Or A Brief (But Memorable) Excursion into the Hinterland of Bureaucracy
Switzerland may not have much seashore, but there are times it does feel like an island (actually, look at any map of the E.U., it is marooned farther and farther inside Europe as the borders extend east).
I have just recently tested those nether shores.
Preparing a show in France initially seemed quite simple. Choose pictures. Make lists. Put pictures in packing cases. Watch solid movers lift and load said cases. Sign a paper, wave goodbye.
Little did I know. Life on an island still reserves some surprises. One week before the show, the organisers phone and ask me to help arrange to get the artwork through customs. I am suddenly poised in the brink of the Great Abyss of Bureaucracy.
But first, I can’t resist a little etymology. (Any port in a storm when you’re saddled with an unwelcome task and any distraction will do; coming to grips with the real thing required a little exploration of the word itself.) Bureaucracy may not necessarily have been invented by the French, but they did invent the word for it.
Bureaucracy: from Fr. bureaucratie, from bureau “office,” lit. “desk” + Gk. suffix -kratia denoting “power of;” coined by the French economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-59), the inventor of “laissez-faire” or free market economics. “We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania.” The original French meaning of the word bureau was the baize used to cover desks, at which, presumably, generations of compilers of lists, adders-up of sums and purveyors of chicanery wore thin the elbows of their coats. (Burel is probably from bure ‘dark brown,’ from Old French baies, feminine plural of bai ‘chestnut-colored’. The name is presumably derived from the original colour of the cloth, basically what monks wear nowadays.) The term “bureaucracy” came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, and from there rapidly spread to other countries. (Hardly surprising, such a useful word!) It is first recorded in English in 1818. Bureaucrat is mentioned in 1842; bureaucratic in 1836.
Small solace, but at least it’s nice to know you’re dealing with a tradition at least a few centuries old. It would really be a shame to waste so much energy on some post-modern upstart concept…
So, step one, phone the local Chamber of Commerce for information on how to proceed. Am told an ATA Booklet is necessary. This is basically a form that is provided by said Chamber of Commerce and stamped by customs in transit. Unfortunately, in order to guarantee that I am not secretly exporting my work for sale, I must provide a guarantee that it will return to Switzerland. Alas, my solemn word, hand on heart, is not good enough and a deposit is required: one-third of the insured value of the exhibition (or about twice my annual income – not an option).
Of course, I don’t wander about with that kind of pocket money, but the Chamber of Commerce explains that my bank or my insurance company will be only too happy to provide said guarantee. According to them, clients’ banks do this all the time. That makes sense, I think, after losing a few billion on the sub-prime market, they should be making an effort to keep us wee clients from jumping ship. Phone bank. Get puzzled counsellor on line. Await call back. Turns out that they can only provide a guarantee if I have the same amount in the bank (which I don’t, obviously, or would I be wasting my time on the phone…). Call insurance company. Get perplexed agent on line. Await call back. Turns out that they can guarantee, with my current insurance policy, the equivalent of the VAT (7.6% in Switzerland) on my insured work, which falls far short (way short) of the one-third required.
Call Chamber of Commerce again. There is another system, which is called a “passavant”, basically a sort of declaration accompanied by a list, which allows me to take the work OUT of Switzerland, but not INTO France. For that, I have to provide apparently a guarantee that amounts to the equivalent of French VAT, which is 19.6 percent – slightly better than 30, but still not really an option.
So, a call to Swiss Customs, where I am duly informed that the passavant no longer exists, but has been replaced by a different paper called a Declaration of Admission For Temporary Exportation, which is basically the same thing, but takes a little longer to say. This I can fill out at the border, and it’s free. Call to French Customs. As long as I the artist of the works is doing the temporary exporting, then it’s also free on their side. No guarantee necessary. The laws have apparently changed, but of course from one side of the border to the other, this kind of top-secret info is not exchanged. I make all the calls again, double-check and scrupulously note office hours, make sure there will be customs officers on duty, etc., etc. (This whole business takes two days, organising my scribbled notes, calling back, waiting to be called back, the whole punctuated by increasingly concerned and exasperated calls from the organisers in France, who, with the EU and exhibitions freely traversing Europe in all directions, have no experience dealing with isolated island nations, even ones in their midst.) The most amusing part is going from one discovery and snippet of contradictory information to the other, which of course in turn sets off another series of phone calls, juxtaposed on other series of calls. Even more sobering of course is realizing that the people on the other end of the line are possibly LESS well-informed than you are.
This was rapidly turning into what the French (undoubtedly out of a good deal of experience with “bureaucracie”) call a “galère”; that situation where, chained to your bench and your oar, you row diligently towards your (inevitable) sticky end. I should underline that EVERYONE I talked to (even my bank and my insurance company, who were of absolutely zero assistance) was all very pleasant and helpful, but that’s the nature of bureaucracy. (On an island, way out in European waters.)
