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Interview: Pro Helvetia presents Swiss Selection Live

Chances are, you’re not that familiar with the Swiss arts scene and Helevetia’s carefully curated Swiss Selection Live (8-12 March, Brixton House, London) provides an excellent place to start. The showcase consists of three diverse performances from international artists who are challenging their audiences to alter their perceptions of topics ranging from the natural world to race and identity. 

Alan Alpenfelt’s Binaurual View of Switzerland (8-12 March) looks at recreating the journey of pioneering British photographer William England to explore the impact of human activity on the Swiss landscape.

In BLACK OFF (10-12 March), Ntando Cele examines racism through comedy, music and film by pressing audience to confront and analyse their own attitudes towards prejudice. 

Meanwhile, HERE AND NOW (10-12 March) sees Trân Tran examine the relationship between audience member and performer and question what people hope to gain when they attend a theatre performance – entertainment, education or simply value for money?

Run-Riot caught up with Alan and Ntando to learn more about the showcase and what the artists hope to achieve:

Kerenza: What makes the Swiss arts landscape unique? 

Alan: I would say that the same landscape which drives its uniqueness is also its achilles' heel. Friedrich Dürrenmatt was known for portraying the Swiss through his edge cutting humour. He was able to make them laugh at themselves, a society which has made its social, political and economical system one of the most democratic and wealthy countries in the world. In his plays he often talked about justice and I think this theme still resonates today in Swiss art. What is justice for the Swiss? For all the time I've lived in Switzerland since I was 6, I've observed how wealth, personal freedom and cleanness are central in this question but at a cost. There are many and very diverse kinds of costs which in turn come with heavy loads of guilt, and we, the Swiss, are very good at shoving this guilt under the carpet. However every now and then the bumps under the carpet become too big and we trip over them. For example it happened just recently with the Credit Suisse scandal, or in the past with the Pro Juventute eugenics where hundreds of Jenish children were put into a "re-education" programme between 1924 and 1976, many of them being tragically sterilized, as the Swiss writer Mariella Mehr tells it in her marvellous literature.

Still, the Swiss landscape can strive because it is economically extensively sustained. It’s a sort of oxymoron. Its wealth drives its own criticism. 

So what is our art? Is the criticism only feeding a “one-man dimension” or does it help to see clearer? Anyhow, for me it's about lifting the carpet and reminding us that there is no way of escaping collective responsibility. And this can make Swiss art very political, and I believe this is its uniqueness.

Kerenza: Alan, can you tell us about the inspiration for Binaural Views of Switzerland: an audio-visual exhibition?

Alan: Yes, the whole idea started when I saw a series of stereoscopic photographs of the Swiss landscape in 1863 during an exhibition in Edinburgh on the beginnings of photography. They were taken by an English photographer called William England who was commissioned by the London stereoscopic Society (now owned by Brian May!) to portray the Swiss landscapes and bring stereoscopic photographs back to London, selling them to the new English bourgeoisie. The 150 locations and the over 1000 stereographic photos helped spark the beginning of mass tourism for which the English were pioneers, who reached the tops of Swiss mountains where not even the Swiss had been yet. 

I wanted to know how these places depicted in William's photos had changed in the last 160 years and decided to find 30 of them during a two month journey across the Alps in 2019. I discovered the exact spots where William had shot his photos and recorded, from the same perspective, binaural landscapes (a sort of 3d sound effect) and 360° photos. The stunning yet dramatic differences can be seen and heard in the Kaiserpanorama, which is the centre of my exhibition. 

There are different underlying themes, some even hidden, which are presented in this work. There is a delicate mixture between fiction and truth which I tried to blend together, based on the post-truth of the mass tourism industry. What tourists want is to pay for a unique experience, different from anybody else's. Every tourist would like to find that spot where nobody else is and experience an adventure they can take back and show to their family and friends. It's exactly what the photos of William England showed back in 1863 attracting the English to visit Switzerland. His wife, as a model, sitting on the crest of a rock facing the striking and overwhelming majesty of the Alps. However today, through tourist social network systems such as Tripadvisor, anybody can change the value of a site, even a place like the Matterhorn which has managed to receive one star ratings! I love this one for example: "The Swiss government or the tourism industry must be praised for their clever marketing as they have been able to sell off a boring mountain to the tourists and rip them off."

