Curating as a Sociopolitical Act

The art initiative museum in progress was established in 1990 by Kathrin Messner and Josef Ortner as a response to considerations regarding the future of museums. It focused on the development of new types of presentation for contemporary art. Inspired by the ‘extended definition of art’ of Joseph Beuys, this private art association adapts and extends the museum concept and through its activities transforms public and media space into a ‘museum’ for its art projects. Without its own exhibition building, museum in progress thus operates outside traditional presentation formats. Instead it makes use of newspapers and magazines, billboards, building façades, concert halls or television as exhibition sites, reaching out in this way to a huge audience, including those unfamiliar with the world of art, in their everyday lives. museum in progress operates like a creative laboratory for innovative exhibition forms and transforms the interstices it uses for its activities into open spaces. As a ‘twenty-first century museum’ that is still ‘in progress’, its context-dependent and temporary art projects aim at the interface between art and live. The concept of the Viennese initiative therefore has an inherent social dimension.1

New projects are developed by the association or in cooperation with external curators. Cathrin Pichler’s ideas and interests fitted in perfectly with the exhibition concept of museum in progress, as the joint art projects demonstrate. In 1999 her Art & Science exhibition created a dialogue between art and science, which she saw as two essential ‘world discovery systems’ that ‘open up new ways of seeing reality’. She invited artists, art theoreticians and also prominent chemists, physicists, cybernetics engineers, typosophists, communication theory experts and philosophers to contribute their expertise to a transdisciplinary dialogue. The public discussion series was then presented by museum in progress in a condensed form as full-page illustrated items in the daily newspaper Der Standard.2

The collaboration with Cathrin Pichler culminated with the project TransAct in 2000, which arose as a reaction to the participation in government of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The fact that an extreme right-wing xenophobic party could enter the government made waves far beyond Austria’s borders. As a direct consequence, the other European Union Member States imposed sanctions, calling for a reduction of bilateral relations and diplomatic contacts with the Austrian government. Within this political context, Austria was also threatened with cultural isolation. To counter the possibility of a boycott of Austrian cultural life and as a sign of protest against the conservative/extreme right-wing coalition, Pichler and museum in progress wrote the following letter to international artists and, as with Art & Science, also to scientists and intellectuals:

Austrian intellectuals, scientists and artists distance themselves from the present government coalition with a radical right wing and racist party. They also appeal to all their colleagues and friends worldwide to actively support this protest. We request you to participate in our resistance and not to paralyse the Austrian artworld with an indiscriminate boycott. It is precisely the cultural sector that falls prey to xenophobe and anti-humanitarian policies by such acts of exclusion and isolation. We appeal to you to express your solidarity and support for our protest with a short statement.

The amount and diversity of the messages of solidarity were overwhelming and served as material for a large-scale exhibition series, which was also published in Der Standard. Over the course of a year, more than one hundred people contributed some seventy items in different formats (from small ads to works of two pages and more), which provided a platform for dialogue. The theoretical framework for this media art exhibition was formed by a wide-ranging series of texts, including political statements and open letters, as well as philosophical, sociological and literary essays, which shed light on the topic from different angles. The artworks were no less diverse, ranging from photographs to conceptual works, paintings, drawings and montages dealing with the political situation in Austria.3

With participants such as John Baldessari, Anna und Bernhard Blume, Christian Boltanski, Günter Brus, Chris Dercon, Leon Golub und Nancy Spero, Douglas Gordon, Alexander Kluge, Sylvère Lotringer, Oswald Oberhuber, Doron Rabinovici, Harald Szeemann, Slavoj Žižek and Heimo Zobernig, to mention but a few, the exhibition series attracted considerable attention and acclaim in Austria and other countries. It also naturally provoked opposition and was quickly disparaged as ‘political agitation’ that had nothing to do with art. In view of the new political balance of power, cooperating business partners increasingly saw their association with museum in progress and Der Standard as an embarrassment. While Der Standard was put under pressure, particularly by its advertisers, the very survival of museum in progress was soon jeopardised. The art pool founded in 1998 – a group of ten companies whose annual subsidies financed the art projects of museum in progress – gave in within weeks to the political pressure and was disbanded. Thanks to the commitment and civil courage of the participants, TransAct, curated by Cathrin Pichler, nevertheless continued in Der Standard and became one of the most extensive newspaper art projects in the history of art.

