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Interviewed by Patrycja Wojciechowska


Patrycja Wojciechowska: You met and started the U5 collective at the Zurich University of the Arts. Can you describe how you formed the collective and what were your backgrounds?

U5: U5 was founded in 2007 during our studies at the New Media Department at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts). Subsequently, we applied collectively for the MA in Fine Arts. All of us gained different backgrounds through previous work and studies. We have an engineer, a trained architect, and a failed architect. We chose to work in a collective, as we wanted to step away from the concept of individual identity and authorship. Neither our gender nor our origin matters.

PW: Very often collectives function as an art collective, but they do list the members. You avoid this. It's always U5.

U5: Yes. It’s not a secret; people know it is us, but we try not to mention it.

PW: Do you think your work experience before the emergence of U5 had an impact on the formulation of the collective’s methodology?

U5: We believe that everything around us has an impact, not only our professional backgrounds but also people we are involved with, places we have visited or where we grew up. In our understanding, it is important to keep the collective’s practice diverse. We reach out to different networks and disciplines, all of us have their different communities, with different interests, who have different approaches to our work and to the way we work.

PW: I think that when you work within the collective, it's good to have people who have very different backgrounds and very different takes on practice, both within the collective and around. Working together becomes more dynamic, and maybe opens different doors.

U5: We often say our practice is organic. We let it grow and are not planning too much. When we have projects to finalize, deadlines to meet or exhibitions to plan, then, of course, we have to. But we try as much as we can, to use chance as a tool. We like unpredictability.

In order to maintain this methodology, we need to be space-based. It has to be a space big enough to work on different things at the same time, and for things to interconnect. Combinations are important for us.

When we started to work as a collective, we didn't start with the idea of moving straight into the production of art. Instead, we started with setting up the task to learn how to work collectively. During our first year, there were no products, so to speak, coming out, not in the sense of art production. The method was to observe, to experiment, to find a way to work together and to gain trust in each other. We wanted to let loose, just let the others do what they needed to do in order to give each other the freedom and confidence necessary to work together on one piece, or to let go of their contribution and let others step in. One could take what someone has done and push it further. We let go of ego and the claim of individual authorship. We realized that sometimes where one leaves work, the other can pick it up. The first year was about figuring out the workflow and our internal dynamics.

PW: So, one could say your practice was focused, especially at that time, more on the process itself than a finished art object?

U5: In the beginning, the process was directed at how to learn to trust each other and have the confidence necessary for working together in a collective. We tried to induce a situation where one of us can come into the studio and continue working on a piece, even finish it, without asking the others, without justifying this decision and without fear to take it over. The process was to learn to work under shared authorship and for the practice to evolve organically. So, anyone could just do whatever they wanted. Whatever was in the space belonged to every and each one of us. It is not easy to go through a process which suppresses ego. One has to start to think that this is not about 'MY' work, but the collective's work. It doesn't work all the time, but when you work in the collective, you have to accept that it happens, that you don’t actually get on with everyone all the time.

PW: I was curious if you were interested in working with other artists outside of the collective, using the space or presenting their work in there?

U5: It is primarily our studio and the place where we store all of our work. However, a lot of our artworks are created in collaboration with other artists. We especially like working with musicians. For our recent projects, we worked together with art historians, scientists, musicians, and performers. Our work has been becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, not only in choices of medium but also in terms of research and the networks which surround it. We always want to grow and evolve. At the same time, we understand, it’s hard for people to step in. We worked together for so long, and there's a very distinctive style that we have. It’s not easy. But we are willing.

PW: You have a teaching and commission program—I was wondering if you could speak about this a little bit?

U5: It happens by occasion, because we like the exchange with other practices and disciplines. We often collaborate through friendship. Friendship is something that is very important for us. Usually in our practice, we don't start a new project with an idea or a topic. Or maybe we don't start with the topic, but we start with an idea. When it comes to commission work, we need to begin with a topic. It’s not really how we normally do things, so the commission process differs much from our practice. We also realized that a commission program means work with many other people, and this can be difficult. It causes trouble, but at the same time, the people we worked with said it was productive.

