Vienna Calling

Kate Sutton on and around the Vienna Biennale

Kontakt Collection curator Walter Seidl at Haus Wittgenstein.

IT WAS IN THE DAIRY AISLE I FIRST SPOTTED HIM. Warned there was a dancer on the loose in Lidl, I had quickly closed in on the likeliest suspect, a wispy blonde boy wearing cropped pants and a Fjällräven backpack. I trailed him as he inspected a bunch of bananas, delicately extracting a single one, before moseying over to peruse the canned coffee drinks. It was only when he shot a withering look at me and my expectant camera that it occurred to me he might not be there to perform. Indeed, the dancer I was looking for turned out to be a man with a sensible shirt and a silvery mane (“our Július Koller look-alike,” someone later described him), flashing a peace sign in front of the margarine tubs. “Copy this gesture. Make a photo. Send it back to me,” he intoned as a rickety old woman in a sofa-print dress scooted her cart closer to the käse. The man then raised one fist to his temple. “That’s the partisan salute,” I heard artist Sanja Iveković explain from somewhere over in frozen goods.

Our band of art enthusiasts had descended upon the discount grocery store for “A Collective Exhibition for a Single Body—The Private Score,” a collaboration between Erste Foundation’s Kontakt Collection and Tanzquartier Wien. Originally conceived for documenta 14, the project saw curator Pierre Bal-Blanc and artist and choreographer Manuel Pelmus join forces to “animate” iconic works from the Kontakt Collection, including pieces by Koller, Iveković, VALIE EXPORT, Geta Brătescu, Stano Filko, and the brothers Mladen and Sven Stilinović, among many others. While the works themselves (or what documentation remains of them) were on display at Haus Wittgenstein, the choreographed score of this second edition will greet unsuspecting shoppers at the Wiedner Hauptstrasse Lidl nearly every afternoon from the June 18 opening through June 28.

Performer Jack Hauser in Lidl.

Setting a performance such as this one in a grocery store might sound like a gimmick, but with its soaring ceilings and tasteful interior, this was no ordinary Lidl. Indeed, the space was first built in 1995 for the Generali Foundation, which was then under the direction of the formidable Sabine Breitwieser, the former director of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg. In 2014, the Generali’s collection of twenty-one hundred works followed Breitwieser to Salzburg, and the Wiedner Hauptstrasse space closed. During its nearly twenty-year run in Vienna, the foundation earned a reputation for razor-sharp, daring presentations that refused to write off Eastern Europe as a bargain-bin knockoff of the West. The building itself is a masterpiece, with landmark protections in place even now, which might explain the light floating evenly down the aisles. “I’ve avoided coming there for two years,” Breitwieser later admitted over cocktails. “Of course, when we were building the space, we always knew there was the possibility it might eventually be repurposed for commercial use. We just thought it would be something like a bank. But I guess banks don’t really need branches these days, do they?”

Kontakt Collection’s head of programs Hephzibah Druml at Haus Wittgenstein.

If the performances reclaimed Lidl as a gallery space, over in Haus Wittgenstein, the second half of the show executed a reverse maneuver. Designed by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the late 1920s as a home for his sister (who, rumor has it, didn’t exactly take a shine to it), the modernist building was slated for demolition by the early 1970s, when the Bulgarian embassy swooped in and converted it into a cultural center. Bal-Blanc chose to return visitors to that pivotal moment, recruiting the artist Jakob Lena Knebl to devise an interior design scheme to conjure the specific domestic bliss of the 1970s, with the help of some borrowed furniture and a bold paint job. Visitors sipped rosemary-infused spritzers as they admired the works from Bal-Blanc’s score alongside other pieces by Sarah Lucas, Artur Żmijewski, Katalin Ladik, Ion Grigorescu, and Nilbar Güreş. In the “bedroom,” artist Josef Dabernig chatted gamely with the Belvedere curator Axel Köhne, while curator Silvia Eiblmayr caught up with Kontakt Collection artistic director Kathrin Rhomberg and dealer Martin Janda. In the “living room,” Knebl held court with Ashley Hans Scheirl and Kontakt Collection archivist Lisa Grünwald on a black-and-gold floral-print couch under a series of photographs by Neša Paripović. As the rooms started to fill, I spotted Kunsthalle Wien’s Luca Lo Pinto and Vanessa Joan Müller, as well as Vít Havránek and Boris Ondreička, who had jointly presented a talk at Emanuel Layr’s sprawling Filko exhibition earlier that afternoon. Seeking some fresh air on the terrace, I ran into three members of the WHW collective on their second official day on the job as the new directors of Kunsthalle Wien. How were they settling in? “I read something today about how the Viennese government is making an investment in planting thousands of trees over the next few years,” Sabina Sabolović told me. “I think that’s a nice model for what we want to accomplish here. To create some cool shade, leave the city with more places to gather . . .”

