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Interviewed by Beatrice Fontana

Romano Zerbini, Photobastei

January 24, 2020

After five years of inspiring cultural activities, the PHOTOBASTEI 2.0, a place for photography in the middle of Zurich, will be closing. During its tenure, it has received international acknowledgment and put Zurich on the map of independent contemporary photography. I met Romano Zerbini, the person who started it, in the cozy café area of their venue, on the third floor of the Sihlquai 125.

BF: What is your background, and what is your specific relation to photography?

RZ: I studied semiotics at the University of Zurich, and I first came in contact with photography shortly after having opened my public relations agency. Back then, I received the commission from a professional association in photography to build a platform. It was 1998, the very beginning of the digitalization process, and they were looking for a way to display their works and advertise the newly achieved quality in photography.

The result of this collaboration was the Swiss Photo Award,[1] which for twenty years celebrated and awarded Swiss photography. Within the agency, I started following the topic out of personal interest, the common roots with my field of studies, transforming it slowly into a personal project, and so the things came together. Shortly afterward, I opened an off-space: the Photogarage. It was a little cozy space, mostly conceived for professional photographers and their long-time projects, meant to support the artistic side of their work. This is where everything started.

BF: How did the Photobastei project come to life after that—what was the concept behind it

RZ: At the beginning of the 2000s, it became obvious that public policies of financing and support for art production were changing, and that it would become more difficult to find money for complex projects. Also, in regard to private sponsors, you could feel a growing pressure about results and revenues. Such circumstances generate dynamics which push you into the mainstream and in commercial performance cycles. You cannot choose content you feel is important, beautiful, or experimental, because with commercial content you are obliged to produce money. Photobastei was born as an attempt to avoid those dynamics. I wanted to offer a space which would finance itself, in order to keep the freedom that we had in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s to make art, to generate ideas, to convey experimental energy. That was the idea.

In order to achieve this financial autonomy, we based our concept on three pillars: one was the museum, a space for international renowned exhibitions; to that, we added spaces to rent, offering them at low prices to photographers or artists who wanted to try and exhibit their work. Thirdly, we offered an event room, an open space for performances, concerts, or any other kind of event or energy present in the city. This was the idea, and this mixed-use concept is how we generate money to cover our expenses and try to survive.

BF: With your project, you are implementing a specific way of mediating and communicating photography. Could you describe it?

RZ: Well, there are perhaps two important facts to consider: on one hand, certain photography is finally acknowledged as art. It wasn’t that clear fifteen or twenty years ago. On the other hand, the term “art” has become controversial: who and what is part of it, and who is, in an intrinsic way, making art. We often know photographers for their commissioned works, but many of them understand themselves also as artists. As such, they do not find space in galleries, nor in museums. The Photobastei is a sort of niche in that sense. As a space, it hosts and gives home to any kind of photography production, whether it falls in the category of art or of professional photography.

Photobastei also gives room to the work of young professionals following their passion and looking for feedback on their work. Sometimes they just want to find out if they have the skills to become artists and make a living out of their art. It is quite a special place, mostly because it brings together such different views. Without this possibility, the risk is to lose sight of diverse aspects of photography production, at least the ones which happen outside the strict criteria that we are being given when talking about high art.

I am interested in this gap between what one normally acknowledges as “art” and the views of people who are actually producing it. I observe it as a social praxis, as I am interested in what a person is doing, regardless if this person calls himself or herself an artist, without saying if it is “photography” or if it is “art.” I am open to what is happening on Instagram as much as I am to what happens in the art market or in the museums. This is our approach, and it allows us to reach quite a lot of different people.

BF: What is the offer today in Zurich concerning off-spaces and experimental concepts for photography acknowledgement and distribution? What will be the impact of the closing for young professionals and practices located outside of the institutional circuits, or not (yet) related to market dynamics?

RZ: In the city of Zurich, there are a number of different off-spaces for photography. Often, it is exhibited in cultural or neighborhood centers in the different areas of the city. Closing the Photobastei, though, will mean losing the advantage of a big common space with both local and international resonance. The bringing together of different positions, different meanings, and different levels, and the possibility to have enough room to reflect on the social practice of photography. In this way, we could assure even to young artists a lot of different publics, and at the same time we offered to the public different artistic points of view. Everybody would profit from this mix.

People come for the international exhibitions downstairs, and then they come up to take a look at other spaces. Sometimes they find things they really like, they are inspired; sometimes they just say: oh my god, this is not the quality I am looking for. This is it, this is the advantage we offer: we allow young and less acknowledged photographers the possibility to try and to fail, and there are not so many other places where that can happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but one must have the possibility to fail, because the next step is then to progress. This is my philosophy: failure is part of the process and has to be allowed.

BF: As an independent space, where do you place Photobastei in relation to the institutional activity of the Fotomuseum Winterthur and of the Fotostiftung Schweiz on the one hand and of private galleries on the other?

RZ: You cannot compare apples and oranges. The Fotomuseum Winthertur is an institution oriented to investigate and discuss photography and visual culture, and the Fotostiftung has a fundamental role in preserving and communicating the visual history of Switzerland. We are a house of photography, and the goals that we try to achieve are quite different: we show work that they would never show. As a result, I do not see the Photobastei as a competitor for these institutions.

In a way, we fill the gap between off-spaces, galleries, and museums, by presenting and curating a consistent production of photography of different kinds, which would otherwise remain unknown. Of course, we have a section that works like a museum, but considering what we show, I would feel more a proximity with an institution like the Museum für Gestaltung than with the Fotomuseum Winterthur. With the definitive acknowledgment of photography as a form of art, photographic exhibitions are entering the classic museum more and more often.

