Basel Unmasked 

A Journey through Art, Tradition and Digital Imaginaries
Refik Anadol at Art Basel Parcours. A data set of glacier visualisations was processed using machine learning algorithms, and adding an olfactory component generated with artificial intelligence. Photo by Neri Torcello

The tentative sound of a pipe radiates from an open window during a late afternoon of a warmer than usual Basel town centre. I am told that it comes from the second floor of the Leonhards Schule (‘Leo’ to the locals), where weekly rehearsals take place for the Basler Fasnacht, the historical carnival that enlivens the city each February for what locals fondly refer to as ‘the three most beautiful days’. As I round the corner, drawing nearer to Theater Basel, whistles and more pipes inundate the streets and the square, calling attention to urgent matters. The National Feminist Strike is taking place to advocate for equal pay. Inside the theatre, the fading whistles find an intimate echo. Two women actors voice their support, emphasising the crucial role of the nearly all-female staff typically working behind the scenes.

The stage hosts a show by Herbert Fritsch, featuring the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and visual artist Jannis Varelas. This Dada-influenced piece appears to revisit the history of humanity and power. The virtuosity of music and voice frequently devolves into anarchic experimentation of sounds and movements, oscillating between farce and the grotesque. This appears purposefully designed to highlight the creative, spontaneous, and poetic nature of interactions that emerge when individuals harness their creativity to feel power within, rather than melancholically grasping for it externally.

Violins cover the faces of the actors during Vergeigt, the show by Herbert Fritsch featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and visual artist Jannis Varelas. Photo by Thomas Aurin

This week is Art Basel week, and while the commercial fair unfolds in Messe Platz, a wide-ranging network of museums, cultural centres, and private spaces, are presenting what I perceive as their creative message to the global visitor. As Thomas Keller, the managing director of Kaserne Basel—a sprawling cultural centre housed in former barracks on the Rhine River—puts it, ‘Art Basel week is a very special moment for Basel. Visitors pass at the speed of a fast train, but the connection between them and the city endures. We then work on preserving that energy, fostering discussions, and sustaining moments of cross-pollination and cross-cultural understanding alive within our institutions, constantly rejuvenating ourselves and making us fit for the future.’ His words echo the new piece hosted by Kaserne this week by artist and performer Alexandra Bachzetsis, who has ‘developed a performative installation in which the encounters with the others are revived in the form of material and immaterial traces, voices, remains’.

‘In 2010, we decided to create Parcours, a platform designed to revitalise the lost dialogue between the fair and the city’, says Annette Schonholzer, a former show manager at Art Basel Miami Beach and co-director of Art Basel until 2014, now a Leadership Coach and Organisational Consultant at Connect the Dots, while she helps me navigate the narrow passages and stairs that lead to otherwise hidden locations.

With site-specific installations, sculptures, interventions, and performances spread across streets, squares, tunnels, and various private and public indoor and outdoor locations, Parcours stands as a blueprint for the future of any art fair’s accessibility for the broader public.

Schonholzer perceives Art Basel Miami Beach, which started from scratch in 2002, as a catalyst for the main fair in Basel to become more integrated with the city. ‘When we arrived in Miami Beach, we had to promote the fair and educate the community about the concept of an art fair, necessitating a proactive engagement with the public through a series of cross-over events. The local art collectors—some of Cuban and Latino descent—and art institutions were particularly open to collaboration, and this experience may have inspired collectors and other organisations in Basel to engage with the fair more prominently. This, in turn, may have influenced the attitude that initiated Parcours. The platform represented a return to the city after the fair had gradually become more and more exclusive compared to its origins when admission was free and without filters.’

A moment from a Basler Fasnacht, participants (fasnachters) are wearing new masks. Not everyone wears a Waggi in modern Fasnachts. The only rule is that the face must be covered. Photo by Markus Tschalär

On my way back home, the confident sound of a pipe proudly finds its way out of a window of the ‘Leo’, its tone showing marked improvement. This brings to mind a conversation I had with Alex Borer, a pilot at Swiss Air and proud fasnachter, about the commitment of the fasnachters in organising the annual event. ‘There are two weeks that are super fun in Basel, one is the Art Basel week and the other one is the Fasnacht week’, says Borer, ‘Participants prepare for it throughout the whole year’.

