In the mirror, S_P_I_T_reads as _T_I_P_S. A personal survey of an evening without advice, but with a budget
I recently attended an exchange between artists/activists from the queer*feminist electronic DIY music-collective sphere. The main topic was new feminist alliances. The initiators were passing through, most of those present were relatively recent arrivals in Vienna. Money soon became the topic of conversation. One person said: “In Vienna, even artists from subculture scenes say: Let’s see if we get the funding. Then, I’d be happy to do something together.’ That can take six months or more. How are we supposed to stay spontaneous and put up resistance in reacting to political developments?”
But let’s start at the beginning.
The second evening of S_P_I_T_ begins like the first: culinary. In the passageway in front of the entrance to the TQW Studios, the buffet Eat Meat Politically by Flávia Mudesto awaits. I love free food. But horse-meat “Leberkäse”??? Ah, VEGAN…wiping-sweat-from-the-forehead emoji. Meat isn’t my thing, so I don’t really need a meat substitute. Ernst Caramelle’s mirrored display case on the wall throws the S_P_I_T_ logo back at me as_T_I_P_S. Fortunately, apart from stew, there’s also Kaiserschmarren. A tasty option that doesn’t require any advice, i.e. “tips”. Later on, Denise will encourage us in her short speech to give Mudesto, whose birthday it is today, a tip, i.e. a little money, when we take a break at the food stand. But first, Hyo Lee chairs an artist talk with four festival artists in a row of chairs facing the audience seating.
Hyo Lee: “What kind of space do you want to create for yourself and for the audience? Does it make a difference to the process whether your piece is shown at S_P_I_T_ or elsewhere?”
Helena Araújo: “I want to celebrate being femme, to get femmes to work with me, to empower them, to make them visible. I want to be hyper-dramatic, too much and a crybaby.”
Theo Emil Krausz: “At S_P_ I_T_, I don’t have to explain anything, people understand what I’m doing. That’s a wonderful experience.”
Rebecca Merlic: “It does make a difference whether I show GLITCHBODIES in Tokyo or in Vienna. In Tokyo, the institution bailed out because I was too radical for them. I like being a vulgar architect.”
Stella Myraf: “Creating or exploring queer spaces by means of performance is very personal to me. It was special to be able to share this with an audience yesterday. It was really moving. I am still overwhelmed.”
The affectionate exchange confirms the importance of the festival both in terms of a safe space designed by queers for queers and for making queer bodies visible. And yet the classic separation between the platform and the audience is being maintained.
And continues to be in I know what to do by Sunny Pfalzer, a collaboration with Lau Lukkarila and Slim Soledad. Due to rain, the performance had to be moved from the outside area to the Studio in a flash.
The new opening constellation: Three people lie sprawled in three of the many windows. The costumes: casual, jeans with deconstructed checked shirts, floppy hat, headscarf and bandana. One arm each is covered in a musketeer glove reaching above the elbow. Sweet & hot beyond fixed gender identities.
Music starts to play, warm-up exercises begin. The trio will continue to keep this rhythm, merging into a momentary sculpture from time to time, but mostly varying the same movement material individually. Three teenagers striking mirror poses for an actually present audience:
Hair-throwing choreo: right – up – left – down
What would it have been like outside, where the audience could have moved about more freely? Would they have moved closer? Got out of the way? Left? Would the flirtation have been more brazen? So, once again, an audience tamed in rows of seats. The spectators nod their head sporadically. There is laughter. Do we all feel like we’ve been caught at something?
