In Conversation: Paul Neale

British contemporary artist Paul Neale was born when the Cold War was hot. JJ Marsh asks him about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies. 
paul pic

Image courtesy: Paul Neale

What do ‘Borders’ mean to you?

 A defunct chain of bookshops, quite good I thought.

The imperial response, redivisioning other people’s territory for mostly financial gain and resource acquisition.

Nationalism. Brexit. The Mason Dixon Line, The Maginot Line, The Great Wall of China.

Borders are entities to cross without permission, should you consider you need any. The current crop of wars are redefining so many borders at the moment: physical, ideological, religious, political, media but mostly by the point of a gun, the drop of a bomb, the amputation of a child’s limb. The break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia is another example.

Borderline, something to be crossed or not.

Borderline psychotic borderline insane borderline schizophrenic borderline nuts live or die pass or fail do or don’t do

Borderlands ill defined unpoliced anarchic, rusting coils of barbed wire, radioactive and risky.

The Thin Red Line.

pgn1, Paul Neale

That’s curious. The concept of a ‘red line’ in German is the central argument, the core that holds the whole together. But perhaps that’s what a border is. It’s a theme I wanted to explore with such an artist. You frame or reframe subjects in your work to create an unusual angle of observation. How did such a style develop?

First, I do not think I have a style, at least I didn’t set out to create one. A few years ago after making a whole bunch of drawings for a show, I discovered that my eyes had gone funny and nothing was in focus anymore, so I got glasses and started buying second hand cameras.

Although I purposely set out to work with a predefined set of imagery and transform it into something new, I was not sure how anything would turn out. It was terra incognita for me. Later on I started to work with certain ‘looks’, visual tropes.

I worked by instinct to begin with. Working with pre-existing imagery, changing, using the strategies of collage and appropriation, chance, control, choice, no choice, and so on seemed to be the way. Plus you cut out all judgements of craft/technique. The viewer is, as you say, complicit. It was and remains a way to think about the coded visual environment.

It does seem to me, however, that I am sharing something rather than hitting people over the head with statement imagery.

pgn5, Paul Neale

Agreed. It’s very subtle and yet some of your pieces evoke Picasso’s fractured figures or Bacon’s distorted bodies, immediately striking and visceral, even if the viewer can’t say why. How far is this an attempt to crack open the façade of what beauty actually means?

I sort of use a fixed vocabulary of images. Models on covers, the fit, the bronzed and airbrushed, the post-produced and ready for printing and distribution. Luxury items. Heavy metal. Kind of identikit really, I just move the elements around.

There is a sense of a lens. Sometimes scratched, sometimes out-of-focus but always a reminder that one is a watcher. Much like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, you make the observer complicit and aware of that complicity/responsibility. Would you agree?

It is because I often use an image from a magazine of some kind. We all know how they must have got there, right? So that sense is already part of the viewer’s expectation. What the complicity you mention may be is a sense of the viewer as witness after the event. Any complicity is due to iconographic familiarity. (I can’t believe I just said that.)

pgn2, Paul Neale

I can. How far is your art influenced by where you live? Or do other factors dominate the creative process?

Yes. And. No. Certainly I could use material from say French or Japanese mass-market publications. Having said that, where I live has great museums and libraries. The region has some great arts organisations. There are groups of artists who have set up their own thing, like Aid and Abet or Art Language Location. There is Kettle’s Yard. They continue to do great shows of emerging and established artists.

When your well of inspiration is empty, where do you go, what do you read, whose work do you study? How do you replenish your resources?

Well I am flattered that you think I even have a well to dip into, let alone run dry.

I keep notebooks religiously. I keep a diary. I draw a lot and take photos every single day, I am pretty obsessive. I am not too worried if I am not inundated by mind-blowing ideas twenty-four hours a day. I can’t pretend that my work makes that much difference to anyone except myself. I write as a way of sorting my ideas out.

pgn3, Paul Neale

That sounds familiar. So many artists, authors and creatives I’ve interviewed have endless scraps of ideas knocking about which ‘might come in handy one day’. Who, in your view, are the most exciting artists on the scene today?

Interesting word, exciting …

The Art Market has brought to the fore a whole bunch of fantastic artists and also an even bigger bunch of crap ones. So let’s ignore that. Transition Gallery and Workplace Gallery are good. Galleries pop up all the time.