Only fifteen days elapsed between the inauguration of the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition on 4 February 2000 and the printing of the first TransAct contribution. The series opened with an artwork by Lawrence Weiner on 19 February 2000, coinciding with a massive demonstration against the government in which over 250,000 people took part. But even before, on 7 February 2000, museum in progress made an artistic intervention, also as a reaction to the political situation. The art project profil without words by Hans-Peter Feldmann was based on an unrealised concept by the artist from the 1970s: all of the texts, advertisements and non-photographic illustrations were removed from an issue of the magazine profil and the magazine reproduced with the same layout and the photos left in place. Through the publication of the regular issue at the same time as Feldmann’s version, which museum in progress offered at a reduced price, the two issues could be directly compared.4 The project profil without words examined what happens when words, as one of the two levels of communication, are missing and only visual information remains. The artistic deconstruction of the media pictorial dramaturgy and the relationship between words and images clearly demonstrates the way images can influence and manipulate perception. At the same time, unlike art images, media images are almost incapable on their own of conveying a specific identifiable message, making them appear interchangeable. The project profil without words was originally intended to appear later, but in view of the political events, museum in progress decided spontaneously and with the agreement of the artist and profil, to bring it forward. The exceptional situation in Austria, which was reflected in the magazine, gave Feldmann’s art project an additional sociopolitical relevance and made profil without words into an important document, also from a contemporary historical perspective.5

On 9 February 2000, very soon after Feldmann’s project, museum in progress published a work in Der Standard by Jimmie Durham, created by the artist, who was in Vienna at the time, in reaction to the heated political climate. His full-page contribution showed an unfinished drawing, which he proposed to complete five years later and with the proceeds from sale to support an ‘art initiative against the current political constellation in Austria’. In retrospect, Durham’s work is like a teaser for the subsequent media exhibition series. Although TransAct was only one of many initiatives opposing the government, it is notable for its international orientation, high quality and diversity, its scope, enduring presence and the combination of theoretical and artistic ideas.6

After the publication of the last contribution to TransAct on 17 January 2001 – a text by the French sociologist and social philosopher Pierre Bourdieu on ‘culture in danger’ – the series continued from February to November 2001 with the title TransAct 2 – Linguistic Fields, again with the curator Cathrin Pichler, together with Boris Manner. The group exhibition with over thirty contributors (including Heinrich Dunst, Harun Farocki, Jochen Gerz, Anselm Kiefer, Lisl Ponger) looked at everyday language, its use in public, its transposition to other areas and its interpretation. Photos, drawings, paintings and conceptual text works focused attention on existing language areas and established alternative symbolic systems. Whereas TransAct had included a number of political statements, the second part of the project had only one contribution of that nature, an open letter to Federal President Thomas Klestil, in which sixty-five international researchers and scientists criticised the verbal antisemitic attacks by Jörg Haider (FPÖ) and the inadequate political response to his inadmissible rhetoric. In the first part of the project, texts by Theo Steiner and Martin Prinzhorn had already dealt with manipulative language, which is a major contributing factor to the success of right-wing populists. In that connection, it was logical to focus in TransAct 2 on critical language and discourse analysis. In her curatorial text, Pichler referred repeatedly to Michel Foucault, who sees language as a vector and component of political power relations:

Language is exchange – communication. However, as a medium of socialisation, language reflects social power structures and relationships, making language a medium of power. Language figures as a precondition for the possibility of society, as an elementary constituent part of relationships and fields, in practise language is the medium and a part of power relationships and thereby part of a ‘political field’.7

Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP), whose political coup led to the government coalition with the FPÖ, made a remarkable comment as Federal Chancellor, in which he described words as secondary: ‘Please judge this government not by its words but by its actions.’ In the justified criticism that followed, it was repeatedly pointed out that words are also actions. TransAct 2 – Linguistic Fields analysed the public ‘action’ of everyday language, in which the artistic transfer of language into related and unrelated fields, such as sign language or pictorial language, resulted in the creation of a ‘new semantic field’ offering a more discriminating perception of everyday discourse.

