In March 2022, Karin Mairitsch was elected president of ZHdK. The education and culture manager will take office on 1 October 2022. In this interview, she reveals what connects her to Zurich, what the future of ZHdK might look like, and what she wishes most for students.
Sylvia Battegay: In one sentence: Who are you?
Karin Mairitsch: Deeply human, committed to human rights, to the well-being of future generations, and also to the arts.
What do you associate with Zurich?
For me, Zurich is part of my childhood and family history. Half of my grandmother’s family emigrated to Zurich. I spent a lot of time here as a child, which explains why I came into contact with Swiss German at a very early age and had no problems at all understanding it. I also associate Zurich with Dada, urbanity, clarity, cosmopolitanism, a forward-looking approach, achievement orientation, and a rich cultural life as a counterweight to the financial centre.
How did you come to art—or art to you?
Well, art rather came to me, to begin with in my family: one of my grandmothers was a passionate reader. My mother considered spelling, correct grammar and elaborate linguistic expression very important, so that I learned early on to express myself in a differentiated way. Finally, my older brother, who was talented at drawing, inspired me to draw several hours a day from the age of 12 or 13. I wanted to “capture” people and drew portrait after portrait.
What is, can, and should art be?
Art does not tolerate sweeping, hard and fast answers.
Looking into the future, how do you see ZHdK?
As a leading arts university in a global context. As a regionally rooted higher education institution actively shaping the future. As an arts university that assumes social responsibility. As a place of experimentation with visionary power. As diverse, intercultural, intergenerational, interdisciplinary, sustainable and free — as an arts university from and for people.
How would you like to develop ZHdK? What projects would you like to initiate?
I first want to take stock and listen to staff and students. After a certain time, I will be able to formulate, together with university members, which further developments we believe need which projects. At the moment, it is important that we continue implementing the major-minor model, as well as keep pursuing sustainability, diversity, internationalization, interdisciplinarity, PhD opportunities, interlinking teaching, continuing education and research, and digital transformation.
What social responsibility does an arts university have?
The arts have the power of imagination, and thus are able to bring into play other points of view, new perspectives, surprising options for action and unconventional paths, as well as to create meaning. The power of imagination is an obligation. Arts and design universities are therefore responsible for shaping the future in economic, cultural and social terms in their own way, while respecting and representing fundamental human rights, the plurality of value and belief systems, social cohesion and democratic constitution. Moreover, since higher education institutions have a responsibility towards those they educate and employ, they are also obliged to constantly explore their potential for renewal, in order to serve people and their opportunities for development and growth.
How do you combine your different perspectives — as artist, researcher, lecturer, education and culture manager — in your everyday professional life?
I don’t really need to think about that because all these different aspects define me and are connected within me. Put differently: we are always many. What makes people so special is that they are unique in their diversity and contradictoriness. So whether I react to a challenge, situation or person with artistic strategies, with exploratory vigilance or with managerial pragmatism depends entirely on the challenge, the situation and my counterpart.
What do you wish for students at ZHdK?
I would like them to continue becoming who they are. That their thinking, feeling, imagining, communicating and acting — that all their senses — expand. That they make contacts at ZHdK that will benefit them after they graduate. That they find teachers about whom they can say in the second half of their lives that they helped them grow. That they are allowed to experiment, discover and take detours. That they encounter questions and potential friction that open up new paths. I wish them that they are alive when they are here.
What do you find important in personal encounters?
That they are authentic, appreciative and sincere. That we can build trust and thus a foundation on which we can both praise and challenge each other. At some point in discussions, I would like to reach a decision. I give particular attention to strengths and resources, not least the ability to accept criticism and tolerate mistakes; therein lies much potential for growth. I also hope, of course, that what I can give will also be accepted.
Who or what inspires you?
Mostly people, especially if they are sensitive and intelligent at the same time. Beyond that, the Swiss mountains, deserts and foreign cultures.
What was your big dream as a student? What is it today?
A big dream is coming true with my appointment as ZHdK president. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor. As a student, my biggest wish was to have enough money for food, a toilet inside the apartment, a bathtub and heating in winter.
What will be your biggest challenge? What will you dare to do?
In my experience, the greatest venture in this role is to be authentic. Being ourselves always involves a risk. In my case, this means that I like things to flow, as a rule at a considerable pace, with quite a high degree of complexity and foresight, blended with linguistic compression and seasoned with a fair share of Austrian humour.