“You’re right in saying that it is an examination of power, because power needs to be examined in order to be structured”
Brad Feuerhelm: Switzerland, the land of cheese, sovereign rule, banking, intense borders and nearly mandatory gun ownership. When you began this project you were aware of this…infrastructure of power and of borders, did you start the work by trying to gain access to the less difficult aspects of your project like the use of the ar-15 firearm, the border itself etc., or did you try and trigger (pun intended) a relationship with the controlling mechanisms of the border and interior ministry? Where did you start?
Salvatore Vitale: There is a lot to say about Switzerland. Especially if you are from abroad. Well, I feel an active part of this country, I spent almost half of my life here, that’s why I think it is needed for me to go deeper and deeper in the knowledge of this beautiful, but at the same time obscure country. Everything started a couple of years ago, after a vote against massive immigration in the country happened the 9th February 2014. With that, we experienced something very close to what British people are figuring out these last weeks with BREXIT, and I personally felt it to be quite painful. I decided not to take it in a destructive way, but I’ve been holding my rage and sadness and am starting to understand the reasons why it happened.
This led me to start an in depth research on the cultural development of Switzerland, starting from its history further to the way that cultural and social issues connect to the way Swiss people are educated and live nowadays. It is a path carved by a word that is constantly appearing: Security. How to depict something this abstract in concept, but at the same time so proliferate in the Swiss culture? My intention is to develop a visual and social research inquiry, which can’t be done without entering in contact with the institutions and actors that are part of this efficient and huge production of security in the country. So yes, I tried to enter, to gain the access. This is still the hardest and most time consuming part of the job, but thanks to some collaborators, I have started along the way. With a dose of luck and a lot of perseverance, I managed to get more and more into the system, collaborating and working with actors, professionals and experts in several institutions and fields.
BF: I find it fascinating that as a Sicilian living in Switzerland…Lausanne, correct?…that you are able to gain access to these places that in a country like America would be under complete lock down, why do you perceive the Swiss would let you, a foreigner in to examine and confront these otherwise “blacked out” spaces of power with a camera…for an art project?
SV: This question touches a couple of good points that can explain why a Sicilian living in Switzerland …– Lugano! – started this kind of research.
One of the main reasons comes from the Swiss culture. For Swiss people this security system is part of their cultural heritage. This means not to feel it. It is very interesting how the first level of security in Switzerland is people – they are self-controlled. But if you come from abroad – especially from a messy place like Sicily – then everything becomes fascinating, but obscure at the same time. I want to underline anyway, that all of this is not starting from someone who just moved from a country to another. It is not led by the natural curiosity which the impact with a different culture brings, (I’m crossing the border right now… that is valuable, isn’t it?) but is part made by someone who has had lived several years and assimilated in part the new culture. It is very interesting for me to speak about it with people who are from abroad. At the end, you really understand that the knowledge people have of Switzerland is mostly based on the clichés you mentioned before. Actually, this country, is an example of transparency. Let me explain it: it is very hard to gain access like in every other country – or even more –, but as far as you manage to gain the trust of people and you are able to show your professionalism, then you can open some doors. Of course, I’m not saying that it is easy or that you can have total access, but at least there is a chance. Trust me, you can’t even imagine how scholars, institutions, people who work in very specific areas are excited when someone comes to de-contextualize their practice to give it a sort of “art aurea”. This helps a lot!
“I see myself more like a scholar who is elaborating a visual analysis than a revolutionary artist who fights the power. My intent is not to fight, but to question the production of security in the most secured country in the world”
BF: Do you have to sign some sort of waver or affidavit suggesting that you will only use your images with permission or is it some sort of bizarre “Control.Model Release” where in by you are not even asked? Do the guards, powers that be or officials ask to see these images or need to stamp an “Ok” on them before you leave?
SV: Yes, it happened. Luckily only with one institution, so far. There are also a couple of pics I submitted for approval but I can’t use. That is part of the game somehow. Can we call it excess of security? Or censorship? I don’t want to enter these kinds of topics as they are not the focus of my visual research. The officials have explained to me the reasons for declining images etc….which were generally quite reasonable. Let’s call it a deal: a small (?) price to pay to be inside!
