Art and an expanded museum concept

On 4 February 2000 Austria was shaken by a political earthquake. Wolfgang Schüssel, the new federal chancellor and head of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), formed a coalition with Jörg Haider's Freedom Party (FPÖ). In protest against the breaking of the taboo on the presence of extreme right-wing xenophobic parties in Europe, the EU-14 imposed sanctions, isolating the ÖVP/FPÖ government at the bilateral level. A cultural boycott was also imposed. In Austria, civil society went onto the streets with protests and demonstrations. In this critical political situation museum in progress and curator Cathrin Pichler launched an international artistic initiative.

Founded by Kathrin Messner and Josef Ortner, museum in progress is an independent private art association that since 1990 has provided a new space for exhibitions in various media and in the public sphere. Daily newspapers, magazines, billboards, television, information screens, building façades or the safety curtain in the Vienna State Opera have been used temporarily for media- and site-specific contemporary art. Outside the walls of the traditional White Cube, museum in progress is active in a wide-ranging social environment and is devoted to an avant-garde concept of art that includes other social systems besides the traditional artistic milieu. In this way it elaborates on the artistic concepts of the 1960s and 1970s, creating a virtual "museum of the twenty-first century" that grows in the public sphere like a social sculpture. Philosophy, science, politics and other aspects of social life are reflected in the contributions, which encourage socially relevant discussion on the basis of an expanded conception of art.

The initiative TransAct – Transnational Activities in the Cultural Field, a protest against the participation in government of an openly xenophobic party and at the same time a statement opposing cultural isolation, is very much a part of this concept. International artists, intellectuals and academics were asked to comment in an artistic or written form for a series to be published in the Austrian daily Der Standard. The result was a set of artistic, photographic and conceptual works, philosophical, sociological and literary essays, open letters or short political statements, by over 100 contributors, from double-page spreads to multiple small ads. Over the course of a year TransAct received some 70 interventions on the situation in Austria, making it the largest media series by museum in progress to date.

TransAct was highly acclaimed abroad and was presented in December 2000 at Manchester Metropolitan University and in June 2001 at a conference in the Louvre in Paris. In Austria itself the initiative threatened the very existence of the institution. The art association financed itself and its various art projects at this time through artpool, an "initiative for contemporary art" made up of ten companies committed to promoting the "independent development of contemporary artistic trends" and "public dialogue on art, business and the media". In the face of an independent art initiative that showed civil courage and reacted critically to social realities, the commitment to artistic freedom did not last very long. In the new political climate, it was not the right time for unequivocal opposition to the xenophobic tendencies of what was now a government party. Within a few weeks and months of the start of TransAct, six of the ten companies left artpool, claiming that the initiative was "not art" but "political agitation". In doing so they studiously overlooked the fact that museum in progress remained true to its enlarged museum concept and that TransAct in particularly was an artistic enterprise at the interface of art and life. Given the charged political situation, TransAct in fact demonstrated the socio-political potential of art in a public context more clearly than any other museum in progress project.

The disintegration of artpool was the bitter consequence of a development that had already begun earlier on. During the 1990s it had become increasingly difficult for independent art initiatives to obtain public funding. This was the result, among other things, of a mixture of pre-emptive obedience and fear by those in power of the forward right-wing populist opposition, which uninhibitedly and publicly militated against discerning creative forces and the "waste of taxpayers' money". In 1997 federal chancellor Viktor Klima from the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) removed the art agenda from the Ministry of Science and placed it under the direct responsibility of the Federal Chancellery. The fact that there was no longer a ministry of art was in itself more than a symbol. The reaction by museum in progress to the stealthy withdrawal by the public sector in 1998 was to set up artpool. Josef Ortner demonstrated an innovative talent for persuading leading companies of the utility of investing in noteworthy contemporary art projects. With the arrival of right-wing sentiments in the government in the year 2000, however, the political pressure became so great that this commitment by the private sector became impossible to maintain.

Today, ten years later, we are faced by a similar critical situation. Right-wing populists have long become socially acceptable in Austria and the rest of Europe. After Schüssel's "turnaround", the government is back in the hands of a grand SPÖ/ÖVP coalition. Even without its prominent figurehead Jörg Haider, the extreme right is once again in the ascendant and is leading the government by the nose, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. Exacerbated by the worldwide economic crisis, the situation for the art world is more precarious than ever. Ten years on, there are no grounds for celebration, nor is it the purpose of this publication to mark an anniversary. Its intention is more one of looking back critically and bridging the gap between then and now. Many of the artworks and theoretical texts published as part of the TransAct project are as relevant today as they were ten years ago.

This book is a facsimile compendium of all of the TransAct contributions. The texts are published in the original language, with English translations of all the non-English ones. Our thanks are due to everyone who has contributed to this series and to Der Standard, which made the project possible thanks to its belief in the idea of the museum in progress and the intelligent use of its resources. Special thanks are owed to the curator Cathrin Pichler, who has set up a high-calibre network, and to Christian Reder, who published this historical documentation in his Edition Transfer series.

This foreword was the subject of the last conversation by the author with Josef Ortner, who died unexpectedly and prematurely in March 2009. The concept artist, "artist entrepreneur" and founder of museum in progress was a critical mind and lateral thinker, a social spirit bubbling with ideas and innovative concepts that have enriched society. This book is dedicated to his inextinguishable determination.

(September 2009)