Reading Rämistrasse #35: Mateo Chacon-Pino on the Verbier Art Summit

The 1815 Treaty of Paris declared Switzerland neutral ground between European powers, and in the second half of the 20th century Switzerland extended its contemporary neutral reputation as host of the UN and other NGOs, with the WEF joining the picture in 1971. It is not surprising that this alpine country now hosts two internationalist art summits on the same winter weekend: the Verbier Art Summit (VAS) and E.A.T., the Engadin Art Talks. Besides diplomacy, nothing screams ‘internationalism’ more than art since large organisations like the UN created transnational spaces of parley and pushed for internationally recognised art. The former’s broad goal is to drive social change by, well, hosting high-profile panel discussions with international artists, curators and scientists, usually flown in from wherever they might just have been. With a look back at previous editions, this year's VAS intended that its fifth iteration encourage environmental action through three keywords that framed all contributions: hope, future and trust.

A blue slide with the text: TRUST - can we rethink our values?

As a Swiss saying goes, good intentions are the opposite of doing good, and so it is always a bit cringy when an international organisation invites well-connected individuals to discuss topics that matter in an exclusive setting. The pandemic forced the VAS to transform a networking gathering in the Verbier resort into an online event. The lectures and panels were all pre-recorded and streamed as one program for technical reasons, as some speakers’ weak wifi would have hindered a coherent conversation on Zoom, for example. Still, I felt a touch awkward sitting and watching one video after another on a solitary screen, acting as if it were an in-person event and imagining how many people were doing the same, just like Amélie Poulain from the French film Amélie (2001) asks herself how many people in Paris had an orgasm at the same time (fifteen). It is odd to think oneself as part of a group situation when there is no one but you in the room.

However, we need to recognise that addressing serious problems is uncomfortable. And even more so when the problems are intricate, like the environmental crisis the VAS focused on. It is too simple to play the ad hominem reproach of jet-setting in the art world (though, we should take a hard look at the many exceptionalisms in our bubble), and the summit brought this to light. Swiss artist Claudia Comte explained during her talk how she has designed her living environment in rural Basel as self-sufficiently as possible. This makes it all the more puzzling that her consequentialism does not follow through in her choice of artistic materials: her use of Carrara marble was challenged by the environmentalist Tom Battin's images of the geological impact of Italian quarries in a following presentation. He described marble as a biological product and how mining has completely changed the Italian landscape into what he called “engineered mountains”. Today, a large part of the extraction serves the production of calcium carbonate for a wide range of uses, including paper, paint and toothpaste. We must applaud Comte’s efforts to reduce her personal carbon footprint and ask why we continue to accept the aesthetics of marble when its materiality has been linked to environmental exploitation since antiquity. But is it possible to imagine her artistic work devoid of marble? It is impossible to discuss artworks without considering their material – form and material exist in mutual dependence. I would miss sculptures like the Suspended Marble series, but maybe this is the point: we need to realign our expectations of art and embrace that uncomfortable change. It shouldn’t be harder than changing global industry.

Screen view of a zoom conversation with several participants.

If the goal is to adapt artistic practices to the current conditions on a global scale, then we might need spaces of global exchange to address these issues. The potential of the VAS lies in the ambiguity of internationalism; it can address ultra-local issues as examples as well as contradict itself by proposing global solutions. Both artists Carolina Caicedo and Andrea Bowers described their work as being effective in a specific locality, the former in Colombia, the latter in the US. The struggles that they are engaged with are not by themselves of great weight to global matters, they are rather the result of globalisation on indigenous territory. The construction of dams in Colombia in the interests of stable power grids disturbs the free flow of arterial veins, as rivers are seen in American cosmogonies; this and their impact on local ecosystems are documented by Caicedo. Or the clearing of healthy woods on native territory under purportedly sustainable FSC-labels that have little regards for local ecological relationships, a focus in Bowers’ work which documents activist treesitters. With international interests impacting local ecosystems, the artists took the VAS as an opportunity to voice their concerns to a global audience. The reciprocal relationships that indigenous communities maintain with their environments, in both cases, were not introduced by the artists as examples to be followed, but as modes of being within an environment and as a striking contrast between sustainable cohabitation and the status quo.

Behind-the-scenes view of the summit being filmed

In contrast with a cynic’s view that art cannot change the world, these artists make an effort to imagine alternatives to the pure extractivism of the global economy. Naturally, the VAS did not end with a magic key to solve all our issues, indeed calling for some form of a resolution would be nothing but wishful thinking – the summit is not a space of formalised political negotiation. And if one were to measure the event like this, it would most likely fail. What the summit did effectively was to focus attention on the uneasiness we still encounter in the art world when it comes to negotiating consequential change. We may either smear the VAS for its attempt to improve the world or accept that we need to check our expectations of art. There are many ways in which we can adapt our practices as artists, writers, curators, dealers or collectors to make a more sustainable art world, both aesthetically and ecologically. The speakers at the summit gave more than one example of how we might achieve such a critical change. For example, we should stop praising aesthetics that reproduce the global extraction of materials and instead focus on aesthetics of local cohabitation. This change is definitely easier than changing global industry; we only have to embrace a little awkwardness.

2021 Virtual Verbier Art Summit: Resource Hungry, 29-30 January 2021

Images are screen grabs from the summit.

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If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent. Feedback or questions? Email 

17.02.2021