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by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter


“OnCurating, the Zurich Issue: Dark Matter, Grey Zones, Red Light, and Bling Bling” seeks to bring to the forefront the various positions and strategies of the most diverse art initiatives, from project and off-spaces to personalities within the art field, as well as those of established galleries and institutions and city officials based in Zurich in 2020. Originally, this issue was intended to draw a picture of the Zurich art scene and was meant to be published parallel to Art Basel 2020. Now, with a significantly smaller crowd, we inform the international art scene through our website and not just the art flâneurs invading Basel and Zurich. We hope that this issue will nevertheless give a longer-term idea of art in Zurich.

We conducted over forty interviews with initiators of the most diverse project spaces and off-spaces, projects without a space, city/government-funded institutions, city representatives for the cultural sector, temporarily funded and non-funded institutions, art lovers’ initiatives, artists and projects in favor of art discourse and critical art, and personalities having resided in Zurich for a long time, knowledgeable about the historical changes. The questions in the interviews ranged from the history and concept of the respective project space and its curatorial approach, to financing and sustaining the project, how working processes are set up, about measures of inclusiveness, about their own agenda within Zurich and internationally, and so on.

Clearly, you will not find a homogeneous art scene in Zurich. Even within off-spaces and project spaces, there are huge differences: some are quite in line within distinctive fine arts procedures and operate structurally close to galleries, while others are more in favor of discourse and are built around an artist community and special shared interests. And then others are more culturally driven or closer to entertainment and partying. They differ immensely in scale, infrastructure, personnel, and ambition.

And they all have their own agenda; at the same time, they (mostly all) compete for the same funding from the city, the canton, and other private supporters. And the funding—despite what one might assume after hearing “Zurich” and “Switzerland”—is not an easy task for the independent art scene.

For a rather small but rich city like Zurich with a population of 400,000 residents, one can find a large, vibrant art scene with over forty officially registered project spaces, and art initiatives and over twenty-five other projects without a regular space.[i] Those who are part of this independent scene often know each other well; some projects collaborate in specific instances, enriching the cultural life of Zurich tremendously. Yet, all of them compete for a very small contemporary art budget, which has stagnated for years. And then there are the big institutions, like Kunsthaus, Kunsthalle, and Haus Konstruktiv, which are extremely well funded. Of course, the overall cultural sector is, in comparison with other city departments, not overfunded at all, especially if one takes into consideration that the creative industry—which profits from the independent and wild open art scene indirectly—is an enormously important business sector in Switzerland.

We would also like to think about the situation from a more theoretical perspective: the notion of “dark matter” was applied to the arts by Gregory Sholette, who laments that a vast majority of artists are ignored by critics and that this broader creative culture feeds the mainstream with new forms and styles that can be commodified and used to sustain the few artists admitted into the elite. Sholette writes: “In brief, artistic dark matter refers to the marginalised and systematically underdeveloped aggregate of creative productivity that nonetheless reproduces the material and symbolic economy of high art.” [ii]

www.zurichartspaceguide.ch. Courtesy of Andreas Marti, Design by Badesaison, badesaison.ch

This dark matter resembles the usual inquiry into the professional lives of art school graduates ten years after their diploma. As we all know, only a small percentage (2-4%) of fine arts students “make” a career in the art market, while others work in the cultural field as practitioners, or in education, or leave the field altogether. But although not recognized in a broader sense by the institutional art field, this “artistic dark matter” provides “essential energy and ideas to the broader art world discourse and practice.”[iii]

In Zurich, and with Art Basel close by, the extremes of contemporary art come together pretty visibly, and in close proximity: on one side, the high art products of the art fair, which are often still painting and sculpture, through conservative consumer decisions, and on the other side, the lively scene of off-spaces, curators, and artists working for very little money. Thus, at a glance, one could state that the comment from Sholette is especially true here. The clash is there, even if a precarious situation is relative in Switzerland, since most people have some sort of social security and most have health insurance; nonetheless, the support of art is clearly dedicated to the big institutions. The numerous, lively, buzzing off-spaces are surprisingly underfunded in comparison to other cities with a busy cultural scene. This situation is paired with the presence of influential collectors, like Maja Hoffmann and Michael Ringier, and let us not forget one of the biggest galleries worldwide: Hauser and Wirth, with so many more international venues in Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York (22nd Street), New York (69th Street), Somerset, St. Moritz, Zurich, Gstaad, Southhampton, Menorca, and now so many that we might have lost track…