These days, Vienna is tending to more than just landscaping. Austria finds itself in a moment of political uncertainty following the surprise collapse of its right-wing ruling coalition and the call for snap elections in the fall. This gave an unexpected charge to the “Vienna Biennale for Change,” which, in its second edition, has decided to keep the “for Change” bit, as well as its mission of advocating a can-do optimism, even in spite of the most dismal corners of our present. Commissioned by MAK director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, this year’s program encompassed about a dozen different exhibitions and events, all under the theme “Brave New Virtues: Shaping Our Digital World.”

Belvedere curator Axel Köhne with artist Josef Dabernig at Haus WIttgenstein.

But do we even understand what that digital world looks like? This question underlies “Uncanny Values: Artificial Intelligence & You,” a staggering effort by curator Marlies Wirth and media theorist Paul Feigelfeld. The MAK’s large gallery is subdivided by swooning semitransparent veils schemed up by Some Place Studio. “With artificial intelligence, I think we have a basic understanding of it, but we can’t really make out the details,” Wirth explained. “I wanted the architecture to reflect that.” At the front of the show, visitors confront Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Probably Chelsea, 2017, an army of potential “faces” of Chelsea Manning, based on the DNA extracted from a few of her hairs. The gender, complexion, and facial attributes vary wildly, to the extent that the faces don’t even look vaguely related. “We tend to think of DNA as something incredibly precise and specific,” Feigelfeld mused. “There’s actually a surprising amount of room for interpretation.”

This was the limbo space in which the show operated. In addition to a central wall paneled with research from thinkers including Kate Crawford and Matteo Pasquinelli, the exhibition offered opportunities to interact with early chatbot experiments from ELIZA to Lynn Hershman Leeson’s DiNA to Jonas Lund’s Talk to Me, 2017, a Siri-like chat app based on Lund’s own input. (Supposedly, all queries went to Lund’s phone, allowing the artist to directly respond at his discretion, instead of the AI, but theoretically, the user shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.) In a subsection dedicated to learning, Trevor Paglen’s spellbinding video projection Behold These Glorious Times!, 2017, spilled out images used to teach machines what it means to be human—something like a Humans for Dummies, except for Extremely Sophisticated Intelligence Systems. The same emotion registration and recognition systems were busy in Significant Other, 2019, a second contribution by Lund that scanned and compared the crowds at the MAK and the Kunsthalle Wien (which was hosting another of the Biennale shows) in real time. “Today you are 147% less annoyed,” the screen flashed as I was leaving. “Normally the difference is only something like 0.03 percent,” Wirth noted, laughing. “I don’t know what’s going on today.” I waited for another screen: “You have 199.70% less panic here.” The question might be, What was going on at the Kunsthalle?

Riding the wave of optimism, I popped down to the Design Lab, which had been freshly reinstalled for the Biennale by Wirth in collaboration with Janina Falkner and the design studio mischer'traxler. While I was scanning more than five hundred ingenious solutions on display—from pollenizers and artificial bees to soothing, palm-size stand-ins for the phone-addicted, and a special section dedicated to the Vienna-based design studio EOOS and its proposals for sustainable living under climate change—it struck me that, although I’m well-versed in works bemoaning the myriad wrongs of the Anthropocene era, I’m not used to seeing art that suggests how to fix anything. The sense of refreshment stayed with me even as I exited back out into the unseasonable heat. Talk about uncanny.

Performer Elizabeth Ward in the Lidl.

WHW curators Nataša Ilić, Sabina Sabolović and Ivet Curlin at Haus Wittgenstein.

“Uncanny Values” curators Paul Feigelfeld and Marlies Wirth at MAK.

“Uncanny Values” curators Paul Feigelfeld and Marlies Wirth at MAK.

Tomislav Gotovac Institute researcher Darko Šimičić and curator Daniel Grúň at Haus Wittgenstein.

Tanzquartier Wien's Sophie Pachner, Isabela Voicu and Martin Brandner outside Lidl.

Performer Jack Hauser in Lidl.

Performer Jack Hauser in Lidl.

Performer Jack Hauser in Lidl.

Performer Elizabeth Ward in the Lidl. All photos: Kate Sutton.

Performer Elizabeth Ward in the Lidl.

Artist and choreographer Manuel Pelmus at Lidl.

Kontakt Collection’s Kathrin Rhomberg with artist Sanja Ivekovic at Lidl.

Erste Foundation's Gerald Radinger and Heidi Wihrheim with Tanzquartier director Bettina Kogler at Lidl.

Dealer Vincenzo della Corte.

Dealer Emanuel Layr with curators Vit Havránek and Boris Ondreička at the Filko exhibition at Emanuel Layr.

Curators Nataša Ilić and Sabine Breitweiser at Haus Wittgenstein.

Curator Silvia Eiblmayr and dealer Martin Janda at Haus Wittgenstein.

Curator Pierre Bal-Blanc at Haus Wittgenstein.

Curator Luca Lo Pinto at Haus Wittgenstein.

Artists Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl with Kontakt Collection archivist Lisa Grünwald.