Graz, Austria

Funda Gül Özcan, Es ist eingetreten was zu erwarten war (It Happened as Expected), 2018, mixed media. Installation view, former Ankara Türkü Bar, Graz, Austria. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Steirischer Herbst

Various venues

Funda Gül Özcan, Es ist eingetreten was zu erwarten war (It Happened as Expected), 2018, mixed media. Installation view, former Ankara Türkü Bar, Graz, Austria. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

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With symposia, concerts, screenings, readings, installations, and performances happening in over twenty-five venues across the city of Graz, this year’s steirischer herbst revived the specters of fascism and its dissenters while addressing important questions about the shape-shifting, contradictory nature of the contemporary commons. Curated by Ekaterina Degot and titled Volksfronten (Popular Fronts), its vast artistic program, which included almost seven hundred participants, disrupted historical and contemporary forms of universality—and their accompanying “particularisms”—by agitating against conventional habits of hearing, seeing, and being in the world while asking what it is that we all share.

Though Volksfronten covered countless subjects, two recurring themes were research, as it relates to memory, and humor, as it verges on perversity. Many artists made visible the systems, discourses, and objects through which Austrofascism (1934–38) and National Socialism (1938–45) were developed, propagated, and subsequently repressed in and around Graz. Yugoslavia-born Milica Tomić’s ongoing research project, in collaboration with a team of forensic archaeologists from Rijeka, Belgrade, and Graz (Ana Bezić, Đurđa Obradović, and Bernhard Schrettle), unearthed a little-known labor camp in the Styrian village of Aflenz an der Sulm, where, between 1943 and 1945, inmates from the Mauthausen concentration camp and factory employees worked side by side to produce airplane parts. The resulting installation, Exhibiting on a Trowel’s Edge. Research and investigative processes of Aflenz Memorial in becoming, 2018, consisted of mounds of soil from the now overgrown site, vitrines containing toothpaste tubes, plasticremnants, tableware, factory workers’ identification papers and other excavated detritus, and an accompanying video documenting the archaeologists at work. Together, these fragments pointed to the complex relations among labor laws, capitalist production, and the wartime effort—and, specifically, to the importance of countering the processes of silencing and social amnesia that concealed or repressed this forgotten place and its forgotten, abused workforce. Tomić thus proposed a different kind of public monument, one that marshals the research strategies of science and art to collect the residues of various intersecting histories and then present them in a locale that has not sufficiently reckoned with the systematic crimes against humanity it witnessed.

Milica Tomić, Exhibiting on a Trowel’s Edge. Research and investigative processes of Aflenz Memorial in becoming, 2018, earth, printed material. Installation view, Forum Stadtpark, Graz, Austria. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Other works adopted a different approach to politics, harnessing the power of comedyby taking it to its most surreal (and often grotesque) extremes. Igor and Ivan Buharov’s standout performance Eternal intentionfield tuning, 2018, declared that the time had come “for the revolution of the plants.” For two hours, the Buharovs and their zany cast of characters—lab technicians wearing headlamps, an Orthodox high priest–cum–jazz musician, a lederhosen-clad tourist, a wheelchair-bound man in a military helmet, and more—enacted a loose plot based on the desire to deepen the connections between plants and otherspecies. According to the artists’ statement, the show explored how “in times of mass surveillance, [plants] may well be our best allies in seeking out new channels for secure communicationand data transfer.” Moving through the headquarters of the Communist Party, which had been outfitted with a long container filled with various greenery,the actors sang, wailed, and chanted to live psychedelic music composed by Ivan Buharov and performed by collaborators from Hungary. It was never quite clear what was happening in this madcap performance, but it was riveting. Following the protagonists around the space, the public was confronted by an alternative universe that at times coincided with our own.

Steirischer herbst also focused on artistic practices that actively produce fragmentary experiences, addressing a polarization of identity that has not only undermined conventional forms of civic discourse but also led to the preponderance of “little fascisms” in our everyday lives. For instance, Funda Gül Özcan’s installation es ist eingetreten was zu erwarten war (it happened as expected), 2018, situated in the now-dilapidated Ankara Türkü bar, uses hologram technology to consider the rise of strongmen (such as Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan) and their entanglement with the fabrication of contemporary masculinity; the drawings in Victoria Lomasko’s installation Intercession on Karl Marx Street, 2018, fuse the graphic style of comic books with the sobriety of religious icons to make visible (and monumentalize) the silenced communities of current-day Russia (including teenage prostitutes, migrants, and LGBTQI activists); Irina Korina’s installation Schnee von Gestern (Snow of Yesterday),2018, combines cheap plastic materials with evocations of romantic landscapes to complicate the intersection between neoliberal capitalist production and nationalist symbology (plants, flowers, animals). While all these gestures relied on the incorporation of the weak, vulnerable, minoritarian, or excluded within normative technologies, processes, and histories, there was nothing prescriptive or illustrative in their aesthetic overtures. Indeed, in mood and material, they often exhibited their own makeshift and uncertain positions in the public sphere. Given our “post-fascist” contemporary terrain, the question remains: On what common ground might a united front be imagined, and what sort of collective future could it invent? The Festival seemed to imply that the answers would be found in new modes that are as paradoxical as the contemporary condition itself.

Nuit Banai is professor of contemporary art in the department of art history at the University of Vienna.