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Thea Reifler and Philipp Bergmann: »Terribly and Beautifully Alive«

August 19, 2021
Text by Luca Büchler
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Photo by Azuli Peeters

Process or plan, collaboration and support – Thea Reifler and Philipp Bergmann are confronting the constantly changing present at Shedhalle Zurich.

Roughly a year ago, the artist duo Thea Reifler und Philipp Bergmann took over the artistic direction of Shedhalle Zurich with their concept »PROTOZONES 2020-2025«, which focuses on process-based art. A challenge that meant they had to reorganize their plans, rethink their working structures and go back to their initial idea. In their interview with Luca Büchler, they recap their first twelve months and share personal questions of their ongoing process.

What kind of realities were you confronted with since you’ve started at Shedhalle?

PB: In July 2020, we were really excited to come to Zurich. We had just spent four months in front of the computer screen creating the new structures of Shedhalle and organizing our first »PROTOZONE«. To finally arrive in Zurich was a big relief. After a long winter in Berlin, it was important to have in person meetings again and to get to know the community and people working at other cultural institutions in Zürich. We were happy to be part of such a politically active and supportive environment and we, as Shedhalle, wanted to be active contributors and hosts.

Also, it was great that we had the privilege to start working right away with the artist Nile Koetting, who presented the Zurich version of his work »Remain Calm«. A work that seemed to be perfectly fitting in a moment when everything was slowly starting to open up again. People could come to Shedhalle, be in a safe surrounding with all the required social distancing measures in place – and for many people it was the first performative experience after several months. 

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Photo by Azuli Peeters

I imagine the situation you were used to in Berlin was different.

TR: I was quite a bit overwhelmed. In Berlin, I was fantasizing about having parties again, and in Zurich they really happened – and I was absolutely terrified, I just couldn’t join. We were also often talking to people in different places during this time– London, México, Geneva, Berlin, Argentina, USA, Iran, Serbia. There were so many so different realities. 

After a while, the pandemic really didn’t seem to be the great equalizer at all, more like the great divider. And in Switzerland, all the muscles of privilege lay bare. Switzerland is a country not used to crisis. No one could ever imagine things could get out of control – and people died silently, without even being noticed. We also talked a lot about how to imagine the future in meetings of our curatorial board, which was scattered – Michelangelo Miccolis in México City,  Lucie Tuma in Zurich and Isabelle Vuong in Berlin. All of this really changed my perception of the future, from something that can be planned to something that is a process that takes place in the present, something that is constantly enacted and that constantly shifts and changes. Something terribly and beautifully alive, rather than something set. I guess, that was the reality I was confronted with.

Octavia E. Butler writes in Parable of the Sower: »There is no end To what a living world Will demand of you«, and: »The only lasting truth is change.« Reading queer-feminist sci-fi helped and still helps me a lot in the process of swimming in this world-time. And, connected to that, also the idea of the PROTOZONE and of process-based art at Shedhalle helped. We called our first PROTOZONE: »Contamination/Resilience«.

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In what ways did questioning the future and the personal processes also influence your curatorial plans? 

PB: In the process of applying for Shedhalle we had had to work out a detailed plan of what we wanted to work on in our first year. Obviously, these plans were mostly not realizable, so this forced us to go back to our initial idea of how we actually wanted to work at Shedhalle or how we wanted to collaborate with artists in general. It was a very important moment for us: before we even started at Shedhalle, we already had to change every plan we had made. We had to sit down and discuss again how an institution that puts »process-based art« at its center could actually work.

TR: From that point onwards, we drifted even more towards an idea that had already been a core idea of the PROTOZONE concept. We realized we wanted to focus on the artists themselves and their artistic practice, to meet the person where they are at the moment, what they work on and where they want to go. Doing this meant that we distanced ourselves from a fixed idea about what kind of work by an artist we want to present in our PROTOZONE, and it also meant embracing the process without knowing the outcome. This might sound very simple, but that was a big step for us. Because, especially in times of crises and uncertainty, we tend to hold on to some kind of security. 

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Do you have a personal definition of process-based art or did this PROTOZONE structure help you find out what it can be?

PB: Actually, it was never our intention to define process-based art. It was a term we had developed for the PROTOZONE, never with the intention of any direct connection to a specific artistic movement (such as process art). We rather use the term process-based art as a guideline that helps us emphasize the value of artistic processes and practice, as opposed to the finished art object, and deepen our knowledge about the PROTOZONE as an exhibition format. What ideas and experiences can we gain? How can the curatorial concept be further developed? How can we inform other practitioners’ work within the arts, how can we speak to curators, exhibition makers, artists and trans-disciplinary practitioners with an academic or artistic background through this concept?

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Where did you get all that energy from? I mean, deciding to let go and following something new requires much more effort.

TR: For me, I definitely got energized by spending time with sweet people. We have a very supportive network of friends and lovers and partners, and some of the people we have worked with and are working with were already close to us or are about to become close friends. We also give our best to support each other. And, rather than being rivals, other institutions in Zurich were really keen to collaborate from the very beginning, which is really vital. I think, on a collaborative and caring basis, everything can be negotiated and new solutions can be found together, even if things change. Extra support: dancing and cuddling and therapy. 

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Photo by Azuli Peeters

You’re also working as a duo in your own art practice. 

PB: We have actually been doing that since 2013. We got to know each other during our studies and started working together in the performing arts, music theatre and opera in Berlin and in other places. I think, this was around the time when we really started to think and develop projects together, mostly creating our own performances without large institutional support. Working this way, we were often confronted with strategic questions of authorship and intellectual property and career plans. These are all aspects that are not easy to discuss and solve, but what often gets lost in these discussions is the enormous support that you can give and receive from a person with whom you have such a close (working) relationship. And in the arts, which is a very demanding working environment, I think good support is really a prerequisite. 

After taking our position at Shedhalle, we had to find new ways of collaborating. We had to ask ourselves: How do we find the time to think and read together and share a vision in the face of an endless, ever growing »to-do list«? How can we invite others to join this process? And, finally, how can we also let go and trust others to perform tasks that we had always done ourselves in the past?

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Photo by Azuli Peeters

Where do you see the difference between collaboration and collective work?

TR: That’s an interesting question. I think, these terms describe two different perspectives or approaches to the same thing: how to work together. For me, »collaboration« implies several entities who work together, while »collective« means one entity that is formed by many. Actually, in that sense, it points to the question of identity. What are the roles and rules that are the starting point of the game? And what are the relations you can build from there on? What does it enable you to do? 

I think, all of those constructs are tools, useful imaginations of who we are and what we can possibly do. And they can change. If they are not useful anymore, then it’s time to redefine them, to make them empowering again. Like letting go of the idea that we are »independent« from each other and our environment and rather embracing complex entanglements. There is no single truth, it’s all a matter of perspective and relations – and we are all constantly moving.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.