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Lang/Baumann, ‘Beautiful Steps #2’ 2009, galvanised steel, anodised aluminium

You may not have heard of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition before, despite this being its 11th edition. It is billed as a quinquennial, but in truth has been an occasional, rather than regular, occurrence in a city that sits on what locals call the Röstigraben, (literally the Rösti ditch), where Swiss French and Swiss German language, culture and cuisine meet. Thus Bienne is often referred to as Biel, and the language a visitor first encounters is pure lottery. The first sculpture exhibition took place in 1954; for want of a public gallery, the works were positioned throughout the city. Necessity became opportunity, and although Bienne now boasts the Centre PasquArt, this exhibition is still dispersed throughout the small city.

Simon Lamunière, best known for curating Art Unlimited at the Art Basel fair, coined the title Utopics to cover an exhibition of alternative visions that has as much to do with you, topic, topos and pics as with utopias. There are about 50 exhibits and sculptures on streets, in shops, bars, parks and semi-public spaces that one tracks down with a map and guidebook. Even the most assiduous visitor is bound to miss some, given the guide’s unfortunately illogical design, the irregular nature of some events, and some works that seem determined to hide. Frustrating as this may be, it is clear we are not traipsing round an edenic castle garden or picture-perfect Münster, but a contemporary urban situation with all its associated vagaries and challenges, heterogeneity and surprises, and the works are as much for Bienne inhabitants to stumble upon as for art nomads to hunt out. An array of alternatives to the status quo is presented without the protection of a gallery environment, ranging from the optimistic and fantastical to the overbearing and demented. ‘It is hard to know, in advance,’ Lamunière says, ‘whether [the proponents] are utopians, jokers, autocrats, missionaries or artists.’ And there is a good sprinkling of each.

Waiting to be worn in an optician’s shop are the latest version of Carsten Höller’s ‘Upside-Down Glasses’; anyone who is willing to take the risk can wander about in the street seeing the world the wrong way round, though the disorientation of the experience is not to be taken lightly. Dizzyingly high up on the office block that rises above the nearby congress centre, Lang/Baumann have fixed precarious staircase that leads around a corner from one storey to another. This visionary architecture is dystopian; even in Bienne the scale of architecture can be alienating. An altogether more intimate experience is provided in a bedroom of the Mercure Hotel, where a film about Andrea Zittel’s ‘Living Units’ plays. It is indicative of the organisers’ pragmatic approach that Zittel’s capsules for autarkic living are shown in commercial lodgings, and makes for amusing encounters between viewers in a space designed for temporary privacy.

To the north east where the city tapers out, but new developments nudge it further, billboards to advertise Cao Fei’s ‘RMB City’, a conurbation in Second Life, as an obvious comment on speculation, and a suggestion that the virtual and real worlds are not so far apart. In an older residential area, W&W (Annie Wu and Tonik Wojtyra) run a market with a human aspect. Their ‘Ideal’ project is a gallery for an ideal world; art is sold anonymously, and for what money cannot buy. Each artist involved has stated the terms on which they will transfer ownership of their works: for one it is the use of a horse in the Geneva area, for another an unspecified experience or deed, that equates, in the mind of the buyer, to the sellers’ ambiguous request.

Clemens von Wedemeyer’s video work ‘Walden’, realised in collaboration with students of FHNW, is one of the exhibition’s highlights. The video plays at the station of a funicular railway leading to forest above the city, and purports to explain the artist’s attempt to create a work for Utopics with local students. The students, believing more in the validity of their own expressions than submission to the authority of the established artist, have absconded to live in the woods and thence make furtive artistic interventions. Findings of these are included in the patchwork documentary, as is footage from searches for the students. Wedemeyer’s narrative illustrates how one person’s vision can dissatisfy others, and creates a legend of a lost community. Incidentally, one figure that features in the video is a middle-aged man dressed in sequinned clothes (and few of them) who emerges from a forest hut to wave his bottom at the camera. Up on the hillside, the same man can be encountered in the flesh, and his actions are once again provocative. Are this gentleman and the artist complicit? No, says the Utopics press office, the former is simply a squatter in the forest. However knowingly he participates, the meeting with someone who determines his existence outside of society is a bite of reality.

Lamunière has curated a catholic assemblage of visionaries, whose ideas are practical and esoteric, spiritual and literal. In the catalogue he writes: ‘An individual can infiltrate the public sphere like a virus. The image he or she creates, or an avatar, can propagate and invade the globalised world.’ He is right, but what is great about Utopics is that in Bienne ideas meet with the stubborn fabric of life in a complex city, to succeed, fail or make no impression. Utopias are collective visions conceived of by individuals; how and why they cannot be realised is here as interesting as the visions themselves.

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer based in Zurich