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Later this year, the non-profit institution Swiss Institute will open a new space at 38 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. We spoke to Swiss Institute Director Simon Castets about the institution’s history and his plans for the future in SI’s new home.

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Simon Castets, director of Swiss Institute. Courtesy Swiss Institute.

Swiss Institute was originally founded to highlight Swiss art and culture in New York; since then, the programming has become more international in scope. Do you still see fostering connections between Switzerland and New York as part of the institution's mission or is your outlook more global?
Art from Switzerland and New York will always remain a cornerstone of our programming, though as you suggest, there is an obligation for contemporary art institutions to embrace these ongoing developments of globalization. For a nationally-affiliated cultural organization to exclusively focus on the output of one or two countries simply isn’t an option today. Swiss Institute realized this early on in its history with exhibitions like Chocolate! (curated by Ingrid Schaffner and Carin Kuoni in 1995), Technosophia (curated by Annette Schindler in 1998) and Extra (curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler in 2003).

In many ways, Swiss Institute is fortunate due to the highly international ethos of Switzerland itself. The relevance of Switzerland in the contemporary art world has always been predicated on a global perspective, so our commitment to the art of Switzerland is reflected in the internationalism of our programming. Recently, we’ve troubled the idea of national affiliations through our SI OFFSITE programming, that has taken us from Belgrade to New Glarus, Wisconsin, also known as “America’s Little Switzerland.” In showing work in a global context, we’re aiming to demonstrate how the currents of international exchange aren't necessarily linear. It comes from all directions, and it’s our job to function as a nexus.

Installation view of the exhibition "Niele Toroni" at Swiss Institute, 2015. Courtesy of Swiss Institute.

Now that you've been at Swiss Institute for five years, how have you envisioned your role as director? Are there certain kinds of programming that you've introduced, or emphasized, during your tenure?
Since becoming director in 2013, my goal for the institution has been twofold: to support both emerging and under-recognized artists, and to expand our audience. I am proud that Swiss Institute remains, as it always has been, free of charge. That Swiss Institute persists in being an easily accessible institution was a crucial factor in our decision to head to the our new home in the East Village, on the corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, which is one of the busiest pedestrian street corners in Manhattan.

Urban Zellweger,  Untitled,  2017, a limited-edition print presented by Swiss Institute at Independent New York 2018 as part of the 38 St Marks Editions project.
Courtesy the artist and Swiss Institute.

In 2014, we initiated Swiss Institute’s Annual Architecture and Design Series, which has become a vital component of the institution’s curatorial programming. Each year we invite a new curator who has demonstrated outstanding forward-thinking in the field of architecture and design to organize an exhibition that challenges existing notions of what an architecture or design exhibition can be. The first year, artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis transformed our 18 Wooster Street space into a dramatic reinterpretation of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play The Chairs. The following year, PIN-UP editor Felix Burrichter reinvented Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau into a chromakey, 21st century show home where visitors were recorded and displayed on screens in each room. This exhibition was the most well attended in Swiss Institute’s thirty-one-year history, and it generated lots of excitement amongst our visitors. I am proud to open our new space at 38 St. Marks Place with the third edition of the series, which is curated by Swiss curators Niels Olsen and Fredi Fischli, who will offer a new, incisive take on the readymade and model a cityscape from architectural interventions and design objects by architects and artists. Each iteration of the series allows Swiss Institute to further our commitment to experimental exhibition design and the work of today’s most compelling artists, designers and architects.

I’ve also introduced SI: Visions, an artist-led video series. The series was initially conceived of as a fantasy group exhibition, bringing together artists whose practices we admired, and giving them the opportunity to discuss their practices in unexpected contexts.

Installation view of the exhibition Niele Toroni at Swiss Institute, 2015. Courtesy Swiss Institute.
 

Are there things you'd like to accomplish in particular as you look forward to SI's future in its new home?
Regarding our move to the East Village, we of course remain committed to our mission of supporting emerging artists, experimental practices and under recognized positions. We also aim to embed ourselves in our new neighborhood, as we will be here for a long time. We’ve hired a community engagement officer who is in close contact with neighborhood organizations and will oversee upcoming collaborations. A huge component of our community engagement lies in our newly instated education program as well. We are creating programs that are well suited for multi-generational groups, as well as specific programs for children, teens, and seniors. In this effort, we aim to offer a space that is welcoming and exciting to all audiences, and encourage interest and education in contemporary art.
 

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Installation view of the SI Offsite project  On Half a Tank of Gas,  presented in New Glarus, Wisconsin, in 2017. Courtesy Swiss Institute, New York.

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In showing work in a global context, we’re aiming to demonstrate how the currents of international exchange aren't necessarily linear. It comes from all directions, and it’s our job to function as a nexus.
-Simon Castets, on SI's international programming

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Mai-Thu Perret,  Les Guérillères (Viet Cong),  2017, a limited-edition lithograph presented by Swiss Institute at Independent New York 2018 as part of the 38 St Marks Editions project. Courtesy the artist and Swiss Institute.

