fifth year: 2001/2002 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition / course participant's texts


Boris Buden
Through Art Towards New Defeats: the Austrian Case

This text deals with the relation between politics and art in an actual historic situation - in the political tension that has been present during the last two years in Austria. We are immediately faced by the question: Did anything unique and drastic happen in the relation between politics and art in Austria during this period? Anything that would demand our total attention? The answer is simple: No! Nothing new happened between politics and art in these Austrian conditions. Nothing revolutionary. Everything remained within the frames of the already known. The artistic intervention did not change the political events in any way, nor did politics - nor in an aggressive attack on art nor in a necessary self-defence from it - in any important way influence the art production or radically interfere with the lives and work of Austrian artists. Thus, this does not solve the problem, but at the end it is not the answer that is important. Important is the question, our conviction that art plays an undoubtedly important role in the political and historic events and that every time something important happens in politics it is not only legitimate but also heuristically important to ask ourselves: And what did art have to do with this?

At this we react with the logic that continues to operate in opposition to the facts. For example, let's take our traditional media. In them the section 'culture and art' is still strictly separated from the sections intended for politics or economy. In this view the traditional media (printed or electronic) still keep to the classic - let's say Webber's - concept of modernity, in which culture and art form an autonomous or semi-autonomous social sphere, separated from the sphere of the practical mind or the spheres of religion or politics. In this view the post-modern brings forth a radical change: the boarders between the aforementioned autonomous spheres of society are disappearing ever faster in a way that leads to expansion. Frederic Jameson talks about an explosion of culture into all other spheres of social life. In a certain way everything from economy, politics, religion to anything else is becoming culture.

This weakens the foundations, even though it does not completely destroy the old idea according to which artistic or cultural production is a sort of specialised activity and as such belongs amongst the higher forms of social reproduction. Of course, this deals with the tradition of classical, bourgeois high culture. The old division onto high and the so-called mass culture is also slowly disappearing. Thus the tension between the normative superiority of the high culture, which is supposed to be the guardian of humanistic heritage and the defender from the 'barbarism' of the true reality is on the decrease. The demand for the autonomy of culture and art is loosing its social and critical force as well as its progressive meaning. Not only this, it can also change into the motto of the opposite, today we could even say the right wing popular mobilisation. In February 2001 the neo-nazis marched through Hamburg. In their hands they were carrying banners, which read 'Right wing rock for all' and 'Right wing radical music for all and everywhere'. With this the right wing radicals rebelled against the official ban of racist and neo-nazi concerts across the German countryside with an assault on the urban cultural scene. All of this was performed under the slogan of 'artistic freedom'.

When they stopped functioning as an autonomous sphere, culture and art did not loose their social character. On the contrary. Their power of influencing society increased dramatically. At least on the left wing political scene, upon which the issue of cultural hegemony became the decisive issue of social dominance or resistance to this dominance. The battle in culture (Kulturkampf) became a recognisable form of the left wing political engagement. Today the radical social change on the left end of the political spectre can be understood as a change of the hegemonic - i.e. in the broadest possible meaning cultural - structure of society.
This is therefore, in the most general sense, the historic cultural context in which the aforementioned Austrian case took place. The case on the basis of which we will discuss the current relation between art and politics.

But first I would like to say a few words on what took place (politically) in Austria.
We are talking about the time following the Austrian parliamentary elections in the beginning of October 1999, or since February 2000, when the new Austrian government lead by Chancellor Helmut Schüssel took over. To round up the story as fast as possible, this government fell last autumn, the result of which were the new elections and at the moment of writing this it is still not certain in what sort of a coalition the new Austrian government will be sworn in.
What has thus happened in the Austrian politics two years ago? What alarmed the Austrian as well as the broader, European and global public?
Under the leadership of the right wing populistic leader Jörge Haider the Liberal Party (FPÖ) received 27% of the votes (with which it also overtook ÖVP, the party of nationalists, the representative of the so-called bourgeois-conservative block by a few hundred votes). With this FPÖ became the second largest political force in Austria and soon entered the new coalition government of Chancellor Schüssel.

Why did this (as we have already mentioned) shock not only the Austrian, but also the broader, global public? Because with today's idea of liberal democracy we quietly understand some sort of a central option of government, a government of a balanced majority of citizens, which still has its moderate left and right, conservative wing, but these two are more or less merely two nuances of the same. These two wings or nuances are constantly changing their positions in power. However, while performing this nothing really changes and they do not question the basic issues of democracy, the world of civil normality or stability. It is of key importance for the preservation of this democratic concept that it permanently excludes or better stated marginalises the so-called radical left and right wing options, which are pushed to the boarder of the political sphere and in the majority of cases excluded from parliamentary policy. In the event that they are present, they have a minor influence on the major decisions and the formation of the official policy.