Kerenza: What concerns did you have in observing how the Swiss landscape has adapted in the face of mass transport and climate change? Are these issues surmountable?

Alan: This question in a way can be related to my first answer. 

In 2014, the famous photograph by Peter Böhi of the Aescher-Wildkirchli restaurant in Canton Appenzell Inner-Rhodes was selected to be the cover of National Geographic 225 places to see in a lifetime. It’s a stunning photo. Immediately however it attracted thousands of tourists which flocked to the restaurant the same year. They all wanted to take their own photo of this really particular place. The Knechtle-Fritsche family who had been operating the restaurant for more than 30 years and made their famous rösti, couldn't handle the mass of tourists and had to sell it to a bigger company. 

So what is the sense in this? It’s of course great business for the local area and for making Switzerland even more attractive, but on the other hand it’s another precious gem which has gone lost.

And this brings us to the glaciers. They are destined to disappear, there is no way back. And Switzerland can put all the good will in trying to conserve them but it's out of a single nation's powers. This is one of the many effects of global human induced climate change and William England was lucky enough to leave us a document showing the maximum extent of the glaciers. After that, they would start their unstoppable retreat. 

The irony is that tourists come from far away to see the effects of the modern world, which give them the possibility to travel to see them. This sentence is a loop so it shouldn't make too much sense ;-)

Kerenza: Which positive signs of changes did you observe?

Alan: I can’t say there are necessarily positive changes. Being able to experience the sense of the Sublime, which is what tourists seek when they come to Switzerland, is something that should put any person into a state of rethinking their position in respect to nature as something bigger and majestic, which will be there standing many years after we are gone. It should put us back into our place which is that of a species amongst many other species, in respect of the environment which hosts us, not a place which we believe is of our property. 

It’s Hegel’s legacy, who also visited the Alps as a young man and believed we should find a way to exert power over nature. 

The question is whether our actions to prevent climate catastrophe are just simply too late. We will probably have the answer too late, finding ourselves like most of Samuel Beckett's characters, mumbling away in a world which has ended long ago. 

Kerenza: Ntando, how are you intending to change audience expectations with BLACK OFF

Ntando: BLACK OFF changes audience expectations by demonstrating their prejudice and confronting them with stereotypes while humanizing the Black body.

Kerenza: Do you think more needs to be done to deal with insidious racism alongside the more overt kind? 

Ntando: Racism of any kind is harmful for humanity no matter how loud or soft the blow. Should we not do more so in the future nobody knows the meaning of the word?

Kerenza: Is it a challenge to insert humour into these topics? 

Ntando: An acceptable challenge as BLACK OFF uses humour as a tool for resistance and ownership over my story.

Kerenza: How do you think art has the power to influence social change? 

Alan: For me, it’s the most challenging question. Stories are what create our culture and our beliefs, we build everything around stories. So by telling stories, the unheard ones, the ones under the carpet, we should be able to influence change. But the right stories need to reach broad audiences, that is the tricky part. 

Ntando: Art can create a space for emotional transformation while disguised as entertainment.

Kerenza: Can you tell us a bit about Trân Tran, the third act in the showcase? How do your acts all complement one another? 

Alan: Unfortunately I can’t, I’m going to see Ntando and Trân Tran’s work at Brixton house for the first time! And I’m very much looking forward to it.

Ntando: It's a showcase that represents 3 very different perspectives of the Swiss art scene. The third act invites more of a collaboration with the audience.

Swiss Selection Live at Brixton House
8 March-12 March
Binaural Views of Switzerland

10 March-12 March
HERE & NOW (Double Bill)
BLACK OFF (Double Bill)

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