Academic journal article About Performance

Performing Memory on the Streets of Vienna

Academic journal article About Performance

Performing Memory on the Streets of Vienna

Article excerpt


The Vienna Project is a new social action memorial project taking place on the streets of Vienna as I write, beginning in October 2013 and concluding in October 2014. Developed as durational performance, and performance art linked to demonstrating social agency, The Vienna Project aims to disrupt passive habits of remembrance by inviting audiences to actively engage with memory through a series of public interventions. Joining collaboration with a participatory model of engagement, The Vienna Project's memorial content is co-produced by a mix of historians, researchers, artists, students, educators, and technologists, as well as the general public. Developed as a collaborative enterprise, The Vienna Project elicits multiple perspectives of remembrance that are reflective of a city still coming to terms with the past, seventy-five years after the crimes of the Holocaust were committed.

Activities of remembrance are central to the project's overall design. Opening events took place three days before Austria's National Day, communicating the message that national identity must include ideas about personal and collective memory: "memory is constitutive of who we are [...]. We rely on memories to orient our understandings of the present. Collective memories, or social memories, are connective tissues" (Hite 2012, 1). "There is a powerful dynamic between our memories and our identities" (2). The project axiom "What happens when we forget to remember?" conveys multiple ideas, but accentuates the point that there are important social, cultural, and ethical consequences to forgetting a nation's history.

The Vienna Project also tackles ideas about resistance to memory. Initially, the project was conceived on the premise that Austrians were disinterested in memorialisation. As artistic director of the project, I grew to appreciate over time that many different attitudes about memory currently exist in a country that once proclaimed to be "Hitler's first victim." Gradually, concepts about activism as a protest against forgetting were supplanted by ideas about activism as a social medium, engaging the public through dialogue. Using performance art and installation art to manifest memory in public spaces, The Vienna Project is dedicated to promoting a personal relationship to the past, moving public discourse toward a cultural transformation that integrates the past with the present.

Mixing the personal with the public, this essay considers parallels between an artist (myself) and a nation, searching for reconciliation with the past. The artist, guided by the pursuit of memory and voice, is preoccupied with unraveling family history. The nation, guided by the pursuit of public memory and social consciousness, is engaged in the construction of a national narrative. The convergence of these two distinct yet intersecting paths, buried under years of silence, occurs through a prolonged series of negotiations surrounding the precarious implementation of The Vienna Project.

History, Memory, and Activism

As a dual citizen of the United States and Austria, I found that ideas about freedom and activism in these two countries have decidedly different trajectories. In the United States, many might claim that the country was founded on activist principles, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776 as the foundation for a new democracy. Austria's rise to democracy was more recent, impeded by a history of monarchies and a repressive fascist dictatorship. The first democratic constitution was passed in 1920 under the First Republic of Austria, adopted again in 1945 under the Second Republic of Austria, and fully realised in 1955 under the Moscow Agreement, when Austria became a sovereign state (Rathkolb 2010, 8 and 168; Botz 2006,197).

While broad concepts of freedom and self-determination wedded to ideas about social justice are generally associated with ideas about activism, contemporary images of art activism in the public sphere are likely to take many forms. …

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