“A cheap cardboard container, a disposable item ennobled into a work of art? Or is it more appropriate to speak of ‘infecting’ because the artists are not at all interested in producing valuable art items. To them, art is not a rare commodity, not a commodity that increases in value, but a tool to reflect. It often occurs as a disturbance—similar to a virus, with minimum packaging—and interrupts our ‘normal’ flow of thought: You pay but you don't agree with the price.”[i]
For a long time, one of these cups has been standing on my desk. It’s early May 2020, and Switzerland is in the ninth and, for the time being, final week of a shutdown related to the coronavirus pandemic. As it regards the shock of being attacked by a pandemic, the artwork’s timeless message breaks the ‘normal’ flow of thought once again: for now, it is monitored by this ‘new coronavirus.’ The virus as such teaches us that in a very short time, familiar settings can become super flexible. How and through what our usual behaviors and current practices will have changed when this essay will be published in September is uncertain. The disastrous uncertainty is as paralyzing to a liberal democracy as it leads to life-sustaining individual questions. During the “extraordinary situation in terms of the Epidemics Act,” the Federal Council of Switzerland takes the full authority. This act makes us an attentive audience: while many of us are showing voluntary solidarity with vulnerable people in our neighborhood, it seems at the same time almost impossible to critically reflect on a societal level and ask how not to be ruled like this.[ii] “I pay but I don’t agree” makes me individually reflect on my immediate duty to act under the comprehensive pandemic issues. That’s why this contribution is dedicated to a “Swiss-made” freedom of artistic production under the institutional framing of concern, solidarity, and security. As a theorist and practitioner in the field of socially engaged art, I focus on the role of the public sphere and the future of community-based projects.
At its meeting on March 16, 2020, the Federal Council of Switzerland declared that an “extraordinary situation” in accordance with the “Epidemics Act” now existed and introduced more stringent measures to protect the public, such as the closing of all entertainment and leisure facilities. To provide economic assistance in Switzerland, the cultural sector applies the established rules of a “life before corona”: “Compensation is regulated in accordance with the Income Compensation Act and applies also to freelance artists. It is paid as a daily allowance. This corresponds to 80 percent of income and amounts to a maximum of 196 Swiss francs per day. In order to avoid welfare cases, the Federal Council extends this arrangement also to self-employed persons who are not directly affected by the ban on events. This is subject to the condition that their self-employed income amounts to more than 10,000 but less than 90,000 Swiss francs a year.”[iii] Due to the subsidiary system, cultural issues are under authorization of the cantonal governments. The State Secretariat of Economic Affairs payed 26.5 million Swiss francs to the Canton of Zurich, to which the department of culture added another 20 million.[iv]
This pandemic compensation is directed to a competition-oriented and, up to now, super vital creative industry. With a 33% value added-share, Zurich’s creative crowd has the largest share of the economy nationwide —artists are, of course, included in this figure.[v]
While the majority of this important creative sector (institutions, companies, freelancers) is able to quantify their losses, doing so is difficult for artists. They usually have completed most of the workload before contracts or financial agreements find a way onto their desks. However, the granted compensation is based on either short-term cancellations or on the most recent tax return. Whoever has mainly produced in the studio during that period is unlucky and receives either nothing or just savings for a rainy day. That petty bureaucracy unfolds yet another paradox: a part-time job lost at short notice is recognized by the Income Compensation Act and is compensated accordingly, while the main occupation as an artist leads to a dependency on state benefits that are frozen at a meager 18.3 million Swiss francs. Such conditions put artists directly into a stigmatized position of neediness.[vi]
As under a magnifying glass, the current crisis reveals mercilessly the consequences of the reduced budgets, especially in the health sector, but also for culture. All over Europe, we can observe that governments who restricted their cultural budgets are now also suffering from shortcomings in the care sector. Despite the increased attention paid to issues related to the pandemic, artistic engagement was not seen as systemically relevant. Since Swiss cultural politics is merely an administration within a system of neoliberal capitalism, the opportunity to consider artistic work as a benefit for society as a whole and to free it from the dependency on secondary employments was not taken. In Switzerland, the fine arts are understood as part of the value chain of the creative industry and are strongly promoted as such. A look back to the situation fifty years ago shows a missed chance for the independence of artistic production in Switzerland, that it could be in a much better state than it is today.
