All the big names on the French-speaking scene, from La Ribot to Gilles Jobin, or Massimo Furlan, went through Arsenic. Since its opening in 1989, when Yvette Yaggi became the trustee of Lausanne, the Center for Contemporary Performing Arts has placed artistic freedom and artists’ projects at the center. With the mission of transgenerational contemporary multidisciplinary creation. Interview with its director Patrick de Rham on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the room, a little postponed due to the Covid pandemic.
You have been directing Arsenic since 2017, after 10 years at the helm of the Festival des Urbaines. What has made Arsenic so successful for over thirty years?
Patrick de Rham: Arsenic made a series of relatively daring aesthetic bets, especially under the direction of Thierry Spicher, inviting Marco Berrettini (dancer and choreographer has just received a Swiss Performing Arts Award, editor’s note) or the Gilles Jobin, those “crazy ones” that no one knew and who came here to create their first pieces. People who were not singled out by the media and politics as the future of art, who thought and created differently. These independent companies, like L’Alakran, run by Oscar Gomez Mata, for example, were not built on the system, but against it: they invented something else.
The successive directions of Arsenic had their noses and took maximum risks. There were unconvincing creations, of course, but also a lot of successes with all these big names in the French-speaking scene, who were faithfully followed from the beginning and presented each of their creations there. At the time, no one would have bet politically and in the media on them. Arsenic played that game, very much in tune with the start-up spirit of the 1990s, in keeping with the idea that the alternative could be tomorrow’s solution.
What is the philosophy of arsenic?
Since its first director, Jacques Gardel, Arsenic has always considered that the work of artists speaks for itself, and that the house or institution would not make its speech, but that we should let them create. independence – my predecessor Sandrine Kuster convinced politicians of the need to develop the working tool. This is the reason for the success of all companies that found a house that did not question its discourse, that approached it as it was and was satisfied with all supports, all durations, all modes of presentation. Elodie Pong, for example, collected the public’s secrets in gigantic installations displayed in the basements of the art center, we remember the mythical performance belly number by Massimo Furlan, who was replaying a football match by himself… The presentations could be long or short, anything was possible, with freedom of discipline and tone, artists who criticized the institution and mainly shook the formal codes. This system of independents and freedom allowed Swiss artists to flourish.
Has the situation changed?
Today, most institutions use their own themes, such as sustainability, inclusivity, horizontality… Themes already present in the art world, now proposed for marketing reasons, including from donors such as Migros. In thirty years, the political marketing of institutions has become immense; these work on his public and political image, which Arsenic does little. It is not in his culture to stop, look and value what has been conquered. Our communication and press sector is tiny. Celebrating these 30 years is an exception.
What are the challenges for Swiss artists today?
The image of the Swiss scene internationally is based on the idea that it is indeed a different scene. We talked about the Swiss scene like the new Belgium, which blew all the codes and came up with something else. La Ribot and his English networks, for example, played a very important role in the development of arsenic: a Franko B came to Lausanne. He was bleeding in the rooms, a doctor had to be present to be able to organize these kinds of perfos. It was a slap in the face to local artists. Thierry Spicher had made this bet to connect hyper-radical international scenes to the local milieu. But it is a fragile success.
Currently, one has the impression that cultural policies want to create integrated institutional systems, without learning the lessons of history. However, what worked for local artists and gave color to the region were the theaters where the companies were independent, like Arsenic, Théâtre de l’Usine, festivals like Bâtie, Belluard… -speaking of Switzerland in Europe, The artists’ originality made their success. Nowadays, we fantasize about centralized systems, thematic programs, and dramaturgical supervision, and that, in my opinion, is a political miscalculation.
What makes Arsenic serve its audience, young and old?
At Arsenic, we didn’t come to celebrate common culture. On the contrary, we come to face the difference. We include a real diversity of views. Different individuals think about the world differently. Art is where these visions find resonance. This plays a big role in our social stability. We saw this clearly in the 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of youth-led movements. It was at this time that francophone cities encouraged the first alternative places, rather than trying to fight them.
What function should art have?
The art world as I understand it offers other narratives to transform our representations of the world. This work of questioning, for example, white culture and dominant masculinity, or bourgeois and academic cultures of yesterday, thanks to which it is possible to express different sensitivities, is essential.
Why honor Arsenic with a publication and archive website, both varnished this Thursday?
We created a kind of database with all the artists’ projects presented since the opening. It’s a bit of a geek thing (laughs). Marco Berrettini presented almost twenty projects here. This allows them to be tracked. We can also identify the accompaniment of international artists and furtive appearances such as that of Romeo Castellucci in 1994. With the publication Arsenic 30, we also provide a more reflective work with Olivier Kaeser, with several contributions that question art. Where are we with the performative form? The idea is not to stay in the past. Arsenic has always been a future-oriented laboratory.
More than 1,200 shows in 30 years, which gives an average of forty shows a year, a considerable production…
We are the place that most co-produces shows by francophone companies, around twenty a year. We present an incredible density of projects, without privileging a particular artistic discipline. We also received a large number of performances from visual artists. L’Arsenic does not work in the project, but it is a support space. We have home businesses that need a place to settle. These are usually not the most famous. Gilles Jobin, Denis Maillefer or the Velma group worked in residence at Arsenic. Velma is undoubtedly among the most multidisciplinary artists and has been co-produced by leading institutions in Europe.
These artists brought a lot to Arsenic. That’s why we like people working at the same time. Five or six companies can create simultaneously thanks to our seven workspaces. The idea is to propose a method of collective inspiration, which involves dialogue, but also confrontation, in any case, many exchanges