As a matter of fact, I think that these spaces would complement each other; there is so much going on, and being produced, and it deserves to be exhibited, like we do here, to become possibly the photography of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, competition—rather than collaboration—among institutions is one of the reasons for which the municipality has denied a yearly deficit guarantee of 50,000 CHF to our project, things that have contributed to the upcoming closure of the Photobastei.

BF: Considering those ups and downs which marked your interaction with the city institutions in recent months, do you think a renegotiation of the criteria of assigning public funding for culture might be necessary?

RZ: Definitely. We need to redefine the cultural policies. Criteria are made in specific contexts. At the moment, in my opinion, we have criteria stemming from the end of 1990s, and I am not sure whether they are still valid for today’s issues and whether they fulfill the needs of the category. Artists are not working alone anymore; they tend to collaborate in networks. These networks are constantly changing and evolving; therefore, criteria that were conceived for single artists do not suffice—we are dealing with collectives. What collectives need is non-curated creative space rather than municipal acknowledgement. The municipal policies should take into consideration the fact that non-curated open spaces are the best investments for art growing and flourishing in a city because they allow freedom of expression. This is what art schools promote and teach: the introduction of some thoroughly subversive strategies of counterculture as elements of art. Confronted with these realities, in my opinion, the current criteria of funding assignment are both out of touch and promoting an elitist idea of art. We need to move the role of the municipality into the contemporary, allowing for organic and dynamic growth. If Zurich wants to be relevant in the art scene, and the municipality really wants to support that, they would help pivot the discourse to space.

BF: Do you have the feeling photography falls into a secondary category in financing policy?

RZ: According to criteria of municipal policies, most of the photography that we show here at the Photobastei belongs to applied art, craft, and therefore is not “art.” This, for me, is one of these criteria which belongs to the past. For example, if you take Olafur Eliasson, who is currently being exhibited at the Kunsthaus, where do you place the line between art and craft? He brings them together. And that happens in an always larger number of cases. To claim a strong distinction among applied art and fine art today, in the age of digitalization, defines a mechanism of exclusion, and if you perpetuate the same mechanism for too much time, the consequence is that you create always more of the same. You do not progress, and you do not see what is happening around you, and reality overtakes you. In my opinion, the municipality is not ready to open a discussion with the art scene here, to listen to what is really needed. And that is not always just money, or at least a lot of money, in order to generate a full, creative, and booming art scene, of which some exponents will end up in a museum. Instead, they spend huge amounts of money on preserving a memory of Dada and the like. That generates a certain frustration in the scene.

BF: So, how would you go about helping to create an interesting and relevant art scene if you wore municipal shoes?

RZ: To make a point: it is the case that the lack of support by the city puts projects into a commercialized mainstream direction. Everybody begins to lie when applying for grants; we write what they want to hear, we paint budgets rosy.  It is sad that we have to do that, the absurdity of this kind of Kulturförderung. It is poison for young artists to sell their souls in order to make a living. Zurich is not Berlin or Glasgow. Even municipal rents are forcing tenants to commercialize as much as possible just to make rent; there is no space for trial and error. We sell out our future in this way and lose relevance in these times of great change.

BF: After surviving five years on the “free market,” what was it in your opinion that has led to the malfunction of the model? And what would you do differently if you had to start anew?

RZ: We had a Photobastei 1.0, located close to Paradeplatz, in a high-rise in the Bärengasse, a temporary space. Back then, we also ran on a tight budget, but we were able to refinance the entire initial investment in just eight months, the exact time that we were allowed to stay. If we could have stayed longer, we would have made a fully self-sustainable system. It is obvious that the problem has to do with the location, with the kind of temporary space that we use and with the financial risk. For the rest, I trust and I am really convinced of the concept that we put together in this experimental space, this combination between a classic museum format and an open space for performances. You can really reach the people. Also, so many projects which started here traveled then anywhere in the world. If I had to do it again, knowing that the municipality would not be not helping, I would have to change the concept, giving it a more mainstream and commercial understanding.

BF: Which project/exhibition will you remember as being the most satisfying?

RZ: The exhibition about punk: Raw Power – Revolt Against the Innocent. It consisted of fourteen different exhibitions in one, investigating the question of how punk is still engaging us today, where the traces of punk are still visible. During this time, we were really able to unify the space of the exhibition with the space of the events. We became a room in which the space of reflection became one—it was a magic, crazy moment: punk was living here, and this was not just research, or a story, or a curatorial narrative telling us what was important or not. Punk was here and alive. It was the real thing.     

To bring event and exhibition together in an authentic way is the aim of the Photobastei.

NOTE: The interview was conducted in January and before the Corona crisis. Back then, the announcement of the closure triggered a great response. Today, thanks to a very successful crowdfunding, the Photobastei has been saved and appears in its new guise as Photobastei 2.0. A collaboration with the foundation JETZT KUNST from Berne also opens the museum on the 2nd floor to other art disciplines besides photography and puts the project on a new financial footing. Photobastei will continue to be exclusively privately financed.


Photobastei, event space, 2nd floor


[1] The Swiss Photo Award is one of the most renowned and highest endowed photo awards in Switzerland. For nineteen years, it has been presenting Swiss photography in different categories: architecture, editorial, fashion, fine art, free, reportage, and advertising.

Romano Zerbini, born in Zurich in 1963, is director of the Photobastei. Since 1998, he has been responsible for the Swiss Photo Award, the most renowned Swiss
Photo Prize. In 2010 he opened the Photogarage, a gallery for Photography in Zurich, from which the Photobastei stemmed in the following years.

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

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