Interview with Mirjam Bayerdörfer
An Ecosystem at Work
If we had to think of Mirjam’s Bayerdörfer practice as a mushroom, we would identify it to the mycelium, this invisible part underneath the soil which forms the biggest part of the mushroom. Composed of thin filaments, the mycelium ramified to form a huge underground network that connects various plants and creates a community of living and nonliving organisms interacting as a system.
The first time we met Mirjam, she was co-running the Shedhalle for almost a year and was giving a talk at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste about her artistic and curatorial practice. Born in 1984 in Munich (Germany), she had studied fine art and curatorial practice in Zurich and Saarbrücken (Switzerland and Germany), navigating between the two fields she has blurred the boundaries and had put an emphasis on creating encounters. The outlines of her practice are difficult to grasp, not linear but rather made of a multitude of ramifications, each branch representing a relation she built up with other artists, friends, curators or the public, creating her own ecosystem. In 2015, Mirjam founded in collaboration with Philip Matesic Outside Sundays, a series of afternoons inviting participants to take part in a walk in the city of Zürich and outside, “to exchange and produce a new kind of communication and knowledge”. In 2017, she published in collaboration with Rosalie Schweiker Teaching For People Who Prefer Not To Teach, a pocket-sized red book which offers inspiration for various situations: “After a lot of talking”, “Can run parallel”, “When you’re motivated”. Each page lifts the corner of your lips up: “ALL INCLUSIVE – Imagine an utopian holiday destination / Interview each other about this holiday / (landscape, social life, accommodation, food, in detail entertainment, sightseeing, cultural highlights) / Try to not describe Switzerland’
After the talk at the ZHdK, we wanted to further the discussion with Mirjam and we met a second time at her studio, situated in a building made of red and beige brick, former offices transformed to offer artists a place to work, thanks to the support of the city of Zürich. Her studio is an office-like room, with books on metal shelves, a desk, a big printer, a white board in a corner with a list of words, thoughts for future projects. Aligned on a wall, objects and A4 xeroxed pictures, there “since forever” for some of them: A picture of a medieval painting took by Mirjam representing Saint Magdalena covered with fur, “an interesting vision on femininity and body hair”; A drawing pinned on a review of Linda Nochlin’s text ‘Why Have there Been No Great Women Artists’ waiting for some development or not; A picture of hybrid mushrooms representing the sporocarp, the upper part of the mushroom, inverted, disassembled or phallomorphized. A sketch related to the workshop Feminist Mushroom Picking, together with Mariann Oppliger, a mushroom hunt into the wood that ended into a discursive afternoon where the mushroom was identified to the female network, where only the smallest part of it is made visible.
We talked while drinking green tea for three hours, about the Shedhalle, Mirjam’s desire to slow down and work on new projects, her longing for a coming back to more materiality into her work. We looked outside the window’s studio following her thoughts digging to weave new connections.
Arianna Guidi / Myriam Boutry: In January 2019, you started to work at the Shedhalle, sharing the
direction with Franz Krähenbühl, could you tell us more about this collaboration?
Mirjam Bayerdörfer: It was a curatorial blind date. Siri Peyer, from the new Shedhalle Board Committee asked us independently if we were up for it. She had an idea of the direction the Board wanted the Shedhalle to move towards – and knew our work and positions. We didn’t know each other, but she did a good matchmaking job. It turned out to be a really extraordinary collaboration.
There have been different models of running the Shedhalle since it exists, next year is going to be its 40th anniversary. In the beginning it was self run by artists and then they had one appointed curator followed by a long phase of two or three people running the space, sometimes even without being in Zürich, organizing everything from afar. The curators didn’t work together necessarily, there were a lot of different ideas of teamwork. In the 90’s, the Shedhalle started considering itself even more as a political space, trying to address topics within the institution: what is an (art) institution, what are the implications? All official positions and hierarchies were taken down. There was a long term of group logics, without any given division of who does what, who is responsible. Every group had to find themselves in responsibilities and tasks. The groups running had always a very high set of goals in terms of self understanding, of who they are, how they run the space, what they stand for. It created a pressure that was incredibly high, together with expectations from the outside that accumulated over the years. You have this bag full of history, of being very well known for a certain type of engagement and political exhibition making and you, as curating team, have to meet those expectations. And at the same time you put up your own expectations, or your own as a group. I don’t know how many times it imploded, exploded. The last team had an unlimited contract and they lasted a year and some months, which is really sad.
AG/MB: There is a very strong political engagement at the Shedhalle, we can imagine that it adds to the pressure you can have in a “normal” institution.
MB: Yes, it’s this leftist cultural scene where you have the highest expectations in terms of what you live up to. How do you conduct projects? How do you show them? Who do you reach out to? And what type of working condition(s), what kind of politics are you creating through your way of running a project, an institution? This might get aggressive, it might eat you up.
AG/MB: Did you feel that pressure?
MB: I thought I would feel it more, but the way we got in was an exception. When we started on January 1st there was nothing planned for the year. Of course, there was some pressure, but I was surprised how relieved people were that the Shedhalle was safe and its history did not end there.
