Steirischer Herbst Festival | Grand Hotel Abyss

by John-Paul Pryor

Keti Chukhrov / Guram Matskhonashvili,  Global Congress of Post-Prostitution , 2019, performance, Orpheum Graz, photo: Mathias Völzke

Keti Chukhrov / Guram Matskhonashvili, Global Congress of Post-Prostitution, 2019, performance, Orpheum Graz, photo: Mathias Völzke

Grand Hotel Abyss is the latest iteration of the avant-garde Steirischer Herbst Festival, which boasts a unique lineage of disruptive art activations in the town of Graz, Austria. It was founded in 1968, as a reaction to the difficult history of the region as a post-WWII hideaway, where many of those of a National Socialist leaning who had fled Germany took positions in teaching institutions and governmental bodies. Over ensuing years, it has established itself as a fertile breeding ground for radical ideas, presenting conflicting works by international artists intended to provoke discourse. The 52nd edition of Steirischer Herbst continues this legacy, featuring artists as disparate as Elmgreen & Dragset, Michael Portnoy, Oscar Murillo, and Jeremy Deller, to name but a few, pulled together by the renowned Russian curator Ekaterina Degot, who has taken up the mantle for a five year run (this being her second year at the helm). 

Given the current far-right political mood of the region, Degot has seen fit to strike a metaphor with the original purpose of the festival this year, titling it Grand Hotel Abyss after the phrase employed by philosopher Georg Lukács in the 1930s to describe the European intellectual milieu in the face of approaching fascism. Grand Hotel Abyss explores an increasingly fractured global political landscape, presenting work that presents the myriad clashes at the heart of a turbulent political climate, suggesting that the hedonism of consumer capitalism in our contemporary era and the rising tide of crypto-nationalist tendencies has striking similarities to its 1930s forbear. 

Oscar Murillo,  social cataracts , 2019, installation, Palais Attems, Graz, photo: Liz Eve

Oscar Murillo, social cataracts, 2019, installation, Palais Attems, Graz, photo: Liz Eve

Overall, the festival presents a core of newly commissioned works by more than 40 artists, taking the form of installations, performances, experiential activations and panel discussions.  Against this backdrop, Jeremy Deller presents a film that explores the disinformation that has infected the British populace entitled Putin’s Happy, while American artist Michael Portnoy debuts his film Progressive Touch, a humorous and explicit take on taboo human intimacy. Here, the renowned curator and the two aforementioned contributing artists, talk to Flaunt about political control, individualism and the importance of employing irony as a tool of resistance.

Ekaterina Degot on the role of irony in artistic discourse and tackling the rise of populism head-on:

In Grand Hotel Abyss, we are referring to this culture that still exists of the hedonism of Habsburgian times and confronting it with current political controversies, and it is very important to make bold comparisons–we are in Austria, after all. I would permit myself to say that what seems dangerous to me at the moment is that intellectuals themselves are refraining from some kinds of comparisons. We are in a moment where you cannot compare something to something else because it might offend someone, or it might be too daring, or it may be also not true. Sure, it might not be true, but the comparison is an experiment, and as a result of that experiment, you might discover something important. There is a gloomy apocalyptical aspect to the Abyss element of this year’s festival, but don't forget The Grand Hotel aspect because that aspect is perhaps more important. The festival has a sense of humour, and we are presenting lots of parodies. To me, irony is actually an instrument we can use to resist propaganda, because by being ironic you create a distance–a perspective from which you can analyse and see how things function, not just believe them, or take them at face value. 

Michael Portnoy,  Progressive Touch: Series 1 , video still

Michael Portnoy, Progressive Touch: Series 1, video still

We believe in this force of a joke and fiction entirely, so we are not actually making direct statements. We are artists, after all. Personally, I cannot feel myself completely at home in this very young culture where everything is being stated so directly. I have lots of respect, of course, for young activists, but we are going in a different way at Grand Hotel Abyss because we are traditionalists. Steirischer Herbst has always had an important theatre component, and theatre means public statement and play–this is very important, but, at the same time, it’s still fiction, it's still not completely real. I’m far more interested in the political than ecological end of the world (laughs). I think that before the ecological end of the world happens, we will have a political end. 