My favourite artist at the moment is Corinna Spencer, also David Kefford. Paul Muse had a good visual diary. Of the big fish Nan Golding and Steve McQueen, an Oscar and Turner winner. Anybody working in expanded drawing or painting has my vote. Andrew Cross and David Cotterrell are both independent visual thinkers with international reputations. Once I find an artist I can relate to in some way, I tend to keep tabs on them. I am a bit of a fan really. William Kentridge!

In Switzerland you have Fischli and Weiss, and Pipilotti Rist, but I do not know any of anyone in the emergent scene there.

I hesitate to say who has influenced me, German artists mainly. When I was doing my M.A., I was all about the Vietnam War, Robert Mapplethorpe and Oliviero Toscani the Benetton guy, who did the AIDS and starving kids. Powerful. These days I’m hard pressed to say IF I am directly influenced by anyone or not. I look at a lot of art but I am pretty detached really.

lungs, Paul Neale

Why do you make art?

A way of communicating through my shyness and lack of confidence in activities that others find easy. I find as I get older that it is easier to focus on the work itself, but the rest of how I cope is sometimes a bit iffy. Recently, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I have had quite a bit of ‘therapy’ as the Americans say. I feel better now.

Lately I have been working with reflective surfaces, steel and aluminium. There is a certain type of phone box, K 100 I think, which has a blank metal or aluminium back. It reflects just enough of the local area to make things interesting. There are not many of these phone boxes so when I find one it is quite an event. Anyhow I have got better things to do with my time than hunt down mystery phone boxes so I ordered some aluminium sheets and I’ll be using them to make landscapes and self-portraits. I spend a lot of time, it seems, just trudging around shooting stuff.

And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?

I would say that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one that I can read and reread and always find something new to laugh at or admire.

“Get away from me you deranged trollop!” is a typical utterance from Ignatius, and one I have used on many occasions whenever strange girls have made a grab for me or even offered to buy me a drink. I like the character because he is comical, but if you have any idea about mental illness you soon realise the story is rather tragic, dealing as it does with failure and breakdown. He is also surrounded by some of the greatest comic creations to have had a supporting role in a book. Ignatius J. Reilly is also hard to act and hard to illustrate. It is fantastically written with a sublime feeling for New Orleans voices, vernacular and cadences. Unfortunately, the author killed himself. It was his only book. I believe it was published after his death. It is a classic. An epic.

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paulgneale.blogspot.com
Paul is launching Airburst magazine mid-2016.

 

In Conversation: Padraig Rooney

Padraig Rooney spent the best part of 40 years outside his native Ireland and lives in Switzerland. He has published three collections of poetry and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award. His work is anthologised in Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking), Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha), and his short stories appear in Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek). 

padraig rooney

Image courtesy: Padraig Rooney

I’ve read The Gilded Chalet was inspired by a visit to Basel’s Paper Mill and Literary Museum. How did the Earls of Ulster’s journey kick off the idea to explore the relationship between Switzerland and writers?

Clio, muse of history, presides over The Gilded Chalet. In March 2008 there were a number of commemorations in Switzerland and elsewhere, marking the passage of the Earls of Ulster from the Low Countries to Rome in March 1708. They passed through Basel and along the road to Liestal and most likely through the St. Alban Gate, nearby the present Basel Paper Museum. I’m a poet, and I like the way images cohere unexpectedly, bringing together disparate times and events. I’m also an Ulsterman and the sad romance of the end of the old Gaelic order is touching in its political and linguistic ramifications, which the passage of the Earls represents in Irish history. I was brought up a mile from the border during the Troubles, my father was an Irish speaker, and so there was a certain allegiance to a now rather old-fashioned Gaelicism.

You’ve a passion for writers and their locations in a wider sense. What’s at the heart of your interest? The influence of location on their work, their perceptions of the place or is it driven by your own exploratory nature?

I think because I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, I tend to assume place is central to the experience of exile. It may not be. Many of the writers in The Gilded Chalet were exiled in one way or another, and in search of a home. In Irish literature the fashionable term for exiled writers is the diaspora. For Russians at the beginning of the last century, it was the émigré life of Berlin and Paris. Switzerland still seems to me to be a very multicultural place, where people from all over the world congregate and communicate in several languages. It’s not just one homogenous culture, which island nations tend to veer towards.

