Valentin Altorfer grew up in an artistic environment and always liked to tinker around with things. As an attempt to break away from this, he did a commercial apprenticeship as an air freight forwarding clerk, but ultimately he never worked at a commercial job. Instead, he became self-employed and self-taught, and today he owns a small workshop, where he works mainly with metal, building both mobile and immobile objects for film, theatre, artists, photographers or whoever has an interest in them. Mostly these objects are prototypes, one-offs, and are usually something that he hasn’t done before. He comes from Zurich, where he also lives today. Valentin Altorfer is 59 years old.
Where and how did you grow up?
In a family of artists. My father was firstly a draughtsman, then a caricaturist, a graphic artist, and then a teacher of drawing until the end of his working days.
Could you describe your professional background?
I’ve always been interested in crafting. My workshop started in a leatherette bag and developed further and further from there, and now it’s a rather cluttered garage and studio, with lots of machines for crafting, with a heavy emphasis on making objects from metal. The skills I have were acquired in a self-taught way, through a lot of trial & error, and my ears and eyes were inevitably always open to new things.
Were there certain events or stations that were formative for your career?
At the age of 12, the first visit to the flea market at the Bürkliplatz, where I saw what there could be in the way of objects, opposites and people… Soon I tried to sell toys and and other objects there in order to get money for the tools I needed and to fund my pipe dreams… I always kept my eyes peeled for containers in rubbish dumps and I roamed through demolition houses and the likes with friends. I sold the things I found and didn’t want to keep. I used what I earned to expand the workshop.
Were there certain people who were formative for your career?
This list is a bit endless: Book authors, comic authors, artists, friends, craftsmen, chance acquaintances, friends, parents, aunts on my mother’s side (both painters, as was my mother). Then there was the accountant Mrs. Salzmann of the Pantransport company, where I spent a year of my apprenticeship, who always sighed about my inaccuracy in bookkeeping, but tolerated my drawings in the books. Also Adrian Nägeli, whom I had known since childhood and still do, the first person to fish food out of the rubbish container in Zurich and hold parties with it. One of the sprayer’s brothers. As I said, the list is endless.
Has your environment supported you in your career?
Yes. And always resisted me too.
What are your current activities?
As it has ever been. When there is no lockdown preventing my clients from working, I try to make their wishes become reality – not just something in the virtual world. In between, I try to realise my own projects. I would like to create poetry with all the technology.
Does what you are currently doing fulfil you?
Sometimes more, sometimes less. A lot of swearing when something doesn’t want to do what I have in mind for it. When time is short, the stress is greater. Also when lack of money limits the possibilities.
Do you think that you yourself have an influence on whether your activities are fulfilling?
Of course I have an influence. I can refuse to do anything, but once I have agreed, then it becomes more difficult, as everyone knows. Time, money, lack of material or material difficulties can influence the flow of events. To get your head around this stuff more or less can only really come from experience and habituation I suppose.
What or who inspires you in everyday life?
Shall we say life in general, everything really! Anything I discover in real life or even on the Internet… As an example, even the leaves on a tree in front of the house once gave me an idea which developed into something.
What or who gives you strength and energy in everyday life?
Yoghurt and fruit, for example. Jokes and stories. Beautiful pictures… Beautiful looks!… Beautiful findings… all of which open up new possibilities for me.
There are ‘magic moments’ when everything seems to fit. Moments that fulfil, inspire and give strength. Moments that confirm that the effort is worthwhile and that what you do is meaningful and valuable. Have you already experienced such moments in relation to your own activities?
Here the list is unfortunately endless again… Which is why I can’t or don’t really want to list anything. The day before yesterday, Friday the 15th of January 2021, the snow broke off many branches from trees around the house, and bent trees down across the road. So much so that the fire brigade had to come at night to cut them down. I had to do a lot of sawing and supporting and it was nerve-wracking. But at the same time the snow looked unbelievably beautiful. It was cold and the children sledged down the street where no cars – or almost none – were driving. It was magical, of course.
And if a rough idea works out in the end and people enjoy it, that’s not bad. But that’s just it: There are no quantifiable magic moments.
Do you actively do something for it, so that such ‘magic’ moments can happen?
No. I just do…
Are there moments when you doubt what you are doing?
Of course. I just know that whatever I do has positive as well as negative effects on what I like. We are neither positioned in such a way that the environment we don’t like to destroy is outside of us, nor in such a way that evolution has nothing to do with us. As such we are contributing particles of evolution, contributing particles of the great trial and error. So I am always doubtful and at the same time always certain…
In retrospect, can you find something positive in difficult moments?
Of course. There is nothing that is only good and nothing that is only bad.
Is there anything you would do differently in retrospect?
Difficult again. Presumably, with the benefit of hindsight, the same Valentin who did something exactly the same way back then and not differently would probably not do that now, but with the wisdom of that time he probably would.
Do you want to contribute to society with your activities?
Of course, who doesn’t.
Is the recognition of other people or the public important to you?
Of course, like everyone, I like to be liked. It’s not pleasant to be liked only by people whom you dislike. It makes you question yourself. Or else you think happily: Ah, do the idiots seem to be on a better path because they like me?
How well can you live from what you do professionally?
You can guess: I don’t earn very much from this fun activity of mine. So the financial situation inevitably has an influence. I also work for advertising – which makes me feel not too far from prostitution.
Is there something that is particularly occupying you at the moment?
I have always been concerned, probably through my father’s influence, and have thought a lot about how little attention has generally been paid to the fact that we are doing bad things to the planet.
Unfortunately, I also realised that I would contribute little if I didn’t do fun things, and instead follow the life of a peasant and work the soil by hand. That seems too boring and exhausting to me – which is why I stand on the bad side, despite my concerns.
The saying: ‘I see the better, but I follow the worse.’ – from Ovid, as I just ‘googled’ – also a bad thing!) As a teenager I found this to represent just about the height of stupidity. Meanwhile I have climbed this peak myself…
I guess it has to do with the fact that until I was 39 my only mode of transport was a bicycle and had built myself a sidecar bike, which I also used to transport material. I had to come to the realisation that nobody wanted to accept the resulting slowness of my way of working.
On top of this, all the ‘green’ people who came up at that time and could be found in my friend’s bicycle shop, talking with great enthusiasm about the Macintosh computers that had just appeared at that time. No one seemed to be bothered by the fact that, firstly, they were made of plastic and, secondly, which was not difficult to foresee, that they were unlikely to promote peasant manual labour. Which is why I have a hard time talking about environmentally friendly development. That was in 1980, and even then the motto was: Back to nature in the 4 wheel drive! (Today the SUV)
Is there something you would like to (increasingly) spend time on in the future?
I’ll see when the future arrives.
What are you most grateful for in life?
Here, too, the list would be long. Plenty… plenty… Again, there are two sides to every coin!
Laura Hilti, January 2021
Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker‘s Guide to the Galaxy
Portrait photo/ Soap box Niklaus Rüegg
Photo workshop Andreas Pfies
All other photos: Valentin Altorfer
This interview is part of the project ‘Magic Moments’ by Kunstverein Schichtwechsel, in which people are interviewed about their careers, activities and their magical as well as difficult moments.
Curated by Stefani Andersen and Laura Hilti, Kunstverein Schichtwechsel.
Supported by Kulturstiftung Liechtenstein and Stiftung Fürstl. Kommerzienrat Guido Feger.
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