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Issue 216

This Year’s Steirischer Herbst Switches Between Programmes

The Austrian art festival creatively rethinks ways of exhibition-making during a pandemic with a collection of commissioned TV shows

BY Louisa Elderton in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 12 NOV 20

Who would have thought that an exhibition which has interacted closely with its local audience since 1968 could reinvent itself successfully as an international media consortium? In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the curators of this year’s steirischer herbst developed PARANOIA TV – a website with commissioned television series, talk shows and games by more than 50 artists that address the current global angst and the major political issues that have defined the year.

Tamar Guimarães with Luisa Cavanagh and Rusi Millán Pastori, Soap, 2020
Tamar Guimarães with Luisa Cavanagh and Rusi Millán Pastori, Soap, 2020, video, film still. Courtesy: the artists

Take, for example, Tamar Guimarães’s telenovela Soap (all works 2020), which considers how to infiltrate the far right in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Over four episodes, we see a group of left-wing activists in the minutia of their domestic lives – smoothing on face cream, hugging a pillow at night – while arguing on social media about resistance and whether the left is dead. Given the prominent role of telenovelas in Brazilian culture, disseminating subversive leftism via these fictions is a valid proposition. Nonetheless, Soap pervades a mood of lost hope. The physical isolation of each character suggests, rather, an echo chamber in which the mobilization needed to undermine fascism and capitalism’s structural alliance is beyond reach.

The line between real life and fiction is also blurred in Lina Majdalanie and Rabih Mroué’s Second Look, a video series in which the artists mix historical photographs found in Berlin’s flea markets with personal memories and imaginings. In Episode 4, for instance, Mroué’s voice-over envisages the man in the pictures pleading to be saved from his vendor. While such make-believe reanimates the dead, we are left nonetheless with the sense that our true stories are forgotten upon death.

Rana Hamadeh, The Destiny Project / The Soft-Measure Fables, 2020
Rana Hamadeh, The Destiny Project / The Soft-Measure Fables, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Rana Hamadeh’s The Destiny Project / The Soft-Measure Fables shifts between myth and horror. In the artist’s animated adaptation of Sophocles’s classical tragedy, Oedipus Rex, undulating rusting spines, a giant marble ear, mechanical limbs and glossy skeletons are interspersed with 1990s-style video games; a haunting system that seems to march on, indeterminately, yet demarcated by corporeal terror. Less symbolic in its nod to the present climate, Neïl Beloufa and Bad Manners’ online game, Screen-Talk.com 1.9, positions two egocentric doctors trying to find a cure for a mysterious virus, a woman having a nervous breakdown in isolation and a heartbroken boy whose hand gives voice to his subconscious. As the gamer, you move through different levels, witnessing the world unravelling during a pandemic on a satirical search for medical stardom amidst neoliberalism.

Neïl Beloufa & Bad Manner, Screen-Talk.com 1.9, 2020
Neïl Beloufa & Bad Manner, Screen-Talk.com 1.9, 2020, online game. Courtesy: the artists

Installations in Graz itself include Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s sound work, A Convention of Tiny Movements – SPAR Central Train Station, which converts ambient noise detected by devices disguised as (and nestled among) packets of crisps and sweets on supermarket shelves into new sounds, revealing how objects can now listen to and surveil us. Elsewhere, printed in newspapers delivered with takeaway pizzas, Joanna Piotrowska’s Untitled taps into the solitude and loneliness we might feel when confined within our homes. Depicting a hand pressing into a woman’s face, the work also speaks to the urgent desire to touch in times of physical restraint.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, A Convention of Tiny Movements—EUROSPAR Sackstraße, 2020
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, A Convention of Tiny Movements—EUROSPAR Sackstraße, 2020, Installation, EUROSPAR at Kastner & Öhler, Graz. Courtesy: steirischer herbst, Graz; photograph: Mathias Völzke

With much of Europe going into a second lockdown at the time of writing, we are once more looking to artists to ease our quarantine. A quote in Ahmet Öğüt’s exquisite documentary, Artworks Made at Home, really resonated with me: ‘Artists also make visible unrecognized precarious forms of domestic labour and immaterial labour; in making them perceptible, [they] lay the groundwork for constructing a better world outside.’ By actively challenging the conditions we live in, artists encourage us to rethink the mechanisms that define our world. While its title is clearly tongue-in-cheek, PARANOIA TV brilliantly acknowledges today’s context with truthful intent and a pinch of derision.

steirischer herbst '20 was on view at various locations in Graz until 31 October 2020. PARANOIA TV is still on view online until 31 December 2020.

Main image: Igor Samolet, Cuddle Porn, 2020, installation view, Paranoia TV Headquarters, Graz. Courtesy: steirischer herbst; photograph Mathias Völzke


 Louisa Elderton is a Berlin-based writer and editor. She is currently the Managing Editor of ICI Berlin Press, and was formerly the Curatorial Editor at Gropius Bau and Editor-in-Chief of Side Magazine at Bergen Assembly.