A Silent Revolution

For a single night, a church courtyard in the Josefstadt was reclaimed by a dancing crowd, without making a sound

On The Town | Laurence Doering | September 2011

The Jodok Fink Platz is an unlikely place to start a revolution. At the heart of the conservative 8th District, the square bears the name of an interwar politician renowned for his compromise-building. Most people, however, know the cobbled concourse simply as the home of the Piaristenkirche and its attached school, a touchstone for a solid, bourgeois education. Against all odds, then, on an unexpectedly balmy evening at the end of a chilly August, some one hundred people gathered on the sleepy plaza – to dance. Yet, remarkably, this reclamation of the public sphere happened almost noiselessly: Thanks to wireless headphones, the time-trodden church courtyard was transformed into an outdoor silent discotheque.

The staging was dramatic: Hemmed in on three sides, the Platz forms a perfectly symmetrical space whose severity is broken only by a group of off-centre oak trees. Two identical schoolhouses face each other across the quad; their plain, rough-cast walls, lined by gaunt, unadorned windows, frame and offset the central structure, the white-washed baroque basilica. Dominating the square in size and audacity, the façade is whimsically convex: the central portico arches outwards, accentuated by round semi-pillars, supporting an ironically oversized pediment. A gilt inscription proclaims in large, undecorated letters VIRGO FIDELIS AVE COELESTIS MATER AMORIS! (Hail to the Faithful Virgin of Heaven, Mother of Love!) Framing the pediment are two slender towers, topped with moss-green, sinewy spires, each ringed with a single girdle of shiny globes, a kinky feature to someone who has seen too much porn. In all, Lukas von Hildebrandt’s playful design of 1699 strikes a surprisingly postmodern tone.

Underneath the inscription, an ornate clock face told the hour: 10 p.m. For an event scheduled to end at midnight, there was very little motion: In the far left corner of the square, several DJs were busy at their decks, yet not a sound emerged; in front of them, a palm tree consisting of fluorescent lights illumined an arresting scene. In the serene calm of the night, here were clusters of people gleefully doing the twist in perfect silence. A lone man in his 30s was gyrating on his own, face skywards, in solitary ecstasy; a middle-aged woman in a short white dress performed athletic lurches with the noiseless focus of an evening tai-chi session.

Now it was clear why so few people were actually dancing. The others – spread out on flat steps and benches lining the side of the square – were transfixed by the spectacle. The ensemble of bodies, jigging in silence, side by side yet to different rhythms, was hilarious and endlessly fascinating.

The feat was achieved with a simple trick: By rolling their finger over a little tuning wheel at the back of their headset, dancers could choose between two music channels which were transmitted from the DJ decks. A German student with a sharp piercing protruding from his bottom lip lent me his headphones, allowing me to dodge the long queue at the beer table where they could be rented at €3 a piece. I switched between the channels: Slow-paced, ambient house versus upbeat rockabilly. Most of the dancers had chosen the latter, their movements suddenly intelligible. My benefactor preferred the electro channel, so he could watch the bodies dance out of synch. As such, what the two channels really offered was the de-coupling and re-coupling of hearing and vision, almost attaining a drug-free state of hallucination.

This was not, however, a solitary high. By 23:00, the cobblestone dance floor was filled with people. Rather than being isolating, the headphones paradoxically enhanced the conversation of the dance, as partners tried to "read" each other’s movements and synchronise their channels, broadcasting ever-changing genres

of music. As my dance partner of the hour – a girl with dark curly hair and a smile that exposed a maddeningly sexy gap between her front teeth – relaxed her body from a quick-stepped salsa into the undulating movements of hip hop, I could tell that she had switched station. Tuning into the languorous beats of Jay Z myself, she smiled as I, too, downed my pace and started flapping my hands around as, supposedly, rappers do.

The different channels also meant that constellations of dancers shifted, as groups formed spontaneously when they shared a rhythm. The often-bizarre changes in musical style resulted in general hilarity and frequent collisions; but the atmosphere was so jovial that people greeted the friction with a smile.

Jumping around among the crowd in a tiny pair of ’70s-style running shorts was Oliver Hangl, the 43-year-old artist and organiser of the "Guerilla Disco". He has experimented with wireless headphones since 2005, developing improvised semi-guided "Guerilla Walks" through Vienna, or the staging of audio-plays for audiences circuiting the Ringstrasse by tram. In large part, the relaxed atmosphere that night was due to Hangl and his team’s refreshingly hands-off approach: Until well after midnight, music continued to course through our ears, and we danced on, fearing that every song could be the last.

In the end, this was a very Austrian revolution. We reclaimed the square, yes. But we did so in Jodok Fink’s spirit of compromise, allowing the 8th District to continue its slumber undisturbed. There was no police, no dispersal order at midnight, and the entire happening was subsidised by the district authority. In Vienna, tradition and modernity are tender bedfellows. Long live the silent revolution!


The next Guerilla Disco is taking place on Sept. 16, from 9pm, at the stage on Kupkagasse during the Josefstädter Straßenfest

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