As it turns out, after much searching and finally downloading the official texts off the web, artists are allowed to import and export their own work without restrictions, and without paying any tax or duties out of Switzerland and back in again. Much comforted, I confirm to all concerned that getting through customs is a cake-walk.
Or so I thought. You see, unless you are doing a show in the international transit zone of an airport, or perhaps in mid-ocean or in space, every border is of course TWO borders, and getting across one doesn’t have anything at all to do with getting across the other.
Monday, May 26th, the truck turns up, the crates are loaded, and off we head towards the border.
Papers are duly approved and stamped by the Swiss, but it’s when we arrive in France – next door in the same building – that the problems start. I am told I was not correctly informed by the customs officer I spoke to on the phone (I talked to the trainee, apparently) and that the Swiss paper allowing me to take my work OUT of Switzerland isn’t sufficient to take it INTO France. The agents there try to raise someone – anyone – on the phone who is a little higher up in the hierarchy and can give them the nod that it’s all right, because although in THEORY it’s all in order, they are a little concerned about the value of the exhibition itself. In the end, they can’t find any answers, so we head back to the Swiss customs agent (where I redo the original forms, which the art transport company had incorrectly filled out despite receiving the full lists, and since the papers are in German and my German is pretty basic, as is the driver’s English and French, but anyway, at least we have the correct papers now.) In the meantime, I phone the organisers of the show, who have called the French customs, and have been told the problem lies in the fact that I am using a professional transport company, and that even if I am present, as the law requires, that aspect has held things up. In the meantime, the French officials suggest we try a different border crossing. (I have the image of me and a truck and two increasingly desperate drivers trying every road across the Franco-Swiss border over the next three days until we find a way to sneak over – not an option.)
The only solution appears to be to ask a transport company who deals in international transport and is familiar with the paperwork necessary to do the papers. But of course, they need a guarantee. How much, exactly, depends on who you talk to. On the local international transit company’s advice, more calls with the organiser, who needs to find a similar company near them in France, where they can make the deposit, who will then contact their Swiss colleagues, who will do the paperwork. In the meantime, since it’s twelve noon and the places are of course by now closed, I swing by the French customs, who in the interim have found out more information. There is apparently a limit to the amount an artist can take through customs into France, and it equals approximately one-twelfth of the value of the show. (I could always reduce the show to 3 or 4 pictures – not really an option.) No limit on the Swiss side, either going in or out, but on the other side, yes – a limit given in French francs, which shows how long that law has been sleeping, since the Euro was introduced 6 years ago…
Now of course, the company that owns the truck is a little agitated and slightly concerned, since they have a vehicle and two drivers cooling their heels in the Jura. I field more phone calls, trying to explain what’s going on to all involved. (I briefly consider plastic surgery, a name change and one-way passage on a container ship to Patagonia – not an option.)
News: the transit company apparently requires a mere 5% deposit, which IS within my ball park, but it’s not something I can organise in an afternoon, even if my bank agrees to do it for me, they require a couple of days, but I don’t know if the transport company ACCEPTS bank guarantees or if they require a deposit in cash, which is a little more complicated. (And anyway by now I’d just like to forget the whole thing – not, alas, an option.) Another call, and it appears that the Swiss company can only clear SWISS customs, which means that the French organiser MUST contact a French company IN their region, since the actual customs formalities take place THERE at the nearest customs office and not at the border itself, with the truck possibly being sealed before leaving Switzerland. Another call to the Swiss transit company, who has talked to the organisers, but has had no news, fax or anything allowing them to go ahead, and of course they close for the day at 5:30 p.m. (I had visions of the two drivers turning up here at my place asking if they can unload the crates – not an option I really want to think about.) Whatever the case, it’s still a 600-mile drive.
As it turns out they got their papers just in the nick of time before everything shut down for the day, so they are on the road. I allow myself a timid sigh of relief.
But of course it’s not QUITE over. (That would be just too easy.)
The next morning, I get a call from the art transporter in Switzerland, who has had a call from the transit company in France, who has spent the morning talking to the local customs officials. Now they need to know if the artwork can indeed be considered as “contemporary art”. (“Contemporary”, yes, last time I checked, I was still alive and thus certainly contemporary, and as for “art”, well for crying out loud already isn’t that one of the major problems of the 20th century – EVERYTHING is art. I briefly consider writing something of that nature – DEFINITELY not an option.) The local customs people, who are unaccustomed to dealing with this kind of thing, are trying to decide if the deposit required should be set at 5% (art) or at 19.6 % (not art).
So, I write, in my best schoolbook French, a declaration to the effect that I am indeed contemporary, that my work is indeed art, and it is not for sale and it coming back to the Island of Switzerland as soon as winds and tides permit.
All this aside, the pictures are now safely in La Baule, and it promises to be a REALLY lovely show.
It opens Saturday. See you there.