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Interviewed by Gözde Filinta

Failure Is A Possibility Interview With Cathrin Jarema And Clifford E. Bruckmann

March 1, 2020

Gözde Filinta: Could you tell us about your professional background?

Cathrin Jarema: I completed my BA in Fine Art at ZHdK and then went to Vienna to continue my studies; currently, I am studying performance at ISAC in Brussels. I work between Brussels and Zurich, and this gives me a chance to know and work in both art scenes.

Clifford E. Bruckmann: I also studied in the Bachelor program in Fine Arts at ZHdK and then completed the MFA. I've lived and worked in different cities, but I always end up back in Zurich since this is where I have a network, and it's easier to realize my projects.

GF: How did you start Hamlet?

CEB: We started out as three co-founders, Andrea Abegg Serrano, Cathrin, and me, and currently, it's the two of us, Cate and me. So, actually, one summer evening in 2018, we were drinking champagne in my garden, and a conversation came up about why we would never open a space. In the course of the conversation, we naturally also hypothetically discussed what criteria would have to be met if we would ever even consider starting such a project. One of them was the location; it would have to be in the periphery of the city where there is movement, and we have relative freedom—where the art scene isn't set in stone like around Löwenbräu or Rämistrasse. Then, a few days after our loose conversation, by chance, we found this space and sort of took it as a sign. And then suddenly, we had the space and found ourselves committed.

CJ: We took over the space as is, but we just added the lighting. For all I know, it was rented out as a studio by Raumbörse before we came in, and we believe it was an architect's office before that. Probably it was originally built as apartments.

GF: What is the conceptual idea behind Hamlet?

CEB: One thing that I think motivates us is our own experience. A few years ago, I did my first solo show over several rooms in a large space. It completely changed the way I had to think about my work in comparison to, for example, bringing one single piece to a group show. From there, I realized that putting together a large, coherent exhibition is a whole other experience for an artist that changes the entire practice. In Zurich and even in Europe, there are many off-spaces and project spaces that are very well run, which are fairly small in size. Yet, one of the main goals of these spaces and their artists in the long run is institutional representation, or at least I think it is for many. The problem lies here; there is nothing in-between these smaller shows and the large institutional spaces. An artist is expected to extrapolate and scale something from a group show in 20 sqm to 800 sqm. There is no in-between place to practice, and it is a tough feat to think of an entire exhibition that way. So, that is one of the motivations here, that we allow artists to practice this in-between stage. We do have roughly 130 sqm here, over four rooms.

CJ: We try to make six to seven large projects per year, and at least half of them would be given to individual positions: solo shows. We also organize other formats, such as a screening series—Cinema Hamlet—that lasted six weeks in collaboration with different curators and artists.

CEB: Another aspect of our conceptual approach is the thematic complexes that we are interested in. We have common interests in language, communication, along with our personal interests in different fields. I’m interested in political and economic topics.

CJ: I’m more interested in transformation, intersectional terms, and notions. Given also where we are and where Hamlet is located. On the other hand, when we look at something together, we share similar interests in the themes of our shows.

CEB: I would say we are not so ideological; I think we are very much interested in surveys and overviews more than statements. Yet, at the end of the day, I guess we ought to define an attitude or position, but we like to think of ourselves more as facilitators. I suppose, we keep our research limited in comparison to people with a strictly curatorial approach and try to support positions that can develop conversations.

CJ: Another conscious decision are our opening times. We hold openings on Sundays between 2pm and 6pm because we wanted people to gather on a Sunday, joining a day time conversation without the expectation of a party. Also, being in Oerlikon, it seems to many people like a further trip. This way we have people sticking around a bit, talking to each other, engaging in the conversations we try to develop.

How do you choose the artists you work with?

CEB: We are constantly in an exchange. When we are planning our annual program, we go through a list of artists and topics that we have followed and are interested in. Before the next year starts, we discuss the positions and topics that we feel are urgent and we are interested in and try to place them in a coherent and sensible program.

CJ: Of course, we try to be critical with ourselves. It is in the nature of such projects that we bring in our networks, but also don't want to be trapped inside the network. But sometimes, of course, it can happen that we are bound to a particular aspect and are biased. We try to look at our working methods as objectively as possible and improve them. When we work with a new idea, we remind ourselves of the possibility of failure. Failure is always a possibility, and we accept it, also in regard to the artists we work with, but we give it a shot and try our best.

GF: How do you finance Hamlet?

CEB: For our first year, we got funding from the Canton of Zurich and two private institutions. For this year, the Canton of Zurich is still supporting us, and a few private institutions are supporting us as well. We are open for the sale of artworks, and we take small commissions, which go directly into our next productions, but sales are definitely not the priority. The priority is putting together the best possible projects. We don't get paid or pay ourselves for the work we do here. In our virtual budgets, we take 30 CHF for an hour, and then gift our time as personal contributions to Hamlet. Theoretically, these contributions would translate to around 70,000 CHF annually. When there is a deficit, we cover it from our own savings—which, frankly, aren't huge.

CJ: Production is crucial for us. We try to make as few compromises as possible. We try to realize the projects with the artists according to their wishes and desires. That is definitely a priority. Also, very important to us is that we always add the artist's or curator's fee to our budget and try to balance it with our production cost.