I left Ireland after graduating in 1976 and haven’t much lived there since. I’ve always been attracted to travel, the details of place, to negotiating the world in several languages—second nature to me now. I do like a good, detailed, particularised setting in fiction, rendered in a painterly way. When there’s a description of a meal, as a reader I want to know what’s on the menu. I like the particulars.

You cover a huge time period in The Gilded Chalet and provide insights into the writers’ private lives as much as their writing. How far was your intention to add a human level to some of our literary icons?

Gossip is an underrated activity. The danger with this kind of book is to make it overly academic—there are enough of those—so some ‘human level’ as you put it, alleviates the tedium of academe. Maybe even a low human level. Byron with his boys and Rousseau with his kids farmed off to the workhouse, present interesting opportunities to showcase canonical writers, warts and all. Nabokov couldn’t have afforded to spend 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel without the cash from the sales of Lolita and from Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The fact that John le Carré was recruited as a spy in Switzerland and is the son of a con man, is no minor matter as regards the direction his fiction has taken him. There are certain dangers in keeping literature in the province of academia, with its critical-reverential approach.

Humour, too, tends to pull down icons: that is a good thing. I wish more people would use humour against the pervasive business culture, executive culture, celebrity culture of our time. These are our new vulgarians for Mammon.

gilded chalet, Padraig Rooney cover image

Cover: The Gilded Chalet Padraig Rooney

When we met in Geneva, I’d just had a lively debate on the subject of academia and the dangers of educators getting stuck in ‘transmit’ mode. Yet you, as a head of an English Department, seem to actively seek the experience of learning, be it travel or researching other authors’ work. Do you make a conscious effort to keep ‘curious’?

Much of education these days is in ‘deliverology’ mode—to borrow a term recently used in the London Review of Books—a mode patented by Tony Blair. The ideology of business has in the past 40 years moved into areas traditionally regarded as hands-off—water, education, health, patenting seeds. The wonderful Noam Chomsky has been writing about this recently too with regard to the use of non-tenured faculty in American universities: the culture of temps. I give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. Caesar is going to steal from you anyway, so you can short-change him now and again! I have to fight for my time and I’m curious by nature.

Much of The Gilded Chalet got written between six and eight in the morning, and then I went into homeroom. It used to be that academia or teaching were favourable occupations for writers but I think that’s no longer the case, and hasn’t been the case for several decades. There’s a lot of fluff talked about fostering creativity in schools. It’s the bottom line which increasingly rules; fluff comes cheap.

A poet, journalist, author and photographer have different constraints/freedoms. Can you hop easily between roles or are they strictly separate? Where do they blend?

The late writer W. G. Sebald pioneered a blend between those formerly distinct modes or genres, and good travel writing that partakes of journalism and a poetic sense. I find that I didn’t write much, if any, poetry while working on The Gilded Chalet. I just didn’t have enough energy. Poetry requires pressure from the poem—you can’t will it into being. Many bad poems come from merely being exercises of the intellect. Poetry is also about waiting, whereas prose can be got on with, a thousand words a day, until you have a draft. So, personally, I wasn’t able to hop easily between them.

padraig pic

You’re a border man. Growing up just on the border of Northern Ireland and now living in Basel, right on the hub of three countries, what effect does that have on a sense of identity?

The fashionable lit-crit jargon for that is liminality, but “a border man” sounds great to my ear. I love moving between the butter people and the olive people, from north to south, and back again. One of my uncles was a small-time smuggler across the Northern Ireland border, and my mother smuggled butter into the South all the time—it was considerably cheaper in the North, and she had five children. So the world of smuggling has a certain appeal in borderland, even in Switzerland.

The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan: “Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I’m writing this in the week the Panama Papers have revealed how the rich and famous smuggle, steal and launder. It’s an imaginative terrain—John le Carré wrote a novel called The Tailor of Panama and Graham Greene tackled Panama somewhat in Getting to Know the General. The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

I sometimes miss, too, the particular language of the border counties, the accent and diction of my parents, surrounded as I am by Anglo-Americanism or globlish. I miss the linguistic pattering of my childhood: bits of Ulster Scots, Gaelic inflections in the English, countrified pronunciation. I sometimes hear the clichés and ready-made phrases of mid-Atlantic English as a vulgar tide, swamping everything.

