code flow - e-texts

Interview with Sønke Gau and Katharina Schlieben, curatorial team of Shedhalle

code flow (Dimitrina Sevova & Alain Kessi)


code flow: Could you clarify what position you speak from as curators? What curatorial tradition do you consider yourself part of? And what is the message of the cycle of exhibitions?

Katharina Schlieben & Sønke Gau: Speaking of a curatorial tradition we’d like to mention two postcolonial exhibitions. The first was curated in 1989 by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Pompidou in Paris under the title “Magiciens de la terre”, i.e., “Magicians of the earth”. The second, “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa,” took place in 1995 at the White Chapel Art Gallery in London and was curated by Clementine Deliss, an interesting curator. It’s interesting to see how much had changed in the years between these two exhibitions. Martin started with a big, superinstitutional exhibition at the time. He invited many African artists, but he didn’t want to collaborate with the curators there, whom he dismissed as functionaries without any link to a Western contemporary approach to art. In contrast, six years later Clementine Deliss traveled to Africa where she worked for a long time with different curators there, from a curatorial perspective. In the end she selected seven different curators, and these curators each put together a program for the exhibition at the White Chapel Art Gallery.

The question of who speaks in whose name and from what position is essential to us. We wanted to make an exhibition not about each single theme separately: tourism, neo-colonialism and migration. We want to see the overlaps and grey zones between the three issues, with a special focus on the situation in Switzerland, a country without an explicit colonial past, starting with the assumption that there is a colonial continuity. We did not start out with a national perspective looking at the former colonies and their connections to their former colonizers. This would be the classical, colonial approach so to say. Our interest lies in tracing some sort of post- or neo-colonialism that is transnational in terms of economy, distribution, circulation of goods, and values. At the same time, we wanted to concentrate on what we, as a small institution with a limited budget, can do most effectively. It was clear that we are not going to try to invite as many artists as possible from Africa. But it was very important to work throughout the year with Jochen Becker who approaches the question of colonialism and migration with a specific link to the relation between Africa and Europe.

We started our exploration by making some easy associations. Coffee and chocolate are so prominent for Switzerland. Interestingly enough, they are the typical colonial goods that you would associate with a colonial past. We then went on to look at the power of image industries, looking at the tourism sector, at the discourses of exoticism.


1884/85 African Conference
A meeting of the 1884/85 African Conference in the Reichschancellery Palace in Berlin, drawn from nature by H. Lüders. The European delegates sit in front of a map of Africa, which has been divided up; Chancellor Bismarck stands at their head (photo: Dierk Schmidt/Martin Kaltwasser)

cf: The postcolonial situation relates not only to the Third World, but also the dominating “advanced” countries, which one can describe as self-colonizing. Authors like Eric Hobsbawm or Saskia Sassen have contributed to this perspective. One example that illustrates the self-colonization at the beginning of the new economy in the New World is how the most successful sector was not the gold rush as such – how many gold-diggers are rich today? – but rather a host of new services, such as Levi’s providing robust working garment, the railways, the banks, telecommunication. These are the fundaments of the neoliberal era that followed. The intersection between tourism, image industry and the production of exotic media images is the most visible, the easiest to digest and to see of a whole economy. How did you approach this self-colonization over the cycle of exhibitions?

KS&SG: We started with the very visual aspects of the colonization process, where you can see the images, the results: who produced them and how. In the second part we turned our attention to the neo-colonial practices, to an economy that is most of the time invisible. We approached it by studying the development of traffic, with the expanding network of railways that allowed connecting to neighbor cities and provided the means of transporting stocks and resources. We focused on the natural resources, as with water in Minerva Cueva’s “Overseas” project, which looks at an interesting case of corporate appropriation of natural resources – Nestlé owns 40% of worldwide bottled water resources.

In his project “Maps” Philippe Rekacewicz, the cartographer of Le Monde Diplomatique, who worked on new maps for each of the three projects, investigates the distribution of media concentration and ownership on the world map. We looked also at Development Aid, an important export good which is all about what you give to other countries so they can produce what you need. Jesper Nordahl’s “The Kotmale Project” investigates a Swedish dam project in Sri Lanka. From “the expert, Part 1” to “Afternoon in the Uganda Forest” Sofie Thorsen starts with a very personal approach to Zambia and goes on to analyze the official print magazines from DANIDA, the Danish International Development Agency, and the strategies of “privileged aliens” in dealing with their conception of “Africa.” Another aspect of symbolic circulation is highlighted by Jesper Nordahl’s video “Jinnah Cricket Club.” Cricket is a colonial sport from England, which came to Afghanistan and Pakistan through the colonial history. Migrants from there who have moved to Stockholm over the last years have brought this “cricket sport” to a country in Europe where cricket was hitherto unknown. And now they want to set up a Swedish national team. In that sense it’s a sort of triangle of traces that one could follow in terms of the circulation of values, or symbolic goods.