BF: Have you found official behavior aggressive at any point? Have you had images deleted or have you yourself been put on any state list? I can only think of people like Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon amongst others that must be on some kind of list, not as dangers per se, but someone like Paglen…how the fuck do guys like you get away with this? It is a total examination of power. In the usual circumstances, as within “Merica”, this sort of examination comes at a high price of having your life scrutinized, especially as a foreigner?
SV: I don’t know if my name is on any list and I honestly hope it is not! But, as I said, working from the inside brings you into another level where you probably don’t have total freedom – you’re controlled – but at the same time you can be able to show how the mechanism works. You’re right in saying that it is an examination of power, because power needs to be examined in order to be structured. You know, I can’t hide the fact that I’ve been questioning myself a lot about how to proceed, how to make it, how to sort of protect myself. It would be so easy to get in trouble. But I see myself more like a scholar who is elaborating a visual analysis than a revolutionary artist who fights the power. My intent is not to fight, but to question the production of security in the most secured country in the world. A production which is part of the everyday life in Switzerland. In doing so, I connect it with the present history – made by bankrupts, terrorism, migration etc. – but also with the impact history have had on the development of this system.
I don’t feel myself – and I don’t feel people like Trevor Paglen or Taryn Simon – being enemies of the system. We just come up with some questions and the need of understanding things deeply. Transparency always pays!
“Everything is done to enhance efficacy and efficiency”
BF: Borders, anti-septic spaces, non-spaces, illusions of minimal cleanliness meant to contain the human pathological condition of border crossing…I am looking at the border control rooms in your images and am reminded very much of Thomas Demand whose work, rooms which look completely fabricated towards the simulacra of power, look overly realistic, yet hint at the cheap façade of post-war twenty-first century living. Yet I know from your work that “your rooms” are not constructs of the same kind…they become constructs of the unseen and of the mind and are invoked to contain refugees, asylum seekers and undesirables from entering a country. By their anti-septic state, they feel more like a operating theatre in which a removal of cancer would be performed…that is not to say I or you identify with immigrants as a cancer, but the sterile cold environments in which they must be contained talk of cellular massing, containment and controlling something potentially infectious or dangerous to the collective body…do you suspect these rooms are constructed to give this impression or is it a functional space in which we must examine capitalism, infrastructure and aesthetics within the environment of control?
SV: I can say this metaphor of the cancer you’re describing is true, for sure the level of attention on this work would triplicate. But no, I can’t cheat. Even if the reason why these cells, rooms, check-in points, look as fabricated as a Thomas Demand’s diorama, is likewise interesting for me. That is Switzerland and it can’t be any other place in the world. That is the minimalism in which we live, the cleanliness, the integrity, the clinical flavour which enforce the practice of control. Everything is studied and placed in order not to allow any unwanted situation, any loss of control. Everything is done to enhance efficacy and efficiency. For instance, everything to see in the photos is literally embedded in walls and floor in order to prevent any situation in which object can be used as a weapon or, in other cases, for self-destruction.
These features can be found not only in the border, but in countless places in the country. It is, again, a cultural heritage, which shows of course in the mechanisms of power, but also in the well-known Swiss objectivity.
BF: There is something under the surface of the Border work. I can’t place my finger on it…there is something of a darkness present in the empty rooms, the overhead lights and the conditions of isolation…a dystopia forms, knowing you personally of our talks of life, music, and many other things that are a bit bleak, this work is given another layer for me…is this perhaps a chance to render dystopia? Am I wrong in thinking that these works are not merely political in terms of current society, but also seek to look at “the void of the everyday” under our current human condition of life on the brink of devastation in the age of the anthropocene?
SV: Very interesting reading Brad. I’m not a fan of a presumed total objectivity. Of course we put our personal experience in everything we do and tell. The time I spent at the borders has been an intense time. I’ve been crossing them thousands of times, it becomes such a natural action when you live close to a border, but you know, entering and seeing how it works from the inside allows you to go back, stop for a moment and analyze its meaning. I’ve been totally immersed in a wide spectrum of activities, going from car controls to the migrant crisis, from illegal trades to preventive detentions. What I’ve seen is a system in its integrity, a system made of mans and machines, a system made in order not to leave anything left, the first fortification, the frontline. The way I approached all of this it is for sure my personal way of underline this efficiency and, at the same time, the aseptic, the impersonal, the clinical. Actions, places, people are merely mechanical, the result of a chain in which every single ring is places in the right place, but at the same time there is not space for randomness – or what we can call, maybe, sentiment –. And, as literature teaches, when things get sterile and redundant, humans start to collapse.
