Mazyar Zarnadar reinvents Switzerland’s contemporary art sytems

For this month’s theme, SuperGlue explores how artists and exhibitions contribute to capturing the events, patterns and dynamics that run through our societies. In his various curatorial projects, Vevey-based artist, curator and publisher Mazyar Zarnadar participates in this ongoing reflection within the Swiss context. In reaction to the “anti-burqa” law launched by the UDC [SVP in german, which stands for the Swiss People’s Party ndlr.]1, founder of the Centre d’Art Vevey launched AL-LAH, a digital exhibition featuring the work of about 30 Swiss and international artists and researchers reacting to the Islamophobic and sexist law. The law was accepted by 51.2% of the Swiss population, thus contributing to the restriction of women’s right to dress freely in public and to the creation of a hostile environment for all people of Muslim faith in Switzerland2. Despite this, the high level of opposition to this law and the results of the vote indicate that discussions related to the cohabitation of citizens with diverse and multiple cultural backgrounds and traditions involve the whole of Swiss society. Observing this phenomenon, it becomes legitimate to ask whether Switzerland may be going through processes associated with postmigration. This term is defined by the authors of Reframing Migration, Diversity and the Arts as follows: 

“The postmigrant condition can […] be understood as a conflictual condition and a historical state of affairs in which it is becoming increasingly evident that culture and everyday life have been, and are still being, shaped by past and ongoing movements of people, and that this process of transculturation and political and social transformation involves society as a whole in complex, ongoing processes of negotiation. Postmigrant perspectives challenge the notion of a stable and homogeneous ‘majority society’, commonly perceived to consist of white non-migrants”3.

From this perspective, the exhibition curated by Mazyar can be read as a materialization of the postmigrant condition. Indeed, the works of artists connected in one way or another to Switzerland translate a multitude of subjectivities that dismantle a unilateral and unique vision of Swiss society. In the following interview, Mazyar introduces us to the Centre d’Art Vevey project and talks about how they aim to rethink and reinvent the systems of contemporary art. 

AL-LAH poster. Courtesy of the CAV.

First of all, can you introduce us to the Centre d’Art Vevey (vvar.ch)? What was the genesis of this multidimensional project?

The project of the Centre d’Art Vevey was born out of a long reflection based on experiences in several artistic media and cultural circles. For several years, I have developed a practice as an artist and curator within different associative groups such as the RATS collective in Vevey and the Espace Saint Martin in Lausanne. As time went by, these experiences allowed me to position myself politically and also artistically. My observation was that contemporary art spaces in French-speaking Switzerland were not at all politicised and that most projects were produced by artists for artists. However, for me, creating an art space, open to all in the city, is a political act and consists of a tool of power. From this observation, what do we do with these spaces? How can we unblock these associative, academic and artistic environments? 

With these questions in mind, I participated in launching the and fé Les Mouettes collective. A group was formed in Vevey, we started to launch events in a space. Except that once again we mainly gathered white people. My wish was to also include a population of black men living in Vevey, who are mostly Gambians, in a precarious situation. I wanted to find a way to include these people and create something together. To this end, we organised an event in Vevey and invited a collective called Jupiter Soundsystem, an important collective of black people who organise parties to raise funds for victims of the carceral injustice. That’s how I met Maw, who is featured in my film AUTO-ROUTE. At the same time, I became involved in the anti-racist collective Outrage. In order to connect these different groups, I co-curated the evolving exhibition Se rassembler, Guérir, S’organiser at Standard Deluxe, Lausanne. For the occasion, the Outrage Collective invited the Jupiter Soundsystem collective and food, music, poetry, jams and talks were held throughout the exhibition.

Maw Fatty, Autoroute (2021), 100×160 cm, Acrylic on canvas, on view on AL-LAH. Courtesy of the CAV.

This event, and this collaboration, represents for me the N-1 of the Centre d’Art Vevey. Our idea was really to reappropriate the space, which in the end is also ours. Because art spaces are supposed to be for everyone, but we have noticed that this is not the case. This was very clear when we proposed, for example, non-mixed meetings, some white people who are well established in the Swiss cultural landscape were outraged at being excluded from this kind of gathering. We also spent hours and hours deconstructing deeply racist emails. One of the things I discovered with this project is that the art scene in Switzerland, and I think everywhere else, is not the pretty story we are told, and that it’s full of conflicts of interest, and full of strategies, and very few people take a clear stand on it. 

