interview by Carson Chan
CARSON CHAN: Congratulations, it has been a big year for you! Amongst other activity, in January 2013, you launched 89plus, a multi-platform research project on the generation of artists and makers born after 1989 with Hans Ulrich Obrist. You also became the new director at the Swiss Institute in New York this past November. To paraphrase Hans Ulrich, let’s start at the beginning: what is the genesis of 89plus?
SIMON CASTETS: I think we were inspired by something Ryan Trecartin said about the generation of people who grew up learning to read and think online being fundamentally different than previous generations: We chose 1989 because of its geopolitical importance—the end of the Cold War, the beginning of the Internet—but also because the technological shift around this year laid the ground for a new paradigm. The hypothesis is that having grown up in the new paradigm, your creative output is bound to be impacted by it, inform it, participate it in and create in it in ways that are very complex, because a paradigm shift has never happened on a global scale at the same speed as now. All in all, 89plus is a pretext to meet really interesting people in fields as diverse as technology, activism, visual arts, cinema and music.
CC: Isn’t every generation unique in its own way? Hans Ulrich was born in 1968, a very significant year politically, artistically and so on. Why now? Those born in 1989 are twenty-four years old, just barely out of university. Why not examine their output when they’ve had time to achieve more? To put it in a different way, in a more general way, do you think that people are starting to produce at a younger age, and at a level that people in the past have been reaching much older?
SC: I don’t think so, no. We do think that it’s legitimate to look at people’s work starting when they are still relatively young. For example, Hans Ulrich met Matthew Barney when he was twenty-three years old and had already reached a mature point in his creative language. Keith Haring had his first show in the New Museum when he was twenty-two years old; Basquiat is another example of precocity. That said, 89plus is a long-term project. The idea is to map a generational framework. Five or ten years into the project, the question of youth won’t arise so much. Our critics will calm down as this generation gets older.
CC: Did you see the news about twenty-one-year-old actor Dylan Sprouse’s leaked nude selfie photos? I was pretty impressed by his level, almost nonchalant reaction when his private photos went viral online. Celebrities just a few years older would have been shamed and issued apologies. The youngest generation right now entering adulthood does not have the same sense of public and private as we do; they grew up online, on social media networks. Everything is lived directly and immediately online. If 89plus is a platform for exposing the work of this generation, what could you offer them in terms of exposure, something they are so adept at procuring for themselves?
SC: Well, this is exactly the reason why the platform is just a tool for us—it’s not an end to itself. As you’ll see, it’s not an exhibition platform. We give people exposure by inviting them to panels, talks, giving them the opportunity to do residencies, to receive grants, things like that. The platform in itself is not there to highlight so and so’s work, so and so’s project, or to make one person more visible than the other. That’s not the idea. It’s a tool for communication.
CC: 89plus has presented panels in many venues, including, significantly, Art Basel, Art Basel Hong Kong, and Art Basel Miami Beach. Is there a subtext about jumpstarting the professional or commercial careers of young artists at these art fairs?
SC: No, that’s really not part of the thinking. They’re really intimate conversations, even though they take place at art fairs. We were invited to organize these conversations, and we use them as an opportunity for research. It’s also a question of needs. If an art fair has the need for panels, why not? One must take these opportunities.
CC: Today, for many in the art world, Switzerland is primarily identified with the famous art fair in Basel. As the new director of the Swiss Institute, how do you identify with Switzerland and its culture?
SC: As you said, when you work in the contemporary art field, you naturally develop a very close relationship to Switzerland; some of the world’s most exciting institutions and interesting artists are from Switzerland. Switzerland has a population of eight million people, like the city of London. Given its size, it has a disproportionate impact on the art world in general, and a disproportionate influence. I think that’s really fantastic.
CC: Why do you think that is?
SC: It’s a very good question. I think it has to do with a great level of stability and incredible cultural diversity. I think that diversity is reflected also in the cultural field in the way that each area of Switzerland has its own biggest city and biggest cultural institution and that’s a reason for the multiplicity of cultural centers.
CC: Diversity is definitely palpable in Switzerland. Did you see the World Fair in Seville? On the Swiss Pavilion it said, “La Suissen’existe pas.” To my mind, the artist, Ben Vautier, was basically saying that it’s hard to pinpoint a place that is so diverse. In many ways, Switzerland’s many art centers have only recently started to communicate with each other. Zürich, Basel, Lausanne, Bern, as well as other cities, have been content with maintaining their regional cultures, and what fascinates me about the Swiss Institute is that it’s a place with an international profile that is unifying the diversity of Switzerland. Artistically, it’s the country’s unified face in one of the world’s most important cultural centers.
