Who Belongs to the “Freie Szene”? Or How Does Contemporaneity Become a Criterion for Exclusion

Alexandra Portmann*


The essay takes the production zwei zu zwei by Sumitra and Anjali Keshava and Ralph and Norwin Tharayil as a starting point to investigate institutional dramaturgy at the Kaserne Basel, one of the largest production houses in German speaking Switzerland. Since 2018, the Kaserne team aims to critically examine internal structures, conventions and ways of working, as well as to open up the institution to new audiences and, most importantly, to a diverse artistic practice that reflects on the post-migrant reality of Basel. Thus, the essay raises two central issues about the working method of the “Freie Szene” as a production system in the so-called contemporary German-speaking European theatre. The first issue is the canonized narrative that the independent theatre community operates as a successful form of institutional criticism. Second is the consideration of structural discrimination and racism in the field of “Freie Szene” along quality criteria such as contemporariness.

Keywords: institutional dramaturgy, independent theatre, Switzerland, contemporariness as evaluation criteria, institutional criticism

What is the independent scene? Who belongs to it? How does one become part of it? The choreographer and dancer Sumitra Keshava poses these questions in the performance zwei zu zwei, which premiered on June 24, 2021, in the Kaserne Basel, one of the largest production houses in the German-speaking region of Switzerland. Here, I take this production as a starting point to consider institutional dramaturgy at the Kaserne Basel.

Since 2018, the Kaserne team aims to critically examine internal structures, conventions and ways of working, as well as to open up the institution to new audiences and, most importantly, to a diverse artistic practice that reflects on the post-migrant reality of Basel. These questions posed by Keshava raise two central issues about the working method of the “Freie Szene” as a production system in the so-called contemporary German-speaking European theatre.

The first issue is the canonized narrative that the independent theatre community operates as a successful form of institutional criticism. Second, is the consideration of structural discrimination and racism in the field of “Freie Szene” along quality criteria such as contemporaneity.

In the German-speaking European countries, there is a unique dual theatre system divided into subsidized municipal and state theatres, and the independent theatre and performing arts community (“Freie Szene”). The “Freie Szene” has its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, when collective artistic practices established new ways of working together in theatre and performance. The method of collaboration was to move outside established institutions and was clearly a gesture of institutional critique (Büscher 19). But from the 1980s, the independent scene began to institutionalize itself. This is expressed in the introduction of a new funding system (mainly project funding), the establishment of independent production houses and the development of professional networks (for example, the formation of IETM—an international network for contemporary performing art), or co-production networks between production houses and festivals (Fülle 12).

Furthermore, the impact of the establishment of new study programs at universities and art schools must be considered. Studies programs such as the practice-oriented theatre studies curriculum at the University of Giessen (established in 1982) are training mainly for the field of the “Freie Szene.”  According to Paul DiMaggio, marketplace independency (for example, through subversion) and establishing strong ties to art practitioners and universities are crucial factors for forming performance art institutions. These are, then, considered to be part of the so-called high-culture sector in the U.S.A. at the beginning of the twentieth century (DiMaggio 43–47). Although DiMaggio’s case studies are very different from the subject matter at hand, both temporally and geographically, the two criteria that were mentioned (relationship to the market and education) seem to be helpful in discussing the constitution of the field of art, or even a specific understanding of high culture. On the one hand, it points out the fact that this concept of a practice being considered art is decisively formed along production and educational conventions. On the other hand, these two criteria imply a connection to ideas of aesthetics and premises, which are going to be critically discussed here regarding the question of in- and exclusion mechanisms in the field of the “Freie Szene.”

Annemarie Matzke’s reflections in “Die Freie Szene gibt es nicht” suggest the independent theatre and performance scene differs mainly on a structural level: here, forms of cooperation, decision-making processes and hierarchies are negotiated anew from project to project, while the structures in the municipal theatre are predetermined by a hierarchical structure centered on the director (Regisseur*in) and on a higher level the artistic director (Intendant*in).

