We talk with artist Curdin Tones, founder of the cultural initiative SOMALGORS74 in Tschlin, Switzerland, about new approaches to art and participation. The conversation builds upon the lecture he delivered in the frame of the Negotiation – the public program of Center for Social Vision, on May 26, 2022. Questions are asked by Viktoria Draganova.
What is the socio-historical context of Somalgors74, the initiative you started in the village of Tschlin in 2017? What kind of public space, and what kind of social history do we encounter there?
Tschlin is a small alpine village where about 400 people live here, and we're located at 1600 meters above sea level. I'm related to this village because of my family bonds, and since I was a small child, I was visiting this village on a regular basis. Originally, I started my career as a studio artist, but that changed more towards situational and contextual practice because I got aware of how important the context actually is for the meaningfulness of the work. So a few years ago, I bought a house here, which gave me the possibility to enter the socio-spatial relation in the village on a more permanent basis. I started inviting artists, not for a classical residency, but for developing context-sensitive projects that also deal with or happen in collaboration.
How is the public space organised in the village?
Each neighbourhood has its own fountain, and all the neighbourhoods are orchestrated around their fountain. In the past, the fountain was the only tap of freshwater that about 25 to 30 houses had to share on a daily basis, meaning for their own drinking water, for washing clothes, but also for watering animals. It needed a huge amount of organisation to make this daily ceremony actually happen. There were a lot of rules that regulated what was allowed to do and when.
The fountain was a commons, the water was a commons and the neighbourhood had to collectively take care of it.
Nowadays, farms and houses have direct access to freshwater and the fountains just burble along 24/7. In 2017, once we came back from a hike, somebody made a joke, saying, ‘wouldn't it be nice now to have a whirlpool in the fountain?’. So, I invited a group of villagers to talk about this idea. To my surprise, they actually reacted quite positively, and I invited a smaller group of people living here to figure out the sensitiveness. They told me that they would like if the project reactivates the lost social meaningfulness of the square.
How did you approach this space, and how did you get people involved at the beginning?
The first thing I did was design the street sign, which happened to be the first lesson about participation for me:When I initially started to design the objects, I thought I have to avoid any top-down approach and to include everybody in a non-hierarchical way. But I quickly understood that it wasn’t a problem at all if the roles are divided. They said that they would support me with other tasks but that it was fine if I designed the objects and they would trust me to take care of that. So then, I started to design elements for the fountain mixing farming with wellness elements quite deliberately. All the elements were modular to allow different interactions with other fountains of the Engadin (region in Swiss Alps, e.d.). I also included all the different kinds of players in the organisation of the project – as local politicians or tourist managers – who have a say in what is happening in public space.
Later on, all these different parties would have different expectations, and I realised this would lead to many discussions and continuous negotiations about what we should do and how it should be done. As a project in a public space, not avoiding all these negotiations but using them for the project was key right from the beginning.
I thought it was interesting for a work in public space where I continuously had to negotiate expectations, stay open for their wishes but also draw lines I wouldn’t want to cross.
Did the project change the way you think about participation?
I started this project in collaboration with the political scientist Frank Miller because we were interested in intimacy and public space. With time, we figured out that The Public Fountain also is a very interesting example for thinking about participation in a different way. For instance, the division of roles I talked previously about versus the more traditional understanding of participation as non-hierarchical, democratic decision-making. We also realised that participation is not that temporary emancipating mixing of an outlined difference between audience and performer within a clearly defined time frame, but that participation is something that evolves into a very complex fabric that evolves in time.
What forms of participation did you observe?
At the first public bath, a group of villagers came to watch. And a lot of children were having great fun using the bath. Adults and teenagers were a little bit more suspicious checking it out. It became very interesting to see what is needed for them and also to allow them to make use of the fountain and drink beer in the active whirlpool. But then, there was an old woman, too, who is an interesting example when thinking about participation in different way, because she would always say: “Well, I'm coming to see the event, but you can forget that you see me in a bikini on the village’s square.” She didn’t participate by taking a bath but she participated by very clearly taking a position in relation to the project. For her, it was important to be there on the first day of it and to show old photographs while talking about the fountains’ historic importance. Others brought cake or sponsored beer.
