The perceptibility of a phenomenon is a basic precondition to address and to question it: what we do not perceive, we cannot explore in science, we cannot discuss in political or social debates, and it cannot be represented in the arts. Since its invention in the 19th century, photography is one of the fundamental means – both technically and artistically – to make things visible and therefore perceptible.
Photographic visibility often gives the impression of being something natural, something that is just there to be seen, something that just happens by itself. However, photographic visibility is always produced, generated, manufactured. What we see and perceive through photographic images is made perceptible by the use of certain aesthetic and technical strategies. Images are taken in a specific context, from a particular point of view. The question of how to make something visible by photographic means, which aspects of a phenomenon to focus on, which visual strategies to use and to what end, are fundamental questions for artists working with photography. They are also the starting question for the artistic research projects in the field of photography that we pursue at the Institute for Contemporary Art Research IFCAR at the Zurich University of the Arts.
Even though the changes in the urban landscape in Switzerland have been massive since the middle of the 20th century and are still taking place at an amazing speed, they are too slow to be perceived by the human eye. On site, living in a place, passing through a village, a town, a city, hiking through a landscape, the built space surrounding us is perceived as solid, stable, still, permanent, the immobile background against which live is happening. However, this built space is constantly in motion and undergoing drastic changes, due to economic growth and industrial spread, mass motorization, the development of the suburbs during the construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s and processes of re-urbanization and densification in recent years. Photographic images enable us to make this change perceptible. In contrast to the monitoring of spatial change through maps, plans, data etc., photography operates on location. The photographer has to be on site, he or she looks at space at eye level, not from the bird’s eye view of a planner. Photographic images can establish a connection to the experience of the lived, perceived space (Henry Lefebvre). Contrary to the abstract space of urban planning, it addresses the sensory and emotive aspects of the urban environment. This potential of photography is the starting point for two research projects in the field of urban landscape photography at the IFCAR: “Archiv des Ortes” (Archive of the Place) and “Fotografische Langzeitbeobachtung Schlieren 2005-2020” (Long-term photographic observation of Schlieren 2005-2020). Both projects aim at making visible and therefore perceptible the extensive transformation of Switzerland’s everyday environment. How politics, urban planning and architecture, art and design can react to these urbanization processes, how the polycentric new urban landscapes that emerge can be understood and interpreted is a fundamental question both in urban studies and in society in general. We believe that showing how urbanization processes affect the everyday environment, in a particular place, on site, can contribute to a deeper understanding of these processes and can (and should) be an integral part of researching them. For photographic images not only document the changes in the urban landscape, they also shape our ideas and concepts about these landscapes.
Agglomerations and suburban areas tend to be perceived as places without identity or history. Yet a majority of the population in Switzerland (as well as in Europe) nowadays lives in these new polycentric urban regions. As the examples of Schlieren and the Upper Engadine in our research show, the relationship between overall tendencies of development and the qualities of a specific place are quite complex. Our approach intends to establish a gaze that focuses on those aspects of the experienced, lived space that tend to go unnoticed in the “official” visualization of swiss landscape or swiss urban environment: the imagery which is produced by tourism and city marketing, or in the promoting of large-scale building projects by architects and construction companies.