From its foundation to its rededication to a university in the year 2000, the School of Arts and Crafts of the City of Zurich (Kunstgewerbeschule) was oriented toward demands from the established Swiss craft trade. In doing so, the school created a broad platform for today's multifaceted creative economy. However, until the mid-1980s there was no professional training for fine arts at any public institution throughout Switzerland. In Zurich, anybody willing to start a career in fine arts attended the division for art teaching. This continuously cemented the status quo that artistic practice is basically a leisure time occupation of gifted art teachers. It is even more astonishing that at the same time in Zurich a private art school with roots in the School of Arts and Crafts already existed. In 1965, the experimental art class “Farbe und Form” (color and form) was founded. Inspired by the concepts of Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, transdisciplinary courses in public social engagement and teamwork were taught. All decisions were made democratically by a student council. By the hegemonic school management, this open teaching à la Joseph Beuys was increasingly perceived as an attack on patriarchal structures as well as on the design school's reputation as a stronghold of the "Good Form" introduced by Max Bill. The experiment ended in 1970 in an unsolvable conflict and was sealed by the withdrawal of all teachers and all students. On a private basis, they immediately founded the now established art school F+F.
Open-minded authorities would have recognized the withdrawal as their mission to introduce fine arts into public education. Instead, they continued promoting a creative workforce for the flourishing economic system and classified artistic education as a profession of unwaged work. They were happy to have transferred that economic burden to a private institution. As soon as the global art market increased in the 1990s, the artistic profession became part of Switzerland’s official education system. A few years later, the same fate struck the bachelor’s program in arts theory. The current crisis reveals an important aspect of this mechanism: in Switzerland, institutional critique has a hard stand. All too often it is perceived as a questioning of our direct democratic achievements, which affect everyone. But in re-thinking institutional critique more and more in terms of infrastructure, this current crisis opens a deep insight into the function of infrastructures.
It was in 1988-89 when I myself was a student at the F+F School. The imperative was as simple as it was clear: don't agree with the price!
You play I pay?
During the pandemic shutdown, the virus has infiltrated our everyday life even without viral pathogens—passively, so to speak. Trapped in constraints between a slowness of binding certainties and the speed of imposed measures, we regrettably avoided looking beyond the closed borders in many ways. Again, we are witnessing a “tyranny of the few that restricts the public arena and enacts policies that vastly increase private wealth, often with complete disregard for social and ecological consequences.”[vii] Behind the fallen “corona” curtain, the well-known play called “Profit over People” largely continues. But unlike the financial crisis in 2008, to which Chomsky refers, this crisis affects our lives a priori: our bodies. It’s precisely the collective vulnerability—appearing as immediate emotions and thoughts such as between information and affect, pausing and stagnation, deceleration and tiredness, voluntariness and compulsion—that enables us to empathetically reflect on our individual lifestyles. Against all denials of the designation "social distancing," our social space, and therefore its significance in particular, has been considerably shrunk within the last few weeks (even in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria where we were generally allowed to leave our homes). Since we have little certainty about the behavior of this virus so far, our personal assessments are all the more important. Given the relationship between neoliberalism and power, Foucault speaks about the importance of self-relation. "He thus addresses the possibility of behaving in a certain way that is not predetermined by power. For him this was the basis for the freedom of the subject. Therefore, the ‘relationship to oneself’ is, as Foucault stated in a lecture in 1982, ‘the last anchor point of resistance’. What he was referring to: a resistance against power. Today he might add: resistance to the virus."[viii]