What Sholette claims is that the unpaid work of artists (and curators, if we may say so) are in the end producing a surplus that ends up exclusively in the high art market with billions of dollars in revenue circulating in art fairs and big galleries. Art workers are therefore deprived of a surplus they are working for: “One of the key questions raised in my book Dark Matter,[iv] therefore, is not only what this glut of artistic creativity consists of—after all, artists have regrettably constituted an unregulated, overeducated, and spectacularly over-productive labour force for decades—but instead what function does this seeming surplus play in the production of art world values estimated by some in the billions of dollars in sales. Is it a lightless backdrop to starry careers, a shadowy other realm over which the bright and articulate signal of success and value is superimposed?”[v]


One of our findings is that the working situation in Switzerland, with its restrictive migration policies, vast international finance business, and large service industry, provides enough work to somehow earn a living—some jobs are of course precarious, some quite shady—while working in the arts. The shady work ends up in its worst form in the red-light district, which was expelled from the inner city of Zurich to the outskirts.

The venues for off-spaces therefore tend to be in less glamorous places, often in close proximity to Zurich’s former red-light district and party scene. Another aspect can be found in the grey zones of the art scene, with unpaid work, or tax-free work, and “illegal” work that the Sans-Papiers are left to do…(of course, if you are fighting for your basic existence, art plays no role). You can find more about this in Issue 30 of OnCurating: “Work, Migration, Memes, Personal Geopolitics,” edited by Dorothee Richter, Tanja Trampe, and Eleonora Stassi.

The borders between shady and illegal work are fluid. On another level, artists and curators have shady jobs, as these cover up for their unpaid jobs in the arts, since the smaller spaces are dramatically underfunded.

To make contemporary art more popular and more accessible for more than the happy few showing up to the big exhibition venues, (actually the venues were extremely crowded during openings before COVID-19), the city of Zurich invited Manifesta, the traveling European large-scale exhibition, in a brave attempt to bring more attention to contemporary art. (Maybe also in the hope that this might change the funding situation in the long run). And this was a success; contemporary art was out there, literally out on the Zurich lake, younger and older enthusiasts were floating through the city and the venues (and sometimes searched for the venues). We also dedicated an issue to this Manifesta, in an attempt to theorize the neoliberal situation of working conditions today.[vi] Despite a rather conservative understanding of the work in play in the Manifesta concept for Zurich—which we tried to recontextualize with our conference and OnCurating issue—, all in all Manifesta did generate attention for contemporary art—and it was there, present in the city with a floating platform, therefore establishing a link to everyday uses of the arts. Here, in this issue, you will find a conversation between Sergio Edelsztein, a Swiss/Israeli curator and Christian Jankowski, artist and curator of Manifesta 11 in Zurich.

For this issue, we invited Marina Vishmidt to contribute with a lightly reworked reprint of her article, “The Aesthetic Subject and the Politics of Speculative Labor,” thoughts that are still relevant and exciting. It starts where the discussion of Dark Matter ends. “The rationale of this text is to outline the connection between the contradictions of the social development of artistic labor in capitalism and the formation of the aesthetic subject in modernity as the displacement of labor from the category of art, bringing it into closer affiliation with the speculative forms of capital valorization.”[vii] These considerations seem to apply perfectly to Zurich as a central point: capitalist accumulation of surplus from the arts, dealing with high-priced art, underfunded free artistic and curatorial work, and that what Mariana Vishmidt analyzes as new formations of subjectivity that are enabled and that enable the economic  system of neoliberalism. In her article, Vishmidt lays out the foundation of modernity, which was to separate artistic work from other forms of work. Already Terry Eagleton argues that there is an ideological parallel between the autonomy of the arts, with the free genius artist and the entrepreneur, who has also to act autonomously.[viii] Or in Vishmidt’s words: “The autonomy of art arises with the autonomy of capital as a central phenomenon of modern experience.”[ix] Art is positioned as the opposite of monotonous work, of real subsumption, the real subordination of any work under the capitalist order. Art is now concerned with generating an aesthetic judgment, and the labor of art projects with the “speculative” modes of accumulation.  In other words, again art seems to strangely mirror the speculative mode of hypercapitalism of the neoliberal system in which we are now living. The uncanny moment occurs when artistic work becomes more and more immaterial or more and more “speculative,” as a logical development of the separation of handicraft and artistic work in a contemporary understanding. (Something that is lamented from different sides: on the one hand, from the perspective of a conservative understanding of art that still sees the classical genres at the center, and on the other hand, from the side of new directions, such as New Materialism, one could argue.) This speculative, immaterial aspect of contemporary art and curating comes in a way close to the extremely speculative financial businesses and its agents. Therefore, artistic and curatorial subjectivities present a proposal for managerial subjectivities needed in hypercapitalism, except, of course, for the payment.

