An Initial Conversation
Denise Bertschi with Giulia Bini
To unmask political neutrality as an impossible balancing act
NEUTRALITY AS AN AGENT
Giulia Bini: For a while now you have been developing a body of work under the theme of “Neutrality as an Agent.” Different projects can be considered as single episodes or fragments in the development of your discourse and investigation.
To take a few examples: STATE FICTION – Helvetia Mediatrix, NEUTRALITY AS AN AGENT, “CONFIDENTIAL”, PLEASE ENSURE THE GATE IS PROPERLY CLOSED, WE SAY, WE ARE FINE. THEY SAY, WE ARE NOT. These titles give the impression that you are building a terminology and developing the “chapters” of a body of work aimed at narrating and revealing Switzerland’s hidden geopolitical and economic history.
Denise Bertschi: It came out of the questions “Where do I speak from? Where do I position myself as an artist?” For a long time I asked myself, “What can I speak about?” and I started realizing that what I can speak about is my own country, the society I come from, and its position in relation to the world. What really struck me is the “terror of beauty” in this country and I asked myself what could be behind it. Consequently, I started detecting the fractures and frictions, analysing where this surface breaks. This isn’t something you can easily perceive in such an efficient and fluidly organised country.
Once you leave this comfort zone, however, you understand there is another side to the narrative.
Economic exploitation may not be happening here, but Switzerland is profiting from it (e.g. through commodity trade). Terror is outside our boundaries; it’s kept out.
From these initial reflections something quite deep started troubling me. Somehow, having scratched the surface, I wanted to get closer to an understanding of reality.
GB: There are certain terms which seem to develop across your work: notions such as aperture and enclosure, as well as neutrality and opacity. Can you expand on what you refer to as the function of “unmasking political neutrality as an impossible balancing act”– a thread that runs through your research? What concept of neutrality constitutes the basis of your work? It’s interesting to think of the construction of this neutrality as a paradoxical process…
DB: Ideally, if you want to be in a neutral position, you are balanced. If we try to visualise that, you have a point “A” and a point “B”. It’s impossible to position yourself exactly in the middle; you always swing to one side or the other.
A——–v———B. Mathematically, “V” is a void, a sort of impossible place, an unreachable condition – two approaching lines from left to right that eternally don’t meet. A void opens up between the poles; a space containing no matter – neutrality as a middle course between Yes and No, the unreachable point of being in the exact middle. Two magnets always bounce either towards or away from one another, never finding complete balance. How then, symbolically speaking, can absolute neutrality be possible?
GB: Historically we know that the Vienna Congress in 1815 established the political “neutrality” which became a distinctive aspect of modern Switzerland. As historian Olivier Meuwly explains, there is no real “project for neutrality” but rather inner political circumstances (the unstable cantonal Switzerland), as well as external ones (its position as a buffer state between Austria and France) that determine and direct the country’s neutrality. Historical analysis can support our understanding of this process. But what I would be curious to know is how, through the layered narration of your research, you address the philosophical question which could arise from your investigations, namely the philosophical status of this neutrality – as if a sort of “ontology of neutrality” existed.
DB: In short, neutrality was the lowest common denominator in the Confederation’s foreign affairs policy. Rather than a morally superior position, neutrality was a consequence of weakness determined by inner conflicts1.
During the Vienna congress in 1815, Switzerland’s role was decided not so much by the Swiss themselves but by the European superpowers that defined the small Swiss state as a kind of neutral buffer zone in the Alps transit, a geopolitically interesting location. None of the superpowers wanted this strategic passage to be controlled by only one power.
For the following 200 years, Switzerland sought refuge in standing apart, standing on the sidelines, while always maintaining close connections with European powers – a double strategy which remains characteristic to this day.
All my work is about shifting from “neutrality as an abstract concept” towards grounding it in detectable examples. For the work to be effective, it has to become extremely explicit and concrete. Once something is explicit, it also becomes understandable and approachable. I mean this in the geographical sense of finding the place where it manifests itself, thus retracing and re-narrating the hidden history of colonial Switzerland. The work is therefore about manifestations.
From the site to the index
DB: I have this one image which returns when thinking about my video work. You see a tree surrounded by a forest, but what does it stand for? It’s a still from the video called Helvécia, Brazil. Helvécia was one of the 19th century’s largest coffee plantations, located in Brazil (Bahia), but in Swiss hands. Today, the “Helvécia” quilombo bears almost no traces of the forms of life it once gave rise to, and the encounter between Swiss colonialists, African slaves and the indigenous community has yet to be properly acknowledged as a key chapter in the history of Swiss colonialism.
