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Sept/Oct 2015 issue:

Modernism on the Shore:
Rallou Panagiotou

– Stephanie Bailey


Idle Weeds are Fast in Growth
Roe Ethridge with Victoria Camblin


Concrete Utopia
– Caia Hagel

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Video: Aerosol

– Jonathan Bouknight

Coming Soon:
The Painting of the van Veldes, or the World and the Trouser

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– text: John Swisher







September/October 2015
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CONCRETE UTOPIA

Text + Interview / Caia Hagel


Vienna's old-world charm underwent a futuristic intervention when the very first Vienna Biennale opened in June 2015, under the leadership of MAK Director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein. Cast in what has been conceived as a visionary new role for Austrian intelligence, wherein international art, architecture, and design practitioners bend their creative class sensibilities into pragmatic action, the initiative proposes futures whose politics, ethics, and philosophies are woven into a tapestry of presentations and exhibitions across the city's cultural institutions, even its infrastructure.




Demonstrator: The Home. The floor plan with its flexible wall system allows occupants to set up the space according to their individual requirements [courtesy of Klaus Kada]


When the MAK DESIGN LAB opened in May 2014, it seemed to proclaim that creative elitism was passé. In its Vienna headquarters, objects used in "everyday life" (some more than others) are presented in a low-drama permanent installation that spans design history, and that samples from its various rubrics and registers. Kitchen stoves and ergonomical chairs feature, as do eating utensils and Helmut Lang bustiers. As a result, the ostensibly uninitiated connect with the way design affects the environments and rituals of living, and the lay person is engaged as an expert on design, whose knowledge is cultivated through a personal relationship to the experience of design. Under the auspices of the Vienna Biennale—a MAK initiative—this laboratory experiment mushrooms to a macro level, bursting beyond the confines of the exhibition and its gathering space, and into the streets of the city. The Austrian capital emerges as a pioneer in applied-arts-guru thought in a way that implores its citizens, not just its designers, to take up their roles in manifesting the global community of the future.

Ever since optimism gave way to nihilism sometime in the mid-20th century, futurism has dwelled in the collective imaginary alongside notions of apocalypse-survivalism, machine intelligence, or aloneness in outer space. Salvation narratives of science fiction reach a high note in maverick discovery that real science and technology can only attempt to corroborate, but artists today seem less and less willing to be cast as oracles—wary, perhaps, of falling into last century's patterns of hope and despair. But what if a group of experimental creatives, inspired by student protest and the building potential of real concrete, broke into the proverbial laboratory? This is what 2051: Smart Life in the City brings to the Vienna Biennale 2015, an ambitious platform devoted in its first iteration to the theme "Ideas for Change."




Hans Langeder, Ferdinand GT3, RS, 2010, bicycle-Porsche for declaration and ecologically gentle mobility [courtesy of Hannes Langeder]


An Austrian co-curation of design star Harald Gründl—co-partner at EOOS and director of the Institute of Design Research Vienna—and MAK senior curator and head of design collection Thomas Geisler, 2051 manifests a future city within the museum-like landscape of old Vienna (based on projections for the year after successful decarbonization, according to the European Union energy roadmap's target of 2050). The project asks designers and participants to collaborate in live, animated happenings in designated areas across Vienna, on the key themes in the imagined city of the future. One special project invites students of the Vienna University of Technology to restage the city they conceptualized during their infamous Hypotopia protest last year, when aspiring civil engineers and architects used more than 30 tons of concrete to construct in front of Vienna's Karlskirche a model city, designed to schematize how much public housing and infrastructure could have been built with the 19 billion euros the state used to bail out the failed Hypo Alpe Adria bank. Upon the opening of the biennale, anticapitalist concrete salvaged from the protest—and certainly, its creative and industrious spirit—was put to use as building material for a democratic futurist vision.

