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Denise Bertschi // State Fiction and the Fallacy of Neutrality

Stacks of time-stained pages – riffled and rummaged through. Transactions marked only by an undiscovered paper trail. Complicit in ink. Characters emerge from oblique connections, layered in relations as narratives spill forth as the archive bears its secrets.

Denise Bertschi engages with a research-centric art practice. Often her extensive research process is initially sparked by a specific geographical location as well as the role of ‘neutral’ Switzerland in other countries. The concept of neutrality seems to still be enshrined as part of Swiss identity – it is often perceived as being impartial and without position. However, there is a deeply political underlying positionality within neutrality.

In her project, State Fiction, Denise explores and investigates the influence of Switzerland and how aspects of neutrality manifest in reality. “This neutral position is like a fictional thought, I’m interested in that discrepancy”. Through her work she has witnessed how often time neutrality acts as an agent and an active force, sometimes working covertly. Bertschi probes these dynamic relationships – tracing political situations through historical research.

Integral to her practice is the presence of the archive. In the traditional sense, the archive is a collection of artifacts and documents that an individual deemed important enough to preserve. However, Bertschi approaches this system more widely, including less formal research elements. On this residency she has worked with both the National Archives of South Africa in Pretoria and the National Library in Cape Town. State Fiction hones in on Switzerland’s involvement in South Africa during the Apartheid Era. The State did not participate in the global sanctions against South Africa. Nevertheless Swiss banks were very active at the time and protected by the government – many of which put loans into government institutions like Eskom to support the Apartheid state.

“There is a long tradition of Switzerland buying Johannesburg gold.” Part of expanding the archive has included engaging with space on a physical level like wandering through the city’s CBD. “I was interested in where these offices were, the physical presence for example of UBS, the Union Bank of Switzerland.” She traced the historical addresses, looking to see how they exist in the contemporary moment. “Most of them were in the mining district in town. The office of one of the first UBS agents is now a multi-storey parking lot of Anglo American.” Another building where another former agent of the gold trade was located, the ‚Precious Metals Development LTD‘  is now, “completely hijacked. I just look at this architecture which becomes the pretext to tell my story.” These buildings become a scaffolding for the semi-visible narratives and transactions that took place.

As Bertschi sifted through archival material, it became apparent that often these political relationships were constructed under the hand of one man or agent of a bank. “And all of a sudden when I’m in the archive, the story becomes very lively and quite personal. I like to break these big topics down to a person and see, who was this man – where did he live?” Working with characters – a narrative comes to life. Often working under the guise of diplomacy, these agents take on the role of mediators. Their complex stories are gradually illuminated though letters, documents and other correspondent – illustrative of how one person’s agenda can affect policy.

Bertschi believes that, “when you have a broad and experimental approach to the archive then things will appear to you in the right time.” Through her research she has unearthed various narratives and truths. “I have this information now and maybe people haven’t looked at this for years.” As an investigative art-practitioner she also interrogates her own position and power as a custodian of information. “What is my responsibility with this now?” Misconceptions around history and historical narratives is that there never is just one singular overarching story. “It’s not one clear story, it’s many minor stories.”

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

  • Desmond Tutu



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