Davide-Christelle sanvee reframing integration in switzerland

If you have had the chance to attend one of Davide-Christelle Sanvee’s performances, you will know that they do not leave her audience indifferent. Among the various reactions generated, laughter is often a common denominator. The performer thus prepares her audience to listen to subjects that are still too often ignored. Indeed, Davide-Christelle uses her practice to create a space dedicated to questions about integration in Switzerland and to make visible the experience of invisibilised minorities. Her desire to make these phenomena visible translates into a dialogue, a collaboration with the immobile and the invisible. She materializes this, for example, by performing with architecture, which reflects the mechanisms of privilege and oppression running through society. In Le ich dans nicht (2019) and Tourbillon quoi qu’il arrive (2020), she pushes this logic to its paroxysm by collaborating with late historical figures… 

In the following interview, Davide-Christelle Sanvee talks with SuperGlue Collective about the ways in which she connects the past with the present, the animate with the inanimate, and the visible with the invisible. 

Your work is often described as being social and political. Do you agree with this description? What are the main themes that drive your practice? 

I’ve always had an engaged practice, or the need to be politically and socially engaged. Doing art has allowed me to engage with this, rather than pursuing a conventional education. I’ve always been interested in minority groups that are rendered invisible, and how I can, as an artist, use the visibility of my position to voice other perspectives. During my studies at art school – HEAD, Geneva – I realised that there is an elitist and closed side to the art world that I did not see myself as a part of… I don’t come from that background, my parents are not artists, as is the case for many of my former classmates. In this context, it has become more and more important to talk about these subjects that are a bit neglected, or that make people angry, and I really got the confirmation that I have to continue in this field. Also, I think my work is described as social and political because I talk about minorities and their invisibility in Switzerland and my practice’s underlying theme is integration in Switzerland. I was very much influenced by this, by my personal process, and it is something that continues to pursue me. Through my work, I try to question and understand who are those who decide on integration criteria… When I was a student at HEAD, I did a fictional piece in which I recreated the entire naturalisation test and submitted it to the school’s jury. The majority of the jury members were Swiss, but no one had managed to obtain a passport. This made me think: ” why are we foreigners being asked to fill in all these boxes, while the Swiss themselves, the people who have lived here all their lives, are not even able to answer that ?”.  This observation urged me to continue my practice and my research. 

Why did you choose to materialise these reflections through performance? Could you tell me a bit more about your relationship to this medium? 

The first time I did performance art, I was still studying, and I was not aware that there was such a thing as performance art. It was my teachers who said to me “ah but what you’re doing now is performance”. And I fell into it by chance because it had become the only way for me to express my opinion and my thoughts clearly and frontally to an audience. It’s not theatre, it’s not dance. I don’t play a character, I’m really myself…even if I use clothes and disguises, these are only tools that I use. But I am always myself, I speak with my voice and I directly address points of views, thoughts, and my research. It is this frontality and simplicity that interests me. I find that performance is a very simple medium that allows me to be more direct than if I were to use editing, beautiful paintings of beautiful curves…

The audience is an intrinsic component of performance. How do you position yourself in relation to it? Do you consider the audience when you develop your performances? 

The audience plays a huge role in my work. I anticipate reactions when I create something, and depending on the kind of crowd and location, I do a lot of research into the possible responses that my performances might generate. I take into account the fact that there will be people who are there because they didn’t choose to be there and who just happen to be there. That’s something that I’m really interested in. I try to be as open as possible to reach as many people as possible. I consider the spectators as witnesses of an event, of a moment and I want to mark them with this moment in which they participated. I like this aspect of the performance which recalls the “happenings” of the first performers. Something was happening somewhere, there was no real communication, and the witnesses kept this experience alive and told others about it afterwards. That’s really what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to mark a precise instant during which we’ll experience something strong together and we’ll be able to keep these memories and spread them elsewhere. 

It’s true that everything you just said is felt in your performances, we see that the audience is very receptive. In a recorded extract of the performance Le ich dans nicht (2019) for example, we hear the audience laughing quite a bit…

Yes, it’s true, I really like to use laughter to open people’s minds, because you know that when someone laughs they are more open to hearing things that they don’t want to hear, or things that are a bit more political. I like to go back and forth between the difficult, the humorous… It allows you to have a good time and to learn something. 

In your performance Le ich dans nicht (2019), which was awarded the Swiss Performance Award, you question the existence of buildings and all that they can hide. You say, among other things: “What interests me is how things are made and why they are there. Who validates the projects and decides that things are going to be exactly there?”. By saying this, you emphasise the fact that each architecture is the result of the work of people who have had the privilege of imposing their choice… How important is architecture in your artistic practice? 

