Steirischer Herbst 2018

Adam Kleinman

October 9, 2018
Steirischer Herbst, Graz
September 20–October 14, 2018

Although I forgot who was fighting, I clearly recall a statement made by former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman while providing ringside commentary. After weathering a devastating hit, a seemingly unfazed boxer smiled back at his opponent as if to show he could take it; Foreman, on the other hand, read the grimace and said it exposed how badly hurt the pugilist really was. Such feigned and pained smiles stretched eerily on my own face no less that twice while attending Steirischer Herbst, a multidisciplinary arts festival held annually since 1968 in Graz, Austria.

To inaugurate the festival, and her five-year tenure as its leader, curator Ekaterina Degot presented an opening speech in the Europaplatz, a central square in front of the city’s train station. When in transit, polite strangers typically say “excuse me” to initiate conversation. Following this convention, Degot let forth a rhetorical line of questions with “Excuse me, do you know where the tram stop is?” and so forth. These banal queries then moved to far more serious and personal questions such as “Excuse me, are you for immigration or against it?” Degot then asked the crowd, numbering possibly over a thousand, “Excuse me, do you have Nazi memorabilia in your home?” A noticeable round of chuckles rippled through the air, while I, the descendant of German Jews, put on my best grin in a country ruled by a conservative coalition government prominently featuring the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), an anti-immigration nativist organization founded in 1956 by a former SS officer. Like a motif from an opera prelude, Degot’s remark was foreshadowing.

In a nearby public square, the Berlin-based Japanese artist Yoshinori Niwa had recently installed Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from Private Space (2018), a clothes donation bin painted black meant for the disposal of such artifacts. Few deposits have been made, yet townsfolk also casually began to use the artwork as a simple, if not ironic, wayfinding device by saying things like “meet me at the Nazi box.” Sigmund Freud claimed that humor is the result of repressed desires hostilely slipping into view; however, he considered these blips a kind of safety valve meant to keep homeostasis. Perhaps people just make fun of things to hide them. Whatever the case may be, I experienced haunting laughter not only in the Europaplatz, but also during an evening of performances led by Roee Rosen.

As an alternative to prepackaged festival fare, Rosen was invited to develop work over the course of Degot’s five-year stint, and as such, the artist presented several working fragments of a madcap musical-in-process entitled Kafka for Kids. In addition to these offerings, which featured a band on toy instruments that wondrously sounded like klezmer, punk, and cabaret performed by the Looney Tunes orchestra all at the same time, Rosen also presented a live version of Hilarious, his 2010 video in which a stand-up comic tells ever more distasteful jokes so as to break the forms of shock comedy through absurdist parody.

The act started innocuously with some canned Jewish doctor jokes, but the comedian, played by the incomparable Hani Furstenberg, then slipped a pun about a Jewish doctor named Schwarz (German for black) and Barack Obama. The stage prompter flashed a command for applause, and I timidly forced out some halfhearted giggles; the act then ended with a long bit on the last moments in the lives of 9/11 victims, which we were likewise meant to laugh to. I personally started that day, 9/11, attending an architectural class tour of the Twin Towers, and as such, summoning fake cheers was not an option, although others could muster it. Instead of being amused, a nausea grew inside me, yet that feeling gave way as I linked my pained 9/11 memories with a newfound understanding of how the historically marginalized must feel when forced to go along with jokes that punch down.

More than just a return of the repressed, this year’s iteration of the festival, entitled “Volksfronten”—or people’s front, a queering of populist slogans—seeks to address the troubling return of repressive regimes today. The current rise of new fascist administrations, Degot writes in her catalogue essay, presents “an alarming déjà vu of the 1930s.” With this in mind, it is best to gauge the festival not only psychologically, but through the lens of historical parallelism. Of the 40 or so artists in the show, Henrike Naumann’s installation Anschluss ’90 (2018) demonstrates the closest consideration of this conceit. Set as a standalone solo presentation in Graz’s Haus der Architektur, Naumann proposes an alternative history in which the 1990 reunification of Germany is swept into the ebullience over West Germany’s victory in that year’s World Cup. According to a wall text backstory of sorts, this fictive wellspring of German pride is so strong that Austria joins the new German Federation to unexpectedly complete the Nazi goal of a superstate called “Greater Germany.” Anschluss, German for “connection,” was the term used for the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich, yet it could be mistaken for the word Anstoss, the German for kickoff at a soccer game. A titular neon sign by the artist that borrows from that team’s kit welcomes visitors in, where they encounter an uncanny collection of cheap 1980s postmodern furniture assembled so as to transform the Haus der Architektur into a kind of dusty thrift store offering kitsch hand-me-downs to a poorer Eastern German consumer base eagerly catching up to the West through conspicuous consumption. The inclusion of a book authored by the now deceased former FPO leader, Jörg Haider, whom the leftist press dismissively referred to as a “yuppie fascist,” rests on a nightstand in the back of the room and pricks a scene that is all too easy to write off as sentimental nostalgia.

Anschluss is also German for train connection, and while the prosperity once brought by rail transport is long gone, it’s hard to imagine that we are currently on a high-speed train to a glorious future. If we are repeating the 1930s, not only in Austria but elsewhere too, I would posit that it is the sequelae of the 2008 financial crisis, which many economists at the time equated to the 1929 stock market crash. Like the Great Depression, the Great Recession decimated people’s savings, and this economic scare has, in part, flamed the current politics of resentment as elitist demagogues find easy scapegoats in the gains made by the traditionally dispossessed. I am convinced that the festival alludes heavily to Hamlet’s line that a rotten state is one in which “time is out of joint.” While the 2018 edition is clearly a reminder of our current socio-political and temporal disjunction, it seems to also take up Hamlet’s “antic disposition” as a way to deflect power, but forgets that the prince actually goes mad, and dies, in the end. Sadly, the real fantasy is to believe that history always leads to progress.

Humor & Comedy, Temporality

Adam Kleinman is a writer, curator, and the incoming Director of Kunsthall Trondheim.

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