AG/MB: Is there something like an anecdote or an experience during your time at the Shedhalle, that you’d like to share with us? A particular moment that was important to you. For example, a talk with a coworker, a collaboration with an artist or simply something that made you stop and think.
MB: Something that I think about a lot, which is not an anecdote, but rather an experience, is the cardboards building project we curated at the Shedhalle, Wir überbauen (Sept – Oct 2019). This project aimed at rebuilding Shedhalle from the inside, from 100% cardboard; it worked with curiosity and humor and asked people to actively engage. While it was running we realised: This project should have continued much longer. Why? If you are trying to make an art space work differently than the most conventional exhibitions, by changing the rules and the role of visitor, you have to give people much more time in order to understand what is happening – to find their way of relating to it. Because of that, I started to love the idea of Wir überbauen being exhibited for almost a year, and doing all the other things we planned inside the cardboard structure itself, all the other exhibitions and talks. A kind of a dream project.
AG/MB: Do you mean creating exhibitions inside the cardboard structure as individual projects?
MB: Individual and group shows, screenings, concerts, discussions: One would have been able to adjust the cardboard architecture according to the artists’ work or needs of the event. But it would be much more fragile and totally away from the idea of the white cube with its pseudo-neutral, nonexistent space. Some artists might find it difficult to show their work within such a setting. But for others it would be sparking ideas and opening up infinite opportunities, which is what I am really interested in: settings and situations that give space for unknown combinations, something a white cube can offer rarely.
In the case of Wir überbauen, it was also great watching how easily children move through everything and how the grown ups have to crouch. Totally different dynamics of a public that showed on a bodily level – but that concern all other levels as well: intellectual, sensual, social, habitual.
AG/MB: I imagine it can be difficult to expose artworks inside a space which is not the classical even white wall, they acquire a different meaning, it’s another sort of communication. This curatorial approach is very similar to the project 13m3 Sand (Feb – April 2019) you’ve curated at the Shedhalle earlier in 2019.
MB: 13m3 Sand was the first project which followed this spatial and social curiosity. We just said: ‘OK, this space itself is very dominant, so let’s just fill it up with material and see what it needs to combat the architecture and the emptiness’. So we wanted to fill it up with sand. But in the end the pile of sand in the middle of the hall was nothing compared to the size of the space.
Anyhow. People loved it. They would bring their children to play, but slowly they themselves began to work the sand as well, to react, to manipulate, to build. And also a lot of artists signed up to do interventions in the sand and with it.
AG/MB: This also makes you think about art as a moment: it’s there for a certain time and then it goes away. The public becomes the artist itself and the artist becomes the public. So it’s a different way of approaching the object displayed compared to the most traditional ways.
MB: It makes you think about the way we usually perceived the art object as object, the piece that you have to pack very carefully and store somewhere. For the cardboards and the sand it was a recycling organization who took it back. It was like a loan. By the way, I kept a staircase we built for the cardboard project! There was one guy who since the very first day wanted to build a second level on the cardboards, where you could walk on, and we were hoping very much that it would happen, which at the end it did, smaller than planned, but it did. I kept the staircase because I got so attached to it, I still have it at the Shedhalle. It’s huge, I don’t really know what to do with that. I could bring it here, but it doesn’t really fit in my studio.
AG/MB: The works Wir überbauen and 13m3 Sand are two main projects you curated at the Shedhalle. Could you tell us more about your artistic and curatorial background in this institution and outside? You’ve said once that in the fall of 2015, during a rock paper scissors battle the fate ‘decided’ that you were an artist. Playfulness and hazard seem to play an important role in your curatorial and
MB: It’s something I discovered for life, and very central also when I teach. At F+F in Zürich, for example, a student almost my age just repeated saying ‘Oh my God you’re such a child’. [Laughs] Two weeks later he got to know Esther Kempf, who runs the seminar with me, and he said to her ‘Oh my God you’re such a child too!’. It’s an incredible force within art and learning. I think that’s what kept me more on the art side because I realized if you commit to a certain institutional framework and you want to make your way within the institution or academia, this playfulness has no place. You’re just endangering the institution, you’re questioning the rules by which it runs, and it’s always putting at risk something that someone else gets really nervous about. I think playfulness and institution is something that hardly ever goes together, maybe there’s rare moments where an institution allows it. But normally, for any institution its main goal is carrying on existing. I think any sort of playing is questioning and putting at risk and possibly working against it.
AG/MB: It’s interesting that you consider yourself more on the artistic side, the artist and curator seem to be inseparable in your practice, as if the one is not going without the other. What do you think your curatorial practice adds to your artistic practice?
MB: You can also put it the other way around. I tend to forget that a lot of artists are not playful at all and they perform well into the framework of the institution, in their own idea of artist persona, and they don’t want to put at risk anything. They are just like ‘I am an artist. I produce artwork. I show it and this is what I do. I’m not questioning neither the way of production, nor the way it’s been looked at, nor the space.’ So I always tend to think that an artist is playful per se, but it’s not true.