I regress to my seven-year-old self for a little while. I ask my reflection in the dual role of presenter/artist in German with an accent I think is American, which I produce by chewing gum: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Answer: “A singer, a dancer or an actress.” Performer is the word I would use today. It was to take 27 long years for me to regain this degree of certainty. I don’t think I did much posing in front of the mirror anymore as a teenager. Perhaps I was too busy passing for “German” and “a member of the educated middle class” in Cold-War West Germany for the sake of my Czech refugee parents who had fled to capitalist “freedom”, helping to bring up three younger siblings, doing countless hours of voluntary German-Czech youth work in my search for a sense of belonging, while I spent the remaining time sitting in the dark, feeling sad and listening to sad music (Doors revival! Grunge!). Speaking of sad music: I perceive the playlist compiled for the evening by Augend & Addend as soft background music. Until the line “Oh, this uncertainty is taking me over” from a Portishead song suddenly reaches my ear and my ’90s self feels the tears coming on. With STAR of Xanax – a fairytale by natalie ananda assmann and Maximilian Prag my eyes soon get to see a performative installation of slippery digital bulge landscapes, perforated analog skin curtains, salt conglomerates and a figure lying on the floor (performer DaDa JV).
“Hello, how do you feel? I feel so connected to you…I radiate sexual energy…I just go to sleep…dream until it’s all reality…My body heals automatically…I feel like I’m on clouds”, an AI-like voice emerges from spherical sounds and virtual weightlessness.
The figure with a blonde ponytail in a short skin-like latex dress begins to react to what’s happening in the video by dancing. Several dissolves turn the meat landscape into a forest, and a horned avatar, who appears in front of it, all slimy pink body with neon-green eyes and crab claws, promises ominously: “I know that my government cares…My digital footprint is my holy sanctuary…The ego is the audience.”
Meanwhile, the humanoid being in phygital space bonds with matter by smearing itself with a pitch-like substance and intensifying its movements to the now pounding techno beat and strobe-light effects. At the end, it assures its white outline on the canvas that it wants to remain in the uncertain here and now, and lets salt trickle onto its legs. The audience responds with thunderous applause.
On our way to Dornika’s concert, we get in the way of cleaning work in Studio 2: the lavish use of material in the performance installation is followed by more minimalism. Studio 3 is bathed in bluish-pink light. Dornika enters, the mask-like make-up glows in neon colours in the black light.
“This is not a drill. It is time to abort the patriarchy. All eyes on the revolution!”
The opening hits home.
“My girls won’t stop won’t stop won’t stop no
My queers won’t stop won’t stop won’t stop”
The voice: with reverb added, but clear.
The music: pop, soul, rap elements – danceable.
The message: political.
After each number: rapturous applause.
“Give it up for all the plus-size people!
It’s a journey and I’m still on it every day.”
Out of nowhere, Dornika apologises for possibly having said things that were too cheesy.
Not cheesy at all: regarding the club as a political space, where making political statements doesn’t ruin the mood, was and still is a matter of concern for the team of curators, Denise Kottlett and Lisa Holzinger, even before they launched their queer club performance format, Sisters.
Towards the end, Dornika invites the audience to dance along. Here, too, instead of inclusive, flexible seating options, there are fixed rows of seats that accommodate the reluctance to dance that Vienna is known for. A few people venture to the area in front of the stage, but most of the audience obediently make a few sardine-like moves by their seats. No one is sitting down anymore, and yet nobody steps out of line.
I imagine the evening in a self-organised space. In a club. Where the previous formats would have promoted a different sense of community.
Institutional participation, fair pay for artistic work or budgets that enable material- and technology-intensive performances are necessary, but double-edged – for instance: Who is it that currently receives the “fair” fees? Don’t they inadvertently reinforce social injustices such as classism and/or racism? More visibility for everyone in institutions: yes. But what’s also needed in Vienna are more and, above all, rent-free spaces for self-organised cultural work. We, the artists, are getting older and accordingly need more financial protection and healthcare provision. Also, not everyone can or wants to continue living at night. But the struggles must always be fought in parallel.
In the end, Dornika’s performance manages to create a club-like atmosphere, after all.
Before the encore we all chant together: “Nobody fucking owns my body. Nobody, nobody, nobody!” Works amazingly well, even in Vienna. The bodies leave the room, which is filled with theatrical fog, moving noticeably relaxed towards visibility.
The festival has lived up to its claim, the fight for self-determined spaces continues.
Nicole Sabella is an artist, cultural scientist and cultural worker in Vienna. She is part of various collectives, including HEATHERS production, Radio Ironie Orchester and Mz*Baltazar’s Laboratory.