Paranoia TV, Sujet: Grupa Ee

Steirischer herbst has been held annually in Graz, Austria since 1968 and is one of the oldest festivals for contemporary art in Europe. Like numerous other biennials and festivals, the 2020 edition faced serious programming challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike many other exhibitions and events that were cancelled, postponed or streamed online, artistic director Ekaterina Degot and her team created a format in spite of lockdown measures and restrictions.

The latest edition centers on an experimental programme entitled Paranoia TV. Developed as a TV-compatible format, it featured newly commissioned works specially conceived for the medium including films and TV series, online games or news and talk shows, which could be viewed on or via an app. Paranoia TV focuses thematically on the feelings of fear and uncertainty triggered by the pandemic. At a time when news programming provides the window to the world and streaming services the distraction from that very world, Paranoia TV explores these popular media and their discourses. In line with the etymological meaning of paranoia, the curatorial-artistic dimension casts doubt on the desire for normality, necessarily confronting its audience with the question: what is the normal state we actually want to return to?

Opening speech by director Ekaterina Degot, displayed on screens throughout the city center, Graz, Photo: Johanna Lamprecht

The opening speech is symptomatic of this stance: on 24 September 2020 around 5pm, Degot speaks to a group of people who have gathered socially distanced in front of the Orpheum theatre in Graz. At the same time her speech appears on 99 screens in shop windows and displays throughout the city centre and is also viewable online. Throughout the crisis, Degot says, we are all synchronised. The speech itself reveals just how synchronous and equally asynchronous the pandemic is for each of us: the transmission is not a livestream but a modified version claiming to be the authentic one.

Clemens von Wedemeyer also examines the relationship between normality and crisis in his film Emergency Drill Revisited. Depicted is a meticulously planned rescue operation simulating the capsizing of a ferry. During the disaster control exercise, the emergency is rehearsed according to plan until it is devoid of any human emotion. But what parameters can be used to reliably predict the state of emergency? And to what extent have we already run through the current crisis in our minds?

Clemens von Wedemeyer, Emergency Drill Revisited (2020), Video, Film still: Courtesy of the artist

The ten episodes of the series Second Look sketch out a completely different understanding of reality. Lina Majdalanie and Rabih Mroué carefully reflect on photos of strangers they have collected at flea markets. In examining the collection more deeply, arrangements of people and eras emerge, allowing the images to take on a secondary existence as fact and fiction are seamlessly merged. How valid is reality when its montage is so much more poetic?

While it would be easy to imagine the works of Majdalanie and Mroué and Von Wedemeyer in an exhibition space, Paranoia TV offers the best possible setting for daring formats like Ingo Niermann’s Deutsch Süd-Ost. The novel, broadcast in 25 episodes and narrated by Mavie Hörbiger, recounts the ‘last bastion of white men’ and their bizarre life trajectories, which bear obvious resemblances to real-life personalities of the New Right, Reichsbürger, controversial artists and intellectuals. What kind of reality are we actually living in?

Unlike previous editions, Paranoia TV does not take place in the exhibition space or on stage, but on our screens. This seemingly simple fact results in a completely different experience given that personal screens, in contrast to exhibition formats, are somewhat limited as aesthetic configurations and are much more anchored to the logic of the medium and how it is used. Steirischer herbst responds to this with a strong curatorial framework that itself appears performative and situates the artistic contributions within a fictitious media consortium that also provides a meaningful context for the discursive and educational programme as well as the editorial contributions. This can be viewed critically, but it also allows the programme to be perceived not simply as a transmission in virtual space but as contemporary art in an independent format.

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Photo Booth (2020), Installation, Am Eisernen Tor, Graz, Photo: Mathias Völzke

In addition to the digital programme, which can be accessed anywhere and at any time, a second part of the programme unfolds in Graz. While it can be assumed that Paranoia TV has been watched intentionally, the works on site are also directed at people who encounter them by chance. Anchored in everyday life and public space, or produced in large editions, specific connections have been created here to facilitate their reception. The adult colouring book Lucy is Sick by Roee Rosen is an account of its protagonist’s experience with bone cancer, his welfare and vulnerability, the slow and rapid passage of time, and is distributed in a hospital ward. Joanna Piotrowska’s staged photographs of self-made shelters and gestures of self-defence suggest violence and resistance within the four walls of one’s own home. Printed as a newspaper, they are inserted into pizza adverts and find their way into living rooms with the delivery service. Photo Boot, an installation at the Iron Gates of the former city wall, connects the person inside the passport photo machine to the world at large. The photo strip shows not only the expected portrait, but also street views from Berlin and Lagos taken by Akinbode Akinbiyi.

Whether online or offline, all works have one thing in common: no exhibition space is required. What they do need, however, are institutions that promote their unfolding. This is precisely where steirischer herbst comes in, initiating an artistic production and perception that ensures continuity in what is in many ways a precarious and uncertain time. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition uncoupled itself from the idea of a common location and instead found a variety of ways to grant the works their presence amidst the intrusions of everyday life. Behind this is probably the most basic definition of exhibitions: presenting artworks in a place suitable for public viewing.

steirischer herbst 
24. September–18. Oktober 2020
verschiedene Orte, Graz

Der Artikel erschien in: Museological Review, 25/2021