2051 is one project of several that the biennale brings to a Vienna newly opened to the world. Since 2011, under the directorship of Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, MAK has had a nationwide influence, via enterprising programming, inspiring Austrian citizens to re-evaluate the role of culture and the cultural institution in the architecture of their own lives. Contemporary Vienna and its inaugural biennale, building on this democratization-of-design initiative and engaging the city's historical center—which played a pivotal role at the turn of the 20th century, when the Industrial Revolution engendered globalized transformation through technological progress—offer creative solutions to the challenges and opportunities of the hyper-datafied 21st century, as it has come to inhabit and demand integration into the capitals of the old world.

The four international curators—Gründl, Pedro Gadanho (curator of contemporary architecture, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Maria Lind (director, Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm), and Peter Weibel (director, ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe; professor, University of Applied Arts Vienna)—have created an ambitious international and multidisciplinary series of exhibitions that call upon teams of architects, artists, designers, and digital natives to apply their arts to future city solutions.

The 2051 Viennese showcase is perhaps the most evocative of Thun-Hohenstein's efforts to place Austrian smarts on the front lines of systems change. Interviewed on the eve of its opening, Gründl elucidated the axes of the project as they converged, and the fullness of its philosophy, its execution, and its impact.




Magdas Hotel, 2015 [courtesy of AllesWirdGut Architektur and Guilherme Silva Da Rosa]


Caia Hagel: 2051 makes your forecast of the future tangible by way of 10 "demonstrators"—hubs of activity that play on both the scientific demonstrator that proves the validity of an experiment, and the political demonstrator who troubles the sociopolitical status quo—just as Hypotopia student protests did last year. Can you tell us about the pragmatic plan of your project?

Harald Gründl: [With] Ideas for Change, we're interested in defining design not as a discipline, but as a strategy. We are looking at creating alternatives to our unsustainable way of living, with the belief that everyone is a designer, everyone is creative. What we want to find out is how we can channel this creativity to rebuild a city to be more sustainable, using communal involvement and a bottom-up approach. Most of the time, "innovation" means technical gadgets that wow, and not how design can change the fabric of society. We thought it would be nice to open this idea to the wider public by having the exhibition in the city, and to set the future potentials we want people to look at within their everyday settings. When you see a new idea come to life within your usual context of living, it has a different effect than when you enter a museum. Biennales always target people who are already interested in cultural issues. We want to address the broader audience when talking about redesigning a city.

The thing we really liked with Hypotopia is that [its instigators] were able to impassion a big audience. Adults gossiped about it, children played in the physical model—a wide population engaged with the idea of what a bank system is, and how Hypotopia's design is an invention that sought to build a city with new ideals. From the actual model, we have a kind of memory of that political moment. [Amid] the concrete block artifacts left over from the protest, we have the original team running a program during the exhibition, so their installation is a backdrop for discussions and research involving change-makers. They have invited speakers in the food sector, for example, to talk about how growing and distributing food could contribute to running a city beyond control by investors, and in the financial sector, to see how in the future we might depart from profit-oriented ways of thinking.

CH: And the other "demonstrators" participating in the Biennale add to these discussions with complementary themes, illuminated by performance?

HG: Yes, there is a lot of performative research going on. In one demonstrator, we are experimenting with cooking and sharing. There is a small market in Vienna where migrants go to cook and eat communal meals [made] with the food supermarkets throw away. In doing so they build relationships with their neighbors. This is a spontaneous social innovation. We have designed an app to map out where these meals take place; hopefully, this will inspire new projects that can use the app as well. If our temporary demonstrators find new contexts for this mobile kitchen concept, people can see that change is about scaling up good ideas that can pop up everywhere—not just in one market. The goal is to seed ideas and strategies to learn.

Another one of our demonstrators is the Magdas Hotel, a social enterprise created by the nonprofit organization Caritas, which takes care of refugees. The project didn't have enough money to build a hotel concept under normal conditions; they weren't able to order a nice sofa from a nice design catalogue. They came up with the idea of involving the general public, asking them to donate things, to lend their expertise or time. Instead of "designing" the hotel, people came in to facilitate the [processing] of its incarnation, and the result is more "ambiance" than design as we know it through the old model. This community experience changed the collective mindset about how designing can work. The hotel just opened, and it's cool.