PW: You reach out to other artists and collaborate, you have the commissioning program, which may have its challenges, but it still means that even though that may be accidental or peripheral, you do give visibility to other artists throughout your practice. So, therefore, I think within the way you run U5 is an answer to the question, how you see “the Dark Matter,” as described by Gregory Sholette’s text, which was our starting point for this issue of OnCurating. You take the people out of it and involve them in something that becomes more visible.

U5: We are the Dark Matter. Nowadays, you have to look professional and follow a certain formula of presence and image in order to function in the art world. You have to fill out applications and write proposals, concepts, etc., to receive funding (at least in Switzerland there is a good funding system compared to other countries), but this never covers all costs (especially as a collective), or helps to save some money, or even to pay the studio rent. It is precarious. The whole application and funding process is unbalanced. I once heard the decision process itself takes 2/3 of the money provided. Maybe that's also what Gregory Sholette writes about. It's not exactly a positive situation, but it's sometimes interesting, as you need to find ways to connect. We are going back again to the notion of organic. How the flow of all activities works, and where does the money end up and who benefits.

PW: How do you finance your projects and studio?

U5: We finance most of it ourselves, with our practice. Often, we have to be creative in covering costs. This can be everything, from selling art pieces, teaching, commissioned work, to working for institutions and being involved in research projects. We organize events here, in the studio: concerts, dinners, parties, bar. People always thought that it partially financed us. But this is not the case. It's the opposite of financing. It's not profitable. We do it because we have fun doing it, and it is a valuable source to bring people in and connect. We definitely want to maintain this space.

PW: Do you receive any funding from the city, or do you have any sponsorship?

U5: No, not for the space. Usually one has to have an annual program, which includes shows by other artists. We don’t do that. We do collaborate a lot, for example, with the Helmhaus we organized an event, and we also opened our space for an offsite art presentation, “Kunstszene Zürich,” organized by the City of Zurich. Overall, we feel the space needs to be free and flexible to use, not programmed and scheduled. We received multiple amounts of funding for our artwork. In recent years, we have gotten increased funding for our digital art.

PW: So, would you say that within the Swiss funding system, options for financial support to sustain the practice as an art collective are somehow limited?

U5: In terms of costs for the studio space and the way we want to use it, yes. It came to our mind, of course, we could create a program, do exhibitions, etc., and apply for space funding, but we always decide against this idea. We try to keep the distinction between an artistic and curatorial attitude. But also in terms of art grants or residencies it's quite hard; those programs are made for one person not a group.

PW: How do you choose your projects? You describe your work as organically evolving. I was wondering how the process is being shaped.

U5: We really like working with material in our hands. For more than ten years now, we have been working with plastic and everyday materials, colorful things. We are interested in handicrafts, kitsch, mass-produced things. We didn't choose to work specifically with plastic. Instead, we made the decision to work with material you use every day, with what’s around, and this meant working with plastic. Nowadays, this is changing, and it affects our material and therefore our art pieces. When things change, they impact our practice. In recent years, our work depended on where we were, as we were traveling quite a lot. We couldn’t keep working the usual way and had to find other ways to practice without the studio space. During this time, our digital work came into the foreground. We tried to find ways to produce work we could transport from one place to the other.

There are many things we are interested in, especially those that don't get a lot of attention at first sight, or even the ones people prefer to look away from. This type of inspiration and experience reveals itself not only in known surroundings, but also in outside of our own culture.

PW: Your attitude towards the material makes me think about the notion of found objects. You look for what is around. Plastic, let's face it, it is all around us. These days, finally, we started to tackle this problem. As a result, social reception of the material has changed. And you find other materials, as the environment around changes.

U5: Yeah, and if it does, it is happening without us forcing it. We are responsive to those changes.

PW: As you work as an art collective, you negotiate throughout the whole process. Do you at any point have certain responsibilities one person runs and the other doesn’t? I think with few people in a group, it usually happens that someone is better with one thing, while someone else with another thing.