The pandemic crisis challenges our community through complicated conditions such as solidarity through social distancing or the “shared burden of guiltlessness.”[ix] The strong interventions in our everyday life in recent weeks have shown that it is time to review our assumptions about the conditions of individual lifestyles. The sudden recognition of post-Fordist self-exploitative labor as "systemically relevant" as well as the confrontation of our neoliberal political model with its own failure to provide vital aid to homeless, sans-papiers, and refugee people, SARS-CoV—without killing us all at once—probably gives us a last opportunity to initiate comprehensive social change. Moreover, the sudden dual challenge of home office and home schooling once again confirms the extent to which the heteronormative distribution of roles is ingrained in our liberal economic society: “There are no studies yet, but female editors of scientific journals report, that submissions from men have increased by 50 percent in recent weeks, while female scientists are submitting virtually no texts at all.”[x] These notes highlight quite well what the neoliberal society as a whole also suffers from in times of the pandemic and deliver arguments in favor of a statutory basic income. In 2016, the first referendum on this subject in Switzerland received 23% votes in favor. Now, the current art newsletter of the Zurich Department of Culture provides arguments for this idea: “One thing is certain, however: the cultural sector and in particular the internationally connected art scene, both of which thrive on exchange and encounter, were directly and severely affected by the pandemic from day 1 of the shutdown.”[xi]
The Medium is the (Short) Message
When this text is published, the world of consumption will be back on track, and schools and exhibitions will have reopened. The Federal Council made quick concessions to the economy, but initially put the revival of cultural concerns on the waiting list. This hesitation has led to an eager migration to the World Wide Web, which at first glance appears aseptic. There we can find rehearsals by musicians and dancers at private homes, site-specific explorations, revivals of plays, and even a performance festival that is broadcast live from the quarantine. But no difference whether a curator does the tour through a comprehensive exhibition in five minutes by explaining just one single artwork, or if we are able to complete a super expensive show in only eight minutes thanks to the curator’s assistant being familiar in setting ideal “key business topics”—it is disappointing. Due to the art paradigms of the loss of the aura of the artwork and the reason that the medium is the message, the World Wide Web cannot replace the multi-dimensional aesthetic experience within the triangle of self, artwork, and space. “The impression of mass and power and the positive experiences one makes in real assemblies go beyond the purely informative representations, for example of network visualizations.”[xii]
Public events will remain suspended for a longer period of time, so we will have to move through the one-dimensional wasteland together with art institutions for a while yet. This also puts us in a deeper dependency on the countless free online portals. Those are neither aseptic nor egalitarian or neutral in value. On the contrary, they are "infected" in particular by the insensitive handling of personal data. While during the initial shock of this pandemic, institutions have entered into our private sphere through an online communication provided by the private sector, we all of a sudden serve a profit-making lifestyle. It seems that we are now, more than ever, obliged to place institutional critique in relation to infrastructure.[xiii] From this perspective, some relevant questions also appear from the artists' point of view: whether the online streaming of their exhibits will be financially compensated in terms of a copyright; whether they accept the digital transmission not only aesthetically, but also with regard to the contracted provider. Recently, the performance artist Alexandra Pirici wrote on the blog of the Harun-Farocki-Institute about her concerns: “Marketing departments, framing the old as new with every new line of old products, keep inviting us to embrace the ‘new’ digital space, as if there was no digital space before the coronavirus crisis. Of course, there was, just like there was net art, online art, videogames, artworks and cultural objects that reflected, consistently, on the virtual, on digital platforms, on technology and also on the materiality of the digital. The ‘new’ to be embraced, therefore, is not the digital but the reduction of communication to one single space/channel, highly protocolled and owned by corporate monopolies, on which a competitive precariat was already fighting for monetizable, quantifiable attention.”[xiv]
The Re-Materialization of Presence
VIRUS XI 2020
Generation X shapes politics more actively. There will be a world oil crisis. Drones will patrol the skies. Texting will be made possible by thought power alone, using headsets that detect and convert brain signals to digital signals. A pill for curing malaria will be available, and major experiments in longevity will yield promising results. I am 51.
This calendar note is an extract from the text-based artwork VIRUS (2010–39) by Bharti Kher. It is conceived as a thirty-year-long enduring investigation: “Each text combines predictions (in italics) and chronology. One virus will be released a year to mark an entry into space somewhere. Like a time-tunnel that you can climb into, or a vortex, or a womb or a safe hole. A mutation of colour and pattern so light, a virus so subtle, that no one will notice its slow and transformative essence. Except you. […] This text will continue to change as I meet time and add narratives.”[xv]
While in Switzerland we are returning to a cultivated exhibition visit qua hope, the majority of artists are migrating to the Internet or, if their artistic practice is based on audience participation, they have to withdraw and wait and see. What applies to political rallies applies to them: a ban.
