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Interviewed by Daniela Hediger

Enriching the Homogenic Zurich Art Scene: Esther Eppstein

Esther Eppstein has spent the last twenty years hosting 'message salon', an independently artist-run space for experimental art practices and ideas. This makes her a key art figure in Zurich; her contribution was recognized in 2014 with the advancement award by the Canton of Zurich (Förderpreis des Kantons Zürich) for interdisciplinary art mediation. Esther Eppstein grew up in Zurich, and she states that this city was from the beginning and still is very important for her work, as she knows how the scene works here. This allows her to maintain and expand the network and her pool of national and international artists. She sees her artistic practice as bringing artists closer to each other, to strengthen bonds among the artists and to give a space to the “Dark Matter” zone. She is really interested in this zone, and she finds it also very important to take care of the artists who belong to this zone, as she also knows about the importance of it for a diverse and independent art scene.

The message salon’s actual format, “message salon embassy,” is an artist-run artist residency in Zurich; Esther Eppstein is the host, networker, and curator of it, and this is at the same time her artistic practice.

Daniela Hediger: Where would you see a connection between message salon and the title: Dark Matter, Grey Zones, Red Light, and Bling Bling?

Esther Eppstein: Dark Matter—I didn’t really know this expression before you explained it, but I definitely agree with this expression. Referring to Grey Zones: I always found it interesting to work with message salon in this grey zone, as I like to expand the borders and to experiment with it and sometimes, we also had to. For example, to finance the project, which we did with our illegal bar we ran for some time. To Red Light: when I opened the space in 1996 in the area of Kreis 4 in Zurich, there were a lot of massage salons around, as it was the red-light district. Culturally, there was not a lot going on—just around four galleries but nothing else. And Bling Bling….probably art is lifestyle….or something like this...

DH: Gregory Sholette, the author of the book Dark Matter, states that, “The ‘Dark Matter’ of the artists are the ones who are not seen by the art critics. They are feeding the mainstream and the art elite with new forms and styles.” Do you observe this in Zurich, too?

EE: Yes, sure. I would say message salon is one of these places. I think they are very important, because these are the places where things happen and new things are born.

DH: Did you struggle sometimes with the fact that message salon belongs to this “Dark Matter” zone?

EE: The question is, how much Dark Matter? Even though I think that message salon belongs to this Dark Matter zone, the art spaces I ran from 1996 until 2013 were also recognized by the media as well as the established art scene. Especially in the ‘90s when it started with all the off-spaces in Zurich, off-spaces had a lot of influence also on the institutions and the galleries. I actually think that this is the reason that Zurich became such an interesting art city in the late ‘90s. Because it was exactly this mix of subcultural and high and low that happened in Zurich. Also, the people from the institutions visited the off-spaces. message salon, for example, was one of the sources for the exhibition of the curator Bice Curiger at Kunsthaus Zurich in 1998 with the title Freie Sicht aufs Mittelmeer. In this exhibition, a lot of the artists she showed were also exhibited at message salon and other off-spaces at this time.

DH: So, the acknowledgement you had, but also the money?

EE: No—this time not really. But because me and others constantly applied for funding, the government created at that time a new funding format as they recognized that a lot of things were going on. From this time on, I always got a little support. But also, this funding changed as the system got more professionalized, and nowadays there is more competition and more consciousness on the other side to use this tool to form the scene. I think when I started, we were freer and there was more trust from the government, and it was less restricted.

DH: How free do you feel in your artistic practice/curatorial work nowadays? Do you sometimes have to commit and to whom?

EE: In my actual artistic/curatorial project with message salon embassy, I am quite free at the moment. It’s always about finding the balance. But for me, it always was very important to be independent. This was also the reason why I always wanted to work as an off-space and didn’t wanted to get institutionalized.

DH: Nowadays, you are bringing artists from all over the world to Zurich for a residency with your project, message salon embassy—how do you choose the artists you invite?

EE: It’s a very similar way to how I used to invite the artists to my art spaces. It’s coming out of the network and friendships, and it’s always a personal thing. During the times I ran the art spaces, artists didn’t apply with a portfolio. For me, it was much more important to get in contact personally, and it was not so much about the stuff the artist already did. It was more about sympathy, interest, questions, confusion, and spending time with this artist. And this is still the same motivation for my current project, message salon embassy. In this project, it is also about spending time together. With “Madame l’Ambassadeur,” the artist visits openings, curators, parties, diners, places. And this is important for the artists who are from abroad to get connection into the Zurich art scene, and I think it is important for the Zurich art scene, as I feel that it is actually somehow quite homogenic.

DH: Are these artists in their own country of the Dark Matter side or already established ones?

EE: No, most of them are definitely from the Dark Matter side.