To come back to the demands for better payment in the arts, Vishmidt argues that the fight for wages for art also resembles the fights for remuneration for reproductive work in the households that was/is unseen, unpaid, but necessary to uphold the system. She mentions many paradoxes raised by the redefinition of artistic production as wage-labor (however the wage is calculated). “One of these could be that the practice of social work, and the practice of social relations, which produces the artist as an independent type of ‘non-professional’ professional, cannot be reconciled with a simple agreement that art can be valued according to the same standards as all other types of work, especially if capitalist work in its entirety is made precarious, contingent and self-realizing for everyone according to the classically reactionary model of the autonomous (starving) artist,” [x] i.e., becomes neoliberal.

And, of course, Switzerland, and Zurich, has a profound neoliberal system: especially in the arts, short-term project work is common, though compared to other European countries the living expenses are exorbitantly high. Employment contracts are easy to dismiss, parental leaves are short, and there is no job security for disabled individuals whatsoever. Of course, on the other hand, there are also very low taxes, but who will benefit from them? The political system is built on a concordance system, which means, often in the parliaments, one has to come to an agreement with everyone, also with the very right-wing parties. (see the conversation with Eva Maria Wuerth in this issue). And speaking about right-wing parties and cultural knowledge, just a few days ago in July 2020, the SVP put out a poster for the “Restriction Initiative” (Begrenzungsinitiative)—an initiative against immigration—, which somehow managed to bring together the anger about the increase of concrete building with an image of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin—apparently unwittingly.[xi] Well, we think this should be general knowledge for anybody in Europe, especially for anyone with public responsibility. Any change in cultural policies also has to be negotiated with the far right, and one must know that the far right was one of the first and one of the most aggressive political parties in Europe. (Was, one must say, looking at Hungary and Poland today). About 30% of the population of Zurich do not hold a Swiss passport, many of them working in finance, medicine/pharmacy, service industries, and creative industries, but these people do not have the right to vote. It is still a very long and complicated procedure to become Swiss; knowledge of Swiss culture and politics is required. (Unfortunately, one cannot lose one’s citizenship because one does not possess basic cultural knowledge—just saying.)

In her article, Marina Vishmidt pins down the basic difference between “regular” work and artistic work, which she sees in the fact that art is not under the rule and ordering of real subsumption—and therefore cannot be subsumed under a comparable general demand for wage. Real subsumption means that capital gradually transforms all social relations and modes of labor until they become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital, and the labor process is really subsumed under capital.[xii] Which means that the real subsumption of the labor process occurs once every aspect of the latter has been subordinated to capitalist production.[xiii]

And it is precisely at this point that the parallel with work that is done for wages ends, as Vishmidt argues with an example: “It is no longer self-evident that the type of artwork Darboven was doing—obsessive and repetitive, logically motivated hand-writing—can or should be deemed tantamount to manual labor in its usefulness, just because so much wage-labor looks and acts like Darboven’s (though perhaps not as much as Bartleby’s the scrivener’s would) and has no pretence to either diligence, duty or social utility.”[xiv]

Even if Darboven's monotonous work looks like monotonous administrative work devoid of meaning, it is still something else: Darboven's work is presented in high culture, it shows that these devoid-of-meaning work contexts exist; it also shows the beauty of monotony, and therefore it always has a representative, ideological function. Another important difference is that Darboven herself decided on this work and could leave it again at any time, and a further, not insignificant aspect is that she was one of the few who was ultimately well paid.