In her PhD thesis, Der neue Geist des Kollektivs, Vera Nitsche analyses the theatre debate in Germany during the 1990s, which took mainly place in scientific journals and newspapers and negotiated the changing cultural policy.[1] Within the debate, the narrative of the juxtaposition of municipal theatres and the independent theatre and performance scene is formed, which also means that the independent scene is presented as a (successful) expression of institutional critique. The new forms of cooperation represented innovation, promising new impulses that contrasted with the usual business of municipal theatre (Nitsche 205–06). The opposition of innovation (independent scene) and tradition (municipal theatre) still dominate the debate.

In recent years, studies and research show a critical examination of the canonized narrative that leads to an institutional critique. The hierarchical, predominantly male, focus on the director also contrasts with the flexible structures of the independent scene. With such flexibility, however, comes increased precarity of work, equating entrepreneur-like structures with the independent scene, and therefore often framed within a neoliberal paradigm.[2] Organized as a form of freelance work, it is particularly precarious regarding the social security and disadvantages of females and queers. This is discussed, for example, by Bojana Kunst in Artists at Work. Proximity of Art and Capitalism (146–53) or Angela McRobbie in Be Creative (87–114). The social science studies on employment in the performing arts support these arguments, especially regarding management positions and wage distributions.[3]

These important studies on economic conditions in the cultural sector, as well as the understanding of labor as something creative, project-bound, and time-limited work, focus primarily on precarious working conditions and power structures in general. However, these power structures must be critically observed from a perspective of race, and one must look within this perspective for unquestioned regulations that are the cause of exclusions in an institutional structure. And this is brought into focus primarily by artists and scholars of color. An important contribution is the anthology Allianzen. Kritische Praxis an weißen Institutionen, edited by Julian Warner and Elise Liebsch.

In this essay, I would like to follow up on the argument that unquestioned regulations and production conventions conserve theatres as primarily white institutions. Beyond that, however, I would like to address the clear focus on the aesthetic and epistemological premises, informed by postcolonial and decolonial theory, and thus focus on the quality criteria of contemporaneity. I argue that the criteria of quality in the evaluation of theatre and dance are the basis of structural discrimination and racism. With opaque quality criteria, different artistic practices are implicitly divided into a hierarchical order that distinguishes between art and folklore or socio-culture. David Lloyd speaks of a racialized regime of aesthetics manifested by the theory of Western European aesthetic philosophy since the Enlightenment (Lloyd 7–8). Likewise, Walter Mignolo argues that the formation and control of taste, as a central criterion of aesthetic philosophy since the Enlightenment, hierarchizes certain aesthetics over others. (Mignolo 50). Thus, critical engagement with an understanding of theatre and dance informed by aesthetic theory is a central starting point to unpack the racial logic in the field of theatre and performance.

Keshava/Tharayil, zwei zu zwei (Two to Two). Video: Michelle Ettlin

Using the example of the production zwei zu zwei, I want to address concrete strategies and tactics that aim toward the accessibility to the Kaserne Basel. These have been undertaken since the change of artistic leadership in 2018 to Sandro Lunin and his team. The Kaserne Basel positions itself as wanting to open the production house to new aesthetics, practices, and ways of working in a local and intercontinental perspective. These are an essential part of the institutional dramaturgy of the Kaserne Basel. Institutional dramaturgy involves different actions by the institution itself. Internally, a shift in structures, conventions, and decision-making processes is needed; externally, it involves different communication strategies and marketing methods, program design, and hosting public events outside the regular performance schedule. Through these actions, the institution brings itself forth in a performative matter (Kunst 92). I am following here Kati Röttger’s notion of dramaturgy as “work on drama” and Peter Boenisch’s understanding of institutional “dramaturgy as an analytical concept” (Röttger 346–47; Boenisch 80). Both Röttger and Boenisch discern the relationship between aesthetic practices and aesthetic values, a relationship also negotiated in concepts of theatre and dance.

At the Kaserne Basel, a strategy of localization and translocalization is used to extend access to the institution to different artists and forms of aesthetics. In this article, I will only focus on the strategy of localization, and I will use Dipesh Chakrabatry’s concept of provincialization (2008) to unpack this strategy and to show how localization actively engages with epistemological violence that is perpetuated by judgment, classification, and, ultimately, by the promotion of certain artistic practices above others. The strategy of localization centers the examination of art practices in a city and focuses on its multiplicities, which is reflecting a post-migrant urban society in its heterogeneity. Localization not only means to make these practices visible for an institution but also brings the responsibility of such to make these practices visible to funding organizations and reviewers, and thus to a broader field of “Freie Szene.”