The FPÖ remained in the Austrian federal government until 2006. At the provincial level it has ruled since 2015 in Upper Austria with the ÖVP and in Burgenland with the SPÖ. In the 2016 presidential election, its candidate Norbert Hofer was narrowly defeated. In December 2017 the ÖVP under Sebastian Kurz once again sought a coalition with the FPÖ – this time as its preferred partner following official coalition talks. The xenophobic right-wing policy of the current government has recently manifested itself again in dubious utterances. For example, FPÖ Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl said that refugees should be ‘concentrated in a single place’. The association with Nazi concentration camps comes immediately to mind, even if Kickl denied it.

The continuing relevance of TransAct goes far beyond Austrian politics. In the past few years there has been a marked rise in right-wing populism both inside and outside Europe – PiS in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary, AfD in Germany or, with dramatic international ramifications, President Donald Trump in the USA, who took office in January 2017. The communication strategies of the right-wing populists show great similarities and have been carried to extremes by Trump. Right-wing populism is a serious threat to democracy – and is something that affects us all. The art that Cathrin Pichler described as a ‘system for discovering the world’ can give food for thought, reveal and analyse social ills and provide new ways of perceiving reality. This concerns artists and curators alike. It is not possible to overestimate the sociopolitical potential of art exhibitions in the public and media space that reach out to a wide public.

Kaspar Mühlemann Hartl, 2018

(Published in: The Curator As ., ed. by Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein and Sabine Priglinger, Vienna: Schlebrügge.Editor 2018, pp. 27–32.)

1 For the museum in progress concept, see articles by Daniel Birnbaum/Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Robert Fleck, Ralph Ubl, Vitus Weh and others at
2 For further information, see the Art & Science project page:
3 Ten years after the project was launched, a wide-ranging publication on TransAct appeared containing all of the contributions and accompanying texts by Roman Berka, Oscar Bronner, Cathrin Pichler, Christian Reder, and a chronology by Gerfried Sperl, see: Cathrin Pichler, Roman Berka (Ed.): TransAct. Transnational Activities in the Cultural Field. Interventionen zur Lage in Österreich. museum in progress, Vienna, New York: Springer 2010 (Edition Transfer). The exhibition series is available online:
4 The price of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s art issue was set deliberately at just 230 schillings (around 17 euros) so as to achieve as wide a circulation as possible.
5 See the profil without words project page with a text by Brigitte Huck:
6 Christoph Schlingensief’s contribution on the Wiener Festwochen may be mentioned as a particularly effective and successful art project on the political situation in Austria. Entitling it Bitte liebt Österreich – Erste Österreichische Koalitionswoche, the artist set up a container village for twelve asylum seekers next to the State Opera from 9 to 16 June 2000, with a camera projection 24 hours a day on screens there and on the Internet. Every day, the public chose two asylum seekers to be ejected from the container and deported to their country of origin. The last remaining person would win money and the possibility of marriage to an Austrian. For futher information see: Kaspar Mühlemann, Christoph Schlingensief und seine Auseinandersetzung mit Joseph Beuys, Frankfurt a. M. et al.: Peter Lang 2011, p. 87–91 (European University Studies, series XXVII, vol. 439); Matthias Lilienthal, Claus Philipp, Schlingensiefs Ausländer raus. Bitte liebt Österreich. Dokumentation, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 2000; Paul Poet, Ausländer raus! Schlingensiefs Container, documentary, Germany 2002 (DVD, 90 min., Filmgalerie 451).
7 The project page contains Cathrin Pichler’s curatorial introductory text about the exhibition TransAct 2 – Linguistic Fields, see: