of work that has had no previous existence in the official art world. When I came to Zurich after eight years in New York I encountered an art scene to which I couldn’t really relate. It was orientated towards the art market and very competitive. Thematically, however, there wasn’t much going on. It was clear, really, that I first had to develop an art context in order to be able to exist here artistically. Not only with the actual intention to exhibit in the Shedhalle itself, but also to establish a discursive field of art within which I could operate. This is why I worked for the Shedhalle.
After my first years as General manager, the two curators Renate and Silvia asked me whether I wanted to plan an exhibition project. This was a surprise and real chance to work on a bigger project for the first time, realize the themes already important in my artistic practice and to create public interest for it in Zurich or in the German-speaking context. Thematic exhibitions are hard work because you have to research the subject and elaborate your own position. It is an advantage, therefore, to have several people in the team who can offer thematic input. My contribution to the programme was post-colonial criticism, which was then rather new in Europe and supplemented the other topics, genetics and biological technologies, social artistic practices, urban projects, etc. Of course there was overlapping through the common focus on gender-specific social analyses. After some years, I gave up management and worked only as curator.
From a curatorial point of view, the Shedhalle concept provokes a more radical thinking and acting than is the case with other institutions because of the history of its development and because of its thematic and political orientation. With this in mind, what did you see as its particular institutional opportunities or limitations, and how did you deal with them?
First of all, there wasn’t this omnipotent claim of “high art”. This enabled us to present interdisciplinary hybrids in our curatorial practice. Thus, it was imaginable to present, in one exhibition, as in Aussendienst for exemple, a photographic art installation, a museum presentation, a four-week workshop with migrant children, the camel collection of a tour guide, individual conversation transcripts and film projections, and thus critically to question the different disciplines of image and knowledge production with regard to their ethno-specific behaviour. Something like this could not have been accomplished so easily in other institutions. The Shedhalle’s position at the Rote Fabrik, and perhaps also its geographical location, did not always attract great numbers of visitors, which was sometimes disappointing. The projects were probably of most interest for the participants themselves, and there were many of them over the years. There was certainly a greater exchange between institution and audience here than in other places; the audience was always asked to participate actively in the process of critical reflection.
The Shedhalle sees itself as a contemporary art institution, which a political background and deals with political topics. If one follows the argument of the “New Institutionalism“, political orientation and institutional work do not exclude each other. Do you have a problem with this? Which curatorial models interest and inspire you in this context? And how important were such questions during your time at the Shedhalle?
Of course we dealt with these questions every day. Each exhibition experimented, as it were, with yet another way of curating, both with regard to the modes of exhibiting inside and outside the art context and with regard to the structure and cooperation with participants and external partners. We didn’t really have a conflict-ridden relation with our institution as it could happen in the form of pressure to compromise from sponsors or board members. Our problem perhaps was that this factory building and the institution were orientated towards the art of the 1970s and 80s, which was influenced by industrial standards, something that didn’t correspond with our discursive practices of the 1990s. That was a somewhat ponderous legacy.
My most experimental project was Kültür, which was planned, developed and conducted with artists in Istanbul: an out-of-house project which was to respond in a cultural dimension to the increasing expropriation of economic processes into low-wage countries, and which was thoroughly collaborative. I was interested in this form of cooperation as a model of a post-colonial critique, which not only occurs within the artwork itself, but also takes the institutional relation as its starting point. Marion von Osten’s Sex and Space project, which thematically overlapped in many ways with Kültür, was a great simultaneous counterpart because we were able to exchange our experiences with the processes of group projects that were sometimes quite difficult.
Right now, there is a lot of discussion about the efficiency of institutions. Different authorities interpret this efficiency in quite different ways. Institutions, which receive public funding, are often judged by quantitative criteria such as visitor numbers. This is partly true for the Shedhalle, too. How did you handle this fact and what do you think is the situation for institutions of a similar outlook today? How do you perceive the dilemma to think for a specific audience and at the same time showing the greatest possible openness?
We just weren’t put off by these circumstances; each of the Zurich art spaces has its own programme and should acknowledge its particular function. We occupied a critical-discursive niche, which was not claimed by anybody else. We raised many different topics over the years and perhaps put together the most varied programme. We resolutely dismissed the accusation of one-sidedness. We simply tried to integrate different local groups of interest in order to enter new audience circles. Our curatorial approach and our critical stance were mainly appreciated outside of Zurich and Switzerland. The pressure that began to be exerted by art activities which, thanks to the internet and a documentary-oriented, socially engaged and medially interconnected global art scene, increasingly took place outside the art strongholds in the 1990s, meant that the understanding of art had to change in more conservative art spaces, too. Art galleries and museums had to open up to such activities if they didn’t want to be excluded from the most important artistic events. But we don’t really need the blessing of these galleries as much as we used to; there are many options and opportunities to be active at a place for a certain amount of time. This growing independence is equally valid for the audience; we no longer depend on a local regular audience in order to have a sense of the point and effect of our work. But maybe it is the artist in me who says this.
