Monday, September 12, 2011
I have been to Bern, Switzerland the past three summers for the Sommerakademie at the Zentrum Paul Klee, an intensive two-week residency for artists, curators, writers, academics and all of the above—“art people” as it were. First I attended as a Fellow in the Sommerakademie, returning as an Editor and Contributor to a book published by the Sommerakademie and as an Alumnus. The group of people affiliated with the Sommerakademie is kind of like a family that meets up in this Swiss city at the end of every summer for little bit of fun and formality. Each year it grows as new people become involved.
Bernese Nights. I have thought about that stupid title every year I’ve been in Bern. The idea being some sort of diaristic narrative, like George Orwell’s “Burmese Nights”. Maybe for no other reason than they sound similar. Every summer, late at night in Bern, what was originally a lame joke I made to annoy myself comes back to me and refuses to go away. What is a pretentious and clever title is also a device that suggests the content of the writing. Wandering around the empty stonemasonry that is Bern’s architecture I think, “I should totally write something called ‘Bernese Nights!’ That would be so stupid!” I’ve never read “Burmese Nights.” I did read, “Shooting an Elephant”, which is about being a policeman in Burma, though. And it is Burmese Days, not “nights.” I think I am thinking of Down and Out in Paris and London. Bern is neither Burma nor London or Paris. And rather than being down and out, which is pretty much how the other fifty weeks out of the year lived in Chicago have been, August in Bern is the only time I get to feel like my commitment to a life in the arts is amounting to much of anything. To be an international artist, how exciting! But also probably much less exciting than the life experiences of Eric Blair.
Bern is one endless picturesque vista, a quaint European city beautifully displaying its medieval origin. Paul Klee grew up here. Albert Einstein lived here. The Kunsthalle Bern was the site of Bernese native Harald Szeeman’s paradigm-shifting exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form.” The year prior he let Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap the kunsthalle, their first building.
I like to say that Bern is a city founded by bears. Bern’s coat of arms is a fierce bear sporting enormous sword-like red claws and an equally red engorged penis. Medieval settlers came upon an area suitable for starting a village except there was a community bears already installed there. The King waged war on the bears and once victorious imprisoned the Bear King in a pit on the edge of town known as the Bärengraben. Nobody really knows how the Bern got its name. A popular tale tells of the Duke vowing to name the city after the first animal he killed on hunt. And since the 1440s there really has been a bear pit at east end of the Nydegg Bridge. Only now it is an historic site and the bears live in a natural habitat on the riverbank called Bärenpark. It is kind of odd then that this small old-world city is the capital of the cantons that make up the “Confoederatio Helvetica”.
When I mentioned this to someone in conversation, he replied, “Yes, but the economic capital is Zurich. And Geneva. And the cultural capital is split between Zurich and Basel.” Subjective somewhat I’m sure, but the opinion of a Swiss citizen nonetheless.
“But the actual power is here, right? The Bundeshaus is here.”
“It’s the political capital. But that’s a different kind of power.” Said as if to remind me that it is common knowledge that goes without saying that government is a showy and relatively meaningless formalism. It made me think about how this goes without saying in America, not because everyone realizes it as an essential truth, but because it is unapparent to most people. Most Americans think that government is the cause of, and solution to, all the nation’s problems. It should be bigger or smaller, more or less involved, stricter or more lenient; but never does the commanding role business plays come into question. Business, the economy, the marketplace, they are always spoken of as some sort of helpless thing that the government must regulate or free. This conception implies the government for better or worse is in control and the private sector is more like a wildlife habitat or a colony of bacteria. In reality, it seems apparent to me that in America, as in all Western countries, it is the private sector that dictates the agenda—and in a quite sentient, organized and efficient way. Capitalism is a form of government; the question of democracy, communism or dictatorship is secondary.
Europeans seem much more pragmatic than Americans, who are so idealistic. I feel much more optimistic about the future around Europeans because they seem to be generally more realistic about things: economic, social, cultural, whatever. But this can also lead to a kind of defeatism. Idealism is a quality that makes us Americans special; it’s what gave us the drive to achieve all the crazy awesome shit we’ve done. But Americans are now so idealistic about so many stupid, unrealistic things. It is also no longer positivist idealism, but a negative, destructive clinging to increasingly dogmatic ideals. In fact, the last person who said, “Yes we can,” has been vehemently opposed, attacked and undermined every step of the way. That is what commitment to ideals has become in America–a tunnel vision that is becoming ever more rigid, stubborn, unwilling and bitter. Most Americans spend a great deal of emotion and energy on socially conservative issues that don’t affect them personally while overlooking issues that actually do.
Europe has it’s own problems with rabid conservatism, but it is focused almost entirely on immigration (Muslims and non-whites). In America there are so many topics to choose from one can hardly pick. In addition to immigration and Muslims, we’ve got gay marriage, unions, abortion, taxes, government, that black guy in the White House. Guns. The Constitution. Christianity.
A far-right party in Switzerland funded by wealthy individuals and corporate backers has plastered the country with posters depicting a red field with a white cross over which trample the black silhouettes of countless feet. I thought it was an uncouth ironic sampling of a Nazi aesthetics to promote a youth oriented product or music festival until I read the message commanding me to STOP MASS IMMIGRATION!