It has a lot to do with how people decide for themselves what kind of role they actually want to take. It is something interesting about participation, that actors accept participatory roles as guests, promoters, helpers, or traders. They even can invent their own form of participation in relation to the project.
I regularly saw a few elderly people showing the brochure to tourists explaining to them what was really going on. In the first place, it is about positioning and what this positioning means in relation to participation since our positions change over time. And once on a moonless night, the electrician took initiative to turn off the streetlight so the bathing happened under a sky full of stars.
Was all friendly and harmonious?
For some of the inhabitants, the effect that we reuse this fountain was really revealing. For others, it was a big problem, because they were educated as kids with all kinds of severe rules that, of course, were in place to protect the freshwater from not being polluted. And this is, I think, another really interesting element of participation, that it's not necessarily about the harmonious use of using public space together. The project provokes taking positions and negotiating with each other, thus taking distance and coming closer. And this I believe is a very productive perspective on participation. In any case, the participatory roles or forms of participation are not so much prefixed in this work, but allow the individuals to appropriate and fill the role they seem fit to meet as this was a very important lesson of this work. On the other hand, there were rules that regulated the use of the public bath, for example one needed to shower and wash before entering the bath. And based on villagers requests bathing suits were mandatory.
What about the media and publicity of the project?
As soon as there was a kind of newspaper coverage on Swiss TV, it felt safer for other people to join this strange art project. We also produced a brochure, which was quite an important element. And that brochure was a kind of mimicry, since it is a copy of the brochure of a local wellness resort, which is half an hour away from Tschlin. As we were working together with the tourism office, we could officially use their template. So, we were able to tap into this wellness brochure, but then use pictures of the fountain project. People who never came to have a bath were using the brochure to explain the project to tourists. The brochure increased potential interactions. In the interest of successful participation, you need to make the interface as big as possible for people being able to choose a role for themselves.
How did local politicians and municipalities react at the time?
At some point local politicians really wanted us to sell beer and to ask for money so that people have to pay for entrance – things that I always thought I had to refuse because it's public work. I don't want people to pay for being able to bathe in the fountain, because then it would become simple tourist entertainment again. However, this was also an important moment of negotiation, and I asked myself whether I should refuse, or get involved. I also understood that the possibility for consensus is important about public space, as the problem arose as soon as local politicians tried to claim the project for commercial needs to advertise their beer. I proposed a different kind of solution – to sell beer at tables, but just not next to the fountain, otherwise, people who are really having a relaxing bath in the fountain won't feel safe. Another compromise was that we started to integrate a lot of local products in the bathing ritual, like making yoghurt masks, whey baths, or a lip balm from local honey and beeswax.
Can you share your more general observations on the project, also how it relates to the way we think of participation on more theoretical terms?
The project is about making and unmaking connections, and also the conflictual demands that come with a project like that. The project knows a lot of different groups with very different kinds of interests. There is not the kind of homogeneous clique, which can also raise questions in terms of what is a community or what we think a community is in that sense. It's not necessarily about harmonic processes of doing things together, but about these continuous discussions about what is allowed, or not. In this project, actually, the diversity of possible roles, the changing of positions, makes participation successful. In that sense, participation creates partitions rather than a harmonic unity, and it allows for specified involvement, where negotiations take place.
It’s interesting to think that participation has even to allow and facilitate ruptures and conflicts. I even would say, this aspect is now almost a necessity, that if I do work in public space. It makes public space interesting in that it creates a space for differences and the negotiations that come with it.
It is a post-structuralist way of thinking about participation as “part-taking” that creates or at least provokes separations, that allows to take part or take a particular partitive role in the project. This approach to participation became very meaningful to me because it's transparent about the differences. It's not trying to depart from a kind of assumed common ground where the artist would be like another participant. It is about creating a situation that allows others to participate, being more transparent about the different wishes and needs of people and allowing them to connect and disconnect to a project on their terms. The idea that participation means to take a part, that is not about pre-configured roles or positions that are hidden. But be transparent about what was created by an architect, designer, or artist. It's much more about an active shaping of interests, increasing potential interfaces and materializing activities around the project.