Stefanie Hessler’s Ecological Vision for the Swiss Institute

With the opening of the curatorial initiative Spora, the NYC institution sets into motion its plans for a more sustainable arts space

BY Marko Gluhaich AND Stefanie Hessler in Interviews | 31 MAY 23

Marko Gluhaich When you started as Director of the Swiss Institute last year, you announced several new environmental initiatives. Could you speak about those, and the recently opened curatorial initiative, Spora?

Stefanie Hessler We started last year with carbon audits, looking at our emissions over the last four years to try to better understand where we’re at. In addition to an analysis through the GCC [Gallery Climate Coalition] Carbon Calculator, we looked at a few other things: energy, flights, travel, waste management and our impact on local communities. From there, we developed two different strands. We looked at all operations of SI [Swiss Institute], reflecting on what we can do, and need to do, differently. There are a number of other initiatives within the building. We will be announcing an exciting grant award to do an analysis of our energy and HVAC systems later this summer. And at the same time, we recognize that this is a process that is imperfect but nonetheless urgent.

Then the other aspect – and this is where Spora comes in – is inviting artists into these conversations. To me, one of the big questions going forward is what an environmental, institutional critique could be. Of course, there are some artists, like Hans Haacke, who did proto-environmental, institutional critique projects, but I don’t think he would even consider that term as relevant to his practice. So we’re asking artists to respond to this prompt: what can we do differently? Are you willing to develop artworks with us that interfere in the structure of the building and in the processes of SI and the way that we work? We have five artists to start with: Jenna Sutela, Helen Mirra, T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, Mary Manning and Vivian Suter.

MG What are their projects like?

SH Jenna proposed developing a compost receptacle. The SI team will deposit our food scraps in the sculpture installed on our roof. Then, in a couple of weeks, we are going to connect it to an earth battery, which will harness the heat and electrochemical processes generated by the decomposition of the food and turn them into electricity, which will power a speaker that will transmit oracle messages developed by Jenna.

Helen gave us instructions that whenever we deinstall and reinstall works in the interstitial or non-gallery spaces of the building, we’re not allowed to use any new paint, but only leftover paint or paint that was mixed by mistake. She also included how we can paint, forgoing perfectionism. Now, what she calls ‘mistake paint’ is all over the building. I love that it’s both making visible the use of paint and reducing the actual new material being used.

Vivian’s mural is the first she has made. She paints her canvases in a Guatemalan forest, and rain, sunlight, leaves and so on fall onto them. We asked her if she would be open to doing a mural with us, because similarly it will be affected by rain, the city, pollution and so on.

Mary has several photographs installed in the staircase, of spaces merging inside and outside, and of movement and stillness – their images complicate and call into question these dualisms. They start in the lower staircase here, and then ascend all the way to the rooftop.

Cease is interested in the healing properties of mushrooms, the way they can absorb toxins and radioactivity. She’s making a new piece for us with mushrooms, which will be installed on a log on the rooftop. She’s also researching the sonic qualities of mushrooms and mycelium, and will develop another project with sound.

Jenna Sutela, Vermi-Sibyl, 2023, acrylic, powder coated steel, polyester, copper, aluminium, environmental sensors, wires, single-board computer and microcontroller, food scraps, earthworms, microorganisms, soil, speaker. Courtesy: the artist

MG How long will these projects be part of the institution?

SH We wanted to be very open on purpose: thinking about organic processes and ecosystems, and how they might change. The idea is to go a little bit against the life cycles of exhibitions opening and closing, and to think more process-based and organically, to see how it actually works for the institution, how we respond to it, how visitors respond to it. We have a good sense how people react to it, because we’re in the building and have direct dialogue with visitors and audiences. We also did workshops with the entire team, looking at how curatorial, development, education and operations can work differently.

MG What are some examples of that?

SH To think more long term about the use of materials, for example. In terms of curatorial and operations, thinking about what kind of exhibitions we do, what kind of materials we need, and in the long term, how we reuse certain things. We’re compiling our own set of resources and materials that are more environmentally friendly.

We’re also inviting artists into the conversation about how to compensate for emissions we can’t avoid. We decided not to do offsetting in the traditional way, but to support strategic climate funds in areas where acute climate action is needed – and there are some art-specific ones. Art to Acres, for instance, collaborates with communities who care for certain forests or ecosystems, but also looks carefully and critically into how the money is being used and over what periods of time certain forests are protected, so that they’re not just sold and the effort lost. They also make sure that the ecosystems that are supported are critically important – even though we should of course protect all ecosystems. The Teiger Foundation, too. They’re supporting Spora, and have done a lot for centring climate action within their foundation.

We’ll ask artists where they want us to donate. When we start talking about exhibitions, we’ll ask them what they’re willing to do differently to make their exhibitions less impactful.

MG How can we redefine the ways we think about arts institutions so that they can be environmentally sustainable and built with climate action in mind as opposed to wastefulness?

SH One of the key aspects is collaboration rather than competition because it helps us to recycle and use materials, to make an exhibition travel, to support artists in more sustainable ways. Another is thinking about ecological sustainability together with questions of equity and diversity and so on - in terms of our audiences, but also our teams. And thinking about longer term initiatives, too, that are not so much bound to certain cycles of production.

For me, one of the big questions is also in terms of progress. What does progress mean? Does it mean growth? And if so, what does growth mean? Does it mean bigger, or could it also mean going more into depth? And what are our limitations in this evolving process?

Redefining what we do is important, and I feel that the model of the ecosystem is interesting – or even thinking about permaculture as a renewable way of gardening, which is not bound only to one cycle of harvest, but really thinking about futures.

Main Image: Stefanie Hessler, undated. Courtesy: the Swiss Institute

Marko Gluhaich is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Stefanie Hessler is Director of Swiss Institute, New York.