By Julie Vankova
Brian Keller: a gifted student who was failed by the school system. His résumé, as described by humanrights.ch, is dramatic: at 10 he was falsely accused of setting a fire, by which time he had already committed 34 offences. At home, things weren’t easy and he spent a lot of time on the streets. At 15 came the stabbing that changed everything. It was followed by 9 months in custody, 180 days in solitary confinement, a suicide attempt and 13 days tied to bed.
The solution of the Swiss judicial system for a case like this? A strict special setting to reintegrate Keller into society, to help him pursue his passion for boxing, to give him a chance at freedom and the education he never got, but with one-to-one supervision and a minute-by-minute schedule, seven days a week. It is a solution that reflects the guiding principles of the Swiss juvenile justice system: to deter, to resocialize and not to retaliate. According to humanrights.ch’s case documentation, this setting is „a success“: it brings „stability & dependability“.
But then a television documentary about Hansueli Gürber, Keller’s juvenile attorney, is broadcasted, introducing the public to Keller’s case, but using an alias for him: and so Brian’s case becomes known as The Case of Carlos.
Brian becomes the myth of „Carlos“ and „Carlos“ becomes the projection screen for the old familiar palette of resentments: migrant, dangerous, foreign, black.#bigdreams: akt 2
The day after the documentary streamed on TV, the biggest tabloid of Switzerland, Blick, released an article portraying Gürber as a waster of taxpayers‘ money and a „coddler of criminals“. With their sensationalist reporting, Blick turned Brian into the media spectacle „Carlos“ and thus he became their ‘Million Dollar Click Baby’, as bigdreams.ch puts it. The tabloid’s article sparks a great deal of controversy: Does a convicted criminal deserve a special setting? An apartment of his own, a boxing trainer and a private teacher? A monthly investment of 29,200 Swiss francs for a single felon? What about his victims? Or is 29,200 francs to give a kid a chance at freedom cheap at the price? To try and give him a future? Is that really so wrong?
“The Chief Juvenile Prosecutor’s Office regrets that the media coverage […] has severely impaired Carlos‘ […] protective measures.“report on the juvenile law enforcement proceedings in the „carlos“ case
In no time the setting is cancelled abruptly due to public pressure and half a year behind bars follows. As the public pressure drops, the special setting is resumed. This is only the beginning of Keller’s battle with politics, the media and public pressure, but most importantly the Swiss judicial system. Keller has so far spent 10 of his 26 years, more than a third of his life, in prison.
“I want everybody to know how the Swiss judicial system ruined my life.”Brian in an Interview with NZZ Magazin
Then, in December of 2019, Keller received a letter from a freelance theatre maker whom he had never before heard of. In an interview with me, Daniel Riniker told me that he wrote to Brian Keller in prison, after he had heard about a court case in which Keller had said: “My name is not Carlos. My name is Brian.” That simple statement seemed to Riniker to highlight the way in which a real, young person was being lost at the centre of a media storm. In the letter, Riniker offered to address the question of his case using the tools of his trade: the medium of theatre and arts. On receiving a positive response, Riniker and his friend and colleague Sabina Aeschlimann, in collaboration with Tobi Bienz and Benjamin Burger, began the project which turned into #bigdreams.
“Around 40-50 people did research, performed, made art, which borders the topics of activism, theatre, performance and media work. Everything originates and mostly revolves around the case of Brian Keller […]. Brian is a collective member, he’s a co-author and in a way the core of the project, which tries to treat questions well beyond his case but is still anchored in his story […].”– Daniel Riniker, 26.02.23
The project, Riniker told me, was interested in the questions that Keller’s case brought up, such as: What role do hate campaigns play in the courtroom? What is the media allowed to do? What role do prejudices play? These questions do not only deal with Brian but it is in his story that they originated. Going forward, one of the objectives of the project is to ask these questions with other cases too, because Brian isn’t the only person to have been led into a downward spiral by the toxic interactions between politics, the media and public pressure. Additionally, the project started the ‘critical newsticker’ which aims to be a counter-voice to the one-sided media coverage against Brian.
#BigDreams takes a critical counter perspective with the Critical Newsticker.
The project was divided into four separate acts. The third act SWISS QUALITY TORTURE specifically highlighted the inhumane conditions in which Keller was held: Three years in solitary confinement from 2018 to 2021, which was classified as torture according to rule 43 of the Nelson Mandela rules by the UN. The core of this act consisted of an installation which toured public places in Zurich, ironizing the „Made in Switzerland“ label with fictional mottos such as „Swiss quality torture – discreet, clean and effective!“ An art installation had actually been planned, which the municipality of Regensdorf terminated at short notice; The reason given: security concerns.
Does art cross a line when it clearly favours one side?
If art does not express itself on social issues, what legitimacy does it have?
As reported by the NZZ newspaper, Regensdorf cancelled as they had “received a threat of riots” and feared activities which would have been “undesirable directly in front of the correctional facilities”. This, the newspaper pointed out, leads to fundamental questions such as: Can art be dangerous? When does art become a safety issue? Is it art or activism? Does it matter?
Riniker and his #bigdreams project is moving on to a new case which also concerns the situation of a convicted criminal in custody and issues of justice and injustice, and it is collaborating with other collectives such as the group justice 4 nzoy.
Meanwhile, Brian himself remains in prison, after receiving a sentence of 6 years and 4 months in May of 2021 for „attacks and aggression“ against prison guards. Investigations have found that he has been a victim of injustice on multiple occasions. He has been repeatedly refused medical examination in prison, he was unjustly detained for six months, he has been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, a guard has assaulted him in prison, he has been subject to structural racism and a lot more.
His violence is to be understood with his fight against justice.statement by the NZZ
It is not difficult to understand his anger. Spending a third of one’s life in prison changes you. Getting your story told by a tabloid changes you. Not having a voice changes you. Being abused and tortured changes you. Being in the public’s eye changes you. Brian may be languishing in a prison cell, but „Carlos“ is still centre stage in the Swiss media. It will take more than one #bigdreams project to end the connection of the public persona and the real person at the centre of the media storm.