Undoubtedly, Fasnacht is a significant event for the city. Its origins can be traced back to pagan festivals that transitioned into carnivals in Catholic Switzerland and managed to endure after the Reform, albeit with small but impactful transformations.

Borer continues, ‘Fasnacht carries a sense of anarchy. It is bold, defiant, and has a huge political meaning. Through it, we show the leaders what we don’t approve of.’ Recalling these words I start thinking of the cortège (parades), when fasnachters play with anonymity and identity by wearing a waggi, the traditional Basel mask, and it reminds me of the Anonymous phenomenon and its global impact, as well as centuries of artists challenging the status quo and inspiring change. This correlation is further emphasised when I learn from a theatre mask producer’s website that, in the mid-1950s Basel masks became an integral part of the actor training sequence developed at the International School of Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Known as larval masks, their characteristics inspire silliness, wonder, fantasy, and imagination, affording the actors the chance to connect with their audience through childlike behaviour.

The ability to play with identity is also a crucial factor contributing to the allure of the metaverse, with its myriad manifestations and commercial experiments. In Basel, the Haus der Elektronischen Künste (HEK), has emerged as a significant critic in the intersection of art, current events, and new technologies. This week, they are showcasing ‘Collective World Building – Art in the Metaverse’, the first instalment of a two-part exhibition curated by Boris Magrini and Sabine Himmelsbach.

Jonas Lund, Cow, JLT Collectible, 2021. Courtesy HEK (Haus der Elektronischen Künste)

‘The term metaverse has been revived by companies who operate and have invested in blockchain to describe online spaces that mainly promote trade in virtual assets and NFTs via cryptocurrencies,’ Magrini explains during our chat. ‘There are other spaces that come closer to the concept of the metaverse without being promoted as such. For example, VRChat—a social platform allowing community members to interact as virtual avatars and construct virtual worlds is far more intriguing.’

‘Current opinions about the metaverse are divided among enthusiasts, critics, and those who wish to inspire a discussion about it. Artists contribute to this debate’, Magrini continues, ‘they either create their virtual worlds or intervene in existing ones to voice their thoughts on topics that also touch on very real social, ecological, or political issues’. When curating the show, Magrini and Himmelsbach favoured projects from different backgrounds, including art projects built on low-tech, open source, and accessible platforms, in an attempt—according to the exhibition’s press release—to ‘encourage the exploration of more inclusive virtual spaces, a renewed sense of commonality and a decentralised organisational structure in the digital realm’.

I wrote until late last night, and my laptop was still open on my bedside table when I woke up. I felt compelled to incorporate elements of my science fiction dream within the article.
The Messe Basel, the city’s convention centre, has been repurposed into a community space. Its vast halls, now serve everyday life. Works by emerging and renowned international artists and modern masters are displayed there, as well as across the city, to engage in dialogue with the public, and Parcours has taken on the role of the main fair, inviting visitor interaction by integrating itself where it’s most needed. The curatorial Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) has spent months designing this year’s curatorial algorithm. Drawing from local and global data sets voluntarily provided by participants and visitors, the DAO can make the most impactful selections of participating galleries and artists. An unprecedented diversity of exhibits spans all levels of ‘mixed reality’. This allows collectors to both explore the city for tactile, physical artworks and experiences and use their augmented reality glasses to view and interact with digital monumental installations throughout the city’s streets and squares, as well as in their hotel room. The fair’s virtual spaces invite visitors into immersive environments where artists have pushed their creativity to new heights. In line with the ‘new normal’ of the art ecosystem, galleries, agencies, and artists are immersed in a flow of global art weeks. They produce installations, performances, and exhibitions in communal spaces. Fair organisers are now more concerned with urban regeneration and community engagement than they once were about drywalls, security, and VIP parties.

It is a balmy afternoon in June, not too far in the future, and new generations of pipes are echoing from the ‘Leo’. Their melodies intermingle with the ‘meta-mechanic’ symphonies of the kinetic sculptures by Basel-born artist Jean Tinguely, a pioneer in bridging art and technology. His words, inscribed on my Parcours visitor invitation, resonate deeply: ‘Art is the distortion of an unendurable reality… Art is correction, modification of a situation; art is communication, connection… Art is social, self-sufficient, and total.’

Neri Torcello
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