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Interviewed by Eveline Mathis and Beatrice Fontana

Die Diele and Sihlhalle

April 24, 2020


We invited the two art spaces Die Diele and Sihlhalle for a joint interview, as both have decided on a similar concept. Their exhibitions take place in and around a shop window located in the same street. We wanted to get to the bottom of this special format. The interview took place via e-mail.

Eveline Mathis and Beatrice Fontana: Tell us something about you and your space.

David Schildknecht: My name is David Schildknecht, I am 38 years old. I am a film producer and director for commissioned films. My company is located opposite the Sihlhalle. I've always been interested in art.

In 2013, I had the idea to start an off-space. So, when the Sihlhallenstrasse shop window was advertised, I immediately applied for it. The building management liked my idea of offering a platform to young Swiss artists on a monthly basis. That is how I started Sihlhalle.

Here, the artists get carte blanche and can let off steam. Everything is allowed from the artistic point of view; the only condition is that they must create a new work for the Sihlhalle and do not exhibit anything already existing. The purpose is to offer a platform for young artists through the creation of a place for exchange, for example, at vernissages.

Livio Baumgartner: Die Diele is neither a hallway nor an art space in the classical sense: it consists in two shop windows on Sihlhallenstrasse, regularly filled with art pieces which can be reached via a hallway. Die Diele is an independent and non-profit art space.

I personally initiated it together with Sandro Fiechter in 2009, and since 2015 I have been managing the space myself.

I studied photography at the ZHdK and hold a Master in Contemporary Arts Practice at the Hochschule der Künste Bern. I run the space program in a certain pragmatic way, usually selecting a specific subject and without any conceptual or theoretical superstructure. I do not see myself as a classic curator, more as an organizer or as a möglichmacher (facilitator), as someone that offers a platform and makes things happen.

Die Diele functions as an open vessel and offers the invited artists space for experimenting. They receive carte blanche and are thus free to decide what to show. The small space is actually not a space at all, rather a place which empowers the exhibited works. It comes with existing spatial limits, which are not to be understood as limitations in the true sense of the word, but rather as inspiration. The result is site-specific art par excellence, since the artists are invited to deal with the existing space conditions, to break new ground deviating from traditional forms of display and to try out new things. The view, always accessible from the street during the making-of and the 24-hour visibility of the works underline the desired openness and immediacy of the art space.

EM+BF: What inspired you to choose the display window model, and what are the limits and the advantages of such a choice?

DS: The shop window was the logical solution to my wish to start an off-space. I wanted to create something for artists. I was doing well enough, and I thought maybe I could do something to support others. It was clear that it should be small. But above all it should be in a place that had nothing to do with art. Size also played a role in the choice of the name. Sihlhalle sounds big, somehow winking to the big galleries and museums. In my opinion though, the small-sized room only offers advantages. The artists are forced to be innovative and think site-specific. The space is reduced, and how the artist deals with this is always an interesting question. Sihlhalle has already had room-filling sculptures in it, for example.

LB: I understand the shop window as a democratic place for art. There is no fear of entering the gallery, and the exhibition is visible 24 hours a day.

Since it is not so obvious that Die Diele is an art space—there are no references to the website or any other kind of hints—it can also lead to a small disturbance and function as a visual rupture in the daily routine. This disturbance moment was possibly the reason why I choose a shop window to become an art space.

EM+BF: In what way does your offer complement or enrich the independent art scene in the city of Zurich? And what is your relationship with other curated spaces in the city, both institutional and not?

DS: In my opinion, the Sihlhalle is an enrichment for the independent art scene in Switzerland and especially in Zurich. It is a place where young artists have the possibility to show their work in the form of a solo exhibition. And that is a fundamental need in the promotion of young independent art. I have already had some feedback from artists who have come into contact with others through their exhibition in the Sihlhalle and have consequently been able to exhibit in different off-spaces or galleries. There have also been cases where artists have sold their work after the exhibition. That always makes me very happy. I know Livio Baumgartner because my company is in the same building as Die Diele, and the Sihlhalle is just on the other side of the street. We have already exchanged ideas about subsidies, etc.

Artistically, I consider myself a greenhorn. And I actually quite like this position. It allows me more freedom to try out and learn a lot more.

LB: Like many off-spaces, Die Diele offers a platform to young or relatively unknown artists. For me, it’s always nice to see that I can push and support them somehow, allowing them more visibility in the art scene.

There are a lot of different art spaces in Zurich, and it is nice when some of their curators or founders come to an opening. This year, I have had three shows curated by an external curator, Esther Eppstein, and one show in cooperation with The Random Institute and Wagner & Friends. It is important to me that Die Diele does not remain a closed network, therefore I like to work with different institutions and open up to new audiences.

EM+BF: How does the space that you have at your disposal affect your curatorial choices?

DS: The size of the Sihlhalle does not really affect the choice of the exhibited artists. I choose artists whose work I like. Up to now, all of them could think of something fitting the peculiar space of the Sihlhalle.

LB: The limited space possibilities of Die Diele do not affect too much the choice of the artists we exhibit. In a way, I try to attract artists who can create large narratives with a direct statement.

And since I invite artists giving them carte blanche, it’s their task to respond to the limited possibilities of the space. Also, the proximity to the street and the neighborhood situation around the space (I like to call it: the last criminal corner in Zurich) does not allow us to exhibit or use valuable objects (like beamers, screens or well-known artist’s pieces. Our windowpanes have been broken twelve times already during the last ten years.

