Swiss Digital Arts Scene: Insights from a Research Trip
As part of Pro Helvetia South America’s focus on digital art research, curator Julieta Agriano [AR] made a trip to Switzerland, in November 2022, to meet partners and projects in the field. After the experience, she wrote a chronicle about it:
Julieta Agriano works as an independent curator and cultural promoter specialised in the digital and electronic scene in Latin America. She is the chief curator of BILIA, the first Latin American AI Biennale that took place in Mexico City in April 2022. In 2018 she founded WIP rate digital, an online platform that develops non-formal educational programmes for artistic production in digital arts and leads the MediaLab at Arts Space – Fundación OSDE in Buenos Aires. Agriano has participated in the production of many cultural events related to the exploration of different uses of technologies in Buenos Aires Latinamerican Art Museum, CCK and ME Collectors Room in Berlin. She is interested in the semiotic dimension and the production of cultural imaginaries that address datified existence.
From the pre-production phase for the trip, part of the project «Cultural Potentials in Digital Arts», that would let me be in contact for the first time ever with art in Switzerland, I had the sensation that it wouldn’t be easy to identify something like “digital arts scene”, as we are used to mapping in the Latin American terrain.
How to elaborate a list of referents from a scene that is not identified – nor internal or externally – in that way? My research trip’s goal was to get to know different – and many – cultural agents that play an active role in that no-named digital and electronic arts scene. Yes, I kept on insisting on the word [scene] as some kind of preliminary hypothesis which would pave me the way for meeting artists, cultural promoters, researchers, curators, and labs and museum directors that promote and work in a specialised way with symbolic productions and critical approaches with the digital materiality and its poetics drifts.
So, what is called Digital Arts, and why is it usually identified as a scene, more than as a discipline?
In the yet short history of Digital and Electronic Arts, Latin American dynamics can be seen much more similar to the Music Scene than to the Arts field. Although this perception has been changing since the pandemic and the relative popularity resulting from the NFTs market hype, for many years, digital art had an irregular cultural agenda, with little place in the programming derived from official cultural policies. Public programs were not usual, and independent initiatives such as festivals, lab meetings and specialised exhibition spaces couldn’t sustainably continue in the long run without fundings support, something difficult to achieve since digital arts as a category was not included in the context of art prizes and cultural funding in general. As a multidisciplinary practice, digital and electronic arts crosses videoart, VJing, Livecoding, digital literature, computing and generative art, AI art, sound art, and the list is much vaster. Due to its inherent “technologic” condition, it can be characterised as a necessary dynamic and experimental scene, without fixed circuits, protocols and – not less important – markets, as it can be easily recognised in other more institutionalised art practices. Very recently, traditional art institutions have been rethinking their strategies of dissemination and public outreach, which is giving another place to digital artworks.
Continuing with my approach to the Swiss Digital Arts (scene) research, then I realised through on-site exploration that the people I was trying to reach are not necessarily developing their careers in liminal spaces. Institutionalisation is the general path and the basis for developing an artistic career. Digital and electronic arts practitioners flow in the multi-institutional network that provides the knowledge, the practice, the financial resources, and the market to develop as artists in a field (not a scene) that conforms to a consolidated art-professional system. In that sense and on the basis of access to resources as grants, the art that uses digital technologies is incorporated into the Contemporary Art circuit in an organic way, responding to validation dynamics established within their codes, almost as a natural extension of academic life.
This scenario required a different kind of search, and the objective remained the same, made all the more interesting by the challenge of identifying spaces and cultural agents that were somehow connected in a specialised way with digital art, but within the contemporary art and academic circuit. Not all “digital art” in Switzerland is to be found in large institutions and, navigating the nuances of art spaces, I had the opportunity to visit Rote Fabrik (Red Factory) in Zurich, an emblematic alternative culture building area conformed by spaces for studios, music and exhibition venues and a restaurant with a unique familiar and cultural atmosphere by the lake. In 1974, the Swiss Social Democratic Party made a proposal to convert the factory into a cultural centre, avoiding the original plan to demolish it. After a vote, the proposal saved the site that had been built in 1892 for a silk factory, and in 1980 began its history as a cultural centre. One of the projects there is Shedhalle, a space for process-based art with a particular vision and dynamic regarding how it is managed: based on the rotation of management and curatorial teams every five years, elected by a commission made up of members of the canton, as well as independent artists and cultural managers. It was interesting to listen to its curators on how the space constantly renews itself and adapts to the needs of the artistic community in dialogue with social issues from an activist perspective. For this matter, they have created Protozone as a format to go through each curatorial project that focuses on the time and rhythm given to developing different activities.
Right in a completely different area in the city, I visited Immersive Art Space, an enormous black box laboratory to explore motion and volumetric capture, projection mapping, and spatial audio. It is located in a basement of the Art School of the University of Zurich. Chris Salter, its director, is an artist and a researcher investigating inhuman-machine communication, including sensing, artificial intelligence, and performance productions. Although this lab is usually available only for students at the University, IAS just started streaming some public lectures series regarding immersion approaches, encouraging in this sense a more open dialogue with an amplified community. One of the visits I made to the lab was in the context of its participation in Zurich Art Weekend, where students’ projects have the chance to be exhibited – and tested – in a city art event in which galleries, museums and studios are involved at the same time.
One of the artists whose work had a significant impact on me was Yves Netzhammer, whose large commissioned site-specific installation was exhibited in the Museum Haus Konstruktiv as part of the «Two Cool Dwarf Elephants Eat Peach-Flavored Empathy Surplus» exhibition. His works are based on computer animations, which he presents together with smart displaying objects, drawings, 3D paints, and common daily objects redesigned to create sophisticated multilayered environments1. His works are based on graphic animations that he presents integrated with both analogue and digital devices, drawings, 3D paintings and everyday objects redesigned to create poetic and aesthetically technical environments. His works invite participation in a fictional narrative of reality, one situated somewhere between the digital and that which persists in being referred to as the physical.
A few months before the trip started, I was invited to participate in the Digital Market Panel at the GIFF – Geneva Film Festival. Alongside Mónica Bello (Arts at CERN curator) and Boris Mangrini (HEK Basel curator), I had the chance get to know many projects from emergent and mid-term artists such as Milva Stutz, Lison Christe, Nicole Weibel, Lea Ermuth, Chloé Michel, and Hae Young Hi.
From a curatorial approach, Artificial Intelligence has been an important part of my work in the last years. ETH AI Center is a science school in Zurich that has recently opened an area with the aim of hosting projects that work on critical approaches regarding AI and art entanglements. It was interesting to talk with Adrian Notz, curator and director of this new area of the institution, to exchange some ideas and questions about the ethical aspects of Deep Learning techniques and their incorporation into different artistic practices.
HEK in Basel is one of the three museum institutions in the region (together with ZKM and Ars Electrónica) that are explicitly advocated to Digital and Electronic Arts. Haus der Elektronischen Künste has its own digital art collection. It has been working on the issues and concerns about the conservation of this kind of materiality, which specificity demands the formulation of some questions. Not only regarding methodologies but also to the aspects of the digital “nature” specifically linked to its circulation and consumption that, at first sight, might seem contradictory to more traditional objectives related to conservation policies in art.
When I visited the space and met one of its curators, the exhibition «Earthbound» was taking place. I had the opportunity to get to know the installation whose virtual reality work «Atmospheric Forest» by Rasa Smits and Raitis Smite was created in the framework of the FHNW Academy of Art and Design Basel (HGK), an institute that hosts science and technology projects, such as «Plants Intelligence: Learning Like a Plant», carried out by Rasa Smits, Yvonne Volkart, Felipe Castelblanco, and Julia Mensch, with whom I had the opportunity to meet. Julia is an artist born in Argentina who has been living in Switzerland for several years. The project’s main objective is to disarticulate the discourses around plants and the complexities assumed around their agency. It led to a space for discussion around the concept of intelligence and the conjecture about knowledge generation and coexistence from other possible perspectives and methods.
Also in Basel, I had the chance to meet Niculin Barandun and Milena Mihaklovic. Niculin is a mid-career visual artist. He specialises in audiovisual real-time performances working in collaborative workflows with artists. He is a self-taught artist who works promptly from science approaches, using mainly TouchDesigner in a creative programming way. Milena is an emergent artist developing 3D digital artworks that coexist with objectual pieces that she also creates, reusing materials and evoking morphologies from organic posthuman aesthetics. She also works on sound production to complete the creepy-theatrical scenes she approaches for her installations.
At the same time, I was having nurturing exchanges with this wide range of artists, curators, and different agents on my way to Digital Art in Switzerland, it was also significant for the whole research to visit traditional art institutions in which digital art’s own contemporary narrative can be traced. The Tinguely Museum in Basel is the institution that conserves and exhibits a large part of Jean Tinguely’s oeuvre. His reference as an inventor-artist is fundamental in the experimental processes, basis of the digital and electronic arts. A pioneer in kinetic and noise art, he explored from his practice, among other things, the relationship between human-machine co-creativity, a current theme in the approaches of contemporary art, and in particular, it could be said, in digital art, for example, in the symbolic practices where Artificial Intelligence tools or techniques are applied.
Pipilotti Rist’s installation on the Kunsthaus façade was a great surprise. This commissioned artwork for the opening of the new layout and extension of the museum in 2019 works as a nexus between the two institution’s buildings. Displayed as a new icon in central Zurich urbanisation, this nearly 20-metre-high mast is a colourful light and video installation. «Tastende Lichter», as the work is called, is a central anchorage in artistic and practical terms that dialogues from its location with the «Plan Lumière», the city lighting code, but the mast could also be thought of in aesthetic terms as a queer sculpture in the context of a highly ruled society.
In the words of Carlos Trilnick2 about Pipilotti Rist’s works:
“Over time, her works have become increasingly sophisticated. Personal enrichment, coupled with technological advances, have resulted in undeniably beautiful and immersive short films. One thing remains unchanged, she continues to play the role of the protagonist. A substantial change occurs when Pipilotti decides to add a new dimension to her creations. She leaves behind the flat format and begins to create installations in which she integrates video creations that she projects directly onto kitchen furniture, bathtubs, and armchairs. Or simply on the floors and walls of the museum. The images allow for enjoyment. This apparent ‘gentleness’ has provoked criticism. Pipilotti has confronted her opponents with the question why we should shy away from pleasure. According to her, enjoyment is kept out of art, as it is considered more proper to popular culture. The artist refuses to distinguish between low-art and high-art, without denying the existence of quality values.”
(Carlos Trilnick, Proyecto IDIS, 1986)
This text is the continuation and condensation of a research trip. It aims to extend the experience to other interested people so that we can, in the best case, continue to investigate the socio-structural configurations that make up the circuits of contemporary art and the scenes that compose, tense, and stimulate it.
1 In the words of Sabine Schalschl and Evelyne Bucher. Exhibition catalogue, Museum Haus das Konstruktiv, 2022/3
2 Carlos Trilnick, (Argentina, 1957-2020). Visual artist, he worked with photography, video and installations since 1982. He is considered one of the pioneers of video art in Latin America