An intersectional perspective allows me to highlight assemblages and overlay different forms of discrimination in the field of performing arts and situate them in a broader historical and socio-political context (Gutierrez Rodriguez 18–19). With the critical examination of the quality criterion of contemporaneity, I would like to discuss not only the racist implications in connection with an understanding of theatre and dance but, above all, to discuss concrete structural exclusions (such as co-production, obtaining funding, access to infrastructures and gaining reviews). Thus, my arguments build on the central studies on precarious working conditions in the field of the independent scene. But my argument is extended in that way, that along with implicit understandings of art, the precarious work condition for artists of color or artists with migration backgrounds is reinforced. This is especially the case when noncustomary Western theatre and dance aesthetics or content-related ideas are reproduced.

The Production zwei zu zwei as an Expression of the Institutional Dramaturgy of the Opening of the Kaserne Basel

The production zwei zu zwei was developed by two pairs of siblings, Anjali and Sumitra Keshava, professional Bharatanatyam dancers and choreographers, and Ralph and Norwin Tharayil, who work at the intersection of literature, music and audio art. All four were equally involved in direction, choreography, script development and performance. The thematic starting point of the production is the “archive of their common encounters” (Ralph and Norwin Tharayil, Sumitra and Anjali Keshava), which is narrated within the format of a fictional dance lesson of Bharatanatyam. Accordingly, the performance is divided into different chapters, which not only structure the dance lesson into the thematic focal points (standing, walking, looking, speaking, and feeling), but also connect different narrative levels along these keywords. I had the opportunity to attend the performance premiere in June 2021, to watch the video documentation provided by the Produktionsdock— the production office—and to interview the artistic team. Examining these different materials and through collaborative discussions, I was able to distinguish two major narratives in the performance. The first addresses the different post-migrant realities of the four artists. Various documentary materials used within the performance such as videos and childhood photographs are crucial authorization strategies. The second narrative examines their individual artistic practices (for example, Bharatanatyam, writing at the intersection of literature, audio art, and music) and addresses mechanisms of exclusion, discrimination and, ultimately, racism by reflecting on epistemological and aesthetic premises.

Ralph Tharayil, zwei zu zwei, Photo: Ismael Lorenzo

Bharatanatyam is one of the eight classical Indian dance styles which works with strong references to Indian mythology and literature. In Switzerland, the Kalasri dance ensemble and school in Basel, founded by the parents of Anjali and Sumitra Keshava in 1976, is promoting this classical dance practise in the German-speaking region of Switzerland. The artistic team of zwei zu zwei worked together for the first time in this production. They met in 2019 during the Atelier Neue Schweiz project, a collaboration between the Kaserne Basel, the Literaturhaus Basel and the post-migrant think and act tank Institut Neue Schweiz.

Within the framework of Atelier Neue Schweiz, the two Basel-based institutions Kaserne and Literaturhaus approached the question of how their operational structures, practices, and conventions must be transformed to do justice to a post-migrant urban society. The project goals were, first, to promote diversity and cultural participation in programming and audiences; second, to build a multi-voiced community of cultural practitioners with migration knowledge in and from Basel; and third, to search for new participatory formats.

The project was divided into three phases. The first consisted of comprehensive research into cultural practitioners in and from Basel. For this first phase, those responsible for the project identified more than 300 people artistically active and connected to Basel (Mateos). Hannah Pfurtscheller, coordinator and dramaturg of the section theatre and dance in Kaserne Basel, states that it was important that this research thought across disciplines and consciously looked for transdisciplinary practices. It becomes apparent that by considering transdisciplinary working methods, the categories of dance, theatre, and performance soften and other artistic practices emerge. The second phase was divided into a laboratory and two public events. As part of the laboratories, two workshops were organized (16–17 February 2019 and 11 June 2019) and 50 people were invited. Pfurtscheller claims the establishment of a wide-ranging network consisting of artists, activists and institutions in and from Basel as the central result of the project Atelier Neue Schweiz (Pfurtscheller). Five curators were chosen within the framework of the laboratories, who then conceived and independently realised two evening events titled Being Here, Doing This at the Kaserne (13 September 2019) and the Literaturhaus (28 November 2019). This was followed by a multi-staged evaluation process, involving feedback from all participants and recommendations for cultural institutions and funding organizations that were published on the Institut Neue Schweiz website.[4]