In the search for the "transformative essence" of this current coronavirus, we must ask ourselves how engaged art practices can be re-materialized, because it is their specificity to be flexible and able to adapt quickly to changing conditions. To make a clear distinction between an established art world, which reproduces both the market and the discourse, and the vast majority of independent cultural producers, artist-theorist Gregory Sholette paraphrases the cosmological term “dark matter.”[xvi] He claims that a “creative dark matter” which “self-consciously works outside and/or against the parameters of the mainstream art world for reasons of political and social critique” displays […] a degree of autonomy from the critical and economic structures of the art world and moves instead within, or in-between, the meshes of the consciousness industry.” He notes further, that “increasingly inexpensive technologies that allow informal and activist artists to network with each other have also made the denizens of this shadowy world ever more conspicuous to the very institutions that once sought to exclude them. In short, dark matter is no longer as dark as it once was.”[xvii]
Like the tip of an iceberg, the so-called art world is slowly reappearing, while independent art practices that have long since ceased to be independent of our apparatuses and systems are being kept under water for the time being by their assignment to the political dispositif. In Foucault's discourse theory, every dispositif has first and foremost a strategic function that includes a "functional overdetermination and strategic replenishment." Located outside the institutional and economic dispositif, the free-floating "creative dark matter" retains its gravitational effect. As such, it continues to serve the parameters of a "mainstream art world." What the "creative dark matter" sadly produces by itself in such a pandemic darkness is the expansion of the artist precariat.
In a recent note, Tom Holert writes that, “As a market-shaped, speculative representation machine, art is now coming under particularly strong pressure to legitimize itself.” Through the pandemic crisis, he sees greater scope for committed and useful art practices, at least as intellectual freedom: art could also be “completely unconditional, immaterial, resource-saving; a kind of basic supply, independent.”[xviii] In her manifesto arte ùtil, written in 2011 by artist Tania Bruguera, she states that “Useful Art is a way of working with aesthetic experiences that focus on the implementation of art in society where art's function is no longer to be a space for ‘signaling’ problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of possible solutions.”[xix] What the transformed virus socially reveals are the shaken infrastructures of our neoliberal battlefields. Finally, with the perspective of an institutional critique focused on infrastructure, a re-materialization of presence-based art practice under the given circumstances becomes possible.
Can I work like this?
In its extraordinary press conference on March 16, 2020, the Federal Council proclaimed the shutdown of the whole of Switzerland in accordance with the “Epidemics Act.” Ironically, it was the same day that the press conference organized by the city council of Payerne (canton of Vaud) in view of our two-day walk in the framework of the “week against racism,” which we as artists (data | commission for para-sitic* guest work) had prepared together with the local population, was cancelled and the project stopped. The next community-based project is now in preparation and will be taking place in November 2020—if the pandemic situation allows. “WHAT’S COOKING? A re-arrangement” (conceived in 2014 as a curatorial series) initiates a fifty-hour nonstop gathering that brings together artists and further professionals of the arts field as well as spontaneous guests for simultaneous production, reflection, discussion, and presentation in order to broaden dimensions that allow us to reflect actively on presence and individual involvement with regard to engaged arts practices. Permanent open doors as well as permanent cooking stoves are furthermore essential.[xx] “Can I work like this?” is the subtitle of the upcoming edition. Set long before the pandemic broke out, it paraphrases the reader I Can’t Work Like This: On Recent Boycotts and Contemporary Art published by curator Joanna Warsza in 2017. In her introduction, she states that, “In recent years, artists and curators have often been confronted with a classic political dilemma of engagement or disengagement. The ideological, economic, or ethically objectionable circumstances of certain biennials and institutions have raised the question of whether to continue and, if so, under what circumstances, facing what consequences, and to what ends?”[xxi] In the face of the pandemic, the intention to examine engaged art practices, particularly with regard to the risks of their political and institutional instrumentalization, is now under the spell of a reconsideration of limitations and changed possibilities of engaged art practices as a whole. The question whether I can work “like this” is itself growing into a social sculpture: “Everyone involved in an artwork/project—through entering into dialogue and sharing in the ‘making’ of a Social Sculpture—can have a dialogical aesthetic experience (of a kind that is only possible through Social Art). It is precisely at this point that art is integrated into the praxis of life, whereby numerous traps can cause the failure of the endeavor to act together and democratize society. For this reason, it is important to continue working on a theoretical model for identifying the political and aesthetic potential of Social Art and to put this model to the test in practice.”[xxii] With the declaration that every “community is made of interruption of singularities,” Jean-Luc Nancy links the longing for togetherness directly with the conditions of our individual lifestyles. In the face of the pandemic, this manifold connection points to the basic question on how we want to live.
