Salome Hohl, art historian, curator and recently-appointed director of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, looks back on her UZH student days.
The historic venue of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire is pleasantly shady on this bright and hot summer’s day. Salome Hohl, 35 and a native of Eastern Switzerland with long blonde hair, red lips and a bright blue pantsuit, sprays her hands with sanitizer and repositions the tables and chairs. Even in the birthplace of Dadaism, the spiritual home of artists and dreamers, the crazy and the contrarian, Covid-19 protection measures are rigorously observed.
A place where the weird, the grotesque and the absurd were encouraged and normality was scorned is now home to strict and standard rules. So how can a crisis that cries for conformity be reconciled with the Dadaist doctrine? Salome Hohl is ready with a reply. “These protective measures are not about normalized thought and actions,” she explains. “They’re about solidarity, and ensuring that our culture can see itself through these Covid times – and can respond to them, too.”
Cultivating the Dada tradition
Hohl has been director of the Cabaret Voltaire since January, with overall responsibility for the historic venue’s artistic concept and program of events. After what she describes as a “surreal start” to 2020 (thanks to the present pandemic), she is now looking forward to an interesting second six months as the initiator and the host of interdisciplinary discussions, weekly soirées, surprise performances, readings and exhibitions.
“The interdisciplinary exchange, the sense of community, the talks, the encounters and the confrontations – they’re all part of the Dada tradition that I want to continue to cultivate, even under the present corona conditions,” Hohl explains. “And that’s why collaborations with other artists, thinkers, creatives and researchers are so essential.”
Many of Salome Hohl’s contacts and connections on today’s cultural scene were first forged in her university days. A native of a village of some 1,800 inhabitants in the Canton of Appenzell, she has lived in Zurich for the past 15 years. And while her initial idea was to move to Switzerland’s biggest city as quickly as possible, Zurich is now her genuine home.
“My student years helped teach me who I am”
Wanting to do something useful and help shape society, Salome Hohl first completed a double Bachelor’s degree in kindergarten and primary-level teaching at the Zurich University of Teacher Education, and went on to teach at various levels. Parallel to this, though, she also immersed herself in Zurich’s arts and culture scene.
When she did so, she soon came to realize two key things: “That I enjoy being artistically active, but that I get even more enjoyment from being creative in a theoretical way.” To give herself the mental tools and the vocabulary to do so, she signed up for a further course of study at the University of Zurich in art history, philosophy and cultural analysis.
Looking back as we talk in the Cabaret Voltaire, Hohl describes her years at UZH as extremely formative, and even crucial to who and what she is today. “I was older than the other students and maybe more focused and goal-minded,” she explains. “But at the same time, I was very inquisitive and open to new intellectual stimuli.”
Her studies in humanities, Hohl feels, taught her to think a topic through and view it from different perspectives, and to analyze complex and ambivalent problems via tough and critical questioning. They also equipped her to tackle challenging big issues, and to conduct the kind of relevant debates that encourage others, too, to engage and get involved.
Having been a highly professional interviewee up to this point, Salome Hohl suddenly becomes very personal here. “University gave me a phenomenally important foundation,” she confides. “And in my present job in particular, I really value and appreciate the intellectual map that I was able to acquire during my time at UZH.”
Hohl had already gained a foothold in the art world while engaged in her studies, devising exhibitions in Zurich off-spaces, writing texts for specialist publications and serving an internship at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen. She rose quickly through the ranks at this reputed “laboratory of today”, becoming firstly assistant curator and later co-curator. She also gained her first experiences in art education, particularly as a lecturer in art history at Zurich’s F+F School of Art and Design.
The perfect place
Having an internationally renowned cultural address as her present place of work is “absolutely amazing”, Salome Hohl concludes as we end our discussion. “The Cabaret Voltaire is the perfect place for me. Everything I’m interested in seems to come together here: contemporary art, science, the historical, the experimental and the collaborative, plus the events all around us today.”
On this last point, the current coronavirus crisis looms particularly large. “It’s a challenge on every front,” she concurs. “And it’s one that will continue to face the present, the past and the future for some time to come.”
Translation: Paul Day