NEWSTALGIA – On he Austrian Cultural Forum’s memorial year programme embracing a contemporary take on commemorating the past 100 years.

  • 01.10.2018

Blame the malleable nature of our brains. The things we consume have a way of nestling into the cervices of our neural cortex for a long haul. Regardless of how curiously or how innocuously we absorb information, it shapes our experiences and memories, and therefore our identities. It is that subjective nature of history, accumulated information, that grows not only in my brain, but also in my newsfeed.

The way in which societies have shaped their past, in monuments and other public anchoring points of a so called cultural heritage, says in fact more about them than about history itself. It says even more about their nostalgia: their relation to the irreversibility of time, a state of being “homesick”, or a wistful, sentimental yearning for the return to a past. We live in a time of an interregnum, in which the old is dying, and the new cannot be born, as Antonio Gramsci would have put it.

The persistent nostalgic longing for a past is also a longing for a place; meaning nostalgia can be utopia in reverse. As part of a much broader discourse about memory and trauma, genocide and war, a strange obsession with ruins developed in the countries of the northern transatlantic over the past few decades. That cult of ruins has accompanied western modernity since the eighteenth century. In the body of the ruin the past is both present in its residues and at the same time no longer accessible, making the ruin an especially powerful trigger for nostalgia. The contemporary obsession with ruins, often concealed by glossy faux-authentic hipster aesthetic, hides nostalgia for an earlier time that has not yet lost its power.

The yearning for a crisis reveals how problematic Europe’s present and past is, filled with imperial pride, racial purity, class collaboration and the fact that populist parties behave like the walking dead, trying to get back to the future.

Whether we are voracious consumers of morning news or not, the top stories will reach us in early waking hours. All screens in our surroundings, and most likely the one we know best, display the harbingers of the new that should matter to us. Perhaps the complex threads and unrelenting updates of a shared world, which are telling us that urgencies are endless, leave us cold by now, because our already oversaturated mind is trying to restlessly sort our to-do lists priorities.

Whilst setting these is difficult enough, the quest for copious content supply (filled with 100 years of history) allows the exhibition to encompass snapshots of contradictions. Depicting the oscillation of societies’ stuckness and transitory states, makes individual sentiments plausible. Together they make up a feeling of Newstalgia.

The exhibition illustrated here and installed at the Austrian Cultural Forum in London questions the aftermath of political and aesthetic choices made in the sphere of public representation. It comprises memories and artworks that celebrate these snapshots. Newstalgia evinces remembered and forgotten history, departing from the fall of European empires, and flowing into a reflection on Europe’s current status quo. It ponders on and poeticizes the facts, causes and consequences thereof. Deliberate notions of fighting the polarization of society thus are presented here in a selection of artworks that turn their back on nationalist aesthetics, offering a junction between melancholy and humour, emotion and reason, longing for a window through which to see and understand a present.

These references are lined up on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy. Here, between commemoration’s many shades of melancholy and cheerfulness, Catrin Bolt portrays herself embracing statues, performing contextual, historical and architectural complexities that characterize Austrian commemorative places. Charlie Billingham’s grotesque caricatures imply a similar eroticism as Bolt in the act of witnessing. A dialogue seems improbable solely due to human inadequacies. It is as if the men who belong to European society of the fashionable 18th or 19th centuries’ lament the end of their era.

The sweet- and heaviness of monumental melancholy is casted into fragments by Elisabeth Molin. Edible notions of gone by times are furthering (tooth) decay in order to balance out the weight of gone by times.

The illegible emotional state of Club Fortuna, a group of artists including Xenia Lesniewski, Julia Rublow and Sarah Sternat, is adorned with a substantial cynicism when they address pain control. Their formula, or therapy, has roots far back to the 19th century, as they quote the discovery of chloroform and the formation of symbolism, to only name a few reference. It is reminiscent of a cheap fashion magazine’s horoscope page and the waiting room of a regular psychiatrist’s office.

As only personal memories can regulate our perspective towards the 20th century’s failures, without repeating our ancestor’s mantras, Omri Livne found a way to transcend time and space between Jerusalem and Vienna; Eduard Freudmann stays with the contradictions built around and underneath the Josef Weinheber monument on Vienna’s Schillerplatz. Continuing his exploration of the relationship between comedy and tragedy within contemporary popular culture, Guy Oliver uses peculiar television and printed matter footage to chase (sur-)real connections between visual culture and mainstream politics. Whilst ZOLLAMT interferes in monotone bureaucracy and subversively breaks its rituals, Kate Mackeson does so in re-forming everyday objects into flammable solid substances, which can provide light if people take action. Markus Riedler observes behaviours in order to flesh out the intervals of conscious existence and Lara Verena Bellenghi’s works are logical consequences of histories, reflected in individual cases. Attention to both the famous and the less apparent characterize a fundamental interest in bringing to light what for reasons not always clear is obscured. Stories too often dimmed herewith find their occasional turns in general discourse.

As 2018 turned into a year of notorious political and historical flashbacks, let us make a brief reality check. Nationalism, racism and new fascism are the rising political and aesthetic rhetoric that we are forced to face daily in the news, while ‚alternative facts’ overshadow the possibilities for meaningful political dialogue. So what are the tools at citizens’ disposal, with which to activate collective memory and sensibility and respond actively to our civic duties and social awareness?

Trending images in arts and politics circle around this question. Innovation in culture has come to mean re-evaluation of existing values in what has essentially become an economic operation. But none of those values provide a satisfactory answer to the

questions of fear, anxieties, worries, agitation, hopes and behaviours in the public realm. Even how politics itself is designed, speaks volumes. From the uncanny graphic similarities of Brexit’s both Stronger-In and Vote Leave campaigns to the new London transport-police anti-terror campaign 'See it. Say it. Sorted”, which has similarities to images of Jewish persecution, alarms us to how difference is viewed with suspicion. We could come to the conclusion that, apart from its controversies, collective responsibility can only function through honest contact and sincere interaction with other peoples’ struggles and urgencies.

All these thoughts come back to the reflections this street newspaper is based upon: associating the decline of artistic pathos with ostentatious loveliness and insidious harshness, through which institutional critique couldn't get any bolder, but also not much closer to the center of the erosion of a system which subscribes values to artworks regarding their relationship to a certain political and, more importantly, social status quo. The contradictions that emerge through the intertwining of precarity and ideals are themselves the engine of a model in which resistance and work come together to foster a discourse that, in spite of its symbolic production, aims to be present with a real impact on the streets. This is what the third issue of "Arts of the Working Class“ aims at as a companion of the exhibition: to refer to the present continuous that can only be dealt with when we look (-) up.