In this video still, you see a fruit tree, (a Jacca tree, which the inhabitants of Helvécia showed me outside the village) as a place of memory. A planted fruit tree in the middle of the forest signifies for them the former location of the house of the Swiss slave owners, the “Casa Grande.” We even found little ceramics on the path right next to it.
It is one thing to work with a title like “Neutrality as an agent,” but if you then choose to look at a specific site, it becomes evidence: a bearer of memory for what has happened. The site works as evidence even if an explanation is still needed – as the site might not reveal all the visual signs, as in the example of the Jacca tree.
I like to call it soft evidence.
The tree as soft evidence.
It’s about the process of finding the place. The site stands for something, for a story, for an entanglement, a deeper history, unrevealed or forgotten.
THE IMAGE OF THE TREE
GB: The tree then becomes the place of your narration, its site. In your quest towards “grounding the abstract concept of neutrality in specific examples,” the tree becomes the specific point, the element in which the “v/void” position in your above-mentioned schema collapses; the point where we see the fracture, allowing for the “real story” to unfold.
DB: The tree is the evidence of non-neutrality. It’s basically a testimony of a historical presence, an appearance of a Swiss colonial entanglement. My methodology is to produce an artistic and visual translation of this site: a new image, which refers to layered narrations.
GB: This tree and its value in the work echoes the notion of “Index” as developed by Rosalind Krauss in Notes on the Index. (Part 1), after Charles S. Peirce and Roland Barthes.
“As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents of the shifters. Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects…2”
The tree becomes an indexical sign. Certain of Peirce’s words on the “index” also resonate with your work: “The index asserts nothing; it only says “There!” It takes hold of our eyes, as it were, and forcibly directs them to a particular object, and there it stops[…]3”
The function of the tree is precisely to point out this “There!”
DB: The real story unfolds as you mentioned, but a mediator is needed. The tree was “always” there. The memory and knowledge of the local community play an extremely important part in constructing the story and they have agency in transmitting it. Without them, the tree stays silent. Without this mediation, it would remain a weak trace; a rumour about a site of widely neglected Swiss colonialism; an entanglement with a past whose influence on the construction of today’s state and its economy is clear.
Architectural sites and spirits
GB: You often evoke the idea of spirit, associated with places as well as architectural sites. Can you elaborate more on these notions?
DB: In my artistic practice, I am obsessed with finding these spaces of hidden history; a spatialization of invisible processes. And by spatialising and locating I mean finding the context, a clear site, with a visual reference.
Even if what you see in this image does not match the history of the place, I can dig deeper and reveal what lies behind the unspectacular. This methodology can be found in many of my works: contrasting sites with what seems invisible. While filming buildings in Johannesburg, which were loci of the Swiss-South African gold trade during the Apartheid period, I spatialized these invisible economic deals while making an architectural reference and triggering the imagination surrounding these past actions, which were never visible in the first place.
GB: A recurrent methodology seems to characterise your work, comprising conceptual mapping, collage and layout, photography and video. How do you craft your works?
DB: In the architectural video works, I reframe a building in time. Mostly I refer to things that used to happen there but which might no longer be visible. Nevertheless, it is still the same place, and I want to tackle the correlation between time and space. What are the elements – visual or not – that move between different times, in the same place – what are the ghosts of the place?
That’s why I like to work with video, as it refers to time that has passed. In framing very still moments in a photographic video-frame, I am interested in what is in movement – sometimes very small movements – and what stands still. Framing these places of “soft evidence” became a recurring method in my investigations. It requires attention to space, atmosphere and the so-called “spirit of a place.” Through the lens of my camera I want to highlight how an important history can somehow still be sensed in a specific place.
Editing archival fragments
GB: How do you approach scientific research? How do you analyse archives? For instance, in the magazine Neutrality as an Agent – We say, we are fine. They say, we are not (which was produced during a three-month residency in South Africa, and selected as one of the Most Beautiful Swiss Books of 2018*), you used archival materials that you then recomposed through careful layout and juxtaposition, thus building a different narration out of the raw materials.
The title is useful in approaching the publication We say we are fine. They say we are not. It seems to reflect the same mechanism which appears in the magazine itself, and the semantic relationships between the images. The fragments acquire more sense once they are read in contrast to each other. Collage and editing play an important role in the publication.
DB: In the magazine, the locations of the two opposed bodies of images are important. Where are the images located? What is their inscription in time and their geopolitical context?