During the laboratories, the two sets of siblings began to think about a possible collaborative project. The starting point was the observation that even though each pair grew up between the region Basel in Switzerland and southern India, their biographies differed widely. The Keshava sisters grew up in a Swiss-Indian artistic household (their parents are both professional Bharatanatyam dancers), while the Tharayil siblings grew up in a working-class household with little or no a priori exposure to the arts via their parents’ job. These different biographies are the central impulse for the collaboration. The focus on differences makes the diversity of post-migrant life realities visible and resists the tendency of simple categorisation by a white dominant society.

My following analysis of and perspective on the production is, of course, limited by the guiding concerns of this research. I, therefore, focus only on two aspects of the performance which specifically negotiate the discourses around professionalism, aesthetics and race. To begin with, I want to focus on the use of language as a tool to portray difference. I will, then, consider the negotiation of contemporaneity as a criterion indicating the quality of artistic practice.

Sumitra Keshava and Ralph Tharayil, zwei zu zwei, Photo: Ismael Lorenzo
Multilingualism as Tool to Challenge Theatre Conventions in German-speaking Countries

The performance uses biographical storytelling to reflect theatre conventions. Integral to the central storyline is the role of language. At the beginning, Norwin Tharayil appears and tells the audience in Swiss-German that their family language was Malayalam, a language spoken in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Norwin only realized as they began to attend kindergarten that this language separated them from the other children. Norwin, then, describes the specific feelings of speaking the language of their childhood as an adult: the early experience led to a disembodiment of this language, which must be reappropriated through speaking; only in the process of speaking can the body come to rest. Toward the end of the performance, after reciting a tongue twister in Malayalam, Norwin Tharayil says they has never until now spoken their mother tongue on stage. Since childhood, Norwin has always been made to feel that Malayalam was not a serious language, in spoken or written form. According to Norwin Tharayil’s decision to accept or reject a language, can be understood as a parameter for assimilation into a majority Swiss society. From the beginning of the performance, the experience with language and identity is prominent. This notion develops through the staging of the performance.

These briefly described sequences implicitly deal with neo-linguicism—racism based on language hierarchies. Language is used to assess differences between a supposed majority and a minority culture and to project racist and classist attributions. For example, bilingualism of two Western European languages is implicitly considered more valuable with their imperialistic nature, while other languages, for example, Eastern European and non-European languages, are considered inferior. The latter are primarily associated with the guest worker regime in German-speaking countries, and they are, thus, clearly linked to the working class.[5] At the beginning of the performance, audiences watch a video from Norwin and Ralph Tharayil’s childhood that shows the younger sibling chasing the older one in the living room and calling him “brother” in Malayalam. This visual authorization of biographical storytelling creates an ambivalence towards the family language that is negotiated on a content level in the performance. This aspect is also reflected by the formal decision that all performers speak mostly Swiss-German. In this aspect, multilingualism is used as an instrument to critique (theatrical) conventions, both on a substantive and a structural level. The choice to speak Swiss-German is a clear break with theatrical conventions and also questions professionalization as a marker of quality.

In Switzerland, high German is usually spoken as the stage language of professional theatres, whereas Swiss-German is mainly used in amateur theatre. It is language that draws the boundary of supposedly professionalism. Speaking Swiss-German, the language of the dominant society, subverts stage conventions on an aesthetical as well as a formal level. The performance works against the convention of stage German and imposes another form of hierarchy. The performance plays with notions of professionalism linked to theatrical conventions, and this is further reinforced through an entanglement of race and language, where, for example, Malayalam is used as stage and everyday language. Only at one point in the performance German is spoken and that is precisely when Ralph Tharayil narrates the Greek myth of “Echo” and thus satirizes the aesthetic production and reproduction of “European” stage knowledge.