After finishing my Bachelor’s degree at HEAD, I did a Master’s degree at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, where architecture was really the focus. For two years, I was the only artist amongst architects, and that was very nourishing for me. I realised that when architects build things it is for a big group, unlike the artist who often works individually.  I found this openness to others very important. 

On the other hand, by studying the work of certain architects, I realised that they don’t listen at all to the needs of the people for whom they create their buildings. It pushed me to question this and I gradually had this desire to perform architecture, to perform in architecture. Architecture is made to welcome the presence of bodies, but depending on the architecture you can see who has access to it or not. When you look at the people I’m interested in, the invisibilised, the minorities, their architecture really sucks, they’re always placed outside the city centre, in low-cost housing, in constructions that don’t hold up and that reflects exactly for whom what is made. In order to find and create a place in society for the invisibilised, the minorities, it is necessary to attack these foundations. I make the effort to ask myself: “this is how it was done, but I don’t necessarily feel welcomed and this is why”. 

However, there is also room to value architectural elements, as I did in Aarau – Le ich dans nicht, 2019 – where the transparency of the building is a great strength. I think it’s great that we have no more excuses to erase the other, to say “ah he’s too far away, I can’t consider him”. Architecture is a theme that concerns everyone, we all use it every day and we can no longer ignore it. For me, it’s a good way to approach the subject of integration. 

Your work can be seen as having a bonding, a connecting quality. By interacting with your audience, you momentarily connect with them and connect them to each other as in Everything around, including you (2019). When you base your performances on architecture, you transcend time and connect with the architect through an imaginary dialogue, as in Le ich dans nicht (2019). You also jump back in time when you interpret the past and decide to embody the Swiss artist and writer, Annemarie von Matt (1905-1967) in your series Tourbillon quoi qu’il arrive (2020). Is this notion of connection, of linking, an important concept in your practice? 

Yes, it’s true that for Le ich dans nicht (2019) and Tourbillon quoi qu’il arrive (2020), I based my performances on deceased people. I really like to speak through the dead or the immobile. This allows me to use an already present and strong structure, as in these two cases, in order to connect them with other living people and the public. I see this kind of work as a real collaboration, I really try to study who they were, what they were doing, to collaborate with them and then address other people. I take this freedom to work with them, but it’s true that they are no longer physically present. For Tourbillon quoi qu’il arrive, everything I wrote in terms of costumes or gestures, it was Annemarie who guided me to do it. It was her work that served as a basis for me to communicate something else. The result is a mix between her and me, real dialogues. Her character interested me because she was really someone who was the opposite of me, but at the same time there were traits of her that I recognised. The fact that she was a Swiss woman, who lived here, who really experienced the figure of the mistreated woman assigned to the domestic. She was a bit schizophrenic in her desire to make art while always being pushed by others to make crafts, beautiful objects… When she freed herself from these injunctions, she really started to show her artistic personality. She has always been in a duality, and it is this element that pursues me, playing on two sides… I was touched by this and I wanted to deepen my knowledge of her. 

Talking about duality, could you tell me about your titles which have the particularity of being often bilingual Swiss-German/French, Italian/English…? Is this mixture the result of a desire to build bridges between the different Swiss linguistic regions? 

(laughs) It’s to express that Swiss neutrality… It’s to be able to communicate to a varied audience. For Le ich dans nicht, I went to Swiss-German speaking area and I thought it was important to put words they could understand, whereas I did the performance in French.  For a performance in Italy, I did a piece called Scuzi, where is le château? (2018). The title really described the fact that I was playing a tourist, who arrived in the middle of a party… And I thought that this kind of hybrid sentence filled with grammatical errors could usually be heard in this context. I don’t like to make beautiful french titles, I prefer to open up the boundaries more so that various people can identify with the title. Also, I really like titles that convey about the work and I really like all those epochs in art history that gave special attention to titles. The most famous example being “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, which already speaks for the image and completes it. 

What do you want to explore further in your practice? Where might we have the chance to see one of your performances in the near future? 

I am involved in a project at the Théâtre de Vidy, Lausanne, where I am participating alongside scientists and artists in a research seminar based on investigations and led by Vinciane Despret. I’ve been interested in investigating the resemblance and bond between dogs and their masters and I’m interested in the act of “digging”. I am also working on a performance that will take place at the Centre Pompidou. Otherwise, I think I’m interested in continuing my collaboration with historical figures… I really like to hide myself, not to show my identity right away, to go through a phase of unveiling, to avoid people having too many prejudices or projections like “ah, it’s a black woman who dances”… I need to go through another figure so that the audience is open to something else. And then I like to reveal who’s underneath, and show that there are two opposing worlds but they dialogue… I would rarely play someone who is similar to me! 

Davide-Christelle Sanvee, Tourbillon quoi qu’il arrive #01, 2020. Part of the exhibition “Annemarie von Matt. I am never bored, I am bored” at the Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris.

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