The SVP's most adorable ad yet. They also have one with crows.
The Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP) is the strongest party in Switzerland, and like its Republican and Tea Party comrades fears a weakened nation state, opposes government spending on social wellbeing and education, and has signed a "contract with the people". Like its "Red State" counterparts in the U.S. the SVP also favors decreased government spending despite having a large constituency of farmers that count on generous subsidies. This wave of increasingly vitriolic conservatism flooding the Western world is troubling but at least Europe has multiple parties. Let’s face it, in America the land of plenty we have to choose between Coke and Pepsi. And don’t even mention the Tea Party because it’s just Coke when they still made it with cocaine.
While they were present on my journey, I didn’t see any of those posters in Bern, nor were there demonstrations the way there is always something going on Washington D.C., adding to the understated almost secretive nature of the Swiss federal government.
So anyway, what would a “Bernese night” look like in a place like this, where a gorgeous river valley that cuts through the center of city and a nearby square features a relatively unassuming parliamentary palace? A more classic outing might entail eating fondue in a big group at one of the oldest restaurants in town. Being careful not to scrape through the growing crust of cheese at the bottom of the bowl with your fork, you end up with a solid crispy wafer of cheese and wine. It is a test of skill, collaboration and manners to see if you can produce the toasted a religieuse at the bottom of your pot. Then maybe you walk across one of the many bridges and look out into the darkness, listening to the rushing waters of the Aare hundreds of feet below.
For me, in town because of the Sommerakademie residency, every night is a social function of some sort with artists, curators and academics from around the world. People like to say how awful such things are. And receptions are indeed socially awkward but I also think they are great fun. And honestly, as an eager young artist, it’s quite exciting. It’s always fun because what starts as passed champagne and a few speeches always leads to a dinner that ends up a low-key dance party. Maybe Pipilotti Rist is on the dance floor shaking her bottom like a feisty child. And then later maybe Jan Verwoert ends the night playing his Sponge Bob guitar and singing “There Is A Light That Will Never Go Out.” After the annual dinner that marks the finale of the Sommerakademie, evening becomes night and a group of people winding around the quiet downtown looking for a bar open past 1am.
This year we ended up at Cuba Bar, right near the giant Zytglogge, an enormous mechanized clock complete with an astrological dial and animated figurines that strike gongs and pop in and out of doors. Cuba Bar sells fine Cuban cigars and has an enclosed glass room for smoking on a landing off the stairway down to the toilets. Pretty low key compared to last summer when we piled into a silver Mercedes station wagon driven by an overly enthusiastic Middle Eastern entrepreneur we somehow befriended.
Bern’s old city downtown is very small, but he drove us around in circles for a half hour wanting to take us to a great bar. He finally stopped a few blocks from where we met him. We all got out of the car and left him when his brother called to talk about a time-sensitive scheme to import a shipment of rugs. It was clear he had no idea about anything but he was very nice. Actually, he was nice in a threatening way almost. You always have to suspect people that willing and excited to be your friend. We wound up on the edge of town where the highway meets the train depot at Dead End. Behind a heavy black metal door like the entrance to an underworld hideout or a gulag prison cell, a pair of eyes peered out through a slit. The man that answered was tall, hairless, pail and skinny, like a snake with spider legs for fingers. He was a total sweetheart and everyone there was friendly. It was decorated with fiberglass stalactites and stalagmites, like a Chuck E. Cheese vampire cave for heroin addicts. This is the “seedy underbelly of Bern” which is made more bizarre given the sunny face of Bern.
When we left it was just me and a girl. The sky was turning into different kinds of blues. And as the sun woke up this little city we kissed in morning light.
Electric blue lights in doorways and alcoves make it impossible for junkies to find a vein and shoot up.
The only time I ever felt a little unsafe is when a group of us wandered into a real drug addict dive my first year there. In the bathroom a drunk old fuck invaded my personal space either wanting to make out or sell me some drugs. Or get some drugs off me. These prostitutes who were playing Pac-Man tried to get our attention. It was International Blue Velvet. A burned out woman tried to steal the last cigarette off the table as she stumbled by. I snatched it back and scolded her. I pointed at her with my finger and repeated a couple of times, “Nein!” We played some foosball before calling it a night. Outside was a city that literally does not have a scrap of litter to be found.
Near the Dead End there is a massive graffiti-covered squat beneath an overpass. It used to be a huge stable with a giant hall in the center where you could ride horses and take riding lessons. The complex is now a co-op of various groups that stage film screenings, music events, parties and there is probably a communist lending library.
It was night in a world that had ended in a nuclear apocalypse and we’d made it across wastelands to one of the last outposts where all the rebels, nomads, pirates and smugglers stop on their way to parts unknown. Standing sentry was a giant horse made of wood. In a surprising show of civility, the Trojan tree house horse had made it the entire summer without being torn apart by any of the revelers. It had been damaged once, but they got together and fixed it. There were probably open fires in oil drums or at least some torches and over a hundred of people massed. It was incredibly laid-back though because the squat is also just a place where you can go for a drink and sit outside biergarten style. We purchased our drinks and sat at one of the long wooden tables around the side of the fortress, first walking through a cobblestone passageway once traversed by horses and stable hands. In the sleeping medieval village above, the giant cuckoo clock in the towne centre rang a few soft midnight gongs.