Sumitra and Anjali Keshava, Norwin and Ralph Tharayil, zwei zu zwei, Photo: Ismael Lorenzo

As Azadeh Sharifi points out, in the German-speaking world, monolingualism is a common stage convention, and multilingualism can be used to subvert this (343). The production uncovers the intersection of race and class in neo-linguicism and the hierarchy of language. These intersections parallel the phenomenon of ethnicization of labor as discussed by Fatima El-Tayeb (20–21). The concept of ethnization of labor means that certain work is considered valuable and others not and that this evaluation of work (for example, the division between service class and creative work) often happens along migration communities (like guest workers from Southern Europe and non-European countries in Switzerland) and, therefore, language groups. The strategy of the Swiss-Croatian author Dragica Rajčić-Holzner can be mentioned here as an example of how these intersections of class and language and, therefore, forms of othering are negotiated in literature. In Halbgedichte einer Gastfrau (Half Poems of a Guest Woman), she deliberately uses grammatical errors to create a contradiction between literature considered valuable art fom and language associated with the working class (German not always written grammatically correct), and she, therefore, indirectly refers to the guest worker regime in Switzerland.

Language serves in zwei zu zwei as a marker of difference but can also be understood as a facet of localization. A multiplicity of languages and, above all, artistic practices in and for the Kaserne Basel become visible through localization. I will return later to the strategy of localization and its role in institutional dramaturgy. The deliberate break with performance traditions (speaking high German on stage) is a part of the critical examination of the understanding of art, or rather of the assumption of what is understood by professional theatrical creation.

Contemporaneity as an Indication of Quality

In this section, I will address contemporaneity as the key exclusion criteria in German-speaking “Freie Szene” in Switzerland. Sumitra Keshava describes the performance zwei zu zwei as “a contemporary dance theatre” in the production. When interviewed, Anjali and Sumitra Keshava emphasise that contemporaneity is a challenge for them, as they never know if a production of a Bharatanatyam dancer will be considered contemporary or not by funding organizations and production houses: “If a call for applications says contemporary dance, I do not know whether I am meant or not. I used to know I was excluded before, and now I am in a phase where I no longer know whether I am supposed to be there or not. And I do not want to impose myself where I am not wanted. I find the term ‘contemporary’ extremely difficult” (A. Keshava).[6]

Contemporaneity is often listed as a marker of quality in cultural funding and curation, alongside urgency, accessibility, excellence and professionalism. These are opaque terms that assume their meaning in a “universal” sense. They reproduce a specific, Euro-centric understanding of art. Following Gabriele Genge, the concept of contemporariness   can be either used as an epochal terminology (interchangeably with the terminology of modernity), which works as a marker of difference between (pagan) tradition and (Christian) art or as criteria around temporal belonging or being present, which is closely connected to the sensual ability to experience the presence (18). In both cases, contemporariness seems to be a marker of difference that privileges certain aesthetics against others. Mignolo argues that during the Enlightenment age, the aesthetic is closely connected to the ethical and, therefore, to the establishment of the idea of a universal reasonable subject. The humanitas is an expression of modernity defined through its exteriority. The presence of Modernity and its contemporariness is denied to the primitive other and to the exteriority (Mignolo 118).

Even if certain theoretical approaches are trying to define contemporariness as a form of perception of the present (for example, Agamben), the ability to perceive the present is still connected to a certain concept of education rooted in aesthetic philosophy. Lloyd discusses this aspect as a formation of taste and common sense, which underlies a racial regime of aesthetic representation. The closeness of aesthetic and ethic theory enables “aesthetics to naturalize representation, forging the modern subject’s disposition to be represented through an aesthetic pedagogy whose end is the submission of the subject to state” (Lloyd 7). In terms of artistic practices and aesthetics, it is a mechanism to center European/Western art practices. Mignolo and Ronaldo Vazquez differentiate between two concepts of aesthetics: while AistheTics is coming into being as a philosophical discourse in the eighteenth century to regulate “taste” in Europe, but also from Europe globally, AistheSis is a confrontation with modern AestheTics and its aftermath (postmodern and alter-modern). Following this distinguishment the first one considers art as a norm in reference to “taste” and the second one as strategy do decenter and decolonize the regulation of sensation (Mignolo and Vazquez).