We aimed to strike a balance between digging out historical traces and understanding current phenomena. We worked on a series of audio stations with interviews we did about the Swiss involvement in the slave trade. Switzerland may not have an obvious colonial past, but Swiss merchants were involved in the so-called triangular trade, sponsoring the traffic and guaranteeing the liquidity of funds. The trade cycle at the time started in the Northern French harbor cities, going to West Africa and then the Caribbean and eventually coming back to the French harbors. The stocks that were brought back would arrive to Berne, Basle or Geneva, as well as smaller cities like Glarus, from where the ships had been chartered. This Swiss involvement in the slave trade was totally neglected by official history for a long time, and few people even know about it, or at least knew until recently.

Sale of cell-phone cards
Sale of cell-phone cards in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (photo: SMAQ)

cf: With this research you were able to link into an existing debate going on at the time about this in the Swiss media.

KS&SG: Yes, public awareness increased after an interpellation in Parliament in 2002 – following the proclamation by the UN of 2004 as International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition – demanding that the Federal government clarify its position towards this chapter of history. Around the same time three publications came out on the topic, one by Hans Fässler, which he produced alongside his cabaret program around the slave uprising in Haiti. Another was published in French by Thomas David and others from the Universities of Lausanne and Neuchâtel. The third publication is by the Christoph Merian Verlag from Basle on “Cotton, slaves and credits,” the story of the Burckhardt and Merian families and their involvement in the “triangular trade.” We made interviews with some of the authors, which we distributed on a CD. Some of them look more at the historical facts, others concentrate on the contemporary situation, for instance to illuminate what made the publishing house Merian commission a book about their own past, and indulge in this kind of self-enlightenment process, and what has happened with the money that the families earned in those time. The Merian family is among the families who opened their archives comparatively early. Other families have yet to provide access to any of their documents.

Another aspect of colonial traffic and its consequences to this date is taken up by Oliver Ressler in his public-space intervention “ / 777.,” which is documented in this third exhibition. He prepared a clip in which he compares the external debt of Africa, some hundred billions, to the economic damage done to Africa by slavery and colonialism, which is some two thousand times higher than the debt. This clip is currently being shown on the main advertising panel in the Central Train Station in Zurich, alongside other ads.

Sale of cell-phone cards
Film still: Frederick Burlingham, La Suisse Inconnue, La vallée du Lötschenthal (Unknown Switzerland, The Lötschenthal Valley), 1916

cf: This is the question of visibility. If you want to be visible in our society, you have to know its rules, and know how to play and how to bend them. In this context Bourdieu, to whom you dedicated a substantial space in the second exhibition of this cycle, somewhere speaks about this intriguing phenomenon that if you want to take a new step forward in subversiveness and struggle, you need to be, for some time at least, part of the universal structures, to participate in them and then once again to step out. Bourdieu discussed this for the example of gay and lesbian movements, but the lesson can be applied elsewhere.

KS&SG: It is a really interesting field, and we are currently looking into going more into different public spheres, not necessarily public space only, but also all kinds of media. Essentially you have to know about the contracts and all the agreements and look for the niches in between and what you can do and what you cannot do. Such work demands a lot of preparation.

What is interesting for us in general is to try to maintain a certain sustainability, to work on a long-term project, thematically. With this series we tried to merge the format of On The Spot activities more closely with the format of the Thematic Project Series, that means that we have worked with 7 to 10 cultural producers on all three chapters. We have established a discourse together, started with questions we all had, the cartographer, some artists, Jochen Becker as another curator, we ourselves, different people from different cultural contexts. It was accepted that some works may not be finished, may remain work in progress, or more like manifests, or draft projects, sometimes to be carried over into the next chapter.

Sale of cell-phone cards
Sofie Thorsen, The Expert, Part 1, 2006


cf: You wrote in your curatorial statement about the first exhibition of this cycle that it combines artistic and documentary approaches from a contemporary and a historical perspective. The discourses around contemporary art practices always contain the idea of a universal structure, and therefore of exclusion. A documentary approach has often been used in contradiction to artistic approaches. When we speak about the historical perspective and documentary approach, the question arises how we make history. How do we go about opening the exhibition space and the theoretical debate around it to different voices and perspectives? You combine real historical documents with new deconstruction or interpretation like Brigitta Kuster’s and Moise Merlin Mabouna’s video piece „2006 – 1892 = 114 years”. What is your idea about the relation between history and the future? What do you want to do as curators with this parallel deconstruction and re-reading of history?