and fé Les Mouettes ended up closing down because we lost the space due to increasingly violent police repression, so I went back to France, where I started a Bachelor’s degree in Persian Civilization and Literature at INALCO. Then I went to Iran for 3 months, where I travelled everywhere and really considered staying there. When I came back to Switzerland, I created the Aleph association, which is a research centre that aims to support my practice. This project is called the Artistic Research Center on Gnosis, which means knowledge in Greek. It allows me to bring the question of metaphysics into the centre of my thinking and my work. That’s really why I try to make art and curation because for me it’s about conveying one’s own thought through these mediums, forms and articulations. Within this project I have created different parts, there is a part dedicated to music called aleph.music, a part dedicated to cinema called aleph.film, a part dedicated to publishing called aleph.books, and a part dedicated to exhibition production called aleph.exhibition. The Centre d’Art Vevey project is part of aleph.exhibition.

When I started creating the Centre d’Art Vevey, I thought that not having access to physical space in Vevey poses financial problems. But instead of putting up with this and abandoning the project due to lack of space and means, I turned to the digital, which is space available to create a community. This approach also raises interesting questions about space and the relationship to art. Calling it Centre d’Art Vevey allows me to regain some power, I deliberately chose to give it an institutional name to indicate that I’m not going to wait for someone to give me permission but that I’m going to create it myself because I have the right to do so. It’s really a movement of empowerment.

Celine Burnand, The way you see the world (2021), 33x21cm, Digital collage, on view on AL-LAH. Courtesy of the CAV.

In the digital exhibition AL-LAH, there is an incredible diversity of modes of expression of the artists shown. There are poets, artists, dancers, performers, photographers, singers, researchers, film directors. The experience of the artists also varies, there are artists who are well established in the Swiss cultural scene and artists who are still in art school. Can you tell us about this first exhibition and this curatorial choice?

Le Centre d’Art Vevey’s first exhibition was AL-LAH against Islamophobia, which started from an observation of the reactions I saw on instagram from white artists who were protesting against the UDC [SVP in german, which stands for the Swiss People’s Party ndlr.] propaganda campaign1. I realised that this debate was also of interest to artists who were part of the dominant groups. So I invited about forty artists and researchers to reflect on what was going on and to propose texts, poems, digital works, reproductions of works. I began to receive a whole typology of different works and as I went along I wondered how I was going to show them. I thought it would be interesting to create a space dedicated to the moving image, because there were videos. So it was really by analysing the body of work that different sub-sections were born.

Regarding the experience and notoriety of the artists, my aim is not to represent people who are already well established in the Swiss art scene. I have taken the option of playing on the visibility of artists who are part of dominant groups, who are already visible, to make the work of unknown artists more visible. I also decided to make visible the artists in an intersectional approach, to try to see which artists are the least visible, to position them first, to highlight their work. The exhibition lasted three months, so it was also these people who stayed the longest. I think there is a nuance. My aim is not to make some as visible as others, but to see how we can redistribute this visibility.

The Centre d’Art Vevey is also a project that is collaborative and very, very experimental. I have tools for reflection such as political anti-racism and intersectionality that allow me, from a political point of view, to try to find a balance in the way we pay people, how we communicate and work with these people, how we choose the artists, etc. This defines the curatorial line of the project. Then, in all the political, economic and social issues that it can raise, it is very experimental. I realise that the contemporary art system is extremely complex, and that the different fields are linked. I therefore proposed hybrid projects and thought, for example, about how I could present feature films as well as digital works, poetry and painting. 

Mina Squalli-Houssaïni, Almost made it to Le Louvre (2018), 30×22.3, Digital photography, on view on AL-LAH. Courtesy of the CAV.

At the beginning of June, the Centre d’Art Vevey held a physical exhibition at Tunnel Tunnel, Lausanne. Was this project built on the same principle as the first digital exhibition?

One of the thoughts I had when setting up the AL-LAH project was to see how we could generate income with stances produced by artists and how I, as a curator, could also make a living with politically committed projects. It was in this context that I created AL-SOUK. Initially an online art gallery, it materialised at Tunnel Tunnel in Lausanne. Through AL-SOUK, I generated many reflections on the art market, speculation, artists’ rights and how power and control can be taken back by artists when they sell their work. In this context, I have created contracts inspired by the NFT’s which guarantee 10% of pre-produced profit in return to the artists and intermediaries. I also wanted to bring a critical notion to the exhibition and the project. This is why I decided to produce an expanded catalogue of the exhibition, which is the first issue of the journal Vocab. Le catalogue présente la pratique de tous les artistes exposés à AL-LAH et contient plusieurs textes d’historiens de l’art et de curateurs. Il est d’ailleurs toujours disponible à l’achat et est une excellente porte d’entrée pour se familiariser avec les différentes œuvres et l’ethos du Centre d’Art Vevey ! 

