Basel's Alternative Spaces, Part I
by Quinn Latimer
The construction site that is not only a notable backdrop for New Jerseyy, but also the reason for the gallery’s very existence.
Courtesy New Jerseyy
In the weeks ahead, as Art Basel inches ever closer, Quinn Latimer will take a look at the less commercial side of Basel’s year-round art scene: the experimental art spaces that regularly mount shows in storefronts, apartments, backyards, and on the local radio waves. If you’re in town for Art Basel, these are spaces you shouldn’t miss.
New Jerseyy, Basel, Switzerland
While the US is famous for the oddly aspirational names of some of its smallest towns— East Berlin, Pennsylvania; Lebanon, New Hampshire; and, of course, Paris, Texas—I didn’t expect to find a New Jersey on hand when I recently moved to Switzerland. Unimaginative me. Spelled with a slurry and superfluous extra y, New Jerseyy is a year-old alternative art space in North Basel run by independent curator Daniel Baumann and local artists Tobias Madison, Emanuel Rossetti, and Dan Solbach. With a DIY approach that elegantly synthesizes the scrappy and the suave, the foursome have thus far staged an intriguing mix of contemporary art, film, text, music, and boxing by artists both national (John Armleder, Tobias Kaspar, Pamela Rosenkranz), and international (Isa Genzken, Justin Beal, James Lee Byars). In Basel’s small but aggressively prolific art scene, New Jerseyy has quickly taken on an outsize role, functioning as both an exhibition space with a notably inspired program and as an artistic and social-networking zone, where the region’s artists exhibit, collaborate, socialize, and plan for the next thing. It is also an artistic experiment in and of itself. As Baumann notes, “The special thing about New Jerseyy is that we use it to think about the exhibition space, to play with the language of the institution and the gallery; everything is always doubled here.”
Weirdly, “Dirty Jersey”—the States’ pet name for its own New Jersey—is an altogether fitting tribute to its Swiss incarnation too. New Jerseyy’s small glass-paned storefront looks out on a construction site of faintly apocalyptic proportions, which is at marked odds with the rest of Basel’s disarmingly picturesque environs (picture narrow streets of pastel shutters, climbing wisteria, and 15th-century homes near the bottle-green Rhine). The construction site is the result of a many-decades-long project to connect the Swiss highway system, via an underground tunnel, with that of its neighbors, France and Germany (both of whom are minutes away), as well as of a sprawling future “campus” for pharma giant Novartis. But the massive construction—which has often been compared to Boston’s Big Dig—is not only a notable backdrop for New Jerseyy, it is also the reason for the gallery’s very existence.
Since 2001, Baumann has been the director of Nordtangente-Kunsttangente, the arts directive organized by the Swiss government and the local Basel canton to revitalize an area that has lost myriad businesses and residents during a decade of jackhammering, scaffolding, and a crane-enhanced skyline. In the years before he founded New Jerseyy, Baumann inserted numerous aesthetic interventions into the construction chaos, including an auto-centric film series in the nearby motor tunnel (films included Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Vanishing Point) and a long, psychedelic mural by Franz Ackermann visible from the busy roadway. New Jerseyy itself was born after Baumann kept noting an empty (and not likely to be rented) storefront near the construction zone; after he picked up a few copies of Used Future, an art zine that Madison, Rossetti, and Solbach began producing in 2005, at local gallery-cum-bookstore Stampa, he decided to ask the three much younger artists (all born in the ’80s) to help him run the gallery.
New Jerseyy’s first real exhibition, Clinch/Cross/Cut, which ran during Art Basel last year, came about when the Jerseyy team asked Swiss art sage John Armleder if he’d like to do something there. He passed on their request to some of his students at the Braunschweig Academy of Art in Germany and they promptly turned New Jerseyy into a boxing club, complete with bags, gloves, weights, and a team schedule, which had the participating artists boxing and jogging on alternating evenings from June 3 through June 8, with a night off in the middle for the gallery opening. Since those athletic beginnings, the gallery has staged shows from Dagmar Heppner’s cool Venetian blinds installations accompanied by texts by seminal Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann to a number of all-inclusive group shows—including last winter’s drolly titled drawing extravaganza The Line Is a Lonely Hunter, which featured more than 60 artists (Hermann Nitsch, Mai-Thu Perret, Betty Tompkins, Andro Wekuahung) hung haphazardly salon style.
In the scope of its exhibitions and the artists it shows, New Jerseyy can recall young New York institutions like Reena Spaulings (Jerseyy recently mounted a show of work by Carissa Rodriguez, one of Reena’s directors) and the recently departed Rivington Arms. However, within Basel itself New Jerseyy’s meaning is twinned: it both provides a new experimental format for international exhibition-making and collaboration, and an unchanging, concrete, and very local (but not in the least provincial) space for monthly shows, screenings, and performances that are the fruits of those curatorial labors. As the artworld has become increasingly cosmopolitan and air travel surreally easy, there has been in recent years a reluctance to put down roots in one city alone (see the “Easyjet generation”); it’s the counterpoint to this that Baumann finds reassuring in New Jerseyy’s nascent existence. “It’s a return to the real world, perhaps; making something in a specific place,” Baumann says.
During Art Basel this year, New Jersey will be featuring a new work by the sweetly anarchic Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad (who is currently included in the New Museum’s Younger Than Jesus triennial and tends to appropriate imagery—Easy E, Jessica Simpson, the American dollar bill—that strikes a certain pop-culture tenor). She will be painting New Jerseyy’s front windows while leaving the interior gallery empty. This quickly and wittily solves a number of problems, not the least of which is keeping the gallery open and staffed during Basel’s busiest week of the year, when there are plentiful fairs, parties, and shows to attend. The novel solution—which will turn a visit to the gallery into an easy drive-by—is emblematic of New Jerseyy’s game approach to curatorial matters—make it smart, make it sly, make it work. As Baumann allows, smiling, “New Jerseyy isn’t pretentious but it is ambitious.”
Quinn Latimer is a writer based in New York and Basel, Switzerland. Her poems have been featured in the Paris Review, Boston Review, and a recent Best New Poets anthology from the University of Virginia Press, and she has written about contemporary art and literature for Frieze, Modern Painters, Art on Paper, ARTnews, and Bookforum.