Fusing the Opposites in Geneva
I skulked out from the train station and across Place de Cornavin, dodging a circus of trams and buses in the process. On my way down Rue du Mont-Blanc toward Lake Geneva, I heard at least ten different languages: French, German, English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Italian and a few others that I couldn’t identify. It reminded me of a text-sound collage I created in college 23 years ago, in which I recorded people speaking many different languages and then controlled the samples on stage via MAX software.
Within minutes, I arrived at the crescent-shaped lake, right where Rue du Mont-Blanc intersected the streets running along the quai. Monstrous five-star hotels surrounded this end of the lake as it flowed into the Rhone. International flags hung from lampposts that leaned over the bridge. Rows upon rows of boats attached themselves to their slips. Constellations of swans, like their brothers in Zürich, somehow managed to appear from nowhere. Soundtracks from 1960s European romance flicks entered my head, even a few tunes that I used to spin at Cactus Club’s happy hour in San Jose. Far off in the distance, the Alps rose into the sky, like gingerbread scenes from children’s books.
At the very least Geneva appeared to me as a global capital of humanitarianism and a transnational radiator of peacemaking vibrations. The United Nations, the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross each headquartered themselves here. The stats bordered on the ridiculous and the sublime: 33 of Switzerland’s 40 intergovernmental or international bodies were located in Geneva. Approximately 250 non-governmental organizations, and 255 missions, representations or permanent delegations likewise set up shop here. 2400 business meetings every year attracted 200,000 businessmen and women from all over the world. The whole city, barely the size of a postage stamp, was a global powerhouse of connectivity on multiple levels. Everything about Geneva exemplified international cooperation across language barriers, creative disciplines or matrices of thought.
With such vibes in my skull, I arbitrarily segued left and ambled along the quai, pausing for a few moments to take in the stellar view of the Alps far off in the distance. Across the lake, in the near horizon, even more glamorous five-star hotels formed a regal skyline, behind which lurched several sepia-colored hills across the border, in France.
As I walked, I randomly looked up at one of the buildings fronting the lake, on my side. There above me, attached to a light pole, a shamrock green banner hung from a perpendicular rod, advertising an art show: Monte Verità: Expressionist Utopia.
The serendipity jarred me and I laughed out loud right there on the sidewalk, eliciting odd looks from international businessmen and wealthy hotel guests parading along the asphalt next to me. With no advance knowledge of this art exhibit, I considered that moment to be a manifestation of profound synchronicity. Or at least a meaningful coincidence.
On my previous trip to Switzerland a few years earlier, I’d toured Monte Verita, the Mountain of Truth, originally an ambitious utopian anarchist colony of intellectual anti-bourgeois outcasts at the dawn of the 20th century. Now it's a convention center, a Bauhaus-style hotel, a museum, a tea shop, and various other buildings, with several remnants still remaining from the original colony.
I first read about Monte Verita in the library at San Jose State University 23 years ago. The visionaries who settled on that hill in the first dew decades of the 20th century tried to build an alternative society, with Dadaists, dancers, musicians, painters, authors, sculptors and assorted malcontents regularly showing up for many years. As the first world war began to destroy Europe, such an ideal location could only have emerged in Switzerland.
When the opportunity arose in October of 2011, I visited Monte Verita to experience the property and even stayed in the hotel for a few days. I was obsessed. On that trip, I imagined myself completing a circle of some sort, tracing my anti-establishment roots all the way to back that locale. My presence on that hill felt like the grand result of travel as counterculture genealogy, the final tying up of every loose thread leftover from a mismanaged life.
Now, this time around, I’d arrived in Geneva, primarily to decompress after a week in Switzerland, yet here was an art show dedicated to Monte Verita. I did not know this ahead of time.
Turned out the exhibit unfolded at Artvera’s Gallery, a relatively new space in the more affluent section of Geneva near Place Bourg-de-Four, Geneva’s oldest town square. Construction workers were uprooting the sidewalk in front of the building, but I made it across a temporary wooden platform to ring the doorbell. Gallery attendant Flaminia Scauso let me in and showed me around a restored 5000-square foot medieval building, the main exhibition space of which was a large rectangular, almost cavernous place with inlaid concrete and stonework backgrounding several expressionist paintings. Stern wooden beams ran across the ceiling, angling downward to form a trapezoid with the walls and the wooden floor. Archways led into the adjoining space where more paintings hung on the walls. Additional gallery space apparently existed downstairs. Most of the artists were Swiss or Russian. All of them were inspired by creative and philosophical ideas articulated on the premises of Monte Verita.
Here in Geneva, everything started to click. I could almost imagine the opposite halves of myself beginning to alchemically fuse. The counterculture piece of myself no longer felt incongruous with the business traveler part of myself.
After a double espresso in Place Bourg-de-Four, I headed back to the water. The view from where Rue du Mont-Blanc crossed the lake recalled 100 European romance movies. All those bad schmaltzy records I used to spin at Cactus Club's Happy Hour in San Jose included many European soundtracks that didn’t seem so bad in retrospect, once I thought about them. Geneva was now my imaginary turntable.
Those two entities, a roach-infested San Jose rock club allowing me to spin ridiculous easy listening shmaltz for stale Budweiser and warm Jäger shots was not incongruous with Geneva, a town offering one of the highest qualities of life in the world. Jung and the Dadaists were correct all along, in that once a person’s inner conflicts began to harmonize, a pathway toward a more peaceful space started to emerge. I galvanized the binary opposites of dive rock ‘n’ roll club and international indulgence. I no longer fretted being half-snotty-punk and half-business-traveler. I was fusing the polar opposites of existence. Of art. Of life.