SC: That is true, and a very good point. Here in New York, Swiss culture can afford to have a more unified approach. I think that’s a perspective that my predecessors at the Swiss Institute have been excellent at pursuing. There’s not an emphasis on Allemannic Switzerland or French-speaking Switzerland or Italian Switzerland. It’s very far-ranging. It’s for everyone.
CC: Given that the Swiss Institute does have this kind of coalescing function, and is able to present a unified face to an international public, what were some of your first questions as you take on this challenge? What are some strategies you would use to represent the diversity unified in a responsible way? It’s a perennial problem when presenting culture in a nation-specific way, particularly at biennials.
SC: It’s more than just addressing the diversity of Switzerland in itself. It’s incredible: it’s in the middle of Europe, it has all these cultural backgrounds and influences. There’s eastern Europe, southern Europe, northern Europe and western Europe all coming together in Switzerland. People from around the world go to Switzerland, bringing new influences. New York allows for engaging in a broader dialogue that is not exclusively between Europe and the Unites States. I will also be drawing upon experiences that I’ve had working in Asia and South America. I’m very excited to be able to bring that here.
CC: The differences between American and Swiss culture are great. If we can entertain a little bit of generalization, the Swiss are discreet, while Americans are not. This March, the Swiss had a referendum to try to limit corporate pay—this would be unthinkable in the U.S. With this ideological divide, do you see obstacles in bringing Swiss positions to an America public?
SC: I think it is something that I have to learn, and I’m very much looking forward to it. My first curatorial input for the Swiss Institute was to bring Allyson Vieira’s exhibition from Kunsthalle Basel here. In terms of translating a show from Basel to New York, the work had to go through the necessary transition from the neoclassical architecture of the Kunsthalle Basel to our industrial space. Allyson is American, and seeing the exhibition she conceived of and developed over several months at a residency in St. Gallen was a very interesting experience. Now we’re taking a reverse approach, and in mid-February 2014, we are opening Heidi Bucher’s first American institutional exhibition in more than forty years. She’s not very well known in the U.S. yet extremely well known in Switzerland. I’m really looking forward to seeing how her work will be received and fit into the American art historical context.
CC: What were the changes you had to make on the Allyson Vieira exhibition as it migrated from Basel to New York?
SC: During our first conversation about doing the exhibition in New York, it was immediately clear that it couldn’t be the same. The core of the exhibition is a site-specific installation. The space in Basel dictated a certain approach, and the space here a completely different one. There’s something really interesting about the fact that it came to New York because a key element of the show is a video of the new World Trade Center being built. Allyson made a twenty-five-minute video of One World Trade Center, which will be viewable upside-down, as the room will be transformed into a camera obscura. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, after about fifteen minutes, the film, and the Freedom Tower, become visible. Producing this exhibition in New York, a few blocks from actual construction site, our curatorial decisions were very different from those made in Basel. The ramifications of the exhibition are different.
CC: I learned that the Swiss Institute’s recent Jon Kessler exhibition was intimately related to the ideas and works of Jean Tinguely, which presented an explicit bringing together of Swiss and American cultures. With 89plus, you’ve identified a generational proclivity towards global connectivity, global communication, and global culture. Do you see a moment in the near future when comparing of cultural identities no longer makes sense?
SC: I don’t think so, I think it’s a much more complex process. I don’t think that a more global, connected culture speaks univocally to a reduction of identity. One word that Hans Ulrich uses often is a creolization—a concept from Édouard Glissant that recognizes the common ground, but also its complexity. This concept emerged from a different context, from a different perspective, but I think it’s still very powerful today.
CC: Creolization, particularly in the way that Glissant unpacks the term, has much to do with commercial trade—cultures often mix and blend because of trade necessities. The Swiss Institute’s current location on Wooster St. is Jeffrey Deitch’s former commercial gallery, and in a conversation I had with the gallerist Gavin Brown, we spoke about the controversial relationship between commercial galleries and institutions that receive public funds, like the Swiss Institute. They have competing desires: one is meant for the public good, the other for commercial gain. How would you characterize a viable and sustainable between the public and private sectors?
SC: Well, I think it’s all part of the complex system. Gavin Brown recently took the former space of a meat purveyor. Before Deitch was here in this space, it was a lumberyard. It’s all part of the economic loop, even though New York somehow sees the Swiss Institute as a not-for-profit, I think we do work with galleries and galleries are supportive of our exhibitions and we’re very grateful for that. I think that it’s up to everyone involved to create relationships that are non-cannibalizing and mutually beneficial. As a non-for-profit public institution where the mandate is public, being on the ground floor in the middle of Soho, we have a great deal of foot traffic. We’re very open to the street and it’s a constant reminder of our mandate, which is to engage with the people of New York, tourists and locals alike.