With the power of the Epidemics Act, our 'Realpolitik' is currently liberating artistic commitment from its own social agenda. The retreat is already underway: quiet, fast, and comprehensive. Whether committed art will ever again be part of a “political power of the assembled bodies,” which Judith Butler describes as indispensable for our societies, is being tested in reality right now.[xxiii] In the fatal fate of passively waiting for further official announcements while being fed with emergency aid, the “creative dark matter” is on its way to becoming more dependent on economies and politics than ever. On the other hand, a renewed withdrawal of art into the safe haven of exclusivity and intransparency, according to Isabelle Graw, “calls into question nothing less than the value of art itself.”[xxiv]
But perhaps this “virus so subtle, that no one will notice its slow and transformative essence” opens up an even wider space for socially engaged art in a gentle way, finally allowing the concept of curating to comprehensively meet its roots: curare.
Tanja Trampe is a curator, cultural theorist, writer, and artist based in Zurich. First educated as a graphic designer, she graduated with a degree in theory of arts, design and culture in 2003, and received an MAS in Curating at the Department of Cultural Analysis and Education in 2014, both from the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK. From 2005 until 2015 she was the assistant curator of Museum Bellerive/Museum of Design Zurich, where she co-curated first exhibitions. She was working as an art mediator for the Cabaret Voltaire Zurich, guest lecturer at the Postgraduate Programme in Curating ZHdK and as event coordinator for the artists in residence programme at Fundaziun Nairs in Scuol/Lower Engadine. Today, she is a freelance curator whose curatorial practice and theoretical research focuses on community-based relational art and the politics of public spheres. In 2013, she received the POOL curatorial grant hosted by the LUMA Foundation. In 2014 she founded the curatorial series “What’s cooking? A re-arrangement”, a fifty-hour nonstop-gathering organized around a permanent active fireplace and open to the public. Invited artists, theorists and cultural activists are called for simultaneous production, presentation and reflection in order to broaden dimensions of individual involvement. As an accomplice of the artistic/curatorial duo data | Auftrag für parasitäre* Gastarbeit (Mission in favour of a para-site guest-work) Tanja Trampe investigates urban, rural, and socio-cultural issues through artistic field research and interventions. Currently she is co-curator of “Bonus Track”, a 16-showcase exhibition series in Zurich. Next “What’s cooking?” will take place in November at the Ausstellungsraum Klingental in Basel, subtitled as “Can I work like this?”. She is alumna of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating ZHdK.
 Claudia Jolles and Britta Polzer, “Editorial,” Kunstbulletin 5 (2017), accessed May 26, 2020, www.artlog.net/de/kunstbulletin-5-2017/editorial (this and all following texts in German translated by author).
 “Criticism is the art of not being governed in this way.” Already in his first answer to the question “What is critique?”, Foucault hands over the responsibility to criticize to each individual. Michel Foucault, Was ist Kritik?, trans. Walter Seitter (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1992), 12.
 State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, accessed May 26, 2020, www.seco.admin.ch/seco/de/home/Arbeit/neues_coronavirus/selbstaendige.html.
 Canton of Zurich, Corona pandemic: financial assistance, accessed May 26, 2020, https://kultur.zh.ch/internet/justiz_inneres/kultur/de/kulturpolitik/corona_2020.html/Stand.
 “The following 13 sub-segments are attributed to the creative industries cluster: music, books, art, film, radio, performing art, design, architecture, advertising, software/game industry, arts and crafts, press/media, recording industry.” Canton of Zurich, Office for Economy and Labour, Creative Industries, accessed May 26, 2020, https://awa.zh.ch/internet/volkswirtschaftsdirektion/awa/en/standortfoerderung/cluster/kreativwirtschaft.html.