EM+BF: How do you select your artists, and how do they react to the space and its potential limitations?

DS: Usually the artists themselves contact the Sihlhalle. Very rarely do I approach them directly. Of the inquiries I receive, about 40% make it to an exhibition. I do not like everything of the so-called ‘art’ that is offered to me. Handicrafts (e.g. sawing pretty candlesticks with a chainsaw) are not in the right place in the Sihlhalle. It is important to me that the artist deals with and takes into consideration the specificity of the space and incorporates it into his/her work. I have become more and more selective in my choices.

At the end, all of them find the Sihlhalle an exciting place with a lot of potential. I like to define my space an 'unspace' [Unraum in German] because it offers many small corners.

LB: I try to keep a balance between gender and between well-known and less known artists. I make my choices intuitively and curate the changing exhibitions in a pragmatic way.

As in most exhibitions, you can go with a strategy of small parts or with a big gesture. Given the spatial limitations, it is always nice to see how the artists think and produce their new works and respond to the challenge of the space.

A shop window works also a bit like a picture, and you can work with it through different layers.

EM+BF: As people cannot physically enter the exhibitions, the public space becomes an extension of your project space, how do they relate to each other?

DS: The space in front of the Sihlhalle is usually the viewing area. The piece must work from this specific perspective. Standing in front of the Sihlhalle you can meet people from the neighborhood, who are always happy to discover something new, but also passersby, who stand puzzled, because they would not have expected to see art in such a place. In this respect, the Sihlhalle and the walkway in front of it belong very strongly together.

LB: I think that is one of the most interesting aspects of the window experience. It is a private space, but at the same time open to the public. Therefore, you cannot do things which might offend people or (in my case) show things of a certain value.

EM+BF: How does that affect your relationship with the neighborhood?

DS: There were already people in the building who asked why I was doing this and what it was all about. But there have also been people who have asked when the next vernissage would take place.

LB: In different ways. As I mentioned, some windowpanes have already been broken, and not every time it was a break-in. The mixture of the passersby that you could meet in front of Die Diele was a relevant factor for the initiation of the art space. Situated in one of the last bastions of the creative economy, next to strip clubs and at the corner of the big nightlife scene, Die Diele offers access to a huge variety of viewers.

Since drugs are often traded and consumed in Sihlhallenstrasse, especially on the stairs between the two shop windows of Die Diele, one is inevitably confronted with this "neighborhood" during the set up and during the opening. People have often told me that they would have liked to visit an exhibition, but there were a bunch of drug addicts in front of the windows, so they just could take a look from the distance.

But this, so to speak, open drug scene is also a clear sign that gentrification has not yet fully reached the neighborhood, so that the artists can still afford a studio space in this building.

In a way, I would say, the space generates a symbiotic relationship with the passersby. Sometimes one can also have very exciting insights from people who do not deal with art on a daily basis. Once, at an opening, standing in front of the window, a woman asked what "this" was.  After we told her that was art, she replied: "Ah art, I was also schizophrenic once!” (You won't hear that from any art critics, and you won't learn it at the university either.)

EM+BF: How do you finance your projects?

DS: I'm paying for this out of my own personal funds. On the website, there is the possibility to support the Sihlhalle, but nobody has done that yet.

LB: The eternal fight for private and public funding! Die Diele cannot become self-supporting and is therefore dependent on subsidies.

EM+BF: What was the most interesting or successful project/exhibition, and which was the most challenging?

DS: For me, an exhibition is a success if I see that the artist takes a lot of time to develop his/her ideas and uses the chance to get inspired by the space and by the place. And if there are many guests and the possibility of an exchange at the vernissage. Of course, I am happy each time I receive a thank-you letter, sometimes also months later, and I hear that new contacts were established, or works were sold through the Sihlhalle. Because that is exactly what I see the Sihlhalle as: a springboard for young artists.

LB: There have been countless wonderful exhibitions in the shop windows.
But it is always nice when Die Diele can get out of the space and curate an exhibition in different rooms. A highlight of the last ten years was certainly the Great Gutter Festival with lots of live performances, all put on a 1m x 1.2m stage. Surprisingly, the Swiss television came, though not for Die Diele but for the poet Michael Fehr.

When the management of the building gave me notice of termination because of a further broken window, I had to use all my diplomatic skills to be able to stay.
After this, I had to give up curating any form of "extravagant variation.”

EM+BF: What would you wish for the Zurich art scene?

DS: I wish that the city could create spaces, or would put places at disposal, like buildings, where off-spaces could have a possibility. It would be also great if the city or the regional authority would grant subsidies more easily.

LB: I would wish a Perla Mode 2.0, a place where people meet, discuss, can be heard, and maybe even have a party that lasts until the early morning. More spaces, more fallow land, less marble. I wish the eyes would be more focused on art and not just on career and success.

And a little bit more courage in being uncool.

Die Diele

Sihlhalle, #Sanctus7, Andrea Ebener

Sihlhalle, Ungenau Robotics, Ungenau, ungenau.io/.

Sihlhalle, Low Poly II, Greatest Adventure, Seiler Sommer, Foto: Christian Beutler.

Beatrice Fontana is a Zurich based architect, curator and independent researcher. She completed the Postgraduate Programme MAS in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2020.

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