Saas Fee, Switzerland’s Talent Factory for Great Thinkers: A Conversation with EGS Alumnus Paul Boshears
Paul Boshears, lecturer at the Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University in Atlanta and coeditor of the media-agnostic journal continent., has a special connection to Switzerland. In the following, he recounts his unique and inspirational student experience in Saas Fee and gives us a glimpse into his involvement in the London Design Biennale for Switzerland and other ongoing and upcoming projects with Swiss fellows.
How would you describe your relationship to Switzerland?
PB: I’m a big fan of Switzerland. I went to graduate school in Saas Fee, a really unique institution called the European Graduate School. I went there for 6 years. It’s a low residency program, so I would go there during the summers and sit my classes. Periodically, I would also go to conferences and attend activities at universities or venues such as the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Above all, I should say that a lot of the people I still collaborate with are based in Switzerland.
How did you learn about this particular graduate school in Saas Fee?
PB: In 1996, I came to Atlanta for the Olympics. They were looking for people with foreign language skills. As a military kid, I spoke different languages and so I got assigned to the francophone team from Mali. Eighteen years old and fresh out of high school, I became a driver for their Olympic team.
Subsequently, I had been living in Atlanta for some time. I did my undergraduate studies at Kennesaw State University, where I met the editor in chief of the magazine Art Papers, which is an Atlanta-based art publication that has gained significant international recognition within the last fifteen years. The editor’s name was Charles Reeve and my roommates were his students for the year he was a visiting professor at KSU. As he got to know my roommates and me, he advised: “Listen, you should really look into that school in Switzerland.” Then, after I graduated, I was first living in Japan for a while. I started looking for opportunities to continue my education and then remembered this strange place in Switzerland. So, I submitted my paperwork and I was accepted! Funny enough, I then also ended up working at Art Papers for a while.
Frankly spoken, at that point in my life I hadn’t thought of it much, but by the time I arrived I realized how lucky I got. Reeve was absolutely right! This was precisely the place that I should have gone to. Of course, we have lots of fine institutions in the U.S., but the students that EGS attracts, those were my people. I immediately knew that this was my place.
What makes this institution so unique?
PB: It is indeed a very unique place. First of all, the students are fascinating. Pablo Iglesias of Spain’s Podemos, the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, Micah White of Occupy Wall Steet are only a few of the notable students that attended this school. Then there is the remarkable faculty: Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Avital Ronell, Slavoj Zizek, to name a few. In general, there were folks from all over: Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and so forth. I relished the opportunity to meet all these people from different places and to work together on a wide range of projects. Actually, I continued to maintain relationships with many of the people I met during graduate school. We always try to find ways to collaborate, which is exactly the reason why I cocreated continent. Being so far away from everybody, this enables me to work with my friends.
What also contributed to the uniqueness of this school is its location in Saas Fee. It’s a town where no cars are allowed. So, you have to take every mode of transportation to get there. First, the plane to Geneva, then the train to Brig, then you get on a bus, and finally you have to walk. It’s really lovely.
In terms of education, was it a different experience from what you knew in the U.S. and did you perceive that as typically Swiss?
PB: I think it is just in general a school of a very special nature. Probably the best comparison and maybe an analogue would be the Black Mountain College, which doesn’t exist any longer. But during the middle of the 20th century, there was this place outside of Asheville, NC, that had Joseph Albers and all these now-famous artists and thinkers who were teaching in this place in the middle of nowhere. They called it the Black Mountain College because it was on Black Mountain. So, the school in Saas Fee is sometimes referred to as the White Mountain College. As I said, it is a pretty exceptional place and probably not typical of many other places in Switzerland or abroad.
How do you explain EGS’s role as an incubator for major future artists and thinkers?
PB: What is excellent about this institution is that EGS, and in particular Wolfgang Schirmacher, who was a leading personality there for many years, really meant it when he said: “You shouldn’t go to this school unless you really are fiercely independent and ready to do something very different.” I know that sounds like the sort of thing everybody says. But I think in this case it was true.