For the curating part, on what it added to the artistic practice, I think I was always interested in the format, the moment when art encounters a public: How is the space defined? How social situation?
What do we expect from the public, what do they expect? Should they be interested anyhow or do we make them curious? Do they have to do something or can they consume it, like watching a movie and eating popcorn at home? Do they have to invest more?
AG/MB: That’s always an important topic, how to connect with the public.
MB: And also how does your practice affect spatial settings? Does it have to happen in a building, with walls and with white fluorescent lighting? Is that necessary to make this encounter between art and someone who wasn’t involved in its production? This is why I moved into the curatorial field because this is normally how inviting other people for an event and proposing a framework is looked at: You are immediately considered a curator and much less an artist.
AG/MB: It’s interesting that we always need to make this distinction between the artistic and curatorial practice. What does it mean curating? It can be so many things. There is this fluidity between being an artist and being a curator; when are you a curator or not, it’s an attitude maybe.
MB: I think the main feature is inviting others. And that’s something I really like, because I’ve always been, I think, more intelligent, more productive and more happy when I’m in the company of others. And if you look, you’ll find a lot of artists who do it, it’s been done for ever: The crossing. But somehow it’s a story that goes forgotten, because it’s more complicated to tell, so people either get famous for being the artist/artist or for being the curator/curator.
AG/MB: Sometimes your practice is made by different components, so why is it that we have to define ourselves? The question can be applied to everything, not only to artists and curators.
MB: It’s very interesting because that’s something I really tried to explore in my last academic assignment for the master in curating. What gives you the position of calling yourself an artist? Because there’s so much myth about inspiration, the idea that it’s just something that you are and the genius thing. I was interested to see if you could find a different sort of definition. What turns the person who does a certain activity into an artist? I think it has changed; maybe once “the artist” was really like a hat that you were given and then you could just keep it and whatever you did was art. This might still exist somehow, if you have a gallery then you can produce whatever. But I think in other terms it changed towards the idea that you have to justify by making and you have to keep doing it. As soon as you stop, your position as an artist is questioned. You also have to document that you’re doing it. The representation has shifted into a constant proof that you’re active, you’re showing here, you’re doing this, and less of one time thing where you passed a certain line of recognition. People ask or invite you for what they see that you do. It’s kind of natural. So what I’m asked for it’s a lot of inviting, coming up with ideas, concepts and group moments. And sometimes that makes me a bit sad.
AG/MB: What do you mean by sad?
MB: Realizing there’s a performance event, and the invitation is addressed to people whose work I really like and feel familiar with, but nobody asks me. Why? [Laughs] It’s obvious, last year I didn’t show performances, I did not submit work in any sort of exhibition, so people don’t know what I do apart from the curating things. You have to show people whatever it is that you want to keep on doing. You have to give hints to the others
AG/MB: And you would like to be part of it.
MB: Somehow I have this longing for material artworks but then I know a lot of times I go for it, I remain unsatisfied in a way. For all the group things or the settings that I’ve created in the last years that involved other people – most of them workshop or curatorial moments –, I remained much more satisfied. Maybe I should analyze why. Then I could take an element and use it in a material production, some sort of open end or a cliff-hanger.
AG/MB: This brings us to the topic of collective work. Working collaboratively with others is very important in your artistic/curatorial practice. We were wondering what are you looking for when you work collectively? Being part of a collective also sounds like a pretentious way, almost a safe way to say that you are working with others. You put the collective in front of it and you are safe…
MB: Yes I guess you can use the collective to make something seem more relevant. But this does not work in the long run. Working collectively is too demanding to just use it as a nice cover. As I mentioned earlier, I feel I am more productive, intelligent and happy working with others.
Something that I think about more is the difference between visual art and other art forms, for example. music in terms of acceptance. I am always wondering, why in music, compared to art, it’s so normal to be recognised for a set of skills – which you can use to work collectively and on your own; that’s no problem at all, you’re a musician, of course you can adapt to a certain style, depending on who you’re performing with! Whereas in visual art you have to pretend to be one sort of living persona, who has to use his/her skills for his/her art in one and only one way – the artist, bound to produce in this only manner. Switching between several groups, or between collective and solo is not allowed, because it takes away your credibility. Art is regarded not as a set of skills that one can control but as some weird unknown measure controlling you.
AG/MB: I think that fixed « identity » is something that the artworld needs very much in order to believe in the genius of the artist.
MB: In music it’s possible to have different identities/personae, and everybody understands that this is not the actual individual person performing but it’s like his/her persona. And in art it’s always very difficult.
AG/MB: Before concluding our conversation, we would like to know who is/are the person(s) who inspired you the most?
MB: Many. The writer Daniil Charms, the artist and friend Rosalie Schweiker, the artist and professor Georg Winter, the writers Lucia Berlin and Ursula K le Guin, the artist group RELAX, the ex-curator, clown and friend Micha Bonk, my current artists’ group Mein Verein – this list is neither complete nor chronological – it even makes me think that inspiration itself runs contrasensical to chronology.