Shedhalle’s Thea Reifler and Philipp Bergmann in conversation with Miriam Laura Leonardi

Artistic directors of Shedhalle, Thea Reifler and Philipp Bergmann, speak with Miriam Laura Leonardi, about their programming concept for Shedhalle, and what might come after “scandal culture”.

Miriam Laura Leonardi: Could you define the “Protozone” your Shedhalle program 2020–2025 is proposing?

Thea Reifler: The Protozone is our idea of how to expand the exhibition format for process-based art. We wanted to lay a focus on the way people work–on artistic practices–thus we searched for a form of spatial prototype, a zone in process, which can be a model within a certain time and space. Referring, in its name, also to protozoa, which is a single celled organism.

Regarding the structure, the Protozone has a “high intensity phase” which includes long opening hours, day and night, weekends, or entire weeks, during which we will spend time together, in the space, with the artists who are present and are activating their work via workshops, reading sessions, performances etc. The “low intensity phase” is more like a regular exhibition, but only open on the weekends, providing space for residencies during the week.

Philipp Bergmann: You could imagine the Protozone as an exhibition that opens a week too early, for which we not only invite artworks, but also artists, and we try to see what this produces. Most of the artists that we like to work with do more than just one thing, for example, they might do sculpture and video, but also have a reading and movement practice they want to share, or they might facilitate a sci-fi reading cycle, a board game, and a collective dreaming session, because they are currently working on all of these things. The Protozone is the vessel which should bring it all together. But this is also just our current version of what a Protozone can look like. This can change over the next few years as we will work at Shedhalle.

Also, we are not the only ones working on this. There are Protozones brought to life by our curatorial board–Isabelle Vuong, Lucie Tuma and Michelangelo Miccolis–and each of them has their own perspective.

MLL: In regards to “SCANDAL”–the title of the most recent issue of PROVENCE–I’d like to ask you, if complicity isn’t the biggest scandal in the artworld?

TR: I don’t encounter it so often anymore. A couple of years ago, there was often the question of who to give a platform. For example, we did a project in Poland in 2015, with a conference to which we wanted to invite different representatives of societal groups, not exactly political parties, but different camps that were participating together in a march for the Independence Day of Poland, which usually gets taken over by the political right. But in the end people didn’t want to share the stage–a war veteran didn’t want to share the space with a feminist etc. I felt that we were touching upon a grey zone in regards to the question of who to give a platform. Meanwhile, we, and also many more people, realized that it’s a no-go to give extremely conservative, or even right-wing positions, a voice if you want to protect people, and want to have people heard who are not yet heard, or should be heard more loudly. Discrimination is not an opinion and therefore shouldn’t get a stage. The energy put into public outrage could also be put into public love.

PB: Crisis after crisis shows us more and more, who’s on one side and who is on the other. This currently leads to polarisation, but also solidarity. What we witnessed in the last years is that a lot of solidarity arose and communities were built, into which you don’t want to invite someone who will crush it. But in these spaces, it’s very difficult to tell people that they did something that might have hurt others and also to receive this feedback. In my opinion, the most important part is always how much people are willing to change and grow–we can all be part of creating a nourishing environment, a “fehlerkultur” in which one can learn.

Looking at Shedhalle, this is also something we are trying to work on. There will always be problems and pain, but at least we try to approach this topic by doing further education in Social Justice and Diversity training at the centre of Social Justice and Radical Diversity in Potsdam. Furthermore, we asked someone from the Shedhalle committee to be a contact person, to whom anyone involved in exhibitions can talk without having to approach us first. In the German theatre some productions include an anti-racism clause now, so if a racist act happens during a production, the sufferer can ultimately cancel the production and get financially reimbursed or demand that the whole team participates in an anti-racism workshop.

MLL: What happens if racism is already written into the script? Let’s say, for example, that I’m an actor and I get the proposition of a nice script, everything is perfect, but then I come across one or two racist remarks within the dialogue? Is there an official clause giving me the right to ask that the script be changed?

TR: In art it’s tricky, right? Classic, old movies and theatre pieces often include discriminatory lines or scenes, and the reason why such lines and scenes aren’t called out is often because of the white and patriarchal surroundings they were produced in–and still are. But the audience is changing a lot now, and I think you really have to think more than twice if you show such a work. If you then decide to still show it, in my opinion, you should contextualise it, raise awareness that this is not ok, and have a trigger warning, so that people don’t get re-traumatized.