This is what brought the shock on. The power was taken over by the radical right wing, a party that was until then a mainly marginalised political force in the civil democratic normality. Of course this was Heider's party, which formed its political programme on racist slogans, aimed predominantly at foreigners as well as the spread of the EU towards the East. This is a party, which is in the sense of political tradition (even though more implicitly, with single meaning and obvious allusions, as well as explicitly) represented the so-called deutchnationale (German national) forces that have political and ideological roots in German nazism. Thus, it is an explosive mixture of contemporary cultural racism (hate of foreigners), nazi-fascist nostalgia and neo-liberal deregulation. In the centre of Heider's populistic propaganda is the so-called small person, the social resentment of whom is the main source of the mobilisation energy of the liberals. In the centre of democratic Europe such a party thus became a key factor in the parliamentary life of an EU member state. It became the representative of almost one third of the population within this country.

The reaction of Europe was also radical as regards its democratic conditions: Austria was hit by EU sanctions.

On the domestic, Austrian political scene the new parliamentary opposition did not have sufficient strength to organise a rebellion against the new government. The socialists were overcome by the feeling of defeat or brake up, while the greens did not present a decisive political force. The reaction of the so-called left democratic public was much stronger, for it felt deserted and without any political representative. This public took upon itself almost all protest activities or as it was said and still is said in Austria Wiederstand, i.e. not only the resistance against the inaugurated black-blue government of Chancellor Schüssel, but also against the entire political condition, which lead to such an occurrence.
In this political context an open mobilisation of the cultural and artistic scene took place. Mass protests were organised - the largest was the mass protest on Heldeplatz in February 2000, at which over 200.000 people participated. They also organised Donnerstagdemonstration - Thursday demonstrations, which took place in Vienna every Thursday until the government fell last autumn. Apart from this they also organised a series of interventions on the cultural and public scene, which were inspired or performed by artists or people, who are active on the artistic scene: curators, critics, intellectuals, etc. This was also a generation protest - predominantly it was carried out by the young, many of them too young to officially vote.

The carriers of the resistance defined themselves, their role and the social basis of the protest as the civil society. This was performed through the slogan The rebellion of the civil society (Aufstand der Zivilgessellschaft). To this extent they have foreseen the artistic intervention into politics as a kind of political mobilisation of the civil society. At the same time the idea of civil society was also the social and political framework for the intervention carried out by artists.
The protest - as much as it was reflected - did not focus on the current situation, Heider, nor the desire for power shown by Schüssel's nationalists. Instead it focused on the structural problems of the existing democracy.
Predominantly their democracy was distancing itself from the political structures, party bureaucracies, from the masses and the interests of the citizens. Most people had a feeling that they no longer have any influence on the political decisions. For a long time the de-politicisation of the masses paralysed all attempts for changes and at the end it endangered democracy itself.
In this sense we can describe one of the main goals of the artist's interventions into the political and social reality as re-politicisation, as a seemingly ideologically neutral awakening of the interest for politics - of course - within the frame of a civil society. Their goal was not the establishment of new political parties or revolutionary action, but the reanimation of the existing democracy. The main goal of the intervention was to offer democracy a new life. The majority part of the cultural/artistic actions and initiatives was in the function of this re-politicisation of the civil society.
The other important theme of the resistance is racism or the current policy towards migrants and foreign workers. In this battle the Austrian cultural artistic scene joined the general trend of re-politicisation, which was started in the German speaking area art in the 1990's. The reaction of artists towards the increase of racism within society was marked by artistic and political engagement also in Austria.

In the beginning of the 1990's the so-called Wohlfahrtsussachüsse (social councils, committees) were organised in Hamburg, Köln, Frankfurt and Munich. Within these committees links were created between musicians, artists and writers on one hand and classical autonomous anti-fascist and university activist left wing groups on the other. The common goal was the resistance against neo-nationalism and racism that flourished in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, i.e. after the reunification of Germany. This joint anti-fascist initiative of artists and activists also had a long-term goal, which was to cross the boarder, which has until then divided the numerous formations of left wing groups, i.e. the boarder between culture and politics. This resulted in the co-operation between the works of the so-called political left wing and the works of the pop or cultural left wing. In the years that followed one could witness a general crossover of critical authors in the fields of music, politics, art and theory. As stated by Holger Kube Ventura (Politische Kunstbegriffe, Selene, Vienna, 2002) this crossover could also be understood as a type of a new left wing movement. Initiatives like this were the formation ground for newspapers like Texste zur Kunst, Die Beute, Springer as well as a few years of Spex, projects such as for instance the Köln Friesenwall, the Zurich Shedhalle, the Viennese Depot, Kunstlerhaus Stuttgart or the Munich Kunstverein as well as the events and meetings like for instance Rahmenprogram, the Köln Unfair 1992, Munich Sommerakademie 94, Lünenberg Service-Projekt, Köln Messe2ok 1995, Berlin Minus-Messe96 or the Hybrid-Workspace within the frame of Documenta 10.

