25 interviews plus a poster for Shedhalle, Zürich, 2009
- see text about this work and list of interviewees below poster
Catherine Hug, Kuratorin, Wien, 2. Dezember 2008, 52 min
Victoria Easton, Architektin, Zürich, 10. Januar 2009, 30 min
Léonie Zeiger, Architektin, Zürich, 10. Januar 2009, 30 min
Ingrid Wildi, Künstlerin, Zürich, 11. Januar 2009, 63 min
Esteban Sanchez, Reinigungskraft / François Chappuis, Psychotherapeut,
Markus Bösch, Ausstellungstechniker, Zürich 11. Januar 2009,
Tobias Borup, Ausstellungstechniker, Zürich 11. Januar 2009,
Jasper Mehler, Schüler, Zürich, 11. Januar 2009,
Hannah Mehler, Schülerin / Jaschar Dugalic Schüler, Zürich, 11. Januar 2009
Sebastian Dietschi, Rwegisseur/Autor, Zürich, 12. Januar 2009, 60 min
Katia Schär, Archäologin/Journalistin, Zürich, 12. Januar 2009, 55 min
Charlotte Greub, Bildhauerin/Architektin / Ole Fischer,
Andrea Caprez, Kellner, Zürich, 17. Januar 2009
Siri Peyer, Kuratorin, Zürich, 17. Januar 2009
Tomas Germann, Designer/Lehrer, Zürich, 17. Januar 2009
Rösli Weber-Brunori, Kaufmännische Angestellte im Ruhestand, Zürich, 17. Januar 2009
Susanne Oberholzer, Sprachwissenschaftlerin, Zürich, 17. Januar 2009, 40 min
Irene Grillo, Studentin/Kuratorin / Dominik Gross, Student/Journalist,
Maria Becker, Schauspielerin, Zürich, 18. Januar 2009
Sandra Steiner, Kellnerin, Zürich, 18. Januar 2009, 20 min
Esther Eppstein, Künstlerin, Zürich, 18. Januar 2009
Amaja Tollinche, Lehrerin / Alain Morand, Sozialpädagoge, Zürich, 18. Januar
Andrea Thal, Künstlerin, Zürich, 18. Januar 2009
Peter K. Wehrli, Schriftsteller, Zürich, 18 . Januar 2009
Since the beginning of the 1990s, I have been working with languages as part of my art practice. It is in particular language acquisition, language identity and language politics that interest me. Hence, since 1991 I have been learning foreign languages without interruption as my art work. Basic Japanese, Basic Korean, Basic Russian, Basic Arabic Bas to Basic Chinese which I have been preoccupied learning for nearly 10 years without the success desired. Languages define our identity and define us socially. They are part of our network of institutions that form the everyday and that we keep alive, transforming it as we learn, as we work, as we age as we interact and mix culturally. Needless to say, languages are bound by the people and nations that speak them and vice versa. The politics of languages can be very complex and take on absurd twists mirroring cultural, social, economical as well as racial and religious differences. For example, studying Basic Arabic in New York City at the beginning of the recent Iraq war made me look "weird" and "complicit". Studying Japanese or Chinese at the height of huge trade deficits without much substantial cultural exchange is also peculiar. Having a German accent or an Albanian one communicates different prejudices. Learning and un-learning languages (for ex. getting rid of accents) is very hard in any case, with any particular language and speech pattern. They form us and inform our dialog partners independent of what passport we have in our pockets.
Apart from learning languages I have been also engaged in listening to other people's experiences with languages. Basic Canadian, Basic Belgian and even Basic Vorarlbergian are interview based works where social-linguistic aspects play a big role. Canada as well as Belgium are "split" countries and have quite some difficulties to evaluate and appreciate their cultural and linguistic richness. Vorarlbergian is a dialect which – unlike Swiss German – is not officially accepted and spoken. It is only used in private and semi-public settings. Hence, in Basic Vorarlbergian class and educational privileges surface influencing syntactical and lexical choices. Better-off people or those who take themselves as such attempt to move towards standard German throughout all situations– regardless of their linguistic success of such attitudes. Remains only to point out, that standard German speakers from outside Vorarlberg barely ever can tell these differences. Having grown up in Vorarlberg, I learned from very early on – acoustically first - that people weren’t all that equal.
Züridütsch is not equivalent with Swiss German and refers to the way people speak in Zurich. But this is a view only I share for this artwork since many people I talked to try to differentiate speech behavior situating people geographically – not class specifically – to places outside the actual city even though a specific person could have lived all his/her life in Switzerland’s biggest city. For this series anybody I have interviewed becomes part of my Züridütsch independent of their immigration status, their provenience, their actual mastery or non-mastery of the local dialect. Hence I also included Germans, Italians, Cubans and others who might speak “Züridütsch” only fragmentarily though make up the multicultural, international landscape of contemporary Zurich.
All interview partners tell their own personal history in relationship to local speech and the circumstances of their life. It wasn’t surprising that it also included extensive narratives of suppression and exclusion as well as liberation and integration. Züridütsch is therefore very much also a depository for a variety of stories that are individual and part of the narrative grid that make up the complex fabric of cities. In spite of our attempt to include people from all ages and backgrounds thirty people in twenty five different interviews are not representative for a city of nearly half a million people. Nonetheless, these conversations give a surprising overview of how people feel, see and express themselves. I was very positively surprised that stories of repressions based on people’s actual or perceived immigration status were minimal though some lamentations were expressed off microphone. In Montreal I had interview partners that refered to people of First Nations as “savages.” Every member of that group could give numerous personal examples of open discriminations against them. None of that surfaced during the recording of Züridütsch, though on one instance discrimination – based on a Slavic surname – was expressed off camera in an anecdotal way.
Before passports existed people were judged by their languages and accents. Switzerland’s identity – limiting myself to the German part of this multilingual country – is very much linked to a specific Germanic dialect, Swiss German (the sum of many dialects spoken on her territory) that differs and was meant to differ from what is spoken north of her border. In the 19th and early 20th century, according to historians, Swiss German was part of a “geistige Landesverteidigung”, a kind of “spiritual national defense” and meant to differ linguistically from an ever growing Germany. This convinced even the educated upper classes to not use standard German except in very formal and professional settings. In my interview series questions between Züridütsch/Swiss German and standard German (itself a very vague term since there are many variants spoken throughout Germany and Austria) were always paramount and provoked multiple responses and self-definitions. Swiss German speaking people learn to speak standard German but use it rarely, except in high school, University or national media but even their both Germans are used. Swiss German is also used when addressing non-Swiss people which indicates a step towards foreigners but also keeps them out of their own linguistic domain.
Given the four national languages of Switzerland there is also the issue of language competition which in my interviews didn’t stir up much of a concern. Bilingual speakers complemented this potential conflict with personal anectodes and more or less confirmed the fact that Switzerland is a positive example of a multilingual and multi-religious country in complete contrast with Belgium which struggles not to break up along her language lines. These interviews expressed less a polemic spirit between their national languages but between the “esthetic perception” of different dialects. Many interviewees expressed sympathy for a “slower, more relaxed” Berndütsch or a more “exotic” Appenzeller valley sound which can be at times even incomprehensive to the rest of Swiss German speakers. Some interview partners shared reservations towards everything spoken “east of Zürich,” though I learned that Züridütsch itself wasn’t appreciated everywhere and ran the risk of being associated with “city,” stress and even arrogance. One interviewee felt bullied when younger based on dialect differences and described the kind of stress it had caused him.
Class differences within Swiss dialects were not unanimously confirmed but some people pointed out that phenomenon and delivered examples. For standard German speakers phonetic differences between Swiss dialects or socio-lects are indistinguishable if one doesn’t live in Switzerland. Some xenophobic sentiment was expressed mildly through the preoccupation with “authentic dialect” usage. The influx of educated German middle class workers was blamed for a “watering down” effect. I encountered that argument in Swiss media while in the country but could not confirm it directly in my interviews. Nobody was bothered by many Americanisms that have made it into Swiss German.
Code switching is quite useful when it comes to people who really don’t understand Swiss German but takes on a different meaning when it comes to people – like Vorarlbergians – whose spoken dialect is on the same dialect continuum than theirs. Code switching is common in every context, every language everywhere and actually demands from any actor verbal and contextual versatility which can enrich life but may also have exclusionary and other negative impacts. There still are German speaking people (throughout Europe) who speak only in infinitives when addressing workers euphemistically called “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) though they might be in the country for generations. But code switching can also be stressful for speakers who might not feel as secure and accepted in one mode or another. Questions of linguistic self-confidence – dialect versus standard German - were surfacing quite regularly and addressed in various informative ways. Some really also enjoyed speaking standard German and I had to partially ask them to speak Züridütsch with me for the interview.
Most likely due to the fact that all interview partners were in one or another way connected to the people frequenting Schedhalle, I was not encountering folks that expressed outrageous views. Only one dialect sample by a young guy quoting his father might cause bewilderment though he was very aware of its vulgar misogynic rudeness. Unfortunately, two interviewees wanted critical comments they uttered during the filmed conversation cut out which I highly regret. In one instance comments were polemical towards the art world, in another one somebody’s Jewish family was first kept from entering Switzerland in the 1930s hence had a hard time with Nazi-prosecution. This family still struggles with stolen art works and other assets that are not yet recuperated. The interview partner was born in Zurich after the war but left the country at age 18. This talk was very interesting and rocky since it oscillated between a big love for the country and deep anger and criticality towards its past – spoken in excellent standard German, Züridütsch and English. But a day later, I was asked not to present the interview – even though most of it was told off camera . Later, I was again restricted – even though most of it was told off camera which has made me decide against including it in this series. In other interviews, very important and painful personal history was revealed only after the interview finished, so to say on the way out: in one case, it was a family member who survived a Nazi-camp and in another one, it was the experience of being a live long communist who suffered repercussions and numerous job losses. This makes me wonder whether there is more than just the harmonious well balanced very respectful society I recorded during nearly 20 hours or at least a society that prefers a conflict free image over outspoken disaccord . Last but not least, I was also able to speak to the poet and writer Peter K. Wehrli who works language in a fantastic way, mixing a lot of all these languages and dialects that fill Zurich’s air space. Like me, an eternal student of new foreign languages, he is embracing linguistic and social changes apparent and necessary in all living languages and societies.Rainer Ganahl, New York, February 2009