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SWISS ARTIST SAN KELLER SPENDS A WEEK WITH PEOPLE HE HAS NEVER MET, IN A COUNTRY HE HAS NEVER VISITED

Stranger than life

IT'S 11:43 on Tuesday, September 17. A swarthy man with dark curls gets off the train at the Bratislava main station. With a carefree step he carries his luggage in one hand and records everything happening around him with a camera in the other.
Suddenly his mobile phone rings. "We're waiting for you outside," says a female voice.
The caller adds a brief description of what she looks like. In minutes the man has met two women outside the station. Introductions follow, and all three disappear into a nearby café.


DUŠAN Brozman from Swiss Pro Helvetia, which funds the project, hosted Keller after he became bored with another host.
photo: Ján Svrček

IT'S 11:43 on Tuesday, September 17. A swarthy man with dark curls gets off the train at the Bratislava main station. With a carefree step he carries his luggage in one hand and records everything happening around him with a camera in the other.

Suddenly his mobile phone rings. "We're waiting for you outside," says a female voice.

The caller adds a brief description of what she looks like. In minutes the man has met two women outside the station. Introductions follow, and all three disappear into a nearby café.

It's not a scene from a spy novel, but an artistic project unfolding before the eyes of the oblivious pedestrians.

The owner of the dark curls, San Keller, is a 31-year-old Swiss artist who has come to Slovakia with a clear goal but little idea of how he will achieve it.

His mission is to meet strangers in Slovakia and to record the encounters on camera. His live-theatre project is called "Take a stranger into your life", and will form the basis of a screening and acting extravaganza in Berlin on October 29.


KELLER thinks his visit and his snapshots have had an effect on Slovak people.
photo: Ján Svrček

In his documentary performances, the Zurich-based Keller examines communication and behaviour among complete strangers, usually showcasing meetings between two people. While he used to paint scenes from his experiences, he later switched to acting out the behaviour he documented in live performances, inviting audiences to become part of his shows.

The idea of "Take a stranger into your life" was born when Mária Rišková from the Buryzone Gallery in Bratislava invited Keller to Slovakia, a country he had never visited before.

During the week he was here, Keller's task was to travel from one stranger's life to another's. Keller had published his mobile phone number in several daily newspapers beforehand, encouraging people to get in touch with him and keep him company until another stranger called.

On the third day of the weeklong project, after already having met seven people, Keller decided to break the game's strict rules.

"I was with an older lady, and suddenly we were left with nothing to talk about. I had to find a way out of this situation, so I called Dušan from Pro Helvetia [the Swiss Arts Council in Bratislava] which funds the project, to ask if I could come into his life. The thing was that I wasn't supposed to call anybody. But Dušan was a stranger to me as well," Keller explains.

Next day, while he was sitting idle next to Dušan, watching him struggle with the firm's accounting, 27-year-old Júlia called him and brought him back into the game. She had learned about Keller's project that day at breakfast when her roommate showed her the ad in a newspaper. After accompanying the Swiss artist for over a day, Júlia said it had been "a great experience".


THE artist and his suitcase seek a home.
photo: Ján Svrček

"He was part of my everyday ritual, he went shopping with me, visited my friends and also accompanied me to the election polling centre," she said of the activities they shared, adding that everywhere they had gone, Keller had dragged his luggage behind him and shot everything with his camera.

As much as Júlia said she liked the idea of the project, however, she was also critical of what she regarded as a waste of money.

"It proved my suspicion that many culture grants get lost in this way, as there will be no real result from what he did. Just a one-day performance and that's it. Not even a piece of the documentary on the Internet.

"It makes me really angry, because people let him so much into their lives, and now it seems just a waste of time."

Keller, who said he had been both surprised and satisfied with the development of the project so far, explained that the idea had been loftier than Júlia understood.

"I can already feel that I've caused some movement here [by visiting Slovakia]. People react and think about what I did and why. What I do is like life, and I try to make it as open as possible."

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