Images of Vocab. Courtesy of the CAV.

AL-LAH, and the Centre d’Art Vevey more generally, focus on how art can address systemic discrimination in the Swiss context. What have been the reactions to this project, which is situated on the borders of activism?

Most of the feedback I’ve had has been super positive, super encouraging, a lot of people have thanked me, I’ve had a message from the Foulards Violets thanking me for the project. And a lot of people I met were happy that I did this. So really most of the feedback was positive. Then there were 2-3 people who made fascist comments about the exhibition, but it was really a minority.

In your opinion, to what extent does art have the capacity to bring people together and be unifying?

I don’t think we can answer this question with a yes or no, because then we exclude. If we say that art should federate, then we exclude all the people who make art for themselves, and who make art because they like it. What is the definition of an artist? Is it a person who has done such and such a prep school, such and such a bachelor’s degree, who has won such and such a prize, or is it a person who at a given moment has a deep inspiration, a desire to create something? Human beings are creators, we are all creations ourselves, so in that sense I think that humanity is not separate, we are not separated from each other. I think that originally, everything was always federated, there is nothing that is infederated. It’s just that at some point, we create barriers, illusions, prisons, we want to separate ourselves when at the base we are together. I think we are born together but we are not aware that we are part of one whole, that everything is linked and that we are part of a big system and that each of our actions are interconnected and interdependent. And this also raises a fundamental metaphysical question, the emancipation of freedom, what is freedom? Is it an individual freedom or is it a collective balance and harmony that goes through an individual path? If you are not happy, can I be happy?

But do you think that art, defined as being something that is created and accepted as art in our societies, could encourage this reflection that you have just brought?

I can speak from my point of view. And indeed I think that my approach is to be able to bring this reflection into spheres of validation of art and culture. What interests me is really the life of everyone. That’s why the films I’ve made focus either on unknown people or on extremely vulnerable people. I think that the fundamental question that I am trying to raise through this project is to ask the question of self-knowledge. And how can we collectively liberate ourselves in a process of individual inner journey of self-knowledge.

Tara Mour, Autoportrait, Chère Liberté, éloge au Pardon (2020), 16x22cm, Photography, on view on AL-LAH. Courtesy of the CAV.

Before the final question, we have a ritual question for our guests: what does the word “superglue” mean to you?

At the beginning it evoked something quite negative. Because for me, the glue prevents you from freeing yourself, and I find that in my life there are many things and people from which I had difficulty distancing myself, particularly at the level of emotions and affects. It’s multiple evocations, it’s not necessarily binary. And then I tried to understand why you chose this name, and then in relation to the theme of the month it also makes sense. I interpret it as a desire to create a link which is very solid. But then again, it raises a question that is metaphysical for me. It is the question of destruction and chaos as a creative force. Why should an architecture be as solid as possible? Everything is born and everything dies. Why should we want to bind ourselves in a definitive way? In a way, this could also be a brake. There are forms of binding that can be stronger than cement and glue, but without having that physical property that constrains and blocks you.

Do you have any examples?

I think that the Centre d’Art Vevey for example has both sides (laughs).

Poster of AL-BASIR. Courtesy of the CAV.

And finally, what are the next projects of the Centre d’Art Vevey? Are there any future events already set up?

The second project of the Vevey Art Centre is AL-BASIR, an anti-racist and intersectional film festival. On August 1 and 2, there will be film screenings, round tables, and also an exhibition of EL-SOUK in Territet. AL-BASIR aims to challenge the film industry and question the way in which the codes of this super elitist film circuit, based on an illusory meritocracy, can be overcome. The festival we are proposing is non-competitive and has very open values and categories. AL-BASIR aims to showcase racialised filmmakers, who make films about the experiences of racialised people, and from different gender minorities. We are a team of curators and we have received films from Egypt, Morocco, Switzerland. The proposals are quite international.

Note: 

  1. For a summary of the controversy generated by the “anti-burqa” law, refer to this month’s editorial.
  2. For a summary of the different reactions and positions related to this vote, please refer to : https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/12028412-une-enieme-vexation-pour-les-musulmans-pour-une-partie-de-la-presse.html.
  3. Schramm, Moslund, and Petersen (eds.), Reframing migration, diversity and the arts: the postmigrant condition, p. 7.

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