KS&SG: If we compare to the previous Thematic Project Series on the Carnivalesque, which dealt intrinsically with questions of how far you can go in the art world, what kind of possibilities you have there, the current cycle has a much broader scope. The research techniques were different, as the people working on this project together were reading, researching, and going back into history. This is visible in the projects and works that came out of this common work. The colonial topic appealed to a broader audience. We deliberately used a wide variety of media, such as documentaries, feature films, from old movies from 1916 to productions that were done in 2006. It was interesting to merge different practices, from ethnographic approaches like the postcard project „Early Postcards – Messengers between Home and Abroad” by Susanna Kumschick to those of almost journalistic research like Pia Lanzinger’s investigation of the “Zidane-Materazzi” case, looking at racist and neo-patriotic tendencies reflected in the media spectacle around the World Cup 2006 final. Or those of political initiatives such as the Fernweh institution in Freiburg with their „FernWeh – Forum Tourismus & Kritik in the iz3w...” As a political institution they have another language, another way of mediating their themes. In an activist approach, people rather speak of ongoing colonial practices, not about postcolonialism or neocolonialism as such, as would be the case in a theoretical discourse. This is precisely about inclusion and exclusion, looking at what kind of language is used and appropriating the space and resources.

Besides the interviews on Switzerland and its involvement in slave trade, we intervened into a public debate with yet another piece of research, about the Swiss identity cards for foreigners. We were surprised to find out that it is hard or impossible to get information about when these different foreigners’ cards have been issued for the first time and in which context of which political debate, and why these specific colors were chosen, why they are labeled by specifically this set of letters, which gave the title “for example S, F, N, G, L, B, C” to the Chapter 3 of this cycle. There is no documentation at the Federal Migration Office or at the cantonal migration bureaus, and we have asked at several universities where research has been done on this topic, and it seems that nobody knows the story. This is unbelievable. We tried to put together some voices that are not usually public. We think an institution can actively participate in discourse production and become public in this way. And sometimes this seems to us more relevant than intervening in public space in terms of being physically present in another location.

cf: In the history of art discourses, questions of power relations have been thrust to the front first by feminist practices, and the corresponding slogan is “The private is political.” Artists and theorists like Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, Lucy Lippard in an art context have emphasized the need to include a gender perspective in art discourses, especially in a postcolonial context. How do you go about making the connection between race, class and gender?

KS&SG: Gender theory and postcolonial theory developed at the same time, and of course they are linked together. Gender, race and class have always been present as a subtext in our projects. In this cycle we did not specifically focus on gender issues, although there are works that deal with gender questions from another perspective. Like Franca Candrian’s “There at home” about inner migration in Switzerland, the one you see over there with the two elderly ladies on the screens. This is again an oral history piece.

A stronger focus on gender questions will return with the next thematic project line. We will have a guest project about women and electronic music and will start working about precarization and precariat, with a very strong link to self-organization. We will continue lines of investigation we have started in previous cycles and will look at the working conditions for migrants, the social conditions, ideas on how to make a living.

cf: What is your personal discovery with this cycle of exhibitions and projects? How did you further develop existing critical debates related with postcolonial theory?

KS&SG: Definitely, there is the part with the interviews on slavery. Here we have contributed to making the colonial discourse a bit more visible here in Switzerland, and to make people aware of the history and the contemporary traces. Then there is the research about the foreigners’ identity cards, which was quite important for us. And also the mediation project we did with the children of the Community Center Wollishofen here in the neighborhood. It was about the new asylum and foreigner laws (voted on 24 September 2006 in Switzerland), and the changes it brought about in the rights of the children and families. With this project we have started to work on questions of how to mediate these issues, also to children.

About Shedhalle: The history of Shedhalle goes back to the beginning of the 1980s and the occupation of the Red Factory on the Zurich lakeside by activists of the youth riots. It started out as an artist-run space, but was later professionalized and its program opened to less conventional forms of mediating art, and for interdisciplinary collaborations with other social and scientific organizations. The team has always been composed of people active at the interstices of art, discursive intervention and political engagement. Shedhalle has become a unique exhibition space with an important position throughout the German-speaking art scene.

About the exhibition cycle: “Colonialism without Colonies? Relationships between Tourism, Neocolonialism and Migration” is the second big thematic cycle curated by Sønke Gau and Katharina Schlieben, who have acted as the curatorial team of Shedhalle since late 2004. Throughout the project, which they launched in October 2005, they have collaborated closely with Berlin-based curator Jochen Becker and with a large number of artists. The cycle consists of three chapters, starting with the tourism industry and the production of exotic images, continuing with neo-colonial economic relationships, all the way to the third chapter with the current exhibition “for example S, F, N, G, L, B, C – A Matter of Demarcation,” which can be seen until 28 January 2007.

code flow is a collective engaging contemporary media art and theory through cultural practices that resist the market-driven orientation and the permanence of today's institutions. To paraphrase Barthes, code flow is about making the codes dance rather than attempting to destroy them.