In relation to Anjali Keshava’s statement, this clearly raises the question of whether Bharatanatyam is considered a contemporary or traditional art form on the part of the funding or even the co-production partners. An understanding of Bharatanatyam as solely a traditional dance form reduces the dance to its traditional practice. Thus, Anjali Keshava explains that there are, of course, traditional dance choreographies that have been passed down through generations. Even these, however, are interpreted individually by the respective dancers. In addition, there are newly created choreographies and compositions in the format of traditional Bharatanatyam or productions where Bharatanatyam dancers leave the traditional format completely, such as in zwei zu zwei. In the context of Mignolo’s and Vasquez’s AistheTics, as a Western-dominant understanding of art, this differentiation of formats, interpretations and approaches to Bharatanatyam seems impossible, which, in turn, points to the limitation of the concept of contemporaneity.

Dance scholar San San Kwan argues that contemporaneity is applied differently to different dance practices such as concert dance, commercial dance and “world dance’ and shows how the term contemporary is often conflated with modes of working and aesthetics. Kwan’s argument can be overlapped with Mignolo and Lloyd, who claim that the category of taste has centred Western European aesthetics since the age of the European Enlightenment. Here, taste refers to reception and, above all, to assumptions of how and where contemporary art is produced. This interconnection of ways of working and aesthetics has far-reaching consequences for cultural policy if certain practices are not promoted by rejecting their contemporaneity. Bojana Kunst similarly argues in Artists at Work. The Proximity of Art and Capitalism shows how strongly the concept of the contemporary is linked to certain conventions of work and production. In this aspect, the concept of the contemporary is linked to a capitalist understanding of labor that is supposed to produce ever-new, more innovative projects. Art created in established institutions in Eastern Europe, for example, is rarely perceived as innovative contemporary art from a Western perspective (Kunst 185).[7] Contemporaneity is attributed or depreciated within a network of co-production partners, recipients (reviews) and, ultimately, funders. So long as this network is not clear about the meaning of quality, a hierarchy of artistic practices is implicitly perpetuated.

Sumitra and Anjali Keshava both work as dance teachers, dancers and choreographers at the Institution Kalasri in Basel, which they run together with their parents. As artists, they work regularly in Switzerland as well as in India. Both enjoyed a professional Bharatanatyam education, completed the maturity examination (Arangetram), and have various further education and training in the field. They regularly choreograph, stage and tour Bharatanatyam plays as solo artists or with the dance ensemble Kalasri but are rarely supported or coproduced by state-funded production houses. Consequently, their infrastructure must be funded by other sources (for example, by Lotteriefonds), and their production management often remains unpaid. Sumitra Keshava also highlights that, until now, they had limited access to production houses in the field of “Freie Szene”:

We have played in a lot of places in Switzerland. Actually, everywhere where the places are not necessarily intended for dance. For example, churches, museums, corporate events, private events, cultural associations and theatres that can be rented. When we do productions, we mainly perform them in theatres that are rented.

(S. Keshava)[8]

With the cooperation of the Kaserne Basel as a co-production partner, they were able to gain access to the funding source Fachausschuss Tanz und Theater for the first time and, therefore, could afford a production management (Keshava).

The conscious exploration of the concept of contemporaneity on stage and in our interviews, as well as the critique of common stage conventions (for example, through the multilingualism on stage) clearly indicates that the four theatre makers deal with aesthetic premises and a racial system of aesthetics.

The question posed by Sumitra Keshava as to who belongs to the independent scene can be answered in the following way: a broad network of funders, co-production partners and critics negotiate opaque criteria that reflect Eurocentric values to determine contemporaneity and professionalisation and thus who belongs (or does not belong) to the independent scene.

