Dorothee Richter: What is your professional background?
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen: We have known each other since teenage times, studied art history together, and did internships at museums and galleries. During our studies, we did a project space in the studio of Niels’ grandmother called STUDIOLO: a study room, studio, and exhibition space showing artists and architects from different generations. At the time, we also started to publish, did international curatorial programs, and were given a stipend by the Gebert Foundation.
DR: How would you describe your artistic/curatorial concept of the space?
FF/NO: gta exhibitions is part of the institute for the history and theory of architecture at the ETH Zurich. In a collaborative way, we work with the students, researchers, and architects of the university to try to invite protagonists that challenge the discourse at the school and beyond.
DR: How would you define your curatorial practice individually?
FF/NO: Collaborative. We always work in discussion with others—every exhibition is about a collaboration with other people—artists, architects, writers, academics, musicians, etc.
DR: How did you come up with the idea/concept?
FF/NO: Studying together, you share and discuss your ideas. You share music and movies and challenge each other. We try to continue with this mentality.
DR: How do you select the proposers/artists? International, Swiss-based?
FF/NO: We select what challenges us. We mostly show artists or architects that we would like to learn more about and maybe don’t understand in the beginning. So, we try to get closer to the practice by working on an exhibition together.
DR: What was the most interesting/successful project/exhibition, and which was the most challenging?
FF/NO: There are different ways of success. The travelling exhibition and book with Trix and Robert Haussmann got the most feedback. The current moment in the middle of the corona crisis is the most challenging. Many things you take usually for granted are turned upside down and art and architecture in their practice as a whole are very much questioned in this moment.
DR: How did you get to the position at the ETH?
FF/NO: We were approached to apply for it. For the interview, we had to present a possible program and concept.
DR: How are the exhibitions financed?
FF/NO: Our funds by the ETH would allow us a basic program without sponsors. But as we want to do new productions, we have sponsors from the building sector and culture foundations.
DR: Which exhibitions or other projects do you do?
FF/NO: We do exhibitions with mostly young artists at Luma Foundation’s schwarzescafé. We initiated this space designed by the artist Heimo Zobernig. We are editors at Kaleidoscope magazine where we publish interviews. Fredi teaches a little bit at the HEAD in Geneva, and we always try to do exhibitions beyond the ETH but that are nevertheless linked to it. Our current exhibition, for example, is traveling to the Harvard GSD, and at the Fondazione Prada we’re preparing an exhibition which will later travel to gta exhibitions.
DR: How do you finance your projects?
FF/NO: We do fundraising for the ETH, but other projects need to be funded by our collaborators.
DR: Are you employed in a full-time job or percentages (as often happens at the ZHdK)?
FF/NO: Yes, we’re also employed in percentages, which gives us the freedom to work at projects that are not linked to the ETH, but mostly they are.
DR: What role do the other functions of your space play?
FF/NO: There’s no clear separation. Everybody is doing what he likes, and if no one is doing a project it’s a sign that the project shouldn’t be done.
DR: How would you define your curatorial practice as a collective Or do you have defined roles?
FF/NO: We’re neither a collective nor do we have defined roles.
DR: Do some artists sell their artwork during the exhibition?
FF/NO: Our shows in most cases don’t take place in commercial spaces.
DR: How do you archive (an edition)?
FF/NO: That’s a little bit a problem. We archive, of course, all images, texts, and so on, but with e-mails we’re afraid that all the correspondence will be lost and we should have a more systematic approach to archiving. We don’t do editions, but maybe we should start to do them.
DR: How many women/men to you show?
FF/NO: We never made the count. But possibly at gta exhibitions we did more shows with men, and at schwarzescafé less shows with men then with other genders. In architecture, the imbalance of gender is even more a problem than in art. When we did the exhibition with Petra Blaisse, we realized she’s possibly the first woman who ever got a solo show in the main hall of the ETH.
DR: What role does your space play in the city of Zurich locally (or internationally)?
FF/NO: There aren’t as many exhibition spaces for architecture as there are for art, so probably we stick out somehow internationally. To make exhibitions at a school is also special. Often architecture schools have an exhibition space but no curators. The professors use it to do their individual projects, and therefore they are quite diverse and don’t stick out as a program but for their individual projects.
DR: What is the role of art in your opinion and from your position?
FF/NO: We were just talking about the lecture “Life and Prison” by Catherine Malabou we watched on YouTube in which she elaborates on the prison and fascism of language. This, too, of course, goes for art making: it’s a prison. How can you turn things upside down and actually challenge society through culture? We think that’s possible, but you need to come up with the unexpected.
DR: How are you connected in Zurich, with whom?
FF/NO: The ETH is a place where over 2,000 students of architecture and over forty chairs unite. Most of our friends are somehow connected to culture, and the city is not that big.
DR: How are real space and digital space connected in your projects?
FF/NO: So far, we have neglected the digital space a bit. We have a shared Instagram account, but it’s not very active and we archive the exhibitions online in a simple way. With so many exhibitions and art projects going online, they sometimes risk of appearing as spam. But generally we would like to develop a meaningful project for the digital space.
DR: Do you see exhibitions as public spaces?
FF/NO: Our exhibition space is in a school, so we have to continue to work on to make it more public and that people don’t think they just relate to the students from there. But it’s clear that not everybody would come up to the campus on Hönggerberg. We are aware that there’s a barrier to enter an art exhibition if you’re excluded by class, gender, and more. This barrier is different when you enter a science campus, but it’s also there.
DR: Could you tell more about the visibility of your project space—how do you make it known and visited?
FF/NO: As the students cross it every day, they know it. We do very little advertisement, only in Texte zur Kunst.
We think and hope that people come to see our exhibitions because they appreciate and therefore follow the program.
DR: What type of audience does your exhibition space attract?
FF/NO: Mostly students of architecture but also artists, researchers, etc. Probably the vast majority are from academia or the cultural sector.
DR: What do you wish for the Zurich art scene?
FF/NO: Lower rents and more writers and publishers.
Reba Maybury, A-good-individual, 2019, schwarzescafé, Luma Westbau, Zurich. Photo by Nelly Rodriguez
Tony Cokes, Before and After the Studio: Volume II, 2019, schwarzescafé, Luma Westbau, Zurich. Photo by Nelly Rodriguez
Precious Okoyomon, A Drop of Sun Under The Earth, 2019, schwarzescafé, Luma Westbau. Photo by Nelly Rodriguez
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are the directors of gta exhibitions at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at ETH Zurich. Together they have curated numerous exhibitions on art and architecture, including in 2018 Readymades Belong to Everyone at the Swiss Institute, New York; Trix and Robert Haussmann at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and Nottingham Contemporary, and the retrospective of Inside Outside / Petra Blaisse at La Triennale di Milano and at ETH Zurich. Recent publications include Ser Serpas (Koenig Books), Richard Hamilton and Sigfried Giedion (jrp Ringier), Heimo Zobernig. schwarzescafé (Koenig Books) and Arno Brandlhuber (Edition Patrick Frey).
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, Curator at Kuenstlerhaus Bremen. She is Executive Editor of the web journal On-Curating.org.