Graz, Austria

Roman Osminkin, Putsch (After D. A. Prigov), 2018. Performance view, Schloßbergplatz, Schloßbergstiege, Graz, Austria, September 20, 2018. Photo: Jasper Kettner.

Steirischer Herbst

Various venues

Roman Osminkin, Putsch (After D. A. Prigov), 2018. Performance view, Schloßbergplatz, Schloßbergstiege, Graz, Austria, September 20, 2018. Photo: Jasper Kettner.

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My visit to Steirischer Herbst—the annual arts-and-theater festival held in Graz since 1968—started with a nighttime taxi tour organized by the local Theater im Bahnhof, a self-described “contemporary Volkstheater (people’s theater).” During this work of “taxi-choreography,” the backseat became my box seat for personal stories told by my designated drivers: Tom, a dedicated punk-rock musician and singer who has been driving since age fourteen; and Ahmet, who acts as a chauffeur for a blind child and writes poetry during his breaks. It was a rather heartwarming first act, given the festival’s grim title, Volksfronten—a reference to the former leftist “popular front” here made ambiguously plural—and subtitle: “our little fascisms.” In a country ruled by a coalition between the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the right-wing People’s Party (ÖVP), and in a political climate dominated by fear, xenophobia, populist propaganda, and nationalism, a festival drawing parallels to the 1930s indeed provoked an alarmingsense of déjà vu.

The twisted ambiguity of the term Volk (people), with its racial-nationalist undertones, was also the subject of the opening speech given by Ekaterina Degot, the first non-Austrian director in Steirischer Herbst’s history. Standing in the Europaplatz in front of the main train station, Degot asked a series of rhetorical questions as if politely addressing passersby. “Excuse me,” she would say, and then make inquiries both banal and pointed: “Do you know where the tram stop is?” “Are you for immigration or against it?” “Do you have some Nazi memorabilia in your home?”

Installations and time-based works by thirty artists and collectives were scattered throughout the city, occupying historical sites. New York’s legendary Bread and Puppet Theater led an anticapitalist parade through downtown Graz to the river Mur, complete with brass band, makeshift puppets, and cardboard signs. On the other side of the river, on Graz’s historic zigzagging stairs leading to the mountaintop fortress Schloßberg (the construction of which was completed after World War I by Russian POWs), Roman Osminkin’s adaption of Dimitri A. Prigov’s 1990 Coup. A Play for Two Loudspeakers blasted political paroles like R-E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N, which crashed and dissolved over and over again.

Later, down in the castle’s enormous basement, the controversial Slovenian band Laibach performed their version of The Sound of Music. The show was spectacular, though it didn’t offer much in the way of surprise, given Laibach’s reputation for political subversion. With the lyrics from the original musical projected behind them, they began each number with a string orchestra (at times joined by a children’s choir), before shifting into their typical brachial sound, accompanied by videos of retro-futuristic landscapes that contrasted scenes of Austrian mountaintops with images of North Korea. The kitschy Hollywood tale of a brave Austrian family resisting then fleeing the Nazis here revealed its own nationalist undertones and manipulations of history—and revealed it with particular starkness now, when the same sentiment is being used against another feared “occupation,” this time in the form of immigration.

Henrike Naumann, Anschluss ‘90, 2018, mixed media. Installation view, Haus der Architektur, Graz, Austria. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

The conflation of fact and fiction was present in many of the festival’s other works. In Graz’s Haus der Architektur, Henrike Naumann installed what looked to be a furniture store, which she provocatively titled Anschluss ’90, 2018—referring to the 1938 Anschluss (“annexation,” literally: connection, joining) of Austria to Nazi Germany—spinning the slogan of reunified Germany, “We are one people,” in a chilling direction. Naumann was born in 1984 in the East German town of Zwickau, home to the right-wing terrorist organization Nationalist Social Underground, active in the 1990s. As in previous installations, Naumann researched and displayed examples of the typical, cheap, postmodern interior designs that flooded East German homes after reunification, accelerating the rise of neoliberalism. For this project, all the furniture was bought secondhand in Graz, including a copy of the book Freiheit Durch Sicherheit (Freedom Through Security, 1992), by longtime leader of the FPÖ Jörg Haider. For the artist, this everyday stuff serves as fieldwork material for her (psycho)analysis of the underlying aesthetics of the rise of a new Far Right.

Equally creepy was Funda Gül Özcan’s installation es ist eingetreten was zu erwarten war (it happened as expected), 2018, in the derelict Ankara Türkü bar on Griessgasse, a place haunted by an undead past. From a flickering collage of layered video footage behind its counter appeared a hologram of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sobbing and saying “I am sorry” over and over again—an expression of both apology and self-aggrandizement that not only refers to several moments in Turkey’s recent history, but also to Özcan’s memories of seeing elderly Turkish men weeping in a Munich bar.

Milica Tomić’s installation Exhibiting on a Trowel’s Edge. Research and investigative processes of Aflenz Memorial in becoming, 2018, quite literally brought Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”) down to earth. Spatial dislocation and a temporal cut of research and investigative processes of Aflenz Memorial in becoming, 2018, as this iteration was titled,digs into Austria’s national-socialist past by revisiting a former labor camp (Aflenz) outside Graz that is today just an unremarkable field. Spread out over the floor of the cultural center Stadtpark Forum (and formally invoking Walter de Maria’s Earth Room, 1977), soil, which had been transplanted from the labor camp site and was now bearing small sprouts of new life, became the site of forensic archaeology; it was accompanied by vitrines filled with archival material that addressed the bureaucracy of forced labor. For Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space, 2018, Yoshinori Niwa installed a black recycling bank on the Hauptplatz (named Adolf-Hitler-Platz between 1938 and 1945), inviting citizens to anonymously discard unwanted Nazi memorabilia. In these present times of uncertainty and rising fascism, this edition of Steirischer Herbst didn’t attempt to comfort viewers, but rather proposeddouble-edged expressions of catharsis for how to deal with the past—to commemorate or to discharge it?—when it seems doomed to repeat itself.

Eva Scharrer is a writer and curator based in Berlin