To use an analogy from Georgia, let’s take the example of growing tomatoes. The way to grow a tomato is pretty straightforward. You have seeds, some soil and then you build a very minimal structure. You only need a cage, nothing fancy. Basically, that minimal structure is all you need for this thing to thrive. And that’s precisely what EGS provides, a minimal structure. For me, that was exactly what I needed to really flourish and this was probably the strongest lesson that I took back. Another closely related phrase that I got from there is: Plan your work and then work your plan, a method that can be trusted.
In terms of art and philosophy, to what extent do those subjects differ in Switzerland?
PB: Switzerland is the home of so many tremendous thinkers and artists. And there is a precedent for Americans coming to Switzerland and flourishing; Jimmie Durham, for example, studied in Geneva in the 1970s and today he’s a blue chip contemporary artist. It has such a robust history of culture makers, so that being part of that is really thrilling. For example, this summer I was standing next to this statue of Rousseau. I think that is also part of why I am always going back, because there is always so much more to discover. A beautiful place, it’s consistently rewarding.
Tell us a little bit more about the London Biennale exhibition!
PB: Keeping in mind what I just said, participating in the London Design Biennale for Switzerland this summer made me quite anxious. Besides being in such an internationally renowned place, Switzerland received an award for their exhibition at the Biennale in 2017, big shoes to fill!
But let’s start from the beginning: Rebekka Kiesewetter, the curator of this year’s exhibition, had been seeing some of what we at continent. have been doing with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. While in Berlin with Rebekka, we discussed a project we’d done in Paris in 2016. There, we had a small workshop discussing fraternité at the Centre Culturel Suisse at that time. She became very interested and invited us. Working on this exhibition was really an inspiring experience in part because there were so many different teams.
Our team was responsible for making a publication, a printed object. I myself contributed with an article about “friendship.” There is also a website where people can go and look at some photos and texts: it’s named after the title of the exhibition Body of us (www.bodyofus.ch).
The project consisted of several elements, including an audio installation which was a little bit of a nod (I think) to the Dada tradition begun at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. For the audio part, they took random snippets of our e-mails and then voiced them. When you walked into the exhibition room, you would hear that sound. In addition to that, we installed a vitrine on the floor. In fact, it was a massive petri dish, a medium for culturing, containing bacteria from the room and the people who have visited it. The medium was in this agar dyed an almost Lindt chocolate blue color (pointing to the chocolates on the meeting room table), this allowed you to see the dramatic colors as the bacteria flourished. The installation served to illustrate how interrelated we really are. It was very interesting to see that there are so many interactions between us that we aren’t even aware of.
You mentioned the publication continent. earlier. To what extent is it informed by Switzerland?
PB: It’s very much informed by Swiss graphic design, I mean it’s hard not to be. It does speak to where we met. Nina Jäger, Jamie Allen, Bernhard Garnicnig, Vincent Van Gerven Oei, Nico Jenkins, Ben Segal, there were about a dozen of us when we met in 2011 and initially created it as a platform for publishing works that we found very interesting.
Very often, in academic publishing there has been a tendency when publishing online to simply reproduce what we expect to find in printed objects. But, of course, the Internet enables a variety of media to be published: yes, text, but also audio, moving images, interactive elements . . .
When we began working together, our focus was on finding other ways of communicating scholarly work, thoughtful work that stimulates thinking. And as we have progressed, I note a shift toward more of a sculptural and performative journal. We still make special issues online, but we become more and more interested in the word “publication” itself. It occurs to me that, for instance, when I am respiring, that is respiration so maybe publication is the creating of publics. Thinking about public diplomacy, these publics are created through circulation of texts of one form or another. We have been exploring ways of making publics. It really is an invitation to folks to collaborate with us. We are very open in that way.