Of Shelter, Bonds & Meaning

The project at Soho Projektwerkstatt brought together twenty-five international artists confronting unprecedented change

On The Town | Michael R. Weingartner | July / August 2010

People walked slowly around the exhibition, looking at the images and sculptures and it was clear that some of the work was sparking conversation. The audience was eagerly awaiting the art opening of the Shelter Project at Soho Projektwerkstatt in Ottakring, Vienna.

The world is moving faster and faster daily. Globalization has made travelling easier; however, a single volcano can stop worldwide air travel for a week. It takes a day to send a letter ground the globe, but when calling a help desk you will be redirected to an Indian call center.  These developments offer so many new possibilities, and leave us exposed to so many new inputs. And an overkill of information can make it really hard to filter the items of real interest and rejecting the useless ones.

Our understanding of work and culture and the use of language has changed dramatically over the past century. At work, most people seem bent on making as much money as possible, an attitude that has prevailed in post-war times in much of the west, particularly the United States, and it leaves a narrow range of vision, as we lose focus on interpersonal dimensions. When something goes wrong, people tend to be left on their own, less supported by their communities, friends and family, or the state welfare system even as it was fifteen years ago.

The Shelter Project picked up on these issues of an interlinked understanding. Victoria Hindley, born in the United States, now living in Austria, curated and organized this project. By bringing together the work of 25 artists, theorists and speakers from all over the world, Hindley set up the provocative exhibition of dance, photography, poetry and video, Jun. 9 – 13.

"My thesis is that the word ‘shelter’ no longer represents a literal form of structural protection, but rather, it has come to represent the multiple mechanisms through which we confront and engage with a contemporary world defined by unprecedented experiences of change, movement and hyper-mediation," explained Hindley

The word shelter is no longer defined only as a protective cover, but more stands for an overlapping reach of bonds, the system of supports that sustain people in their social context, that give their lives meaning. In his opening remarks, philosopher and media theorist Wolfgang Stützl emphasized that the term shelter cannot be confined by one single meaning but rather has become the active element at the intersection of globalization, culture and politics.

"The literal definition has run its course," Hindley said. "As so often happens with language, a new meaning, much wider, is developing and revealing itself in many unspoken ways well beyond any constructions of race, nationality, gender, or age."

For the first time in Vienna, the Shelter Project gave artists a platform to present, and to create a combined vision serving as an important setting for discussion.

"The Shelter Project was a chance to explore these meanings, to look at how concepts of shelter run through almost every social dialogue, embedded within debates about such crucial issues as privacy vs. security, inclusion vs. exclusion, displacement, racism, sexism, xenophobia, identity, and sense of place," she said.

The definition of shelter can be compared to the definition of home. People travelling on a regular basis might consider home differently than where they are from but rather the place where they feel most comfortable. The limits of shelter do not end at housing but offer the option of being extended to the current state of mind as a shelter for ideas and thoughts.

Can shelter replace a real home? The Austrian photographer Nina Goldnagl exhibited an untitled photo series showing abandoned living spaces leaving it to the fantasy of the spectator to envision a lively shelter.

A video called "After 800 Meters, Take the Motorway" by Ruth Bianco looked at the extent to which we lose our privacy, merge with the masses or pretend we are not affected by the new technological innovations. Or can these things even be considered innovations? As soon as we leave the house in the morning and begin a journey, even if we just go grocery shopping, the car ride to the store tells a story. The navigations systems are doing our work; there is an automated digital voice telling us where to turn and where the next gas station is."

Hindley, both an artist and writer, exhibited a photo series titled "Uninhabited," exploring themes of loss, desire, and perception in relation to the urban environment."

Gallerist and author Victoria Oscarsson, a long-time Vienna resident and the only poet presenting, had written an original text "Shelter" for the Project, a story of beginnings and ends, inspired by the subject’s multi-faceted interpretations.

With so much work offered, the event was almost overwhelming for the visitors, many of whom spent several hours absorbing the work. "The vernissage drew about 150 people, who lingered through the evening," Hindley said, impressed by how deeply visitors looked, watched and listened.

In the end, the strength of the project came from the mix of the deeply considered artwork in combination with the explorations of the theme through the talks, the panel, and performance, Hindley explained. The theme of `shelter´had provided a wide lens through which to consider a full range of the how and why of the lives we live today.

Other articles from this issue