A War of Words Waged from the Windows

Above trendy bars and food stalls, Armin Bardel’s words call out to a society just out of reach

On The Town | Peter Quince | December 2011 / January 2012

Imagine Linke Wienzeile 22 – a plain 1850s egg carton of a building – as a giant refrigerator with 24 magnetic letters you can rearrange to catch, or attack, the world’s fancy. For a good 15 years, Armin Bardel, photographer/artist/philosopher and resident in LWZ 22’s bel étage, has been decking out six panes of his south side windows with mottos you don’t need binoculars to parse.

Ring a bell? You see his windows over Café Drechsler facing the Naschmarkt. Sometimes his messages are short (after he wrote LUST, he received a reprimand from old man Drechsler), sometimes vertical, horizontal, or both at once. And half the time, they’re in English. He calls his project "Open WindOw", but we think it has both too much spontaneity and too much inevitability to be called a mere "project". We paid him a visit in his vaulted rooms, peeking at his current motto (WEAR AND TEAR) in reverse, and asked him to expand on some of his more cryptic English bon mots.

Back in Anniversary Year 2006, Bardel posted the message IGNORE MOZART, when ignoring Mozart was a challenge not even he always met successfully.

"That year, I photographed a piece Olga Neuwirth performed in, where Mozartkugeln were poured onto the stage. I managed to get quite a few of the good ones before they were trampled." (Hmm. Do as I say, not as I do?) In February 2008, there was MENTAL DEVIATION, which we thought might have opened some alarming psychological vistas from Bardel’s eyrie.

"Strangely, I can’t remember where those two words led me," he said. "It can be understood as the deviation of the majority. For instance, the BoBos sitting out under the heating lamps at the Naschmarkt in November: COLLECTIVE PERVERSITY."

A more obviously political note was sounded by his WHO NEEDS ROBIN HOOD? during the financial crisis of 2008. We asked him if he’s perceived much change since then.

"We know there hasn’t been. The banks were bailed out, the people weren’t", he said. "And apropos Robin Hood, we also know revolutionaries become corrupted, like Napoleon, so maybe we’re better off without them." STOP HUMAN CAPITALISM was one in a set of variations, with STOP HUMAN CANNIBALISM close on its heels. But aren’t human subjects the capital of a professional photographer? Bardel: "I hope not. I’ve never done porno or commercial photography."

We asked if COME OVER ME might possibly have something to do with the penthouse then being constructed atop Linke Wienzeile 22’s roof. "No, I was thinking in terms of ‘We Shall Overcome’, which was so important in Obama’s campaign. But I had another one, FEUER AM DACH, when they were building the penthouse, and in fact there was a fire in the building two years later, in a basement workroom for the penthouse workers."

BACK TO BACK (2010) refers not to those nice old double windows Bardel nestles his mottoes between ("I’ve never attached any mystique to those"), but rather to his shuttling between Rome and Vienna during a stay at the Austrian Auslandsatelier in Rome. "For me, back to back meant coming back from Rome, when it wasn’t clear anymore which place was ‘back’ – as if I were switching realities. But it also means people in society standing back to back, as in a duel."

From to 25 Jun. to 7 Jul. 2008, those Naschmarkt BoBos and more easy-going passers-by were reminded that IT’S ONLY A GAME. That prompted us to ask Bardel if this particular game costs him much money or time. "Well, no. I first considered using an electronic sign, which could flash and run texts back and forth. That would have been very expensive. The way I do it, it costs almost nothing. It takes me about half an hour to completely rearrange the letters …  I’ve often wondered what people down in the Naschmarkt think when they watch that process. I try to make myself invisible during it. I’m invisible, anyway – even people who know me don’t necessarily know it’s me who lives up there, putting up the letters. The mottos are game-like when they’re hard to read – if the letters are arranged in a way you need a little time to read. Reality is a game, too …"

Bardel is now publishing a blog (openwindowvienna.tumblr.com) where you can study all his mottos as they’ve changed week by week. Blog visitors will be encouraged to comment, perhaps in the form of new mottoes. Then, his messages won’t just be echoless proclamations, but part of a public encounter between perfect urban strangers.

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