U5: Of course, there are things that one of us prefers to do more than the other. But even though someone does something better, it could happen that someone else does it anyway. It’s like in jazz. Maybe you have your favorite instrument. But it's really interesting when you try to play one you are not used to. And even if someone doesn't touch something at all, everyone still leaves an imprint on it.

PW: Is gender of any importance in your collective?

U5: I have to say, I do not fear being dismissed because I'm a woman... We fear more being dismissed because we want to do things differently, in a collective and getting rid of gender or identity politics altogether. However, we still feel that the art market, even if there are more people working in collectives now, is not really ready for alternative options.

PW: What are your connections and networks in Zurich?

U5: We have some friends in various fields, but we are strategically not very well connected to the other art spaces or art institutions. We have some connections to the architecture world, to art historians, artists, musicians. This results from the most recent projects, where we have been working with Philip Ursprung. Besides this, our “Automatenbar” sort of created our own network. For four years, we organized a bar every damn Tuesday, and we opened the studio to everybody.

PW: How do you see the future of your practice here in Zurich?

U5: For such a small city, Zurich is really international. Our future is here. We will carry on finding ways to keep the studio and our practice going. The most important thing is to keep on going and have the passion and naiveté to not worry too much. You need humor to withstand all the problems.

PW: From the moment I started to plan this interview, I knew I really wanted to ask you to break down the rules of  the U5 collective: “All the members have equal rights, but consensus is not necessary. All works are created in cooperation. Presence and absence influence the work equally.”

We spoke about this briefly. You described the importance of acceptance of the lack of the necessity of consensus in the decision-making. I was wondering about the reason behind your choice to use “cooperation" not “collaboration” as the operative word for the description of the methodology of your practice. Further, whose presence or absence is of importance within the collective? The members, the artwork, the audience, the physical being of the things, the materials not being within the space? I think it is exciting to learn how you see these little nuances within the very open rules that you have.

U5: Usually, rules are to specify something that is not allowed. We realized we need rules as guiding lines to open up and not to restrict. Guidelines that allow you to act. Guidelines that encourage you to act.  Self-doubt is sometimes too easy. We want to evolve and to grow, and that's why they are so open.

PW: What were the reasons for your decision to work with the things that are around you, everyday materials?

U5: We feel like a lot of our decisions are just pragmatic. We needed to establish the ground enabling us to be productive as a collective, especially during the first years of working together. We focus on materials around us and the materials you could get in high numbers for not much money. In the beginning, there was also a time when we didn't want to produce anything at all. The world is already overfilled. So, we didn't want to buy stuff; instead we looked around. People gave us things they didn't need any more. We have all sorts of collections now.

PW: Can you please describe your camera, PALM, as method of working and communicating. How did you arrive at it? Would you also comment on the notion of surveillance and the performative aspect of PALM as a method of creative practice and cataloging, where it is split between choice and chance? How random is really random? How do you see the place of the site from the point of view of PALM?

U5: Our first studio was situated in the basement of the ZHdK. It was called U5, a rotten room that some professors stored their old work in. The topic of that semester was “space and time.” This was the beginning, our foundations. We were students, we had time, but we had no space. The lack of space was the problem. We checked every corner of the school and found this room, which was really small. No more than ten square meters. The first thing we did was to install a surveillance camera.

We didn't know each other very well at that time, and the rules did not come up yet. It was a way to figure out how to work together. You could see if someone was in and you could see what this person was doing. The system was established for the camera to take over the required documentation and let us work freely. To make a long story short, we developed our own mobile surveillance camera and our own streaming platform, which we call PALM now. The camera takes a picture every two seconds and streams it online. We wanted to be able to take the camera wherever we moved and have an insight wherever we were. We gave cameras away to other people. It is a tool for interacting. All the images are stored in our archive, which now holds around 100 million images of everyday life from around the world.

It's not clear what kind of archive this is. Of course, it is impossible to view all the images. We can just browse through them. Sometimes we find amazing shots and we use them, print them, turn them analogue again. It works a bit like human memory and the way it's stored within the brain. You have these moments that you can remember, and you have those moments you completely forget, but your friend tells you: “Can you remember that?” We are now categorizing the archive by hand as a preparation to manage the archive by machine learning. PALM is kind of an anti-Instagram: it documents the routine and boring parts of life.

