In Zurich, artists and the machinery of sex-industry regulation find a new frontline

By Aoife Rosenmeyer

Switzerland is famous for several things: chocolate, cheese, efficiency – and prostitution. And if it isn’t surprising when the last in this list becomes a theme for artists, one wouldn’t necessarily expect an artist to play a role in branding the latest evolution of the oldest trade, though that’s what has happened here. Regarding prostitution, Switzerland differs from most European countries for a couple
of reasons. It is licensed and written into law as a service provision, which is not to say that this framework for prostitution has ensured that all prostitution is undertaken legally. Authorities concentrate not on its prevention but on ensuring sex workers work within the law
(ie, equipped with residence permits and the appropriate licences), while attempting to
stop human trafficking and other abuse. Until recently, prostitution by girls of 16 and 17
was also permissible, which led to unpalatable sex tourism; although this particular law has recently changed, it remains a grey area, because while it is criminal for the john, a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old will not be prosecuted for prostituting himself or herself. And in latter years, increased freedom of movement throughout Europe has brought many new prostitutes to a country offering exponentially better earning potential than their homelands.

If you’re not in the target audience, you could conceivably – just – remain ignorant of the brothels, the streetwalkers and the designated red-light areas within which prostitutes sit in shop windows, but in Zurich one designated location for soliciting, the arterial Sihlquai (which incidentally runs behind the Löwenbräu Areal art hub), became a frontline between local residents, pimps, sex workers and the authorities. The solution, this last August, was to move the trade to ‘sex boxes’ on the city’s northern fringe, where johns can avail of drive-in garages, a topic that has fascinated the foreign press, some of whom have taken it as an opportunity to mock Swiss bureaucracy in action, even if the concept has already been applied elsewhere in Europe. Customers are pointed in the right direction by an understated sign saying ‘Strichplatz’, with a red pictogram of an unfurled umbrella. This symbol has been adopted by the city in line with several international organisations that campaign for sex-workers’ rights, but seems in fact to originate with the Slovenian artist Tadej Pogacar, who employed red umbrellas as a symbol for sex-worker solidarity during a march at the Venice Biennale in 2001.

But central Langstrasse remains the city’s main red-light and going-out area, where hipster bars and porn cinemas sit cheek by jowl. It too has been home to several galleries, while off-spaces like Perla-Mode are still going strong. Esther Eppstein’s long-running Message Salon (which hosts work by other artists within Perla-Mode) clearly positions itself site-specifically, but had its own interaction with the law
a few years ago when, context notwithstanding, a charge of pornography was made in relation to Petr Motycka’s Projections (2008), a work that aped the format of an adult comic and was shown on the side of a neighbouring
building over several nights
while Switzerland cohosted the
European football championships. Eppstein’s refusal to pay the fine led to a nearly yearlong process, at the end of which the cultural value of the work was recognised.

Are lawmakers also sex workers?

As the peripheral sex-boxes opened over the summer, so did a theatrical installation in Les Complices, an off-space lead by Andrea Thal close to Langstrasse. For Striche durch Rechnungen (Spanners in the Works, 2013), written by Tim Zulauf, the small retail-unit gallery was transformed, for the short run, by a lurid pink carpet and a few spare props. A single burly actor performed a monologue, slipping between two roles: a law-and-order representative controlling moral misdemeanours, and a sex worker shutting down her business in light of new regulations. The deliberately chaotic production identified some of the absurdities inherent in a city’s authorities controlling the profession: if, for instance, you write the laws that regulate prostitution, do you become a sex worker? While the city is attempting a clean-up job, then, art is pointedly messing it up again.

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue.