Montag, 19. März 2012

Art + Argument at Galerie Béatrice Brunner - the results!

In Bern on 15th March, Wendy Shaw opened the defence of the motion ‘Swiss culture must be defended’ robustly: “Swiss culture must be defended, not to the death, as the saying goes, but to the life”. The dangers it faces are not from alien invaders but instead from complacency and the belief that the traditions of democracy and self-reliance will be perpetuated automatically. The referenda and votes that are the manifestation of Swiss democracy focus on single issues run the risk of being blind to the bigger picture. “This disappearance is not democratic, it is quite the opposite: it becomes an inability to speak in the face of a democracy that requires an object example in order to distil a general problem. And sometimes, an entire forest needs to learn to speak, listen, and above all take sides without having a tree to single out.” In a country where long meetings dominated by those in power, nothing seems to change. Alternatives only flourish in the margins, in non-profit surroundings or other non-hierarchical systems. “Maybe there can be no ‘against’ in a country that defines itself through neutrality, in which every argument becomes a waltz of apparent consensus against a sudden double-step by the dancer in command.” It is this very consensus that we must guard against, and that in culture as much as anywhere: “between truly charming whimsy in off spaces and formal mastery in the gallery, art speaks politely without challenging; one would think there are no politics in Switzerland. But the political, when functioning, refuses to stay properly only in its own realm. Instead it must invade every expression, discovering a drive to speak where no speech is possible, even here, where Swiss culture mounts its own autoimmune attack – an attack which only argument can hold at bay.”

The Stadt Theater in Bern

Barbara Bader, who had heroically joined the opposition at the last minute when Sibylle Omlin was unable to take part, started her argument by citing recent news in Swiss cultural politics. One prominent person in the primary arts funding organisation seems willing for this funding to be decimated – but who is he to judge what Swiss culture is? And how important is his organisation really? It’s budget of 35 million CHF is equivalent to that of the Hochschule der Künste Bern (HKB) or the Stadttheater in Bern. “Imagine,” she suggested, “auditions at the Stadttheater. They’re blind auditions, there’s a curtain behind it is a person who is a good artist or not such a good artist. The person who chooses doesn’t really care whether it’s a Swiss artist or not, because what they want is that the show on stage is good art.” The same is true when the HKB are recruiting staff or students; what is important is quality of the culture produced, not the nationality of the artist. “Where culture really happens is in towns, is in cantons. That’s where culture comes from and I don’t think that many people care who does the art, who does the culture if it’s good culture.”

From the outset Raphael Urweider’s defence was provocative. He identified Swiss culture as “a fragile, endangered species” which we would ignore at our cost. Swiss culture can be identified for its modesty, discretion, finesse and underpinning by hard work and Protestant values. “Foreigners who visit Switzerland are often offended by Swiss people staring at them because they have not lived here long enough. What they don’t get is that the staring is neither offensive nor hostile. Swiss people have a friendly look at each other, they are aware of their neighbour; everyone is treated as a next of kin. Foreigners often think is that the offensive, accusatory, but it is only part of the openness and awareness that is a big part of Swiss culture. Think of an innocent, curious child, when someone in the bus is looking at you with eyes wide open, think of empathy and concern, not of a judgemental stare.” And at the heart of this is the essence of Swiss democracy. “That is true Swiss culture, compromise, but a compromise is not a flashy or exciting thing, a compromise is a fragile small common denominator that makes Switzerland a true model of democracy.” But these values are not always perceived, and thus they must be defended. From the outside (brash neighbours to the north being picked out in particular) and from the Swiss that do not recognise the wealth they possess. “Swiss culture is like an endangered flower in the mountains, like the edelweiss. It doesn’t smell, it has no alarming flowers, but it has a noble whiteness that is soothing the eye and pleases the mind.”

Luzia Hürzeler’s rebuttal of the motion was based on her experience as an artist. She started by quoting Ben Vautier’s 1992 work La Suisse n’existe pas, and wondered how something that doesn’t exist can be defended. What would she do if her own work were to be defended on nationalistic grounds? “An artistic work tries, in my eyes, to see or combine the world in a new way, to invent a new system to capture the world, to place us in it. I don’t believe in the idea of an international art, I think that the place and the way we live and we grow up conditions cultural practice in complex ways. But I don’t believe in national art either. I find it very reductive to put artistic or any cultural practice or works in the box of a nation.” Not to mention that the idea of nationhood is ever more outdated: we live in a time not of powerful nations but of powerful axes and routes. And how do you define any person’s nationality? “How can I be sure to belong to a place, to a culture? The American sociologist Troy Duster is investigating the development of contemporary genetics and ancestry testing. He says that to put ancestry testing in perspective we first have to ask the question ‘when do we come from?’ rather than ‘where do we come from?’ Because all of us go back centuries upon centuries upon centuries, the question is at what moment we stop to locate our belonging, and the further back we go in the family tree, the more the origins multiply. Otherwise said, at some point in history, everyone comes from nearly everywhere.” She concluded by saying “not Swiss culture must be defended but culture also, but not only, in Switzerland”.

Ben Vautier, 1991
In the ensuing debate the definition of Swiss culture became more distinct and more diffuse at once – it could be the air in Swiss cheese, or the motorway vignette on every car that traverses the country. One side could not be convinced there was a threat to be encountered while the other side saw it looming large. Insults were gleefully traded and opinions challenged, though the final vote was close. The proposition won by 12 votes to 10 – “a compromise!” they declared.

Many thanks to Béatrice Brunner, Jacqueline Baum and Ursula Jakob for the invitation to debate in Bern, and many, many thanks to the participants for their enthusiasm and ideas. Please do not quote the participants from this debate - each was playing a role they had been assigned for the event!

Art + Argument will now take a few months' break, but will be back. If you'd like to know more or receive emails about future events please contact aoiferosenmeyer (at)

Montag, 5. März 2012

Lineup for Art + Argument at Galerie Beatrice Brunner!

Swiss culture must be defended!

Luzia Hürzeler, Sibylle Omlin, Wendy Shaw and Raphael Urweider debate nationalism, protectionism and the arts

15 March 2012, 19h

Galerie Béatrice Brunner

Nydeggstalden 26

3011 Bern

This debate takes place in the context of Jacqueline Baum and Ursula Jakob’s exhibition Muttersprache – Vaterland at the gallery.

Four cultural experts in two opposing teams debate and discuss a motion that they have been assigned. Each participant has been given a position opposing or defending the motion, and each has five minutes to argue their case uninterrupted. Thereafter the speakers challenge each other, and the audience may in turn question the speakers. The event ends with a vote for the more persuasive team.

This is a forum for discussing culture where the unspeakable may be said. Each speaker must play his or her assigned role, regardless of whether they agree or not. Speakers benefit from temporary immunity: what they say during the debate is not necessarily their opinion and they cannot be held to their word afterwards.

Art + Argument is an itinerant event bringing together exciting minds from the Swiss art scene and beyond. To know more, write to aoiferosenmeyer (at)