Demonstrator: The Shopping Mall, Julia Landsiedl, Shopping Spotting, 2015
[courtesy of MAK and Nathan Murrell]


CH: You're also "demonstrating" the concepts of the factory, the bank, the hospital, the empty lot, the school, the mall, the stadium, the home ....

HG: In the home demonstration, we rebuild a social housing project flat that has a flexible floor plan to make it possible to change the way space is used. This is not done in the social housing setting because there are so many laws, so it's a radical idea. It changes the usual socioeconomics of the domestic environment: if you get rid of the living room to make an office, then share the kitchen, cinema, library, or swimming facility as a common space, a livelihood and a neighborhood are created. This idea of the neighborhood is very important for the future. It creates awareness about others, and about caring for others.

The factory demonstrator looks at the 40-hour work week, and considers how we can free up time and loosen our reliance on the capitalist model to create a higher standard of wellness. We earn money to buy things, so one solution is to grow and make more of our own things. We should also have leisure and creative time. When you do what you dream about and what you really want to do, this adds to public welfare because people are happier. This idea can be built on a very simple object, like a shoe. Walking is a sustainable mode of mobility. By connecting people to the artisans, we can design innovative shoes so they are green-powered-symbols for freedom, happiness, and sustainability.

We also showcase a decentralized health care system, and a new school designed by Van Bo Le-Mentzel and Jacob Listerbarth [and] focused on centralizing knowledge. An interactive crowd-sourced website shares everybody's knowledge—the students' and the teachers'—to make learning nonhierarchical. And because the future city will need money, our bank demonstrator makes loans to social projects—it's an ethical bank. The bank is trying to collect 7 million euro through crowd funding. When they have that money, they will use it to fund public welfare proposals. If you come to this bank wanting money to buy a sports car for yourself, you won't get any, but if you are looking to finance a vehicle for car sharing, you might.

All these exercises describe a very minimalist scenario of what you will experience in this proposed future. The personal status derived from commercial culture, this way of defining ourselves—it's not a good future model. We're hoping that, as people walk around, they're thinking, "Why don't I have this in my neighborhood?" or "Why can't I buy this shoe?" or "Why can't money have ethics in my 'hood, too?" People don't have to love all of these interventions. People can hate them, too. That's just as interesting.

CH: This year, IKEA released its plans for a 2025 "smart kitchen," where furniture is interactive and groceries are delivered by drones. How does technology figure in the 2051 utopia?

HG: We have created an "Ideas for Change" app to showcase all the good things that are already happening in the city. The app is a participation—based project that includes a radar function highlighting all the demonstrators, and people are able to vote for demonstrator functionaries and social movements in the city. In this way, everyone can own the context, get attention, even invite the public to attend their own gathering or try out their own idea. It's also a way to copy what's going on, and to do it yourself. What we aren't creating is a fictional city scenario where cars fly. Nobody knows what 2051 "is." Our point is more social—we feel we need to create a social fabric that works, a new narrative for the future where every one of us is part of the story. This is much more important to us than a fancy skyscraper.

When we talk about creating a complex new world, we have to deal with that complexity without anxiety. We haven't learned how to do that yet. In 2051, things will have to be radically changed. If everyone gets this sense that we can make it, that we are part of it, that we can enjoy it and want it, then we will be able to create it. Good alternatives are already happening. We just have to vote for them.




Demonstrator: The Street, TU Vienna Project, MOLD (ING), 2015 [courtesy of Daniel Willinger]


CH: If anxiety is a major hindrance to change, how can we learn to relax in the face of that complexity?

HG: In processes of change, the first step is understanding that the way we're doing things is no longer appropriate. If we don't reach that point, the change process is difficult. That's one of the things we try to touch on: the arts are a catalytic system for change. Design is not "art," but it's an interesting in-between position where the industrial system meets consumers through creative expression. When you understand yourself as part of a social change process, you become empowered and less anxious; you see that you can change your choices as a consumer, and therefore influence the system.

CH: You've been inspired in this project with the spirit of youth, the buzz around student protests. Teen spirit, as we know from Kurt Cobain, is contagious and thrilling but also potentially dangerous. In civic terms this could work into futurism via rabid social media and its contemporary malaise, diseases of selfie-consciousness or crippling competition. Change is an intergenerational project, but how do you see a youth culture takeover of cultural, social, political, and economic agendas affecting the future?

