Faith, Hope, and Rioting
A new exhibit at the Wien Museum confronts the visitor with a jarring view of a Vienna many will find unfamiliar: a city in transition, begging for a new era, with a youth culture to match
If you take the 49 tram downhill through the 7th District, just before you reach the MuseumsQuartier you’ll turn onto the Breitegasse. It's an old street with charming storefronts; a watchmaker’s workshop still in business after 150 years, its gorgeous pink and white façade from the early 19th century; and one complete eyesore, windows broken, entrance filthy, scrawled all over with huge, inartistic graffiti. Someone must own this centrally located piece of real estate, but though it appears to be structurally sound, its owner seems to have deemed it useless, and it looks as if it’s going to be left to rot.
What impossibly rich or careless or otherworldly person would allow such a thing to happen? No such person, if the Wien Museum’s Besetzt! (Occupied!) exhibition is any likely guide.
By this account, the eyesore on the Breitegasse is probably owned by a property speculator, a person or company who can afford to wait five, ten, perhaps twenty years for a return on money outlaid. In the intervening time, the building stands empty, slowly going to pieces, until it’s reached such a state that it can legally be demolished, and something more profitable erected in its place.
Vienna in the 1970s had any number of buildings like this, including thousands of vacant apartments. And in the record-breaking heat of the summer of 1976, thousands of young people decided they might as well use them.
The proposed demolition of the "Arena" – the former Auslands-abbatoir in Vienna’s Sankt Marx district – served as catalyst for the running occupations. An avant-garde theatre venue for the Wiener Festwochen, the building was slated for demolition at the end of the season, with a commercial textile centre to be built in its place. The consequent massive protests were only partly motivated by the wish to save a useful old building. More decisive was what might be called an anti-Staatsoper initiative: As far as the occupiers were concerned, hidebound Vienna desperately needed an alternative arts venue. They were not without substantial public support: "It’s almost impossible to imagine how narrow, how one-sided the city’s cultural offerings were in those days," writes Wien Museum Director Wolfgang Kos in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue. "The Arena was a gate crasher, a real impetus for youth movements and media and political movements, too. It changed the city fundamentally; it broadened it."
Deconstructing the exhibit
One of the Wien Museum’s declared goals is "the documenting of social plurality and diversity, and the relating of countertrends and stories of resistance". Curators Martina Nussbaumer and Werner Michael Schwarz are to be congratulated in having successfully achieved this with Besetzt! Viennese visitors will enjoy hearing their city, as it were, talking to itself.
The exhibition may be of less interest to visitors from elsewhere. The exhibits themselves, mostly amateur photographs, TV clips, and posters, might have been created anywhere in the western world at that time of latter-day hippiedom and emerging punk – with 1970s student types in jeans and beards and rusty VWs, and 1980s, determined unemployables poking their tongues out – insolence was in! The wall captions are helpfully summarized in English, but it’s a wordy exhibition, effectively a book in three dimensions, and most of it is in German only. It includes several clips (generally rather bland, it must be said) from TV news and documentaries – but again, without translation.
The visitors I saw were overwhelmingly young, but there were a handful of the middle-aged among them and, touchingly, many of them were smiling, as if they recognized their younger selves in the photos on the walls – perhaps they did. The catalogue includes several nostalgically entitled personal reminiscences (Memories of the Beginning; My Arrest; A Whole Summer Long), and it would be easy to dismiss the entire movement as the naïve dream of a well-fed generation without much immediate responsibility. But this would be to do it an injustice. The Arena occupation and its offshoots proved to be of lasting significance for the schnitzel-stuffed city that begot them.
The occupiers lost their battle: The Auslands-abbatoir was demolished. But they won the war, with Chancellor Bruno Kreisky later admitting that the city did indeed need an alternative cultural centre and a permanent venue for other than traditional entertainment; the neighbouring Inlands-abbatoir was set aside for just that purpose, which it retains to this day. The Rosa Lila Villa still provides support and advice for gays and lesbians; the Ernst Kirchweger Haus still welcomes migrants and refugees; the WUK (Werkstätten- und Kulturhaus) still operates as a community cultural centre (See "A Workshop for Culture and Peace", TVR Nov. 2011). Not least, you’re now allowed to sit on the grass in the Burggarten.
So maybe it’s true: If you believe you can make a difference, and you believe it hard enough, sometimes you really can.
The Struggle for Free Spaces Since the 1970s
Through 12 Aug.
Wien Museum Karlsplatz
(01) 505 8747