“What I’ve seen is a system in its integrity, a system made of mans and machines, a system made in order not to leave anything left, the first fortification, the frontline”
BF: Firearms, can you explain how it works in Switzerland being the heaviest armed country in the world, yet there isn’t as much gun crime per capita as say…you guessed it…fucking America? Why do you think that might be? Is there something about the Swiss mind set in general or could it be the Swiss are not confronted with “otherness” or outsiders for the most part due to the stringent controls of their borders…lotta whiteface up in Switzerland, no?
SV: As you well said, Switzerland is one of the heaviest armed countries after America and Yemen, but they are statistics and, as you may know, statistics must to be read. The real difference here is that many people have a gun because of the draft. People here go to the army since they are 18 years old […] As a soldier you have to take the rifle at home with you until the moment in which you end your service. This is due to the fact that every citizen must be ready in the case of a possible threat. But if we also look at another context which goes out of the army and militia, you can find out that so many Swiss have it as a passion. It is very common here to fire a gun for sport, there are also national days where several communities meet up to fire guns.
Although all of this, gun crime per capita don’t exist almost. This is due to several reasons: one for sure can be what I previously said, people are self-behaved. But, for sure, all the heavy mechanism of control and security. I see it to be quite hard here to hear about a fireman in a shopping center killing several people. The social infrastructure is build up to avoid everything that can go out of control. It is builded up on the respect of the civic rules.
BF: For the series “Instructions”, which is part of the larger body of work, you specifically chose a Swiss, non-Swiss looking character to illustrate the training manual for rifle usage. The man is dressed in simple street clothing, non-descript and apart from questions of the aforementioned possibilities of “otherness” seems to give the look of the young “everyman”. Can you explain a bit about this choice of “character” for the manual? I sense a humorous push and pull involved, but I cannot be positive.
SV: The totality of my work is based on the idea of instructions, procedures and manuals. This visual research explores the ways in which things that are elusive – such as safety and security – becomes stabilized through standard operating procedures. The aim is to capitalize on the actual fluidity or abstractness of the country’s security measures, as well as to focus upon the “matter-of- fact” types of instructions, protocols, bureaucracies and clear-cut solutions that are applied to what is, in fact, a highly fleeting phenomenon.
Browsing the internet I found the official instruction manual of the Swiss assault rifle. I found it to be quite weird to have an easy access to a document which perfectly illustrates how to use a rifle. Starting from there I decided to shoot all the pictures in the manual in order to give back a photographic image of something elusive which becomes so normal in a country in which a large part of the population knows how to use that rifle. The choice of this “everyman” is due, on the one hand to my wish to underline a typical Swiss situation, with a man who can be Swiss or not Swiss, who can be an enemy or not, who can represent the “others”, but at the same time it is only a matter of appearance. My subject is a Swiss guy, at the end of the day. On the other hand this humorous push – as you called it – can, somehow, bring people to think about the inner meaning of who the enemy is, what does it means security and protection and how do we really believe we have to securitize our everyday life!
BF: The Control State is an ever-constricting idea. Cameras, borders, identity checks, where do you see it and your project heading?
SV: Well, I found it out that I’m living in the city which became the most surveilled city in Europe. You can easily imagine how I feel this topic to be close!
But yes, well said, Control State is an ever-constricting idea. As I told you, I didn’t start my project seeking for this need of explaining how surveillance works or how we, as photographers, deal with it. I was more interested on the cultural side of it, connected to the most secured country in the world. So, where does all this need for protection, security, borders, fear for a possible enemy come from? Why in a country that has not even experienced a war although its position in the center of Europe people feel this big need for protection? Why do we all live with this feeling that something has to happen from a moment to the other? How do the actors who are in charge to protect us accomplishing this task? What is the role of security systems and how does all of this is social perceived and accepted by citizens? What are we ready to renounce to in order to be safe?
As you can see, there are many questions and many answers. My project is trying to give an understanding of it and to offer a photography through an example of efficiency, but at the same time, a long social development of a culture of security. That’s why my aim is to show HOW TO, how does it works and I’m doing it from the inside.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Salvatore Vitale.)