If you could bring back three characters from The Gilded Chalet for a round-the-table discussion with yourself, who would you choose?

 I’m not sure all three would work round the same table together, so perhaps individually. I’d like to have a coffee with Annemarie Schwarzenbach because I’m translating some of her journalism about 1937-8 New Deal America at the moment. She travelled to the American South at a time of labour unrest and segregation. We might talk about the death of the left, about the current state of American politics. I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov would be very chatty, with nothing off the cuff, but I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and would like to hear his rolling, preening accent in English. Finally, if I sat down with Anthony Burgess I could thank him for a kind review he gave of one of my short stories back in 1976. Late, but better late than never.

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Edmund White described The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland”.

Read more: www.padraigrooney.com/home_blog/

Gallery: Borders

JJ Marsh talks with Paul Neale about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies, and how he works and plays with pre-existing imagery. You can read the interview here.

 

 

Geneva Writers’ Conference

Centers of Wisdom, by Olivia Wildenstein

gwc banner

Conferences are hubs of knowledge and talent. They fuel the imagination and broaden social networks. They are important for every trade, but especially for writers, since writing is such a solitary job.

In Geneva, on the weekend of the 19th of March, a large group of authors and agents came together at Webster University to discuss writing and publishing. It was an exciting weekend, jam-packed with workshops and Q&As that shed light on how to transform your manuscript into a gripping masterpiece, and land that coveted publishing contract or self-publish it with success.

The first time I put a book out into the world, Ghostboy, Chameleon & the Duke of Graffiti, I did it without a master plan. I just wanted to publish my story, because I loved my characters and thought they deserved better than being locked up inside my computer, along with all the others I’d made up over the years. Also, I wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ when people asked if I’d published anything. I wanted to feel like a real author. Now, after the conference and the months of work I put into the launch of my second novel, The Masterpiecers, I realize that I should have had a master plan. Not because Ghostboy wasn’t received well—it was—but because it took me a year to slip it into the hands of more or less five hundred readers.

 

gwc group

At the conference, I gleaned new strategies from other self-published writers like Jill Marsh, who emphasized the importance of finding your tribe, because they are the people whose criticism will be the most constructive and whose encouragements will be the most sincere. Where do you find your tribe? In targeted Facebook groups, at conferences, in writing groups. In today’s ultra-connected world, the possibilities are endless. Even if you live in the most remote town in Switzerland, you can join websites dedicated to people who write in the same genre as you do.

Liz Jensen’s workshop was not to be missed. Her novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is currently being turned into a film. She wasn’t exuberant in her way of ‘teaching’, and she didn’t throw around big smiles to charm us, but she explained the mechanics of storytelling in a way that made you want to pick up a pen and write the best book of your life. She used examples like Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment, where children were all given a marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get a second one. Some ate it, some waited. Forty years later, the people organizing the study looked up these children. The ones who’d waited had been more successful in life than the others. Jensen used the example to demonstrate that giving your character a desire, but not fulfilling it on page one, will create greater gratification for the reader at the end.

Then we played around with different plot techniques to raise the stakes in a story. Your character needs to get from point A to point B, but things keep happening that hinder his journey. Here’s the example Jensen used: you need to go to the hospital because your mother is ill. There’s a traffic jam. Then you find yourself involved in a car accident where you’ve hit a person. A mother and her child. The mother dies. When you search for papers to phone the baby’s next of kin, you realize she was an immigrant, and therefore carries no papers. There’s no one around. This will create a great dilemma for your character, and dilemma is essential to a terrific character arc. “Put your protagonist through hell,” advises Jensen.

gwc daniela

The other author whose workshop I attended was a prodigious show-woman and storyteller: Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle. Unlike Jensen, she used her workshop hour to explore a selection of short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s Popular Mechanics and Alice Walker’s The Flowers. Studying writing is essential to writing, which made the time well spent. We analyzed how writers can create tension and satisfaction using very few words. The other memorable moment of Hood’s workshop was when she shared with us something she’d heard from author Grace Paley: “No story is one story. There’s the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. And the climax is when they collide.”

