in Opinion | 29 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

On and Off Spaces

The project space COCO has closed its doors. What’s next for Vienna?

in Opinion | 29 MAY 12

Die / Der Würfel / Le dé (V) (The dice), Installation view, 2012 (Courtesy: COCO, Photograph: Markus Krottendorfer)

During a discussion about architecture at Vienna’s Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK) last January, the artist Marko Luli´c expressed an opinion often debated privately but rarely in public: Vienna wasn’t bombed enough during WWII. If one ignores the human cost of such an incendiary proposal, Luli´c was making an interesting point: the city hadn’t been able to realize a full-blown architectural modernity because there wasn’t enough space available for new buildings.

Perhaps the signature weird angles and patchwork façades in the work of Austrian architects – Hans Hollein, Günther Domenig, Coop Himmelb(l)au, the late Raimund Abraham – developed as a result of taking on commissions for buildings with small footprints and cramped airspace in central Vienna. Abraham’s sliver of a design for the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York is the most famous example of the skeletal scale and ideally expressive elements of a national style gone international. The cramping of styles – at least in Vienna’s city centre – has been exacerbated by an anachronistic adherence to the idea that no structures should be taller than St. Stephen’s Cathedral. New, tall architecture tends to have been built on the opposite bank of the Danube and evokes the cynical vernacular of central city powerbrokers who decry culture on the other side of the river as ‘Transdanubian’ (a byword for bad taste) and, therefore, unimportant.

Consequently, much of the city’s art is displayed in the 18th and 19th-century historicist style buildings which dominate the city. This solution goes for museums as well as commercial galleries. The lack of modern exhibition sites was one of the mo­tivating factors behind the establishment of the Museumsquartier (MQ) just over ten years ago. A high proportion of local audiences are now accustomed to the white cube expe­rience as delivered by Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MuMoK), the Leopold Museum and the Kunsthalle Wien, all inside MQ. These visitors are likely to miss the purity of that experience when stepping into the city’s commercial galleries and artist-run initiatives, which tend to be housed in converted shops, workshops, salons and apartments.

Rancourt/Yatsuk, The Switch, 2010, Performance (Courtesy: the artist & COCO, Photograph:

Of course, there are exceptions. One of the cleanest, whitest cubes belonged to the ‘off space’ (to use the Viennese parlance) COCO, which closed its doors at the end of March. Co-founders Severin Dünser and Christian Kobald – who parted on friendly terms – opened COCO in May 2009 in the heart of the first district with two vitrine-like cubes of approximately 100 square metres (in total) which were once used for retail. The two cubes faced each other across a pedestrian walkway and had plenty of scope for sly double-takes, dialectical aesthetics and enjambments. Moreover, they stayed lit after closing hours so one could easily stroll by and see the shows, although the enter­prise thrived on talks, screenings, performances and a bar located in a third space, right next to the smaller cube. The bar effectively underwrote proceedings but punished its founders with its success and constant need for attention. This productive coeval – making art and hanging out – connects COCO to a long line of alternative spaces established since the 1960s, from Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo to Martin Kippenberger’s Berlin office. The latest in central Vienna seems to be Ve.Sch (Verein für Raum und Form in der bildenden Kunst, or Association for Space and Form in the Visual Arts), which established itself as a late night drinking spot even as it morphed into a gallery space with a modest 50 square metres over two rooms. Beyond the centre, there’s Pro Choice run by the artists Will Benedict and Lucie Stahl (a space that relocated from the first district to the second late last year), and Saprophyt, which also produces Internet-based Saprophyt Radio.

Despite the bar’s success, one should not undersell the serious side of COCO’s programme, which introduced dozens of artists to Vienna and brought together generations of artists beyond the walls of the academy. Young artists tend to be thankful for spaces where they can exhibit and talk with senior artists on an equal footing. And artists from the former East Bloc have been grateful to do projects on a small scale but within the great community that marked the COCO programme; this generation faces financially straightened times, unlike the 1990s generation who was welcomed back into European networks with funding from the likes of the Open Society Foun­dations, Ars Baltica, KulturKontakt or the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Artists associated with the COCO programme, including the likes of Martin Hotter, Anna Zwingl and Liudvikas Buklys, have been noticed by Viennese institutions, foundations and galleries and have started projects. A set of artist-artist and artist-curator connections between Ghent, Vilnius, Vienna and Cologne has developed a particularly curious and productive geography. Hopefully, the artists hosted by COCO will remember its spirit and soon map another idiomatic ‘off-space’ onto Vienna’s cultural territory.