Localization as a Strategy to Challenge Epistemological Violence

My analysis identifies two performative strategies—multilingualism as a subversion of stage conventions and an explicit exposition of the “contemporary” as a marker of quality and selection. These are productive starting points for thinking about the inclusions and exclusions of white institutions. By breaking with habits of seeing and hearing—for example, by speaking Swiss-German or presenting contemporary Bharatnatyam adaptations on stage—axiomatic production and distribution conventions in the system of independent theatre are made visible. I would argue that a conscious confrontation with implicit and explicit selection and quality criteria is necessary to achieve institutional opening processes and that this confrontation can only be advanced through an ongoing strategy of localization.

Localization is understood here as a strategy for questioning one’s own understanding of art with a focus on artistic practices from the city in which the institution is situated. Dipesh Chakrabatry’s concept of provincialization would suggest that a close examination of locally anchored practices and discourses can challenge epistemological premises. In the field of theatre, this would be seen to be the aesthetic and production assumptions of theatre-making. An analysis of the local, here the multiplicity  of artistic practices of a post-migrant urban society, opens possibilities for producing other aesthetics and making artistic practices visible to a production house, thus initiating new forms of collaboration. Mark Terkessidis introduces the concept of Parapolis to describe the asymmetry between a post-migrant urban social reality and the representation of this polyphony in institutions. The local can be grasped as a network that consists of different artists, organizations, sponsors, reviewers and other players in the field of culture.

Since the change of management in 2018, the Kaserne Basel has been in a continuous process of questioning and change of its structures. Aside from individual internal measures such as equating large institutional wage differences or developing projects such as Atelier Neue Schweiz, the Kaserne participates in Kultur divers gestalten, a program launched by the President’s Office of the Canton of Basel-Stadt and Pro Helvetia 2021. The Kaserne will work with the diversity coach, historian and writer Henri-Michel Yéré, for two years (2021 to 2023), to examine its structures and to undertake concrete measures to open up access to the institution. Yéré is connected to the Kaserne in various ways. For example, he was one of the artists in the Being here doing this event of Atelier Neue Schweiz in 2019. If institutional dramaturgy is a performative production of the house, and openness is interpreted as an articulated self-image of the Kaserne, then this multiple and simultaneously prominent placement of actors from the Atelier Neue Schweiz process can be identified as a strategy of localization.

The strategy of localization is, thus, a way to diversify perspectives onto selection and eligibility criteria. Through the visibility of different aesthetic practices and ways of working in a city, existing criteria are brought into view. For example, the visibility of aesthetic practices such as Bharatnatyam by the Keshavas in a production house like Kaserne addresses the diversity of artistic positions in a city. The fact that they performed in the Kaserne for the very first time, a production house which is clearly considered to be a venue for theatre, dance and performance, hints towards the fact, that their practice wasn’t considered as being part of the so-called “Freie Szene.” The institutional dramaturgical strategy of localization in the Kaserne is expressed through the development of local networks of artists (in the project Atelier Neue Schweiz or also in the context of the production zwei zu zwei) and entering partnerships such as the post-migrant think and act tank Institut Neue Schweiz.

Anjali Keshava and Ralph Tharayil, zwei zu zwei, Photo: Ismael Lorenzo

This analysis reveals the overlapping of multiple discourses of discrimination. I have discussed precarious structures that become obvious when access to infrastructure or funding is dependent on production houses. Implicit epistemological assumptions of quality and selection in dance and theatre show the complex overlay of aesthetic premises and race. An implicit centering of Western European aesthetics without transparent discussion legitimizes this distinction. Unpaid work generated by the financing of professional dance and theatre beyond funding sources also promotes precarity. Therefore, making the Eurocentric sovereignty of interpretation of quality visible must be done from an intersectional perspective. This task must relativize existing power relations and reveal the close link between aesthetics and race.


I conduct this analysis as a white, cis-female, non-bodily-disabled, Swiss-Serbian scholar from within Switzerland. I am writing from a privileged position. I can pursue my academic activities in the country where I mostly grew up and, moreover, can exercise my basic democratic rights. I am keen to acknowledge the work of numerous initiatives and networks such as the post-migrant think and act tank Institut Neue Schweiz, Aktion Vierviertel or Berner Rassimus Stammtisch and discuss current efforts of activist and political engagement. I would like to thank the Kaserne Basel and the artistic team of zwei zu zwei for their cooperation. In particular, I want to thank the artists working independently who offered their time. Their generous assistance in this research is not a matter of course, and I appreciate their open and constructive conversations.