HG: I think if the young generation has an understanding that it's their future and they are responsible for it, then we can trust in teen spirit. We have one installation that is a play street, where cars are stopped, and in that empty space, youth culture can take over and conquer it with who they are and want to be, and how they want to see their neighborhood as an experiment. It's an interesting way to imagine them creating their future. The Hypotopia students will be provoking crowds by giving the podium to neighborhood people to talk about what they're dreaming and doing. The "Ideas for Change" app will make all this interactive. It's very simple, but giving these everyday experiences flexibility and alternatives makes them re-imaginable in an accessible way. The participants don't risk anything; they are safe. This is our strategy to overcome those anxieties.

CH: Futurist projections most often have an element of idealism or utopianism to them. In 2051, each demonstrator offers something that implies goodness, an appeal to our ethically "better," humanist side. Yet, understanding the primitive undercurrent of people, how will the 2051 vision of the future satisfy our ugly sides, our egos, our appetite for transgression and power, which can be savage and cruel?

HG: The "bad side" of us will always be there. Creating a resilient system for the good is what negotiates that [hurdle]. The leader for the stadium demonstration, which questions the future of gambling and proposes ethically minded entertainment alternatives, is a specialist in games from the 1970s onward. We've asked him to showcase serious games: one, called Frontiers and developed here in Austria, is a firsthand eagle shooter who ends up dealing with problems affecting refugees. These kinds of entertainment can play directly on the bad, where it is not gratuitous because there are also ethical and emotional elements.

A society that lives in different conditions will act differently. The postcapitalist situation that underlies cybernetic logic relates to the real needs of the human being. There are four basic tenets in a cybernetics map, which contextualize our projects in relation to human happiness: freedom, security, satisfaction, and comfort. It's quite interesting to conceive a city that deeply relates to human needs—these are not abstract things. Vices happen because of unhappiness, because these needs aren't being met.

We need alternatives that give people a sense of choice. We have a lot of choices today but we don't dare to choose them. If we're able to prove that these are resilient models, that nobody goes hungry if he or she sources food from co-ops, and that we can share, innovate, play—then we are creating a situation [wherein] complexity does not breed anxiety, but comfort.

CH: There is no demonstrator in Ideas for Change that deals specifically with spirituality. When you and Thomas are looking down at your holistic creation, are you imagining that the future's spiritual fabric will simply be made up of bonds created among neighbors? Is this a flimsy way to address the volcanic longing of humans for faith in higher powers?

HG: There is one thing we are doing to address this: we're staging a play, written by Friedrich von Borries and Harald Welzer, based on Greek tragedy—so, there are chorus parts, and the central theme is a CO2 god. To create a god that deals with the CO2 problem is an interesting idea, because it could really happen. I have a background in the study of rituals, so I understand that our performative mythology relates to very deep-seated things. Whether it's a pagan corn god, or Jesus, or a spiritual devotion to fashion, our rituals touch a similar region in the psyche. It would not surprise me if in the mythology of 2051 the Earth and nature were experienced as something spiritual. In the play, it turns out that this CO2 god is just another construction created to gain power over the people again; like the Wizard of Oz, he is small and corrupt, just like humans bound to capitalism.

In Hypotopia's city model, the students did not build a church. There was a reason that they consciously avoided it. Our 2051 exhibitions are discursive systems for those who want to participate. It could be that the discussions that arise from the feedback will turn out to be the gods we never imagined, but always longed for.



The Vienna Biennale was initiated by Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art (MAK), in partnership with the University of Applied Arts Vienna; the Kunsthalle Wien; the Architekturzentrum Wien; and Departure, the Creative Unit of the Vienna Business Agency, with support from the Austrian Institute of Technology. It runs through October 4, 2015.


Caia Hagel is a writer, a pop culture critic, a creative director, and a nomad.

Harald Gründl is a designer, curator, and writer. He is a managing partner at EOOS and founder of the Institute of Design Research Vienna.





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