Have you met... Urs Küenzi

Text and pictures by Maria Santos

Since nights falls like big pianos lately, you can get the impression that days are shorter. But you can also grasp the best of Berlin evenings in venues with late opening hours like Subtitut (Fridays open until 21.00!).

Art theoretician and independent curator Urs Küenzi established this non-profit independence space in 2007 after three years of experience at White Space, which he founded in Zürich.

After getting his degree in Art Theory at the university in Zürich, and noticing the huge gap in swiss art in the Berlin art scene, he decided to open Substitut, where he assumes all the curatorial works, but also sporadically invites other curators to offer them the possibility of doing something on their own.

Far from swiss clichés (chocolate, mountains, neutrality... ) he originally conceived this as place for Kunst aus der Schweiz, but not exclusively, since this unique space is open (and it fact quite encouraging) to international exchange. Housed in Torstraße 158, it hosts six exhibitions per year, either solo or group shows, from Switzerland and beyond, under an unquestionably accurate curatorial approach.

Mit Seife und Gabel – Eine Ausstellung zum Glück is opening on Friday on 19.00 Save the date, it's my extra tip of the week


What was the main concept and your goals behind your project before starting?

The scene in Switzerland is pretty small, it seems like we all know each other. That's why I partly felt like going somewhere else. I already visited Berlin several times, even before the fall of the wall, and I got the impression that this was the place where something must be done.

Meanwhile there is a very good level in fine arts in Switzerland, I noticed that there are no galleries or institutions in Berlin specifically focusing on it, so I thought that I should bring it myself

What were your goals?

To cover that gap. I conceived Substitut as a “replacement”. A very important part of the concept is enclosed in its meaning, a mix of subcultural, independent, subversive... I wanted to establish a space of that kind, where contact could be established and many different people could meet.

My experience in Zürich was in an off space, but here I intended to do something professional, working as a company, planning a series of exhibitions on a schedule...

How do you feel the concept has changed/developed over the time?

Substitut did not experience any radical change so far. At the very beginning, I conceived eight exhibitions for the whole year. In Zürich we had an exhibition each month, but here I decided to adjust the format when noticing that Berlin has got a bigger audience, and that they don't only come on the opening evening. That's why I decided to extend the time on view.

There's also a development in the concept: the first year I focused in Switzerland by showing its scene, inviting artists from different regions... basically to offer an outlook of the swiss contemporary scene. Then the whole thing turned to get more international, since I have contacts in other places like Brussels or Tel Aviv, for instance

Any remarkable turning point?

At the beginning it was about collecting experiences. To comprehend the space, getting established. To get in touch with other curators, to try out different exhibition formats.

Last year I started to focus more in what is relevant to society and politics. Then I see myself as a curator like a journalist: my work keeps Substitut in continuos movement so it doesn't do the same all of the time. Each exhibition brings something new

How do you finance yourself

With the support of foundations: either private or swiss public foundations like Pro Helvetia. But always depending of the exhibition, I have to apply for a production budget to a certain city or canton, like for instance Schaffhausen. It also depends whether I get money from the embassy, that the artist can get some compensation too.

It would be very nice to sell something sporadically but that doesn't necessarily works in Berlin

Reflecting upon the years you have been running the space, what would you say you have learned about curating?

It's been a continuous process: I obviously learned a lot about art and how to deal with it, with artists...

I got to know the space, its atmosphere and its audience, I can advice the artists where and how exactly to stage their works since these rooms are a bit tricky. This is not a white cube at all, I'm keeping the inner walls raw after realizing how successful they were. It's got personality besides I can do whatever needs to be done without worrying about damaging the floor, surfaces...


I also developed more interest in thematic exhibitions, like in 52.5293°N, 13.3964°E, where the main topics were geography and measuring. I pick artists who I know, or research some new exciting ones, probably ask them to do something specific for the exhibition

What I'm sure it's that I'm not interested in showing mere aesthetically beautiful products

What are your favourite art spaces in Berlin?

I really liked Basso, a venue I knew before even moving here. Other independent spaces such as N.G.B.K. Or Künstlerhaus Bethanien are also very nice.

There is also a lot of things going on in Neukölln for the last two years. You only have to walk around there to find plenty of interesting spaces

in the world?

This year, while working on three exhibitions in Brussels, I found really inspiring places combining fine arts, literature, video art, electric art... it's very interesting since they are discovering new ways of mediating...

There is also in France the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, in Paris, and not far from there Mac/Val

Where will you and the space be in 5 years?

Substitut won't move from Torstraße for at least a year and a half. Then I will have to ask myself: what to do now?. It's important to stay flexible, to be open to changes. And maybe is then time to go somewhere else.

This year it's been quite thrilling in what comes to the art in Berlin, it seems that Mitte's Linien-August-Tor Straßen are no longer the main core.

Maybe I will move to another city, but if I ever decide to relocate my space in Berlin I will have to consider where is the next place. It will be also time to redefine what kind of space I'll be running: whether a classic space for exhibitions or something more experimental combining different media.

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