Fear and Loathing at the Wiener Festwochen

This year’s Wiener Festwochen deliver soothing magic for a world on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

What compels some of us to seek out provocative live entertainment, while others prefer a couch potato streaming binge? What do we gain from venturing out of our comfort zone to unravel mysterious dance performances or confront the carnival clowns of our nightmares?

These thoughts and more come to mind when previewing this year’s five-week-long Wiener Festwochen (WFW), which lifts spirits jaded by a long Vienna winter with a crowd-pleasing, “something for everyone” panoply of bombastic spectacle, minimalist brain food, and Zeitgeist-heavy, barrier-breaking crossovers. Festival director Tomas Zierhofer-Kin’s foreword shows both his concern that the Wiener Festwochen should reflect the present tumultuous state of the world, and his firm belief in the “magical,” transformative power of art: “Art is a mirror that allows us to develop utopias; it gives the necessary courage to spiritually and emotionally discard long-established norms … to not only dream of a new, different world.”

A Phantasmagoria of Fear

Very much of this current world is the Phobiarama ghost train installation from the Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven. Adapted for each venue, the Vienna iteration creates “a fairground ride through the Austrian media landscape.” Verhoeven is fascinated by how constant fear signals affect the way we shape society, and might even be reprogramming our brains: “Marketeers, politicians and terrorists; they all know how to address these amygdalae flawlessly and put us in a state of confusion,” warns the artist. For him, imaginary bogeymen are no match for the ones hogging our daily newsfeeds. “It’s not only terrorists who know how to scare us, also the ones who warn us about these terrorists, and the ones who warn us about the ones who warn us,” ad infinitum.

Themes of magic and fear flow through several premieres from world-renowned artists and a satisfying variety of theater, performance, visual art, music and film, increasingly accessible to Vienna’s growing non-German-native residents. ∑(No,12k, Lg,18Wfw) New Order + Liam Gillick: So it goes.., features reworked classics by the iconic ’80s band New Order, Joy Division influences, fabulous projections by artist Liam Gillick and a 12-piece synth orchestra directed by Mancunian Joe Duddell; In 10000 Gestes, 23 dancers from the Musée de la danse perform a Hieronymus Bosch-like tapestry of perpetual motion, described by the choreographer Boris Charmatz as “like seeing your whole life flash before your inner eye at the moment of death;” Paul McCarthy premieres a clip from CSSC/DADDA VIENNA EDIT, a parody of the classic John Ford western Stagecoach (1939) which the artist describes as a “fractured pair paired parody of stages of violence and fascistic takeover of the American land mass mass.” Expect to be as disoriented as the stuttering text suggests.

Vienna is Burning

Gender freedom is given a nod by the crossdressing, Sartre-influenced staging of Euripides’ Trojan Women with Ong Keng Sen directing the National Changgeuk Company of the National Theater of Korea, featuring a contemporary score by Jung Jae-il. At the festival’s youth-oriented Hyperreality series of electronic music and cool visuals, it’s back to the ’80s with vogue dancers from MikeQ (Qween Beat Re-cords, NYC). Other nights present the political “infiltration” of the pop singer Kelela, the Venezuelan musician Arca (who worked with Björk and Kanye West), as well as Fauna, a Vienna-based Iranian artist who will present her new album with a large orchestra.

Our current political crises are processed both directly and satirically: Tanya Tagaq, a celebrated singer with Inuit roots who has worked with Björk, Mike Patton and the Kronos Quartet, will present music from her album Retribution – a passionate indictment of our violent and destructive world, and “an electrifying, loud manifesto of women’s rights and respect for indigenous cultures.” On a more comedic note, her fellow Canadians Joe Cobden, cartoonist Josh “Socalled” Dolgin and funk legend Fred Wesley are performing The 2nd Season, a follow up to their family-friendly, anarchic anti-capitalist puppet musical The Season.

As always with the Festwochen, book early, but don’t despair if you miss out – the WFW offers plenty of free performances, too. There are the Deep Fridays, long nights of performances, concerts, interventions and audiovisual art in the Gösserhallen; or the presentations of artworks, performances, films, workshops and discussions at the Hauptbücherei as part of Archipelago. Insel des unvorhersehbaren Denkens (Archipelago. Island of Unpredictable Thinking); and, of course, the ever-popular grand opening performance at the Rathausplatz, open to one and all.

Travel can be both wonderfully mind-expanding, or a disaster-filled road trip that forever tattoos our fears and prejudices directly into our DNA. For anyone who prefers the familiarity of home to the uncertainties of what lurks beyond our borders, the annual Wiener Festwochen is the ideal staycation, satisfying those who believe the clowns have taken over the circus, and those who still believe in magic. It’s a grand tour of our vast globe and its many indigenous populations, their beliefs, dreams, desires and fears. Shaken, scored and brought directly to you.

May 11-Jun 17, various locations. festwochen.at

Andrew Standen-Raz
Andrew Standen-Raz
Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app

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