You've been working without a permanent exhibition space for the past few months as you prepare to move into a new building. How have you approached the off-site exhibitions, screenings, and other projects you've been producing? Have you seen it more as a pragmatic response to the situation of not having a dedicated exhibition site, or an opportunity to think outside the box? 
There is certainly a practical aspect to not wanting to go dark during a period of relocation and renovation, though our team—particularly our curatorial staff—has used this as an opportunity to realize some new initiatives. We began SI: OFFSITE, our new series of international projects, with FADE IN 2: EXT. MODERNIST HOME—NIGHT, a sequel to our March 2016 exhibition FADE IN: INT ART GALLERY—DAY. This past fall, we opened On Half a Tank of Gas…in New Glarus, Wisconsin, where we featured local and international artists in a festival-style, weekend long exhibition that took place in various locations throughout the town. And after that, we returned to the motherland, Zürich, to stage Cooper Jacoby’s first institutional solo exhibition in Switzerland at LUMA Westbau. These have been remarkable opportunities to engage with new publics, introduce emerging artists in various cities and consider the multivalent opportunities for cross cultural exchange.

Installation view of the SI Offsite exhibition  Cooper Jacoby: Disgorgers,  presented at LUMA Westbau in Zurich in 2018. Courtesy Swiss Institute, New York.

Here in New York, our curator Laura McLean-Ferris has organized a series of performances called  Lunar Intervals in which each event takes place in a different phase of the lunar cycle in a different location throughout the city. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to feature performances from Michèle Graf and Selina Grüter, Tobias Spichtig with Theresa Patzschke, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, and Aria Dean. Later in the spring we will feature Sahra Motalebi, Irena Haiduk and Madeline Hollander. Each performance is followed by the release of a 7-inch record, which has been new territory for us.

We are currently collaborating with East Village landmark Anthology Film Archives on Objects In Mirror Might Be Closer Than They Appear, a series of screenings organized by our associate curator Alison Coplan that investigates climate change from the perspective of non-human vision. We opened with a screening of films selected by artist Andrew Norman Wilson, and follow with Donna Haraway and Fabrizio Terranova, Ursula Biemann and Julius von Bismarck and Julian Charrière. We worked last summer with Jonas Mekas on a public program for our contribution to the citywide exhibition Ugo Rondinone: I   John Giorno, and that’s where this idea to collaborate was born. To have worked with such a venerable figure and institution has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Sarah Morris,  Metropolis,  2017. Silkscreen on Coventry Rag Paper as part of a limited-edition [lithograph/print] presented by Swiss Institute at Independent New York 2018 as part of the 38 St Marks Editions project.
Courtesy of the artist and Swiss Institute.

The new building is set to open in May: what are your plans for the space?
The new building will be an extension of previous spaces where SI has existed, but because it is our long-term home, it’s given us an opportunity to really put our stamp on it and do things we previously were unable to realize. All floors of the building will be open to the public, with the ground level hosting a bookshop and exhibition space. Our lower level will be completely devoted to gallery space, and the second floor, which will be enveloped by windows, will serve as our library and education center. Our roof will be converted into a public garden, functioning as both a space for gatherings and a site for artworks. One thing that will set this space apart from previous SI locations is the varying degrees of volume that run throughout the building. We wanted to allow ourselves the room to execute relatively large-scale projects, but we also wanted to create spaces that foster intimate viewing and a chance to linger.

One of Swiss Institute’s defining institutional characteristics is its freedom of experimentation. We are a relatively small team and everyone here works so hard to realize the visions of the artists we work with. We are committed to creating an environment where audiences can make new discoveries and engage with art in a way that they previously had not considered. We want to uphold our commitment to the experimental and perpetuate the legacies of East Village arts organizations that have come before us.
 

Richard Phillips,  Untitled,  2017.  Lithograph on Somerset Satin Paper as part of a limited-edition [lithograph/print] presented by Swiss Institute at Independent New York 2018 as part of the 38 St Marks Editions project.
Courtesy of the artist and Swiss Institute.

For Independent, Swiss Institute will be featuring editions from the 38 St Marks Editions portfolio, with commissioned prints by a range of international artists. How does the portfolio represent or reflect SI's program in general?
The editions that Swiss Institute produces are always an extension of our programming, from Sean Raspet’s Technical Food and Technical Milk to Simon Denny’s SI x SD Legacy Selfie Stick Luxury Tech Reissue, or Christina Forrer’s special edition Swiss Army Knife. I find that artists are really excited to work on editions, as it provides them an opportunity to run with an idea that they may have been contemplating, but have not yet had the resources or time to realize, as well as an avenue to support Swiss Institute. When conceiving of an edition, we want to give the artist the opportunity to think freely and provide them the resources to experiment. With the 38 St Marks Editions, we were looking to collaborate with artists with whom we have worked, whose practices excited us, and/or reflected the vitality of the East Village. What makes this portfolio so exciting is the breadth of artists included and the diversity of their prints. To have work by New York legends like Judith Bernstein and John Giorno paired with the exquisite prints by younger artists like Urban Zellweger or Julien Nguyen is particularly thrilling.

Dora Budor,  Protagonist Systematics,  2017.
Matte Photographic C-Print Edition of 38
Signed and Numbered. Courtesy of the artist and Swiss Institute.

You'll also be featuring less conventional editions by Camille Henrot, featuring embroidered cashmere scarves and hand-printed silk bomber jackets. How did this project come about?
Camille and I have been talking for years about collaborating on an editions project. One of the most devoted friends of Swiss Institute, Sabine Parenti, is an admirer of her work and runs a cashmere company. She generously donated all of the clothing for Camille to work on. Camille then created a series of drawings inspired by the Zodiac calendar that she had embroidered on the jackets and scarves. Each is a unique object, and there are even four silk hoodies that celebrate the new year—the year of the dog.