So once you have that great story written down in a neatly edited pile of words, what do you do with it? Enter the agent. You hook one, they champion your work and sell it to a major publishing house, and then you’re gold. Although part of this is true, it’s a simplistic view of the publishing system. There is still a lot of work involved on the author’s part: social networking, building a mailing list, accumulating reviews and entering competitions. An agent will help with some of this, but they won’t do your job for you. And that mammoth publishing house won’t either. Very few books are even allotted a marketing budget. But you do have a team to assist you with cover design, manuscript edits and placing your book in brick-and-mortar shops and libraries. Those are not trivial parts of the publishing process, but in a way, for having done it twice now, they’re the easiest part.

Conferences will challenge you, unlock new prospects and instigate key relationships. But most importantly, they will make you a wiser writer, and wisdom is tantamount to success.

olivia pic

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Olivia Wildenstein lives with her husband and three children in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’s an active member of the writing community.

http://oliviawildenstein.com/

 

 

Making Tracks

Summer is a laid-back season for events and competitions in writing and the arts, but there are always a few tasty morsels out there in the wilds of Zürich and beyond … especially for those who like a writing retreat.

Partial image, courtesy Paul Neale

Partial image courtesy: Paul Neale

Kaufleuten has a selection of cultural events and readings planned for the coming months, including an evening with Donna Leon on 13 June www.kaufleuten.ch/event/donna-leon

Openair Literatur Festival Zürich, 11-17 July: Readings and other lively lit events, mostly in German but also with David Mitchell and Nell Zink www.literaturopenair.ch/hauptprogramm

Geneva Writers’ Group, 11 June: End-of-year panel discussion in Geneva on “What’s New in Publishing and Marketing” www.genevawritersgroup.org/Programs-Workshops

Webinar, 9 June: The Germany/Austria chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), with literary agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, on “Creating Memorable Middle Grade Characters”  germanyaustria.scbwi.org/events/creating-memorable-middle-grade-characters-webinar-with-agent-stephanie-fretwell-hill/

Writing, music and yoga retreat, 19-26 June: Writing in a wellness context, with Deborah Moffitt, in the Italian part of Switzerland. www.awakeintheworld.com

Paris Writers’ Workshop, 26 June – 1 July: this year with workshops for novels, short stories and novellas, poetry and creative non fiction, as well as expert panels, author readings and social events. pariswritersworkshop.org

Writing retreat, 29 August to 4 September: gain writing confidence in a French Château, with teacher Clay Tennis.

Paris Writers’ Retreat, 5-9 September:  www.pariswritersretreat.com

Video interview series: As part of the Zürich-meets-London festival, art and performance collective Neue Dringlichkeit and ImpactHUB Zürich are releasing weekly video instalments of interviews with Zürich creators and entrepreneurs around entrepreneurial futurism, including the future of work and the creative economy. Watch this space: how-dare-you.org

The Voyage Out: Mr. Pinocchio

Susan Platt

A stone’s throw away from Zürich’s traffic nexus Bellevue, at a safe distance from Bahnhofstrasse’s extravagant and standardised luxury retail windows, sits one of the city’s best-kept, playful secrets. Behind glass windows, an eclectic selection of books, toys and vintage calendars with motifs from the 1950s vie for attention, giving off just the slightest hint of the million wonders that await inside.

Mr Pinocchio by Lyle Deschant

Mr. Pinocchio signage, image courtesy Lyle Deschant, license CC BY

Italian born and bred, but having moved to Zürich for love in her twenties, Antonella Ghelardi Keiser had a passion for stories and storytelling that sparked the idea of opening a small bookshop to be able to provide reading material in her mother tongue for her own two children. When a small location in a side street off Rennweg became available, Antonella jumped at the opportunity and opened Zürich’s then-first multilingual children’s bookshop in 2001, with a modest selection of classic children’s books in Italian, English, German and French. Honouring her roots, she named it after one of the world’s most beloved characters in children’s literature who had sprung from the pen of an Italian author: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Antonella

Image courtesy: Antonella Ghelardi Keiser

The lovingly selected choice of books and toys soon caught the attention of Zürich’s international community, and Mr. Pinocchio became a popular hotspot for both parents and young readers of all ages and nationalities. Four years into its existence, the shop had outgrown its premises and moved into better-located grounds on Oberdorfstrasse, where it still resides today.

