A summer 2020 residency, now online. 

by Tirdad Zolghadr, artistic director of the Sommerakademie Paul Klee and curator of the 2019-20 program

Once the FFP masks have been binned, burned, or donated to museums, once international travel is buzzing again, once hands are shaken and cheeks kissed, ideally, once we reach that moment, we will have taken the time to figure out what to expect from a residency to begin with. To understand what art infrastructure would look like, if it were to be more grounded and more sustainable. 

We hope this website is a passable place to start. In lieu of a physical, bona fide residency, it assembles recent input on behalf of our nine current residents at the Sommerakademie Paul Klee (SPK) online. The platform has little to do with our usual modus operandi, and is not exactly our Plan A – who are we fooling – but we do consider it a proud achievement nonetheless. Whether in terms of content, group collaboration, or the deployment of resources, it makes the most of a painful situation for everyone involved. 

For the last half century, or more, Contemporary Art (CA) has prided itself in breaking boundaries. Deterritorializing. Ever mobile, ever fluid. Don't stop don't stop. Which is why the field's ongoing Local Turn is awkward. To be clear, the SPK is itself an international art residency, with all the distractions, precariousness, carbon footprints and hyperromantic expectations that come with that. International art residencies arguably qualify as the most decadent breed of art infrastructure under the sun, so the SPK can lay no claim to any moral high-ground whatsoever. 

That said – to be fair – we have long pursued an attempt to be more circumspect in our professional ways. SPK residents return several times over, to produce, teach, or collectively mull over ambitious sets of long-term proposals. The hope is to offer more than extra infrastructure, for more of the CA you see everywhere else already. There are enough places for art to be clever, unpredictable, fluid. (If anything, our persistent, structural forms of working poverty might suggest the field is already too large for its own good.) 

But there's always the possibility of an art that is extraverted without being extractive, and propositional without being pompous. Not to say local and entrenched without being folkloric, nor isolationist. An art that mirrors the brazenly ambitious core concerns of Paul Klee's Bauhaus generation itself. Some would say this is a case of sharing responsibility by transcending critique, and by plotting better scenarios. Others say it's all just pedantic PC snobbery. We are of course flattered by both these suggestions.

In short, at SPK, we've been aware of the contradictions, and the work that remains to be done. So it would be a bit dramatic to claim that the pandemic was a rude awakening exactly. But who would have thought that the need to redefine ourselves would come so soon, and so forcefully, even violently?

So how does this website make a virtue out of necessity: for one, it further explores the online formats which are bound to play a growing role in the way we'll engage with one another in the near future, and beyond. For another, it revisits really-existing space, it accounts for material surroundings, wherever the residents happen to be stranded right now, in the wake of the pandemic. When your common ground gives way, you can still try to shore up the ground your collaborators have been standing on, individually, all along. In the best of cases, new common denominators will emerge in the process. 

When SPK activities actually did take place, on-site, they were typically spread across the city of Bern. From the boisterous PROGR venue in the old part of town, to partner venues here and there, to the university campus out in Bümpliz. (The suburb of Bümpliz flaunts a long tradition of hosting whatever Bern, the nation's patrician capital, prefers not to: garbage facilities, a shooting range, social housing, migrants, art students.) But as the name itself indicates, above and beyond any sense of place, the SPK is marked by its timing. Even if the Sommerakademie convenes in spring or winter, on occasion, its emblematic home turf has undoubtedly been high summer. The balmy interregnum of August heatwaves, the clammy seminar rooms, the empty art school infrastructure, the outdoor dinners, the famously inviting Aare river. 

Once those visceral, atmospheric markings disappear, what comes to the fore, in its stead, are the resources that made them available. And at the end of the day, the unorthodox redistribution of those resources lies at the heart of the combined curatorial and artistic efforts you see before you. The money usually invested in planes, trains and automobiles, per diems and hotels, was reallocated to the faraway residents, in order to allow for this collective experiment to unfold. 

In terms of going local under latter-day circumstances – with a measure of sincerity and rigor, though without going folkloric, nor isolationist – the contributions speak for themselves. The thematic engagement among SPK residents ranges from civic movements fighting for grassroots traction in South Africa, to resistance and governance within indigenous territories in Colombia. Others trace the imprint of financialization in the lives of remote gig platform workers between India and USA, in the entanglements between private companies and economic policies in Switzerland, or in those between creative labor and the strategic interests of CA sponsors. 

Other, reflexive contributions explore conditions of production within CA, such as a manual on how to (re-)negotiate working conditions within the field, or in an illustrated guide for cultural practitioners traveling to Palestine. Meanwhile, a speculative, satirical short story reflects on the impact of CA on the commodification of cities, by way of a case study painfully close to home. 

The above premises not only reflect on a given material context. They also engage with a second leg this SPK cycle stands on thematically; Statecraft, the curatorial framework 2019-2020. Here, the aim has been to kick the habit of seeing art as a tradition of "critique from outside", and acknowledge how it has become a tool for governance. Can one proactively use this development, not as further cause for cynicism or melancholia, but as a situation to build upon? The latter depends on the specific needs of given constituencies and neighborhoods, but also on new legal instruments that define our rapports internationally.    

From divestment to institution building to propaganda: many means to statecraft have been successfully deployed by artists and curators over the centuries, some of which continue to make ideological, strategic and aesthetic sense today. Thanks to the "Pivots" transcript, an amalgamation of three different conversations among residents, you can see the priorities as defined by the nine writers, artists and curators themselves. If some are more invested in a critical study of our professional field, with others focusing on broader struggles around them, most residents arguably speak to both prerogatives together. 

After all, even if your aim is a cross-professional coalition, beyond the CA habitus, you still need a clarity of agenda, a solid ground from which you can reach out from. This in terms of political vision, but also in terms of skillset. Which is why, in the course of our SPK conversations, we'd often revisit the challenge of conditions of production that can make a sustained discussion possible in the first place, across space as well as time.

I will end here, and look forward to welcoming you in Bümpliz, or down by the Aare, once those masks are binned, and hands shaken, and we will have figured out exactly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what we should be expecting from a residency to begin with. Until then, please take care, and be well.

About the Sommerakademie Paul Klee

A decade ago, the Sommerakademie im Zentrum Paul Klee introduced a landmark educational template that is now being reinvented by the reestablished Sommerakademie Paul Klee (SPK), beginning in August 2017.

The new Sommerakademie Paul Klee, under artistic director Tirdad Zolghadr, is a fully funded program offering artists a departure from business as usual, without becoming an exhausting interruption in its own right. It caters to practitioners working at a postgraduate level, whether or not they have an official certificate saying so. Professional experience and intellectual appetite are the main requirements.

Over two summer sessions eight residents are granted access to the university's outstanding infrastructure and technical support. Although based on the idea of an academy, the aim is to transcend the blueprint of seminars and tutorials, and to focus on group research and cross-professional coalition building. Back in the 2000s, there were few examples of summer retreats as proposed by the Zentrum Paul Klee. Our new program builds on this pioneering idea, while proposing a more complex blend of theory and practice, discourse and production. With its atypical timeline and exceptional infrastructure, the SPK combines collective inquiry with the perks of production-oriented residencies. The SPK is a fully funded program, covering room, travel and visa expenses. This in close partnership with international art institutions such as KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin.

Both in terms of a concrete curatorial theme and a fundamental working premise, the SPK seeks to account for the consequences of Contemporary Art. It traces the impact artists effectively have on the world around them, and works towards possibilities of reclaiming and steering that leverage. As such, it asks how the traction of Contemporary Art, as is, can be used to maximum effect, here and now.

Bern University of the Arts HKB
Department of Design and Fine Arts

The Division of Design and Fine Arts offers the three Bachelor degree programmes Art Education, Visual Communication and Fine Arts, as well as the Master degree programmes building on these Bachelors: Art Education, Communication Design and the Master in Contemporary Arts Practice residing at Y Institute.

The main focus is on independent, mentored project work in the workshop, and practical, craft-oriented and theoretical teaching accompanies this. Depending on the way students choose their courses, the various degree programmes may overlap. The intersections could be in technical, cultural-historical or theoretical fields. The different programmes also offer joint classes.

Please visit the homepage of the Sommerakademie Paul Klee to find out more about the program and events.