Further on, Vishmidt sees it as a deeper structural problem of art as institution, where a simplistic wage model would not work. Paraphrasing Vishmidt here, she speaks about W.A.G.E., which proposes certification or a voluntary code of best practices to which art institutions can submit in order to clarify their commitment to pay cultural producers appropriately. She sees several problems with this: first, that an unregulated market such as the sphere of art production and mediation is not self-regulating voluntarily, and second, that art institutions operate in a capitalist social space whose iron law states that the rewards of the powerful few are at the expense of the weak many—a structural fact that is not amenable to moral pressure. The professionals on the lowest rungs of the ladder are unpaid, allowing institutions to operate with inadequate budgets; artists do not receive fees, so there is more money to pay salaries to administrators, or, especially in the American market, to collect donations from rich donors. If, almost all together, it is a characteristic feature of art production that it is not organized by the same structures as other types of work and not accessible by the same standards (for example, because it is not subject to total subordination), then it is difficult to see how the demand for equal pay can play more than a metaphorical role in pointing out certain social injustices of this kind within the institution of art.[xv]

Additionally, we may add, a wage model applying to all art institutions—without taking into account the infrastructure and means of said institution—will most likely mean fewer projects for less well-funded institutions, or even closures in the end. And where does the economical offset end? Hypothetically speaking, are off-spaces also in favor of asking for an honorarium from artists or speakers if they offer their curatorial work?

The purely economic wage-labor model leaves out where the capitalization of the artwork happens: it happens at the art fairs, it is with potent galleries, it is with big auction houses. It also leaves out how to think about inequalities of race, class, and gender, of structural and intersectional violence, which also works on the basis of inclusions and exclusions. Furthermore, in Vishmidt, thoughts following modernists’ desire for the fusion of art and life, “This move to pseudo equalizing artistic labor can mean that the real class divisions that underpin the maintenance of regimes of paid and unpaid labor, mental and manual labor, art work and 'shit work', are obscured.”[xvi]

The demand that would make more sense is to ask for an overall better funded art scene, giving the usually lively and creative art scene the recognition and appreciation it deserves, and that is oftentimes crucial for a cohesive city and its politics. In the logic of earlier workers’ demand for higher wages, one should see this struggle for more support of the art field as a shared fight of a societal group. The art scene in that regard should be understood as a social grouping, not just as individuals with individual contracts. Here, one could ask for redistributions on a bigger scale, coming from parts of the revenue that are generated in the high-priced business of art, from the public tourist departments (that often advertise using arts and creativity), and other sources of redistribution of surplus (there are many).

Nevertheless, art—meaning art production, curating, writing about art, and all transdisciplinary forms—presents a paradoxical situation, in its representational capacity and in its ideological power: art is able to generate resistance to the existing system, yet this resistance can only happen when any direct pay-out is ignored—as an opposition to the great leveler (in the sense of completely interchangeable) that is the monetary economy. It is a strength in the Fluxus attitude, for example, to give a shit about the art market. Even if art will always remain in this contradictory relationship with the market, even if in retrospect the ideological critical art actions, like Fluxus pieces, might end up in the high-priced art market, even then it has an ideological function. Art always interprets the world in which we live, it always comments; art makes proposals for being in the world.

So, to ask for other forms of valorization, it must be a structural protest, not a protest that remains at the level of individualized honoraria; it can only be a demand for transfer of the surplus from the art market, when other forms of suppression are also taken into account, to understand social inequality from a much more radical perspective. And here, art might be of assistance, art might be an ideological machine, a thriving force. This is also an argument by Marina Vishmidt: “It is the distorted and attenuated form of art's autonomy as a speculative intransigence to the existing, including work, that can be the source of its political powers. And yet, identifying with work, especially with the disregarded and disposable subjects of that work, can indeed be the first step for such a politics of artistic inquiry and making, since capitalist work is structurally the antithesis of capitalist art, even if practically they sit on the same continuum.”[xvii]

In this respect, we would like you to read, hear, and see the interviews with the Zurich art scene and to read them not only as a lively, diverse, surprising, dazzling scene, but also as an ensemble of shared demands towards cultural policies.


OnCurating Project Space, oncurating-space.org

"Five artistic strategies with and against the change of time", Kunstszene Zurich 2018 OnCurating Project Space.

Hilla Toony Navok, Rolling Rooms, 2020. Event #7 of Choreographing the Public. Curated by Ronny Koren and Maya Bamberger

Maëlle Gross, THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN, 2019. As part of 2019 Zürich moves. Curated by: Camille Regli

Assembleia MotherTree, 2018. Alongside Ernesto Neto: Gaia-MotherTree at Zurich Main Station. A project by Fondation Beyeler. Curated by Ernesto Neto, Daniela Zyman and Damian Christi


Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/ MAS Curating, which she founded in 2005 at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland. She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive and Curator at Kuenstlerhaus Bremen. She is Executive Editor of the web journal OnCurating.org.

