Amber Massie-Blomfield: 'My encounters with the artistic landscape of Switzerland suggest a culture orientated towards innovation'
26 July 2019
This article is from 2019
Traumboy / Traumgirl / credit: Patrick Mattraux
Project Lead for the programme of contemporary Swiss theatre presented by Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, discusses what the Swiss have to offer in Edinburgh
How to define the culture of a nation of 8.5 million people – 25% of whom are non-Swiss – that has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch) and shares borders with five different countries?
It's no wonder we're used to reaching for the clichés when we talk about Switzerland – mountains, lakes, fondue and Heidi. But over the last couple of years, working with Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, and preparing to present Swiss Selection Edinburgh at Summerhall this August, I've got to know Swiss culture a little better.
I have ridden a cable car to a music festival on top of a mountain and spotted celebrities at internationally renowned art fair Art Basel. I've been to a photographic exhibition in Le Corbusier's home and headbanged along to what I can only describe as a thrash metal performance art funeral in a theatre at the edge of a lake.
8:8 / credit: Mischa Robert
Am I any closer to having a handle on it? My encounters with the artistic landscape of Switzerland suggest a culture orientated towards innovation and experimentation, unafraid of provocative, cutting-edge work. Daniel Hellmann's Traumboy and Anne Welenc's Traumgirl, appearing in Swiss Selection Edinburgh, are great examples – two interrelated auto-fictional solo shows confronting audiences with their own preconceptions about sex work, told from a male and a female perspective respectively, and performed on alternating nights. Indeed, it's often the risky productions we'd be more used to seeing in studios and fringe venues in the UK that find their way on to the main stages of Switzerland's playhouses.
Ultimately, it strikes me that the wide mix of influences in this varied country is what defines Swiss culture most. Geneva is closer to Lyon than Zurich, and artists in the German-speaking part of the country are just a train ride away from Frankfurt and Berlin, so new work is often created in collaborations forged across borders. It is all the richer for it.
With this in mind, it's perhaps no surprise that one of the shows in Swiss Selection Edinburgh, Mercimax's 8:8, will actually be performed by people living just down the road from Summerhall. Mercimax have worked in collaboration with members of the Edinburgh community to create a new version of their intimate choreographed piece. Staged for just eight audience members at a time, it invites us to consider the judgements we make about people based on their appearance.
21 / credit: Jörg Baumann
Mats Staub's 21 also has an international outlook. A video installation curated from interviews with more than 200 people across the world – from Germany to Scotland, Serbia to South Africa – 21 reflects on the experience of coming of age. Watching these funny, moving accounts from people across the globe in Lausanne last spring, I was unable to tear myself away for several hours.
One of the most extraordinary productions I've experienced during my Swiss artistic explorations is La Reprise by Bern-born director Milo Rau, which appears as part of Edinburgh International Festival. A profoundly emotional and humane 'theatre documentary', it recounts the true story of the 2012 murder of Ihsane Jarfi. Of course, the show's reference points are typically diverse, relating an event that took place in Belgium – in French and Flemish, with English supertitles.
I can't deny I've relished swimming in the lakes during my visits to Switzerland and may even have sampled the odd fondue. But the more time I spend in this beautiful country the more I realise how much its culture defies the cliches. That's what makes me keep going back.
In April 2012, Ihsane Jarfi got talking to a group of young men in a car outside a gay club in Liège. Two weeks later, he was found dead at the edge of a wood. He had been tortured and violently murdered. La Reprise is an audacious piece of investigative theatre, both a meticulous examination of Jarfi’s brutal murder and…
Mercimax, Swiss Selection Edinburgh Eight ordinary people stand before eight spectators. But how ordinary are they really? Can you trust how people look and what they say? What makes someone a suspect? With a diverse cast of eight accomplices drawn from the Edinburgh community, this intimate play of truth and deception…
Daniel Hellman, Swiss Selection Edinburgh Daniel is an artist. He is also a sex worker. Through accounts of clients and their desires, Traumboy explores why he chose this profession and why having sex for money is still considered taboo. Told with humour and honesty, this interactive performance challenges audiences to…
Anne Welenc, Swiss Selection Edinburgh Kim is an actress. She is also a sex worker, a bartender, German, Polish and more. Which identity is most important? Traumgirl is a brand-new solo show about female sex work in all its forms – and who pays the price. Welenc takes an auto-fictional approach to explore what a woman is…
Mats Staub, Swiss Selection Edinburgh When did you turn 21? In this ambitious video installation, Mats Staub explores how world history is mirrored in personal memories. From Germany to South Africa, Australia to Scotland, he interviews more than 200 people from all age groups and backgrounds about their memories of the…