In his analysis Kube Ventura defined three types of this new politicised art: the first is information art (Informationkunst, a term coined by Jochen Becker). This consists of projects that contextualise and thus reveal official discourses trying to establish some sort of a counter-public (Gegenöffentlichkeit). At this, this is not so much of a protest, which would point towards the poor state of the society and blame those who are responsible for this state, but more a critical analysis of the state or processing it in illustrations, multimedia displays, photographs, videos, interviews, etc.

The second type of politicisation is represented by intervention art (Interventionkunst). By this we have in mind projects that are targeted towards limited period tasks or even unlimited structural changes outside of art institutions. Such initiatives reach from Clegg's and Guttman's 'Open library' (Offener Bibliothek) to the spectacular projects by the action theatre of Christoph Schlingensief and numerous very concrete social interventions of the Viennese WochenKlausur.
The third in the row is the Hamburg civil initiative 'Park Fiction'. With the help of artists and lobbying the responsible for culture they succeeded in preventing any construction on the plot in St. Paul, while at the same time also forcing the local government not only to approve of a new park on that location but also of including the surrounding inhabitants to participate in the planning.
Kube Ventura summarised the common point of all of these projects: In this process of re-politicisation an artistic workshop is not seen as a closed fortress, which has to be conquered or even boycotted, but as a workshop full of working possibilities. Artistic or exhibition spaces are used in the sense of information, intervention or impulse potentials from three reasons: to allegorically articulate the political position, reach the circles outside the artistic ones and to come across production means. At all this the aesthetic criteria is of course in second plan.

To the best extent this diagnose of re-politicised art can be used also for the Austrian case. For example, let's take the resistance against racism, which is a typical theme of the Austrian intervention artists and political activists. At this we should keep in mind that it was the very same racism or to be more exact its political mobilisation that brought Heider his political success.
On the basis of the anti-racist initiative Gettoattack, which co-operated at the mobilisation of the civil society against the so-called black and blue government (in Austria black is the colour of the nationalists and blue is the colour of Heider's liberals) a new initiative arose in spring 2001 (prior to the municipal elections in Vienna). This initiative was the so-called Wiener Wahlpartie (a word game with the word partie, which suggests a political party, but in the Viennese slang it actually means a small group: The small Viennese election group). What was it all about? In Vienna there are about 200.000 inhabitants who can not participate in the elections because they are foreigners. The Wiener Wahlpartie initiative pointed to this fact and opened the problem of politicisation of migrants and the restrictions of this politicisation. The form chosen by the initiative was public imitation - and at the same time ridicule - of the election meetings in the streets and squares of Vienna, i.e. a sort of parody of the election campaign. In the conceptual sense its main purpose was to show the contradiction, which is hidden in the core of the democratic concept based on the sovereignty of the national state - the contradiction that a part of the society is excluded from the public life. However, this democratic initiative does by no means wish to enlarge this contradiction, which could lead to new social conflicts. On the contrary, the protagonists of this initiative optimistically explain their action as one of the moments of the democracy revitalisation. Their logic works in the following way: by appearing in the visual field the foreigners step out of political darkness and expand the political visual field, i.e. they open a new political horizon. Their incapability to establish a political party is substituted by the simulation of a party or the party struggle, agitation, election campaign, etc. This play with the form of a political party does not fit merely the contents or the situation, but also reveals what every political party is, i.e. a political party without the party apparatus is nothing but a form of action. Thus foreigners, or the activist initiative, which politically represents them, not only equal citizens from some country, but also politically contribute to the depth and revitalisation of the existing democracy. This is performed without any conflicts, without undermining one of the basic concepts of this democracy, the concept of the national state.

Thus also the aforementioned contradiction of the realistically existing democracy - the contradiction the main symptom of which is the incapability of foreigners to co-operate in the political life of a nation - disappears from the field of sight. In fact the play with the form of a political party hides its forced character. Foreigners can only play that they are establishing a political party, in reality they can not do this. This game is an expression of the realistic incapability. Even more: those who can not co-operate in the political party life of the state in which they live in, who are realistically excluded from it are thus defined as politically more authentic then the citizens of this state and their political parties.

If we ideologically had to take over the range of all these cultural and artistic initiatives in the political life of Austria, then we would have to say that this is mainly a concept of the so-called left wing patriotism. In the end the intervention of culture and art into politics had one single goal - to dominate in a national state. And it did not realise this political goal. Its realistic influence upon the political reality in Austria remains insignificant.