Michael Portnoy on bringing the unlikely marriage of math-rock choreography and ethical porn to Grand Hotel Abyss:

I have a background as a comedian and I'm always searching for territories that seem humourless, and are kind of shouting out to be perverted or permutated, because I think innovation and humour share the same kind of mechanism. You’re basically taking the known, finding its formula, and permutating different variables until it either makes you laugh, or you have something progressive, or some new form of otherness. 

Jeremy Deller,  Putin's Happy , 2019, film, Künstlerhaus, Halle für Kunst & Medien, Graz, photo: Mathias Völzke

Jeremy Deller, Putin's Happy, 2019, film, Künstlerhaus, Halle für Kunst & Medien, Graz, photo: Mathias Völzke

My battle in Progressive Touch is a very specific one. It's about how to kind of improve–in quotes–the rhythms of togetherness. It's a very formal kind of investigation into intimacy. Progressive Touch deals with all kinds of gender and sexual politics, and, while I guess it’s quite shocking, I wanted to be very correct about it. We were very careful to be aware of the working conditions that are standard now in the ethical porn world–making sure that everyone is comfortable, and everyone gives their full consent. The only difference is that in the ethical porn world, it's about real pleasure for the people, but, in my case, I was actually kind of a pleasure killer, because sexual performances choreographed to math rock are so punishingly hard to remember. I just thought It would be interesting to see what happens if you're going to fuck in something like 17/4 time. Then, I like to go even further than that–so, you have very strange meters, but then, also, the tempo is sliding at different times. If you complicate the rhythm and the gesture of sexuality, you kind of make everything kind of baroque and absurd, and raise questions.

Jeremy Deller on his film Putin’s Happy, which explores the disinformation that fuels chaotic pro and anti-Brexit protests outside London’s Westminster:

You'd probably have to talk to people here about what they think of Putin’s Happy but Austria has had a big problem with the far right for years, a massive problem with it. So, I think that people in Austria are probably quite intrigued to see Britain descending into this sort of chaos, and it was precisely the chaotic nature among the protesters that was really shocking. The people who wanted to leave the EU, as you can see in the film, were really, really angry. I just couldn't believe the chaos of it, and its sort of cacophonous nature. It was just all over the place, because you had these two sides, and then you had all these other people, and voices coming in as well, such as the religious right and Extinction Rebellion–everyone just turned up because they knew people would be there. 

Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends,  no apocalypse not now , 2019, performance, photo: Mathias Völzke

Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends, no apocalypse not now, 2019, performance, photo: Mathias Völzke

I just never thought I'd see that level of chaos in Britain–maybe we were a bit naive thinking, well, it couldn't happen here, literally because the far right in Britain, on the whole, has been really badly organised, and sort of ramshackle, in the past. Clearly, though, I think a lot of people believed in far right-wing tropes, but realised it wasn't fashionable or okay to express them until the explosion of social media and well, fake news. Putin’s Happy is a big outpouring of frustrated beliefs from people who can't quite work out whom to blame for Britain not being the most powerful country in the world. They’re definitely nationalists. One of the phrases they use, ‘Believe In Britain’, is indicative of this sense among them all that Britain is amazing, and has been held back somehow. It's a sense of victimhood harking back to the war and the 1950s as being a better time, which, if you are to believe Primo Levi, is actually a feature of fascism. It’s like harking back to a golden era that has to be recreated, which certainly happened with the rise of Nazism. The strange thing is that there are people outside Westminster who are going on about all kinds of conspiracies, such as George Soros secretly running the world, and The Rothschilds, which have nothing to do with BREXIT. There is a 60-plus year old housewife from Somerset literally regurgitating all her information from Russia Today, which is just kind of insane.

Cibelle Cavalli Bastos,  Sonja Khalecallon’s Theirstories of the Retro-Future GoGo Show , 2019, performance, Congress Graz, photo: Mathias Völzke

Cibelle Cavalli Bastos, Sonja Khalecallon’s Theirstories of the Retro-Future GoGo Show, 2019, performance, Congress Graz, photo: Mathias Völzke