Helvetia Out of Order

Helvetia - the mythical symbol of Switzerland - as portrayed in the documentary "Image Problem".

Helvetia – the mythical symbol of Switzerland – as portrayed in the documentary “Image Problem”. 

deviation |noun| the action of departing from an established course or accepted standard

A little graffiti is good for the soul. Not because it’s pretty, not because it’s orderly – but because every balanced society needs a healthy dose of deviance. Like cod liver oil. A little something to remind us we’re not automatons and that free will – something not even God is willing to bend – is still romping merrily among us. But the Swiss don’t like deviation. They deviate only for the mountains (and even then, only when yet another tunnel would be overkill). So in the dainty Confoederatio Helvetica, if anything is out of order for too long, be suspicious.

Arguably, two of the Swiss People's Party most controversial campaigns, as shown in the Neuchâtel exhibit. Due to additional vandalism, in a few days nothing would be left of the canvases seen here with only a few slashes.

Arguably, two of the Swiss People’s Party most controversial campaigns, as shown in the Neuchâtel exhibit. Due to additional vandalism, in a few days nothing would be left of the canvases seen here with only a few slashes.

I knew something was up when, weeks later, the slashed canvases were still flapping about in the lakeside wind, like tattered curtains of an abandoned motel. The canvases had made up an exhibit on Swiss political posters dealing with the issue of foreigners – from Communists to Jews, Southern Europeans to Muslims. The continuous vandalism inflicted upon the posters was a poignant indicator of a deep divide that the exhibit’s curators weren’t about to quickly sweep under the rug. Especially not with elections coming up. That’s my guess anyway. Voting requires an examination of conscience and asylum laws are on the table… again.

Some of the more open-minded campaigns shown in the exhibit.

Some of the more open-minded campaigns shown in the exhibit.

Posters have always been a popular form of political campaigning in this country and immigration has been a fraught topic apparently ever since 1918 – the date of the first campaign in the exhibit. Among the sample of posters are two famous ones created by the Swiss People’s Party: one shows a bunch of white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag with the slogan “To Create Security”; the other shows a woman in a burka standing in front of a Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets (this one used in a 2009 referendum to ban the construction of additional minarets). The supporters of this extreme right-wing party seem to think that Heidi is a bona fide historical figure and all foreigners are starved pedophiles. You’d rightfully dismiss them as a bunch of goons if it weren’t for the disconcerting detail that they garnered over a ¼ of the popular vote for the Swiss Federal Assembly in 2011. Yet the exhibit curators wanted to present an unbiased historical account and so alongside posters such as these, was one asking “How do Jews make their money? By working, like everybody else.” And another showing a spectrum of babies from black to white, with the catch phrase “Made in Switzerland”.

Fruit of folklore: Heidi and her friend Peter.

Fruit of folklore: Heidi and her friend Peter.

So how do you intelligently combat ideological idiots? This is the secret recipe: deep in the night, you sneak into their headquarters and steal their treasured symbol: Heidi. You turn her into an Oscar-look-alike statuette for the first ever… drum roll, please… Heidi Awards: an accolade that celebrates a more open, tolerant Switzerland. But ingenuity is not enough to take home a Heidi – you gotta have pizzazz. And just to annoy the old farts, we’ll have the awards presented by distinguished foreigners that immigrated to Switzerland like Albert Einstein, Martina Hingis and Henri Nestlé. Clap, clap, clap!

The designers at BaseGVA are a shoe in for a Heidi in the “Fight Fire with Fire” category. Their Open Switzerland project (www.openswitzerland.org) gives anyone sick of being preached to by anachronistic zealots with a color printer a chance to give it a go themselves. On this website, people make their own posters reflecting how they see Switzerland – and some of them are pretty funny. Here’s mine. I went for a celebration of the Swiss fashion sense (marked by a sharp penchant for red shoes) with an undertone of psychoanalytical patriotism – what do you think?

My contribution to Base BVA's Open Switzerland campaign.

My contribution to Base BVA’s Open Switzerland campaign.

But the guys at BaseGVA didn’t stop there. Remember the font Helvetica, whose very name abounds with Swissness? It was created by two Swiss guys, Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, in 1957 as a more neutral typeface. Neutral – how very Swiss. Well the Swiss designers at BaseGVA decided to create a new font, Basetica, that reflects what they would like their country to be: “open minded, neat and modern. Sometimes a bit raw, but always clean and discrete.” I had no clue graphic design could be so political. Lesson learned: thou shall not choose thy font light-heartedly.

The poster for Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner's documentary "Image Problem".

The poster for Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner’s documentary “Image Problem”.

Another Heidi would definitely go to Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner for their mockumentary Image Problem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge2g0SeqrBI. These 88 minutes of satirical documentary attempt to unmask “the lack of solidarity and increasing xenophobia in the small state of Switzerland”. Their words, not mine. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to nominate this film for a Heidi solely based on the trailer, but – you know what? – I will. Because it’s hilarious. Plus, my innumerous attempts to get my hands on an English subtitled version of the movie have proven fruitless. But, then again, that is in of itself indicative, isn’t it? I guess this movie is meant for the Swiss – an invitation to that fractious quarter to mellow down and an opportunity for the rest of Switzerland to give Helvetia something of a makeover.


2 thoughts on “Helvetia Out of Order

  1. Pingback: Open-ended stories | From lex to lexicon

  2. Hi!
    I would say this is like rebellion when the course you are on is governed & you deviate from it. I loved being rebellious most of my years as I was growing up. It was fun! Sports was how I made my rebellion happen & my health to work better. Hope you will check out my new posts on my blog. I try to inspire when replying & also in my posts as well that are on my blog. Have a wonderful time!

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