[1] Vera Nitsche has borrowed the concept of the theatre debate from the Jahrbuch für Kulturpolitik (2004), referring in particular to the discursive formation of the juxtaposition of municipal theatre and the independent scene in professional journals, newspapers and statements by actors in the field of cultural policy and theatre (37).

[2] Jen Harvie discusses the challenging intersection of art and neoliberalisation in her book Fair Play. Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, where she highlights how certain aesthetics, modes of working and localisation of projects have an effect on the precarity of work.

[3] For example, the study “Gender Relations in the Swiss Cultural Sector” (“Geschlechterverhältnisse im Schweizer Kulturbetrieb,” 2021), lead by Dr. Andrea Zimmermann, finds that female or queer persons are still underrepresented, occupying only 28.8 percent of management positions across all art sectors (visual and fine arts, music and performing arts). The study found a wage difference of approximately 17.2 percent in cultural institutions, whereby self-employed persons or small businesses with fewer than three employees were not even included (Zimmermann 10) Also, the study “Job Juggling—How Can We Improve the Lives of Creative Freelancers in the Performing Arts, Where the Current Climate Necessitates Juggling Several Jobs?” in the U.K. takes into account the categories of gender, class (especially with regard to family background and education) and disability, as well as race and ethnicity, and it finds that only 2 percent of all respondents are able to pursue the artistic profession and hold a management position without family support or additional employment. All of the respondents are heterosexual, cisgender, White British, upper/middle class, married or in a partnership, and often over 50 (5).

[4] See here.

[5] The phenomenon of neo-linguicism is mainly discussed in the field of educational science. Some relevant references are Karim Fereidooni’s and Nina Simon’s Rassismuskritische Fachdidaktiken: Theoretische Reflexionen und fachdidaktische Entwürfe rassismuskritischer Unterrichtsplanung (2020) and Isabel Dean’s Bildung – Heterogenität – Sprache. Rassistische Differenz- und Diskriminierungsverhältnisse in Kita und Grundschule (2020).

[6] German original: “Wenn in einer Ausschreibung zeitgenössischer Tanz steht, weiss ich nicht, ob ich dort gemeint bin oder nicht. Früher wusste ich immer, ich bin ausgeschlossen und jetzt bin ich in einer Phase, wo ich nicht mehr weiss, ob ich gemeint bin oder nicht. Und ich möchte mich nicht aufdrängen, wo ich nicht erwünscht bin. Ich finde die Begrifflichkeit ‘Zeitgenössisch’ extrem schwierig.”

[7] Even if discussions of the concept of contemporaneity in the field of performance and dance are trying to avoid the epochal understanding of contemporary (intercheangeable with modernity) (e.g. Pouillaude 131). This has also an exclusive aspect because it links conemporary art practices to modes of production, which are also centering western production systems as Bojana Kunst critically highlights in Artist at Work.

[8] German original: “Wir haben in der Schweiz an sehr vielen Orten gespielt. Eigentlich überall dort, wo die Orte nicht zwingend für Tanz vorgesehen sind. Beispielsweise Kirchen, Museen, Firmenanlässe, private Anlässe, bei Kulturvereinen und an Theatern, die man mieten kann. Wenn wir Produktionen machen, führen wir diese hauptsächlich in Theatern auf, die gemietet werden.”


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*Alexandra Portmann is assistant professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Bern since 2020. As a theatre scholar, she has worked and researched at universities in Switzerland (University of Bern), Germany (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, University of Cologne), and the U.K. (University of Kent, Queen Mary University of London). Since 2019, she has led the SNF Ambizione project “Festivals and Institutional Change: Perspectives on Transnational Ways of Working in Contemporary Theatre.” Her research interests include contemporary theatre and performance art, institutional change and critique in the contemporary arts, (theatre) historiography, cultural politics and economics, theatre-making in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Shakespeare.

Copyright © 2023 Alexandra Portmann
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