CEB: We articulate and promote a proto-institutional setting for solo presentations. We had this idea and motivation since the start, and we use this in our funding applications. We try to be transparent with everyone we work with, and we try to take care of our artists in a way that maybe even some institutions and galleries do not.

How do you involve others art producers?

CJ: We collaborate with artists, curators, and others. For our screening series, we invited artists and curators to program a screening of their choice, for a weekend each. We had the series as an umbrella, trying to embrace anyone interested in collaborating with us on the very broad topic of "transformation." Generally, we try to be reachable, collaborative, and supportive. Hamlet can ask for funds and help with finding resources that the individual person cannot. We are open to using every resource we have with others, including the use of space. Last year and this year, Hamlet was used for a book launch, breakfast, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, dance classes, and other things. Hamlet is open for proposals and ideas. The only criteria would be to work with someone who truly commits to what they are doing, and, of course, we need to have the resources like time and money available.

GF: What role does Hamlet play in the city of Zurich?

CEB: Meanwhile, some of our neighbors started coming to our events, yet we are not trying to achieve a sociocultural approach. Our wish is to be welcoming and open, a familiar place, like an extended family who help each other and sustain each other.

GF: What do you wish for the Zurich art scene?

CEB: First of all: a decent fine arts program. And I mean "decent" as in morally and ethically sound. It might also contribute to the quality. Who knows?

Then, I might be romanticizing, but I genuinely wish for a place where new people can meet with each other and start a conversation. Basel or Bern seem different to me. Zurich has a weird size—big enough to form groups but not big enough to be entirely separate from each other. So, these separate groups collide, but unfortunately they rarely mix.

Another missing point in Zurich, ironically, is the lack of support both in terms of network and finance. The density of high-end galleries in Zurich, given the size of the city, is probably higher than New York, Hong Kong, etc. So, everyone who is in the arts, new graduates, students, see all these super high-end galleries all around and dream of becoming part of this gallery system. It is easy to get in touch with people working in these galleries, compared to other cities, yet it is a whole different story to be part of these galleries and work with them. It is tough to find a home in Zurich, as a young artist, a place, a structure, and a network that will help you carry your burden. Artists in Zurich are sustained, in the best case, by public grants and funding, but in the worst case, they are not sustained at all.

However, galleries who are expected to support these artists do not solve this problem, because they hardly exist or have ceased to exist in recent years. There are no galleries in Zurich to support the vast number of outstanding quality, exciting artists. Even though the artworks can be quickly commercialized, there is no structure to pick them up. Along with these young people, the young and mid-career galleries are dying in Zurich; it is not sustainable for them to continue with their work. So, here we have a lot of people producing work, without a vessel to carry them, also financially.

The in-between step, as we mentioned before, is also missing on the commercial side. We, as a project space, we cannot and don't want to do the work of a gallery. We can only offer them one-time solo presentations, for practice and maybe be there for them as friendly support, of course, also in the long run.

So, the support network on the commercial side is lacking. I believe that a good gallery, in the long run, can have a significant impact for its artists, especially positioning them in a historical retrospective. People around today will not get historical recognition because there is nothing and no one around to document and disseminate the work. Sadly, public funds and grants, blockbuster galleries, or off-spaces cannot compensate for that. So, then we see lots of people disappearing again. I actually believe—and it might sound anachronistic—that the most exciting field to work in currently as a curatorial position could actually even be the gallery. We need new formats in galleries which support new artistic approaches and involve others, while still being economically viable.

Cinema Hamlet #1: Five Weekends of Moving Image exploring Transformation (Installation View). Programs by: Onur Akyol, Keren Cytter, Kelly Ann Gardener, Thomas Moor, Jiajia Zhang. Image courtesy of Hamlet

Unreal Estate (Installation View). With works by: Heidi Bucher, Jan Hofer, Matthias Liechti, Anita Semadeni, Elza Sile, Jiajia Zhang, Julia Znoj (Reception Area by Kevin Aeschbacher). Photo by Flavio Karrer. Image courtesy of Hamlet and the artists.

Philip Ullrich, takes two to tango (Installation View). Photo by Flavio Karrer. Image courtesy of Hamlet and the artist.

Founded in 2018, Hamlet is a non-profit, artist-run exhibition and research project located in Zurich-Oerlikon, Switzerland. It is co-directed by Clifford E. Bruckmann and Cathrin Jarema. Swiss-American artist Clifford E. Bruckmann completed his Bachelor’s and Master's degrees in Fine Arts at ZHdK. Swiss-Polish artist, performer, and dancer Cathrin Jarema also completed her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at ZHdK. She obtained her MA at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and she is currently studying at ISAC Brussels.

Gözde Filinta is a curatorial researcher, and writer based in Zurich. She has taken part in multiple art projects since 2012 in various roles. Currently, she is working on her research on multispecies survival in the Anthropocene and the use of art narratives, for her ongoing MAS program at ZHdK in 'curating.' Along with her research articles, she writes about contemporary art in relation to her research area. She continues working on her curatorial projects in Zurich and Istanbul, and genuinely interested in urgent global issues, interspecies relation, and non-human in artistic expressions and narratives.

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