Various Locations

THE WORDDemokratie” (Democracy), printed in white, gleams on a black background on as many as 800 billboard-size posters throughout Vienna. One of the great totemic ideals of the twentieth century is thus emblazoned, without further comment, across the city. Democracy is a notion through which everything from the social to the economic order legitimizes itself. It is at once a situation, a process, and a challenge. In 1971, Joseph Beuys renamed his Organization of Non-Voters as the Organization for Direct Democracy and demanded that the people's self-determination replace “party dictatorship.” At Documenta 5 in 1972 Beuys spent 100 days discussing his ideas of direct democracy with visitors. Three decades later, Okwui Enwezor is organizing the first ''platform“ of Documenta 11, 2002, around the theme ”Democracy Unrealized."

At the same time, these Democracy billboards have turned up in the midst of a touchy political situation: The country in whose capital they appear is burdened with an unloved and unwanted coalition government. The left-of-center Social Democratic Party won a plurality of the vote, but now this party, from its place in the opposition, must follow the consequences of its failed coalition negotiations. For Austria is instead being governed by the conservative Austrian People's Party and Jörg Haider's extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. But can a political system even be advertised—and is that what's being done here?

The posters themselves bear no note of attribution. but they are the work of two artists based in Vienna, Otto Mittmannsgruber and Martin Strauß, who have been using billboards to carry their work for five years now. The difference between the actual and potential uses of this medium is their point of departure. They place their posters in high-visibility locations: on busy streets and plazas, at streetcar stops, and so on—places where people have time for a longer look, for some consideration, in this case, of the idea of democracy. They propose democracy not only as a structural party-political affair (they had planned their Democracy® project before the new government was formed), but also as posing questions that might even concern something like the use of large-scale advertising. What status do advertisement and economics have in socially relevant decision processes—and who has a voice in this process? Precisely because the posters take no clear position and offer no commentary or art-institutional context to defuse their impact, passersby face the challenge of an intense engagement with them. Democracy® makes clear, in a highly suggestive way, that public space is political space and that billboards have large place in it—despite the fact that reminders of such sociopolitical themes are typically absent from these public places.

The concept of art as intervention may now be fashionable, but seldom is it as effectively deployed as in this project. Eschewing both artistic esotericism and direct propaganda, the billboards implicitly call for change: They demand that the monologue of advertising in public places be interrupted by other languages. Shouldn't a portion of these surfaces be reserved democratically and free of charge, for noncommercial voices posing political themes for open discussion? Today, even more than thirty years ago, it would be worth talking about democracy for at least 100 days.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.