The images are the everyday material. They capture what is around. On the other hand, there can be highlights. Sometimes just because it's a visually, aesthetically striking image, and sometimes because they are the moments you couldn't catch without this tool. The performing aspect of it can be fun, too.

PW: It's like it's there, but at the same time it’s not. It is constantly doing something. I want to talk about the idea of constant transformation. Do you understand this as ever-present change within practice, an archive being in the process of constant flux?

U5: Yes, as a concept. We search for the uniqueness in the moment, too.

PW: Carrying the camera means both that you observe and you are being observed. Sometimes it's not clear. There is a duality inscribed within the system. You watch, but you're also being watched. You observe, but you are also being observed. You create an archive, but you are also archived. It has this double meaning.

U5: Yes, you are both perpetrator and victim at the same time. You also have to be able to stand it from both positions and be able to experience how it feels and what kind of reactions it provokes. It is not always a pleasant process to work with these cameras.

PW: It creates a certain aspect of anxiety. That's why I asked about surveillance. It’s a similar experience to when you are in the urban environment. You do forget about this, but now and then you remember that you are in the city and you are being constantly watched by countless CCTV cameras and not all of them with such an innocent idea behind them.

U5: From time to time, critical people don't want to be on our camera. This is weird. They still believe that they can decide and escape surveillance. But they cannot. We all cannot.

PW: I can see why it's uncomfortable, but I can see how it can be interesting as a form of the constant recording of change. Do you see the viewer as an active participant in this ever-changing environment? I mean this across the whole process of the camera, of the work itself, even your practice? Because they'd been recorded as well. So, it's not only direct interaction with the artwork, it's also interaction with the ever-expanding archive that matters.

U5: I mean, there are not so many people watching now on a daily basis. But there is the possibility to interfere by tagging images. We have two types of archives. We have our archive of all images, and a publicly open archive, where the last 50 tagged images are stored. Those images are kind of highlighted. We also give away cameras to people who are interested. They get access to the images they produce and can also work with their image archive.

PW: I felt when I was looking at your work that you see transformation as a quality lying at the core of your practice. Seen partly as a way of creating new temporalities, new pluralities and partly as a continual feedback effect? My understanding of it encompasses the feedback from yourself, from the artwork, feedback from the archive and from the viewer. I would like to see how that creates the new moments, new change and so forth…

U5: It comes from our collective method. It's changing, it's happening all the time, because of the presence of absence. Even if I do nothing, I'd come back, and the work has changed.

PW: It's very interesting. For example, if you work in the museums, there is this constantly present idea of preservation of the artwork. So, in a sense the methodology is to stop change. For example, when you read about Eva Hesse’s work, the curators and collection owners lamenting because the materials deteriorate, because they're so experimental. But then there is another aspect. She was experimental. The materials do deteriorate. And this is normal. And maybe we should accept this, that sometimes the materials change, and things deteriorate and become something else. I personally think it's quite important to have an art practice that accepts change, and as you said, many times accepts the destruction factor, too.

U5: People sometimes ask us how do we decide on when an art piece is finished. Our answer is: we are not interested in finishing, as we have already started. Art and culture are a possibility for accessing the infinite.

When we answer this question more seriously: a piece is finished when it is sold, or when none of us continues working on it. It happens that, after an exhibition, we continue working on an art piece or while exhibiting we change the context of an art piece by showing it in a different set-up, which changes this piece—not the work itself, but its impact and significance.

U5, studio view, 2020

Bleach, Performance, U5

Patrycja Wojciechowska is a curator based in London. She is graduate of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS in University of Art, Zurich, Switzerland. She co-curated the exhibition games.fights.encounter at the OnCurating Project Space, Zurich. Her research focuses on identity, postcolonial studies, non-human intelligence and forms of communication, and position of the body in art experience. She currently works on an interdisciplinary online platform.

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