The magazine reflects upon the relationship between Switzerland and South Africa from the perspective of Swiss people residing in South Africa and of protesters in Switzerland, based on two sources from the 1980s. My first source was an informal archive of the almost 100-year-old Swiss Social Club in Cape Town and the regular newsletters sent to its members. It looks at first very much like Switzerland but is, in reality, situated in Cape Town. The magazine plays with the banality of the Swiss Social Club, while the reality is far from banal.
The inversion of the visual references and codes of Swiss national identity make you believe that here/there, everything is fine, but actually, nothing is fine. What this source material does not reveal however, is what was happening beyond the supposedly idealistic world of the Swiss Club: Cape Town was at the height of Apartheid.
CAPE TOWN TABLE MOUNTAIN
Here, for instance, you see a famous landmark: Cape Town’s Table Mountain. The illustrator from the Swiss Club put the Swiss flag on Table Mountain, betraying an attitude of imperialism.
The second body of images – photographs by socially engaged photographer Gertrud Vogler (1936–2018) – shows protests against Apartheid in Zurich. Such protests started to get stronger all over the world in the 1980s, even gaining some momentum in Switzerland, although many countries at that time had already put sanctions on South Africa which Switzerland didn’t respect, rather enhancing trade and big money loans.
GB: This summer you will be researching during a residency at the Getty Research Center in the Harald Szeemann archives, with special focus on Szeemann’s exhibition Visionäre Schweiz (Kunsthaus Zurich, 1991), which constituted a foundational reference in your reflections on Swiss neutrality. Szeemann’s intention with this exhibition was to analyse creativity as a compensation for narrowness: “Creativity, as an escape out of the reality of a small State – a State untouched by the wars over centuries – towards a tendency for solitude and a withdrawal from society.” Szeemann argues that the “Swiss artist” as part of an ideal “functioning” state was less concerned by social issues4. Creativity here becomes a place of intellectual freedom, nevertheless the curator highlights the symptomatic absence of social and political engagement in the Swiss context.
DB: There is something paralysing about such a peaceful country and so much stability – sometimes you easily become inactive. A “violent” peace. Excessive peace.
I recently came across an advertisement: the newest magazine on the history of the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) entitled: Wohlstandswunder Schweiz (Prosperity Miracle Switzerland). How can Switzerland stay the rich country it is? What is the historical background of its wealth?
I feel I have to further investigate this aspect – the production and historic conditions of wealth, the violence linked to it. It should not be forgotten that fewer than 200 years ago Switzerland wasn’t a rich country at all, with many Swiss people having to migrate in search of economic prosperity. The wealth you produce is always extracted from somewhere. This needs a lot of unveiling, especially in the Swiss context, as many processes seem to be hidden. I’m increasingly interested in finding the traces of globalized economic trade systems and how they are inscribed into our urban landscape here in Switzerland. I was privileged to go away for fieldwork and projects, but now I need to be here, and trace back the trajectories, looking for structural and architectural inscriptions of these phenomena, material and immaterial flows. Consequently, it becomes impossible for my work to be socially and politically unengaged.
GB: This touches again on our initial discussion about neutrality. The open questions now would be how and if “neutrality” has actually penetrated the “founding DNA” of Switzerland today and its political culture, if what was mainly a geopolitical status has also become a status “of the spirit,” if Swiss intellectuals and the population at large have faced and solved the dichotomy inherent in the concept of neutrality, and how all these reflections inform your work and converge in your practice.
DB: These are the challenges and theoretical questions I will address in future developments of my work, including the doctorate I am currently conducting between HEAD – Genève and EPFL Lausanne.
* The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2018 exhibition travels to different venues in Switzerland. Next venues:
Schule für Gestaltung
Bern und Biel
Design Room, bâtiment H
Avenue de Châtelaine 7
Schule für Gestaltung St. Gallen
im Rahmen der Tÿpo St. Gallen
9012 St. Gallen
avec l’édhéa – École de design et haute école d’art du Valais
Rue de Lausanne 45
Cover image: Self-published artist book WE SAY WE ARE FINE. THEY SAY WE ARE NOT, Denise Bertschi, 2018.
Selection of the Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2018. © Martin Stoecklin
- André Holenstein, Mitten in Europa. Verflechtung und Abgrenzung in der Schweizer Geschichte. Hier und Jetzt Verlag, Baden. 2014, p. 167
- Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index. Part 1,” in Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernists Myths, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1986 p. 198
- Peirce Charles S., 1885, 3.361
- See Harald Szeemann, Visionäre Schweiz, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1991, Verlag Sauerländer, p. 7-9.