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Sure Start – Building Blocks of Zurich

Sure Start – Building Blocks of Zurich

Malu Barben (ZHdK) Alter Ego 2, 2008 Print on canvas, 70 x 46.5 cm

One reason photography figures so prominently in Zurich’s vibrant art scene is that it is the only place in German-speaking Switzerland in which you can study the subject. Both the state-run Zurich University of the Arts (Die Zürcher Hochschule der Künste or ZHdK) and the private art school F+F offer studies in photography, each with a different emphasis and structure. The curriculum at ZHdK is, obviously, oriented towards the arts, whereas F+F tries to cover both commercial and artistic aspects of photography.

Although the ZHdK, the result of a merger between the University of Art and Design Zurich (HGKZ) and the School of Music, Drama and Dance (HMT), has only existed since 2007, the photography programme it offers has a venerable tradition. It was founded in the 1930s by Hans Finsler, who had studied in Germany and was imbued with the spirit of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). He implemented a curriculum that was commercially oriented, primarily towards the printed page. Finsler’s spirit determined the photography programme at the School of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule) well into the 1980s. In the early 1990s, an almost complete change of staff was the basis for a reconceptualization of the curriculum that conceived of photography as an art form and the photographer as an author, and turned the programme into an important source of artistic endeavour in Zurich and Switzerland.

One of the most important shifts was the international outlook of the reconceived photography programme. Students would no longer indulge in idle contemplation of the creative microcosm of Zurich and Switzerland, as had long been the case, but perceive their work in the context of international developments in art and photography. To get them started numerous important photographers – Nan Goldin, Lewis Baltz, Paul Graham, Thomas Ruff, John Gossage and Timm Ulrichs, among others – were invited to teach in the mid-1990s. Alongside the founding of Fotomuseum Winterthur and the activities of Scalo, now defunct, as publishing house, bookstore and gallery, this guest programme and the work of the core faculty were among the main reasons a photographic culture could develop in Zurich with a breadth and depth matched by few other cities. At the same time, Zurich became an increasingly important nexus of the international art market. The synchronicity of both developments was fortuitous since it ensured photography an important place in the emerging new cultural landscape.

The turning point was the exhibition Die Klasse (The Class) in 1996 at the school’s Museum of Design (Museum für Gestaltung). Its catalogue became an international surprise success. Die Klasse showed works by students, professors and visiting faculty, a wild mix of different approaches. Suddenly, Zurich was synonymous with a kind of photography that seemed fresh, new and contemporary.

Another important change has occurred during the last decade: the photography programme has become part of the Department of Art and Media, and has been tailored to meet the requirements of the Bologna Treaty, a Europe-wide measure designed to make academic standards more comparable and degree courses more compatible throughout the continent. Students study for three or four years, finishing with a BA in Media and Art; they are free to decide on the emphasis of their studies – photography, fine arts, new media or theory. During the first three semesters they focused on their chosen medium, whereas later they can attend courses in the other programmes. This approach takes into account the erosion of borders between media and fosters an experimental attitude.

The approach to teaching photography, however, has remained the same. The emphasis is on project-oriented praxis seminars, on carefully supervised experimentation. The technical training is divided up in blocks over the whole course of study, while technical assistants provide help when students encounter problems. Over a semester, students pursue a project, which is either freely chosen or conforms to a broadly defined theme. The students are only rarely given assignments. They are free to use other media, such as video, drawing or installation. The project-oriented courses offer students a high degree of freedom and forces them to work continuously and to choose their own path.

This open approach allows for great diversity as can be glanced from the variety of nationally and internationally successful artists who have graduated from the programme, such as Marianne Mueller, Shirana Shahbazi, Olaf Breuning, Fabian Marti, Stefan Burger, and the collaborators Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. Among the current students are a number of internationally shown emerging artists, including Cédric Eisenring and Thomas Julier, Tobias Madison, and Emanuel Rossetti.

The photography programme at the private F+F School for Art and Media Design was established in 2003. The school itself was founded in 1971 by renegade teachers of the Zurich School of Applied Arts, back then the only art school in town, who felt that school with a more experimental and contemporary approach was called for. In the 1970s and 80s, the F+F pioneered video, performance and new media. Today, it is supported by a foundation co-founded by the City of Zurich. About 220 full-time students currently attend the school, which receives a small subsidy from the City of Zurich.

The photography programme at F+F was founded not least because the specifications of the Bologna Treaty forced the ZHdK to tighten academic requirements for entering students. Admittance to the F+F is based on portfolio review only and thus allows people to study photography whose secondary education does not meet the conventional standards of academia. Hence the programme attracts a very diverse mix of people, some of them very young, some of them already in their thirties. The strength of the programme lies in the fact that it is small. The permanent staff consists only of Andrea Gohl, the director of the programme, and her assistant. The classes are taught by visiting faculty (artists and commercial photographers), many of them returning, like Walter Pfeiffer (an F+F alumnus himself), who has taught at F+F since the 1970s. The program invites a great variety of people to teach – from young artists to seasoned professionals – who provide the students with a multifaceted view of the entire field of photography, both artistic and commercial. The flexible structure allows the programme to make dynamic adjustments tailored to both the needs of the students and the ever-changing requirements of the market. After seven years, the photography course at F+F has emerged as a new and vital force in Zurich’s cultural scene, offering an attractive alternative to ZHdK.

Artist: Andrea Gohl is a photo artist who lives and works in Zurich. She is the head of the department of photography at F+F School for Art and Media Design. Her Urban Walks series was most recently shown at the Helmhaus Museum in Zurich as part of the exhibition called World Images 3.

Artist: Christoph Stulz is a photographer who lives and works in Basel. He is currently studying photography at the F+F School for Art and Media Design. He is soon to move to Tanzania to work on a cooperation development project until 2013.

Artist: Fabio Marco Pirovino is a photo artist who lives and works in Basel. He graduated from the University of Arts and Design Zurich in 2007.

Artist: Gaudenz Metzger lives and works in Zurich. He has a diploma in photography from the F+F School for Art and Media Design and since 2009 has studied art history and philosophy at the University of Zurich. He recently exhibited at the Bündner Kunstmuseum in Switzerland.

Artist: Jacqueline Aeberli is a photo artist who lives and works in Zurich. She studied photography at the F+F School for Art and Media Design. Her work Neutralisationen is currently on show at the Kunsthaus Centre PasquArt in Biel, Switzerland.

Artist: Malu Barben is a photo artist who recently graduated from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). Her work can be seen in various exhibitions around Switzerland.

Artist: Petra Koehle and Nicolas Vermot Petit-Outhenin are photo artists who live and work in Zurich. They graduated from the University of Arts and Design Zurich in 2010 and have collaborated since 2004.

Writer: Martin Jaeggi is a critic and curator who lives in Zurich. His writing on photography and contemporary art has appeared in books, newspapers and magazines (Tages-Anzeiger, Du, Aperture, Parkett, Art Review, Exit). He has taught as guest lecturer at ZHdK, Zurich, F+F School for Art and Media Design, Zurich, Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, and University of the Arts, Berlin.