MLL: Like the content warnings, that might appear in the beginning of films that include porn or violence?

TR: I guess it’s different from case to case. Sometimes there is a reason to present something in order to show history, but personally I benefit more, at the moment, from focusing on a variety of histories, rather than seeing the same ones repeated all over.

PB: An example is what happened in a major german museum that exhibited a racist historical painting, in order to start a discourse about racism. I think one definitely shouldn’t do this; starting a discourse about racism with a racist act.

I know some artists who responded to that incident, and the board of the museum then proposed to include their concerns into the official discussion. The artists said, “no way.”

TR: They were trying to include these comments, and thus wash themselves clean.  Another useful thing to learn at the moment is the art of apologizing, I think.

MLL: Did they intend to talk about racism in general or racism within art by using this painting? Do you think there can be a difference?

PB: It is always a question of who is talking about what, and who is doing work about what. The question “who is allowed to do what” was often used by cis white male artists, curators, and theatre makers in order to talk about everything, do everything, make scandals out of everything, and in the end get credit for all of it, while getting rich and being called “radical”.

For me, it’s more needed at the moment to talk about things not on a topical, but on a structural level. I think how you approach certain topics and how you challenge existing injustices from a position of privilege is informed by who you invite and who is working in your institution.

TR: This would probably have been avoided if there were people in their boards or curatorial teams who would also feel offended.

PB: We recently had a talk with a friend, who’s an artist and curator, about when we could get over identity politics in art. At this point, it seems as if it will take a very long time until this question becomes less relevant, because it’s so significant.

MLL: Do you look forward to being beyond identity politics? I am wondering what we could potentially look forward to?

TR: I look forward to a world where it is considered normal that everyone has really complex individual identities, coming from all their relations to the world in past, present and future. And that this richness of perspectives, even in one single person, is considered as something positive, not as a threat. I sometimes believe this world already exists–in parallel. At least in science fiction, like Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, where the Oankali seek and desire difference. This world is imaginable, so it can also materialize.

MLL: You have a background in theatre. Do current scandals remind you of another form of “drama” which is neither comedy nor tragedy?

TR: Maybe it’s interesting to look at the roles of people, and the personas that they are playing, because it usually involves public figures. From that point of view one could say that it’s a fiction that people create, an unscripted creation, an interplay of different figures in a context that leads to some kind of dramatic peak. In classical drama theory there are five acts and in the third there is the peak and everything before builds up to it and the script's end decides if it’s a comedy or a tragedy. So the outcome is decisive. Even a comedy can be very tragic, but if there is a happy end, it’s a comedy. A tragedy can be very funny, but if the outcome is tragic, it’s a tragedy.

MLL: In real life there is rarely a final outcome. We start and stop at the scandalous peak, so we actually never get to know if something has been a comedy or a tragedy?

TR: We studied post dramatic theatre in Giessen, which goes beyond the idea of a drama being about the de-hierarchisation of means, and maybe it’s time for scandal culture to move away from the classical model and look at how things develop over a longer period of time, instead of just looking at the one peak–which is also very phallic–but look at other modes of perception and other forms of storytelling. There is a nice text by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which she claims that the spear was not the first tool of humanity, rather it was the bag, so that you can collect small things, which doesn’t make such a big fuss–as when you’ve killed a mammoth and two people died during the hunt, and you come home to tell the big, heroic tale. The small things can be powerful in their own ways. And yes, they can be comic and tragic, constantly changing, depending on how they come together and depending on the perspective.

PB: This is also what I feel is happening in Zurich and also in Shedhalle. We did not start with a big bang, we want to work continuously on different small things, we want to give time to experience, to find out what the Protozone is, and we want to find it out along with our audience. Let’s call it an institutional process. The institution, as a Protozone, is an institution that is in constant change.

Miriam Laura Leonardi (b.1985) is an artist who lives and works in Zurich.
Since last year, Thea Reifler and Philipp Bergmann have been working as the artistic directors of Shedhalle Zurich. In recent years, they have created process-based interdisciplinary projects with a queer-feminist background, and with their concept PROTOZONES 2020–2025 they are now establishing Shedhalle as an institution for process-based art.