DH: Your curatorial concept is at the same time your artistic practice—to be the personal host of the artist and to produce with the artist a little zine during the resident stay and to give somehow a frame to the resident stay. What is your statement in this as an artist or your own mission?

EE: My artistic practice and my mission I always saw and see in the friendship and network between the artists and to bring them together outside of the institutions. I think that we artists gave too much away of our independence the last time. I have the idea of strengthening the support of each other, solidarity, and bringing the artists together. I also feel that an artist’s life sometimes is not really understood, and that’s why I think it is important to create spaces where artists can just spend time together without this pressure of constant producing and entertaining. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose the connection to the audience and the public; that’s why message salon embassy is publishing with the artist a zine in limited edition, something that remains, and the artist can spread back home in their community.

DH: In 2014, you won the advancement award of the Canton of Zurich (Förderpreis des Kantons Zürich). Do you think this helped you get acknowledged and also get easier funding for your projects?

EE: I was really honored and very pleased to get this prize, which also gave me satisfaction as I got acknowledgement. But I wouldn’t say that it helped to get more funding. For some of the ones who won the prize, it was even harder to get funding after this

DH: How do you fund the current project, message salon embassy?

EE: The partnership with the hotel allows me at the moment to run this project with the residents from all over the world. And I am currently looking for financial support with foundations and government. It is not about how much money you can offer for the stay, but more about this artist network and solidarity I was talking about before. I have the—probably romantic—idea that it is not about being the only shining star over the Dark Matter, as I think this is not what it is about.

DH: Who do you want to reach with your exhibitions? Do you have a target audience?

EE: With message salon embassy, I would say it is the artist community. I don’t run a public space at the moment. But I have a collaboration with the off-space and window gallery Die Diele at Langstrasse; some residents of the message salon embassy have the possibility to have an exhibition in the windows. It works temporarily as a window from message salon to the public. At the opening, we present a new zine, open a bar; it happens as a get-together with new friends and the local art scene.

DH: In what way does the cultural environment of Zurich play a role in your artistic/curating practice?

EE: From the beginning, I saw myself as a pool for artists, and I always was interested in the Dark Matter of Zurich. The city of Zurich as my background is and was always very important for my curatorial work as well as for my artistic practice. I grew up in Zurich, and I feel related to the art scene in Zurich, as I know how the scene here functions.

DH: What would be your wish or vision for the art scene in Zurich?

EE: I wish that the young scene would become braver and create their own spaces. I have the impression that most of them are involved in the institutionalized art life, and I wish they would have more esprit or power and motivation to create independent spaces for community, where experiments can happen, for exchange, for fun and lust and spending time together.

The residents Ninutsa Shatberashivili and Sandro Sulaberidze on tour with Madame l’Ambassadeur, Kronenhalle 2017. Photo: Esther Eppstein

message salon embassy Zürich Nord, Daniela Palimariu, 2018. Photo: Esther Eppstein

message salon embassy Zine Daniela Palimariu, 2018. Photo: Esther Eppstein

message salon embassy Zine Nr.12, Desislava Pancheva, 2018. Photo: Esther Eppstein

message salon embassy, Davix zu Gast bei Die Diele, Zurich 2019. Photo: Esther Eppstein


Esther Eppstein (b. 1967 Zurich/CH) currently lives and works in Zurich. In 1996, the artist and curator founded message salon, Zurich’s longest existing independently run art space, which has matured since then into a central meeting point for the local art scene. It became a gathering place where artists could connect and exhibit their work, serving as the first exhibition venue for many young artists. It started at Ankerstrasse (1996–98), then moved to a mobile artist-run space in the form of a caravan (1998–2000) and now part of the Collection of Migros Museum, then to Rigiplatz (2001–06), followed by Perla-Mode at Langstrasse (2006–13), and since 2014 it is the message salon en route. The message salon embassy, Eppstein’s first artist-run artist residency in Zurich is her current project and artistic as well as curatorial practice. You can also find out more about her work in her book: Esther Eppstein—Message Salon (Scheidegger und Spiess, 2016), an artist monograph with analogue photography by Esther Eppstein, a selection out of 58 Albums of 100 photos, showing eight years of Perla-Mode, the artists, the exhibitions, the community, the visitors, and Langstrasse. www.messagesalon.ch

Daniela Hediger is a curator and founder of WOM!-art. WOM!-art organizes exhibitions and events dealing with current issues and values such as diversity/plurality and norms in our society and in economy such as in the working world. Based in Zurich, she studied Fashion Design in Zurich and worked as a stylist before running the cultural location Seefeld-Razzia, where she organised exhibitions, art performances, concerts, fashion shows, film and literary events. Currently, she studies in the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, MAS at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK).

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Issue 48

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