Is the separation of curatorial and artistic practice important for you today? One should mention that you also publish books and teach in Geneva and Zurich. How do these different activities influence your work?
I have already said a lot in this respect. I never considered this separation a useful one. To curate is part of my artistic practice. The curatorial projects brought the necessity of writing, i. e. the articulation of a concept and the mediation of individual artistic positions. Today, I also write on the topics that interest me in my video works. The texts complement the videos, but they do not only mediate them. Because people know that I write myself, they do not bother publishing something on my works but ask me to do it. But then, others’ interpretations never really seemed concise enough, many reflections were lost or their complexity wasn’t comprehensible from an art-immanent position only. This is why I started doing it myself. I most enjoy writing on research-related art projects in which image and text are treated equally and thus interweave. My video works are best represented in this way, and the material for the book format can be re-prepared individually.
Over the last few years, the documentary and post-medial art practice, the video-essay, the idea of a visual form of theoretisation and the negotiation of social and economic aspects and phenomena to do with identity have become much more wide-spread than in the mid-1990s; much more is written and published about it. This makes things easier for teaching. In teaching, I’m equally interested in connecting practice with theory. I missed this strongly at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the subjects there were strictly separated and the studio teachers had no idea about what was going on in art and cultural studies courses. This is why I think that the mediation between theory and practice should have a prominent place in studying. At the universities of Geneva and Zurich I am just launching a research project on North African mobility with regard to Europe in which I want to develop one of my works with students for the first time. In this, artistic activity and teaching get very close.
Important Shedhalle projects of yours which keep on being talked about and researched are, amongst others, Kültür (1997), Foreign Services (1995) and Hors Sol Reflections on exhibition practices (1997). You have been interested in post-colonial discourse and questions of mapping for a long time, for example in your video essays Performing the Border and Remote Sensing. In 2003 you curated the project Geography and the Politics of Mobility at the Generali Foundation in Vienna. Where do you see problems in the negotiation of this topic in current exhibition practices? What will your future projects be like and where will they be located?
What I’m saying now has perhaps more to do with the fact that my work focuses on topics that are not art immanent, and with my experience of showing them within the art context. My videos deal with migration topics, with globalization processes in trans-national zones, with post-socialist infrastructures and their relation to the movement of people, with gender-specific geography. However, they experiment with forms of aesthetic and theoretical conversion, which make them differ from the documentary genre, approximating the essay. Video essays are not primarily concerned with representing a reality but with reflecting it. This makes them very suitable for public involvement. For example, my videos are shown and discussed in activist, academic and artistic contexts alike. It is desirable that they enter these different spaces and develop effects because they are a synthesis of data, which originate from all these areas of knowledge production. In the heat of discussion in public or school contexts, however, it is remarkable how quickly activist and artistic aims are interchanged and mixed up. The indirect question of what a video can actually do is raised in almost every presentation, irrespective of its context. The reason could be, that the presentation of conditions, which create an acute sense of social injustice, even if the video presents them in a highly structural and theoretical way, asks for solutions, which I do not offer. This stance can perhaps be traced back to common practices in documentaries, which often exemplify social problems by individual cases so that the suffering can be re-enacted. I strongly suspect this method of shock production because its effect is an emotional, often voyeuristic, kick which does not lead anywhere politically, or which at least does not enable action. But because I don’t make use of this formula of dismay in my videos, it is apparent in the audience’s expectation. The frustration sometimes ends in the position that my video is not able to improve unacceptable life conditions and that it thus is unsatisfactory. Would the video also be shown in places where something should be changed, the audience asks.
Of course there are well organized and globally connected NGOs everywhere which are designed to achieve concrete changes on social and legislative levels. But this is definitely not the place of my interventions. My aesthetic practice creates other spaces for action, even if NGOs often use my videos for lobby or PR work. I have chosen to act in the symbolic space. It is not about changing the world out there but about changing the discourse about the world out there. Nevertheless, these questions often mark the very moment that makes me realize that the project has the effect I wanted: to sharpen the sense of one’s own responsibility for global developments. Wherever possible in my works, I try to emphasize the connection between high-technological societies and the creation of precarious life conditions. My prime concern is that we regard causes and solutions not always as something that lies outside of us.