Ronald Kolb is a researcher, designer, filmmaker and curator. He is Co-Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts, and an Editor-at-Large of the web journal On-Curating.org and honorary vice-chairman of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. He is a PhD candidate of PhD in Practice in Curating, a cooperation of ZHDK and University of Reading, supported by swissuniversities.


1 http://www.artspaceguide.ch/.
2 Yan Su and Gregory Sholette, “From an Imaginary Interview with Gregory Sholette,” OnCurating 41 “Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations,” eds. Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter (2019), https://www.on-curating.org/issue-41-reader/ from-an-imaginary-interview-with-gregory-sholette.html, last accessed Aug. 14, 2020. 3 Ibid.
4 Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2010).
5 Su and Sholette, “From an Imaginary Interview with Gregory Sholette.”
6 See OnCurating 30, “Work, Migration, Memes, Personal Geopolitics,” eds. Dorothee Richter, Tanja Trampe, Eleonora Stassi ( June 2015), https://on-curating.org/issue-30. html, last accessed Aug. 14, 2020.
7 Marina Vishmidt, “The Aesthetic Subject and the Politics of Speculative Labor,” see in this issue, 66—79.
8 See Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (New York: Wiley, 1990).
9 Vishmidt, “The Aesthetic Subject and the Politics of Speculative Labor,” 68.
10 Ibid.
11 Fabian Baumgartner, “Die Werbung der SVP mit Holocaust-Mahnmal ist geschmacklos und geschichtsvergessen,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, July 24, 2020, https:// www.nzz.ch/zuerich/svp-zuerich-wirbt-mit-holocaust-mahnmal-das-ist-geschmack- los-ld.1568094. Unfortunately, the article is behind a pay wall; here some of the headlines (translated from German): “SVP: A poster in the “damaged brain” category | NZZ, Aug. 19, 2019... The visual language of the current poster is tasteless and without doubt historically charged. Those who portray their political opponents as vermin...”; “SVP Zurich advertises with Holocaust Memorial: It’s in bad taste | NZZ, July 24, 2020: “The Zurich SVP goes on a vote-catching campaign with the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. By accident, the party claims. This is embarrassing.”
12 See https://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/s/u.htm.
13 See “What is to be Done under Real Subsumption?” workshop and meeting, November 28-30, 2014, http://www.mattin.org/essays/what.html, last accessed August 17, 2020.
14 Vishmidt, “The Aesthetic Subject and the Politics of Speculative Labor,” 70.
15 Ibid., 70.
16 Ibid., 71.
17 Ibid., 77.

Go back

Issue 48

Zurich Issue: Dark Matter, Grey Zones, Red Light and Bling Bling

by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter

Eva Maria Würth interviewed by Dorothee Richter

by Brandy Butler, Yara Dulac Gisler, Deborah Joyce Holman, and Sarah Owens

by Pablo Müller

Interviewed by Ronald Kolb

Interviewed by Dorothee Richter

by Cathrin Jarema and Clifford E. Bruckmann

Interviewed by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter

Interviewed by Daniela Hediger

Interviewed by Tea Virolainen

Interviewed by Eveline Mathis and Beatrice Fontana

Interviewed by Anastasia Chaguidouline

Interviewed by Domenico Ermanno Roberti, Beatrice Fontana, and Eveline Mathis

Interviewed by Domenico Ermanno Roberti

Interviewed by Beatrice Fontana

Interviewed by Domenico Ermanno Roberti

Interviewed by Noémie Jeunet

Interviewed by Patrycja Wojciechowska

Interviewed by Gözde Filinta

Interviewed by Oliver Rico

Interviewed by Oliver Rico

Interviewed by Gözde Filinta

Interviewed by Dorothee Richter

Interviewed by Abongile Gwele and Patrycja Wojciechowska

Interviewed by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter

Interviewed by Alina Baldini and Tea Virolainen Jordi

Interviewed by Ronald Kolb

Interviewed by Arianna Guidi and Myriam Boutry

Interviewed by Arianna Guidi, Jose Cáceres Mardones, Myriam Boutry

Interviewed by Beatrice Fontana and Noémie Jeunet

Interviewed by Alina Baldini, Annick Girardier

Interviewed by Patrycja Wojciechowska