 Suisseculture, Corona emergency aid for cultural workers, accessed May 26, 2020, www.suisseculture.ch/index.php?id=207.
 “Chomsky takes on neoliberalism: the pro-corporate system of economic and political policies presently waging a form of class war worldwide. [He] offers a profound sense of hope that social activism can reclaim people's rights as citizens rather than as consumers, redefining democracy as a global movement, not a global market.” Publisher’s note in Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999).
 Philipp Sarasin, “Mit Foucault die Pandemie verstehen?,” in Geschichte der Gegenwart, March 25, 2020, accessed May 26, 2020, https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/mit-foucault-die-pandemie-verstehen/.
 Simon Maurer, in “Helm(zu)haus,” Zurich Department of Culture art newsletter (May 2020), accessed May 26, 2020, https://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/kultur/de/index/institutionen/helmhaus/hintergrund/Helmzuhaus.html.
 Carolin Wiedemann, “Kinder, Küche, Corona. Die Krise ist die Bühne des Patriarchats,” Tagesspiegel, April 29, 2020.
 Barbara Basting, “Kunst(förderung) in Zeiten des Lockdown; in: Zurich Department of Culture, art newsletter, 5/2020 (originally in German); see www.stadt-zuerich.ch/kultur/de/index/institutionen/helmhaus/hintergrund/Helmzuhaus.html (accessed 26-5-2020)
 Mercedes Bunz, quoted in: “David Hunziker, Autokorso der Cyberdemo?, WOZ Die Wochenzeitung, Zürich: 23-4-2020 (originally in German); see also Mercedes Bunz, Graham Meikle, The Internet of Things; New York: 2018
 Sabeth Buchmann, “Re-think institutional critique in terms of infrastructure; online lecture for the Postgraduate Programme in Curating ZHdK, 22-5-2020
 Alexandra Pirici, “I want my writing to be photographed so as to explain my hand,” March 5, 2020, in Rosa Mercedes 02, online journal of the Harun Farocki Institute, accessed May 27, 2020, https://www.harun-farocki-institut.org/en/2020/05/03/i-want-my-writing-to-be-photographed-so-as-to-explain-my-hand-2/.
 Bharti Kher, accompanying text to the exhibition Chimeras, Centre Pasquart, Biel/Bienne, 2018.
 “Dark matter is dark because it does not appear to interact. Unlike normal matter, dark matter does not interact with the electromagnetic force. In fact, researchers have been able to infer the existence of dark matter only from the gravitational effect it seems to have on visible matter.” CERN, , accessed May 27, 2020, https://home.cern/science/physics/dark-matter.
 Gregory Sholette, “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere,” Neme (2006), accessed May 27, 2020, http://www.neme.org/texts/dark-matter.
 Tom Holert, “Fragilität und Nützlichkeit,” Texte zur Kunst, Notes from Quarantine, March 26, 2020, accessed May 27, 2020, www.textezurkunst.de/articles/fragilitat-und-nutzlichkeit/.
 Tania Bruguera, “Introduction on Useful Art,” April 23, 2011), accessed May 27, 2020, www.taniabruguera.com/cms/528-0-Introduction+on+Useful+Art.htm.
 data | Auftrag für parasitäre* Gastarbeit, What’s cooking? A re-arrangement (2017), accessed May 27, 2020, https://whatscooking2017site.wordpress.com/
 Joanna Warsza, “I Can’t Work Like That,” in I Can’t Work Like This: A Reader on Recent Boycotts and Contemporary Art, ed. Joanna Warsza (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 11.
 Martin Krenn, “Social Art in Democracy,” in Dialogical Interventions: Art in the Social Realm, ed. Martin Krenn (Vienna: De Gruyter, 2019), 77.
 Butler explores the dynamics and tactics of public gatherings under the current economic and political conditions. Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
 Isabelle Graw, “Wert generieren in der Pandemie,” Texte zur Kunst, Notes from Quarantine, May 13, 2020, accessed May 27, 2020, www.textezurkunst.de/articles/wert-generieren-der-pandemie/.