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Scarred by memories

Book about compulsory welfare measures

Tens of thousands of Swiss citizens were victims of compulsory welfare measures and out-of-home placements in the 20th century. Their abuse was long suppressed and has only recently started to be processed. Simone Stolz’s book “Grund genug” (“Reason enough”) contributes to an urgently needed debate on this dark chapter of modern Swiss history while taking into account the vulnerability of those affected.

The invention of photography once coincided with the illusion that reality could be depicted objectively. The new medium seemed to be able to capture the world as it was and thus make it tangible for later generations. Memories on demand, so to speak. However, the film theorist and sociologist Siegfried Kracauer argued that a person’s history is buried by photography as if under a blanket of snow. Detached from that person and the time in which they lived, photography ghosts through the present. A person’s essence, however, is only contained in their history. Countless examples could be cited to save the honour of photography and thus defuse this culturally pessimistic argument. What, however, if we pause for a moment and ask ourselves how else events and experiences can be captured and memories brought to life—especially if they are not our own?

Accessing reality
“Drawing has mattered to me all my life,” says Simone Stolz over a cup of coffee outside the Chez Toni Bistro. A few months ago, she completed her bachelor’s degree in knowledge visualization. Her graduation project was awarded the Design Promotion Prize of ZHdK, which not only provided welcome funding to start her own business as an illustrator, but has also drawn attention to her work. Her project was not entirely good news: “The idea of making a book was greeted with scepticism. It was a very independent project for my discipline.” Yet it was not immediately clear that her project would eventually become a book. Rather, the starting point was Stolz’s way of working and her preferred medium: drawing. “I access reality through drawing. I sit down and sketch. My concentration, access to experiences and visual habits merge with my direct, on-site experience. This is how I capture moments.”

Opening up a space for dialogue
Stolz first heard about coercive measures on a visit to Ireland. But Switzerland also has its own inglorious and little known history of abuse by local authorities. Until the 1980s, tens of thousands of children and youths were placed in institutions and homes to safeguard the prevailing, rigid notion of public order and morality. Those housed in such facilities often suffered psychological and physical violence. “I realized the universal nature of this issue, that people must fit in with the larger scheme of things. I was also troubled by the lacking awareness of injustice in Switzerland and the lack of public debate.” While researching her book, she discovered “Gesichter der Erinnerung” (Faces of Remembrance), an association founded by two victims of welfare abuse and a historian. The association’s online platform gives traumatized people a face and a voice. It thus draws attention to the injustice they have suffered at the hand of the state and contributes to a much-needed debate. Stolz had long conversations with the two victims, and sifted through numerous literary and film sources. And she began to draw. Many of her drawings emerged during this initial phase, first from memory, then in situ. “Drawing is less concrete than photography and therefore can be connected to our own memories. It opens up a space in which dialogue can take place.”

Drawing and temporality
Stolz’s drawings became part of her conversations with the affected, in whom they triggered feelings and reactions: “I would present an initial sketch and they might say that things had taken place differently. I adapted the sketch and presented it again. So the sketches became drawings and the drawings became others’ materialized memories.” As the number of drawings increased, it became clear that they should become a book: “I wanted to put something out there that had weight, materiality and attitude. The book solidifies what essentially are fragile stories. You can put it down and pick it up again. It is meant to stand the test of time.” While working on “Grund genug”, Stolz painstakingly took into account the victims’ suffering and vulnerability. Temporality, so important to her drawings, is reflected by dramaturgy. Reading Stolz’s book is a slow and lonely process, one that demands patience and perseverance.

The present collides with memories
The result is a complex web of words and images, different textures, colours and perspectives. The motifs are spread across double pages, placed at the centre of almost blank pages, are zoomed into and varied over several pages and sometimes dissolve into abstraction. “The book is intended to encourage interpretation and reflection. Readers should make up their own minds. I have deliberately omitted any explicit depictions of violence. I want my work to comment on a particular system.” She spent two days drawing at the facilities where her interviewees had once lived and suffered. Suddenly, the present collided with the recounted memories. Such moments were difficult to endure. But her interviewees’ openness and their conversations strengthened Stolz’s belief that she was on the right path. The design award is merely a way station on her journey.

Zur vollständigen Meldung
Illustrations: Simone Stolz
Illustrations: Simone Stolz