THE SOMMERAKADEMIE IM ZENTRUM PAUL KLEE has been a strange and secretive touchstone of the Bernese art world for ten years now. In fundamental ways it compares to other summer programs at a variety of European kunsthalles: The directors select a guest curator along with ten to twelve fellows (artists and writers under the age of thirty-five) to invite to Bern for two weeks of presentations and workshops.
But what is amazing about the ZPK Sommerakademie is its decadelong commitment to building an institutional identity by inviting alumni back to Switzerland, at the expense of the Sommerakademie’s main sponsor, the Berner Kantonalbank, for a dinner to celebrate the latest fellows. For transatlantic alumni, this has been huge. For Europe-based peers, who are offered a less fantastic travel stipend, it mostly depends on whether a trip to Bern fits into their summer schedule. Still, this unique, bank-funded migration of young artists to sleepy summertime Bern for one mysterious evening of speeches and buffet has produced its own rituals: dips in the fast-flowing Aare (where a couple years ago a nude man, cross-legged as if in meditation, was seen floating downstream in an inflated, transparent pill—immortalized as “The Nude Dude in the Tube”) and nightcaps at the ancient Kriessaal whiskey bar, for example. Yet all good things come to an end, and this year’s, it was strongly hinted, would be the last.
Drifting through Bern from the train station past familiar haunts, one can’t help but run into other Sommerakademie participants. At the Bahnhof I crossed paths with artists Avigail Moss and Aaron Flint Jamison, as well as curators Eric Friedricksen, Betsey Brock, Juana Berrio, and Anthony Huberman. At the restaurant overlooking a pit of live bears, I came across artists Martine Syms, Pedro Neves-Marques, and Alex Klein. Unlike other summertime art situations, returning alumni and faculty have nothing to do but show up to dinner, no exhibitions to see or anything to do but wander.
Generally, the atmosphere on alumni day tends to fall somewhere between the opening plenary of a conference, a high school reunion, and a gala dinner. As the years have gone on, the dinner part has decreased in gala-ness. Speaking to the general uncertainty that afflicts the world economy, the gradual and probably quite painful (to Swiss bankers) move toward greater transparency in the financial system, and perhaps the increasingly ungainly guest list, Max Haselbach, the Berner Kantonalbank’s head of education, put it best when he said: “Banking was easier before.”
But there was no way the Sommerakademie was simply going to fade away—evinced by the choice of artist Thomas Hirschhorn as this year’s guest curator, joining the likes of Diedrich Diederichsen, Jan Verwoert, Oscar Tuazon, Tirdad Zolghadr, Piplotti Rist, and Marta Kuzma in the program’s storied history. In the bowels of the Zentrum, Paul Klee’s baroque, raked 250-seat auditorium—designed by Renzo Piano prior to the 2008 market crash and generously accented with the same red found in all nationalistic Swiss branding—Sommerakademie director Jacqueline Burckhardt clarified that this was to be the last year as it is currently understood. But a little later, Nina Zimmer, director of the ZPK and Kunstmuseum Bern, announced her intention to carry on with the Sommerakademie, rebranded as the Sommerakademie Zentrum Paul Klee (dropping the “im”) with the sponsorship of the Bern University of the Arts.
“I am a soldier of truth,” Hirschhorn said, leaping to the stage to commence a clear, maniacal diatribe on what he expects of the fellows. “I am a soldier of truth,” he repeated, for emphasis. We almost expected him to drop and do one-armed pushups. “Are you? Where do you stand? What do you want?” These simplified inquiries were the theme of this year’s Sommerakademie and led to the presentation of the latest fellows: Ovidiu Anton, Lex Brown, Justin Davy, François Dey, Luis Garay, Kevin Kemter, Sasha Kurmaz, Tiona McClodden, Eliana Otta, Tabita Rezaire, Angelica Teuta, Wambui Kamiru, who were tasked with providing brief answers to the questions Hirschhorn posed.
McClodden, an artist based in North Philadelphia, noted during her time on stage to answer Hirschhorn’s questions that, since the Sommerakademie had begun that morning, she had experienced “at least ten racial microaggressions.” Kemter seemed earnestly stoked to take up Hirschhorn’s banner, almost as if he were relieved to finally banish art’s uncertainties. Meanwhile, across the motorway outside the Zentrum a lone protester, seemingly bummed about Hirschhorn, stood with a siren and an awkwardly phrased sign that said (loosely translated) PLEASE HONK! GENTLEMEN PREFER LAZINESS TO DICTATOR-HISCHHORN. Only hours old and already this Sommerakademie had stumbled on inspiring new frontiers of controversy.
Speeches over, it was time to get down to the snacks and wines in the lobby. Still more faces and friends came out of the woodwork: Rita Sobral-Campos and Ricardo Valentim, as well as past and current Sommerakademie faculty such as Yasmil Raymond, Stuart Bailey, and Raimundas Malašauskas.
In a surprise twist, dinner was held at a restaurant located in an industrial park about fifteen minutes outside of central Bern on the top floor of the supermarket chain Aldi’s Swiss corporate headquarters. Still more folks emerged: Agnieszka Kurant, Christian Philipp Müller, Giovanni Carmine, and Pamela Rozenkranz, as well as Bern’s own Martin Lötscher. The dinner itself was a tasty if predictably Swiss affair, with a delicious roast and some very nice-looking ribs at its center. Oddly, there was no provision for getting guests home from the industrial park, so while all had been transported on buses to the restaurant, a few were handed bus schedules and left to fend for themselves.
Undaunted, I managed to make it back to Bern for the mandatory nightcap at the Kriessaal with Bailey, Klein, Huberman, curator Juana Berrío, and artist Jacopo Mazzetti—to be joined later with the arrival of the next bus by Kurant and Rita Campos. The setting, a bar featuring aged whiskeys, spurred Bailey—himself no stranger to the kind of complex time travel embodied in Scotches—into retrospective reverie, wondering and lingering on those alumni who hadn’t decided to travel to Bern. What were they doing? Sifting through rumors, what’s happening with Kemang (Wa Lehulere)? Has anyone seen Jan lately? As the nostalgic impulse exhausted itself conversation turned to the future, especially the near future, which swung sharply into view as, groggy from spirits, I had to struggle through the chocolatey Swiss night to guarantee a spot on the last train to Zurich.