Meet Simon Castets, Director of the Swiss Institute Contemporary Art New York

Simon Castets has been at the helm of the beloved non-profit contemporary art space Swiss Institute for the past seven years. Founded in 1986, Swiss Institute is dedicated to promoting forward-thinking and experimental art making through innovative exhibitions, education, and programs. It serves as a platform for emerging Swiss and international artists, catalyzes new contexts for celebrated work, and fosters appreciation for under-recognized positions. After a several months-long hiatus due to COVID-19, Swiss Institute reopened its doors on September 9 with the time-based media program TENET. We recently caught up with Simon to discuss the effects of the pandemic, SI’s upcoming exhibitions and its dedication to community engagement.

Swiss Institute was closed for months due to COVID-19, how did you experience the lockdown? Are you able to move forward with the planned program or has the pandemic fundamentally changed your work?

Lockdown was a frightening time for many New Yorkers, but it also was an unprecedented moment of togetherness. I can speak from my experience at SI– but when NYC went into lockdown on March 20th, I immediately entered into a conversation with fellow directors of contemporary arts nonprofits about how we could triumph over these unknown, looming threats. It is thanks to our working together, sharing ideas and information, that we managed to weather the storm.

As far as our program goes, we had to do a lot of reshuffling. Our Irena Haiduk and Jan Kiefer exhibitions were forced to close early, and our Jeremy Shaw exhibition has been postponed until 2022 due to sustained travel restrictions. These are the challenges of working with international artists. But it’s also provided an opportunity to work in a different capacity. With artists Reetu Sattar and Yu Honglei, SI and the New York Public Library offered two artist talks in foreign languages, Bengali and Mandarin Chinese, respectively. We have conceived of a long-term, three part digital project with Sable Elyse Smith, who installed a public sculpture on our roof as part of our SI ONSITE series of semi-permanent installations and will curate our 2022 Architecture and Design Series. We are currently planning a full-building group exhibition that explores the concept of haunting.

Image: Sable Elyse Smith, BACKBEND, 2019. Powder coated aluminum. Courtesy of the artist; JTT, New York; and Carlos Ishikawa, London. Photo by Charlie Rubin

Your current time-based media program TENET is particularly fitting for this moment, how did it come about? Was it conceived during the pandemic?

TENET is a product of the pandemic that came about when we realized our summer exhibitions were not possible, and that we needed a degree of flexibility in the type of exhibitions we were going to stage at SI. In many ways, it draws on the institution’s history of unorthodox group exhibitions, perhaps most obviously by borrowing its title from the summer’s most hotly anticipated, but conspicuously absent, blockbuster. We wanted to create a space where these excellent, underseen time-based media works (three single channel videos and one two-channel sound installation) could be easily accessed by our East Village community as a variation on a walk-in cinema.

Although they initially appear quite different from one another in form, all four works engage with notions of time: its repetition, acceleration, slowing and manipulation. In a year in which time as we knew it radically changed, this felt like an exhibition in which our audiences could take solace, but also discover works by international artists that resonated within this unprecedented moment.

Image: TENET installation view, photo by Charlie Rubin, courtesy of Swiss Institute

The recent publication Since 1986 chronicles the history of Swiss Institute, how has the institution evolved over the years? And how do you envision SI’s future?

One of the ideas that comes through in SInce 1986 is that in spite of SI’s movement through the city and expansion of its programs and offerings, is that Swiss Institute has always kept carrying on the same spirit of experimentation. Our national affiliation has always been a bit of an anomaly within the nonprofit landscape of New York City, but throughout our history, SI has always played this to our advantage. This institutional ambiguity that SI has accrued in our history as an “outsider” has always given the organization the freedom to push boundaries and experiment, and always place the artist’s wishes first. Our enduring support of female artists has been a cornerstone of our programming, but has expanded significantly in the past five years.

Perhaps what has most evidently changed since our founding is that we are more than ever focused on the communities we serve, always free-of-charge. Much of this came from securing a long-term home in the East Village– a Manhattan neighborhood with a deep, complex artistic lineage. Upon moving to St. Marks Place, we established an education program for families, teens and older adults, and brought on a community engagement advisor who liaises with other East Village-based nonprofit organizations of all kinds. Central to SI’s mission is providing a platform for artists to showcase their innovative work and ideas, and a large part of that is cultivating an audience that feels at home with SI.

Image: SInce 1986, photo by Charlie Rubin, courtesy of Swiss Institute

What does SI have in store for us over the next few months? Is there an exhibition or artist that you are particularly excited about at the moment?

In early November, we will open our exhibition HAUNTED HAUS that features some of today’s most exciting young Swiss and Switzerland-based artists including Alfatih, James Bantone, Milena Langer, Maïté Chénière, Ivan Mitrovic, Melanie Akaret, Cassidy Toner, Gaia Vincensini, Claire Van Lubeek, Alan Schmalz, Gabriele Garavaglia, Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė. Later that month we will open a two-person presentation of the work of Sitara Abuzar Ghaznawi and under recognized Dadaist Emmy Hennings in our library space. In January we will open our annual architecture and design exhibition, curated by Puerto Rican-Kuwaiti artist Alia Farid. Entitled The Space Between Classrooms, the exhibition engages with the legacy of Alfred Roth-designed schools in Kuwait, and in a broader sense, the possibilities of unlearning as articulated by philosopher Ivan Illich. We are also very excited to open the first US presentation of Welsh artist Angharad Williams and Swiss artist Mathis Gasser entitled Hergest: Trem. As I mentioned, we are also working with Sable Elyse Smith on a digital initiative that takes the form of both a magazine and a vinyl mixtape. The first issue, Fear, launches on October 26 and features both new and old interdisciplinary work by Jessica Lynne, Paul Peiffer, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Johan Grimonprez and Jason Moran.

Image: Swiss Institute, photo by Daniel Pérez, courtesy of Swiss Institute

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