From the get-go, the store has been powered exclusively by a small group of women, among whom is Antonella’s daughter Giulietta—when she is not tied up in her studies at Zürich University. “It is a real family affair,” Antonella laughs, and her eyes sparkle with joy whenever she talks about her ‘libreria’ and the small team that keeps it going.

Antonella’s zest for life as well as her knack for nostalgic items have been infused into the small space, and are almost tangible. More often than not, those who enter Mr. Pinocchio’s magical realm find themselves hopelessly lost in childhood memories, discovering and re-discovering books and toys from their own past, while on the hunt for the perfect gift for their youngster or a god-child.

Those looking for the latest commercial toy craze will not be successful here. Everything on the shelves has been handpicked and acquired in small quantities by Antonella, on her frequent travels throughout Europe.

AliceInWonderlandPopUp

Image courtesy: Susan Platt

Each item here tells a story, tickles the brain or takes you on a trip down memory lane. The paper pop-up books, of which there is a whole array on Mr. Pinocchio’s shelves, attract collectors from all over Europe and have been a staple product of the business for over 15 years. Today, they are flanked by children’s classics and picture books in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and even Russian and Croatian.

Alongside the books, masterfully crafted hand puppets, wooden model sets, colourful instruments and room decorations jostle for attention with building- and experimental kits, gruesome fake teeth and whoopee cushions—all of these comprising the many quirky and ever-growing categories of treasures.

When asked how the addition of these items came about, Antonella simply smiles and quotes Italian writer and educator Gianni Rodari:

“Vale la pena che un bambino impari piangendo quello che può imparare ridendo?”

“Is it worth it for a child to learn while crying, when they could learn while laughing?”

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www.mr-pinocchio.ch

Notes from the Unexpected: The Rote Fabrik

Images and text: DB Miller

Another day, another train ride—and the whoosh of brick, graffiti and thicket still makes little sense. A constant of the commute and Zürich’s most unlikely landmark, the sprawling red jumble not only follows its own logic, but dares to do so on what is now prime lakefront property.

Then again, the Rote Fabrik got here first.

NFTU RF1

At one time a silk-weaving mill on the outskirts, the ‘red factory’ dodged the wrecking ball in the early 1970s to eke out a new life as a cultural center. Its real rebirth came in 1980, when throngs of the young and forgotten rejected the establishment definition of culture—which infamously excluded rock music and the more experimental youth arts scene. Words mattered when the lavish funding went elsewhere, mainly to the Zürich Opera House. But history ran its course: riots ensued, the Fabrik got its subsidies and, within a generation, unsuspecting opera audiences might catch some full-frontal before the night was through.

Today, the Rote Fabrik churns out a packed program of theater and dance, as well as reams of rock, indie, rap and jazz gigs. The organization behind the cultural center is also responsible for the themed events, from poetry slams to debates about the migrant crisis. With its bustling agenda, the place has its fans. Or maybe it’s just because the Rote Fabrik is the only spot I know where the heavily-inked, stroller-bound and chess-playing are equally welcome to grab some homemade carrot cake and mill around the still-drying tags. For some, it’s all a bit messy.

NFTU RF2

“Like the zoo,” says Sarah, one of 17 in the management team, “I think sometimes people see us as a zoo. As in, what we do over here is just about acceptable, but at least it’s contained.”

NFTU RF3 The site does appear unruly, with its concert halls, artists’ studios and sailing school, not to mention the bike shop, kindergarten, museum and restaurant. As much of this is tucked away or camouflaged by graffiti, extra time must be budgeted to find the right door. And then, there is the exotic way things run: as a collective.

Here, equal salaries reign and inexperience counts. As Sarah puts it, “It’s not as easy to understand as a bank.” But rules are in place—the team is adamant that tolerance not be confused with anarchy—and those who become a member of the Rote Fabrik get to shape it.

I look through the industrial-sized windows at the lake. Just out of view, a new multi-million-franc walkway juts into the water and connects the Rote Fabrik to more familiar shores. A marina, swanky restaurant and boutiques are only five minutes away—and their counterpoint, five back.

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www.rotefabrik.ch Seestrasse 395, 8038 Zürich

NFTU RF8

 DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter