Staying Alive

A show in Graz, Austria, provokes reflections on diverse urban, subjective experiences of time.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : May 20, 2021

I travelled for approximately 10 hours from Bozen in Northern Italy to Graz, the capital of Austria’s Steiermark region only to ‘see’ an exhibition in the flesh. I crossed the Brenner Pass, the border between the two countries, on foot, then boarded the shuttle to Innsbruck, from where I would catch my final connection to Graz before returning to South Tyrol a day later by repeating the entire 10-hour sequence of transportational modes. “I hope it’s worth the schlep,” a colleague exclaimed during a video conference the day before my departure. Honestly, I was just excited to be able to legally move across borders, since, between August 2020 and February 2021, during which time my stay permit was being renewed, leaving Italy was an option I couldn’t access, pandemic regulations notwithstanding. I seized the opportunity to be vacant on a train, to immerse myself in the blur of landscape, to anticipate the arrival of my connections, listening in for linguistic cues alerting me to the appropriate platform, most importantly, the luxury of idle time to flit between reading, texting, crocheting, and gazing in awe at the unexpected wonder of sights like the Zell Am See, its crystal blue expanse suddenly flooding my field of vision.

The sparkling waters of the Zell Am See | Staying Alive | STIRworld
Coming upon Zell Am See on the train back from Graz Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

Wanderlust aside, I was seduced by the title of the show I was invited to see at Camera Austria, an institution housed within the alien-mothership-shaped Kunsthaus Graz, at Südtirolerplatz, in front of the River Mur. As I spent my many hours nursing friendships with loved ones back home in India, many of whom, like me, had been anxious about contending with the beginnings of the apocalyptic second wave, I thought about the vulnerable conditionality implicit in the title—If Time is Still Alive. What did it mean for anything to be still alive. What constituted the parameters of aliveness? And how could we, within such an extended moment of immense frailty and collective mourning, revisit and reconsider our conception of time?

“What first felt like a spatial shock—of social distancing, of the closure of spaces—now has the impact of a temporal shock,” wrote Urban Subjects, the show’s curators, a Vancouver and Austria-based artistic-poetic collective comprising Sabine Bitter, Jeff Derksen, and Helmut Weber. How does such a temporal shock get registered upon the still alive body? Experientially it manifests as a frustration with being unable to make plans, and the subsequent feeling of having no agency over one’s own time. Being forced to shelter in place for one’s own well-being as well as for the greater multitude compelled many of us to rethink the notion of what constituted safety, especially when for so many women, queer, and trans people, home is a dangerous minefield. The inability to plan or to step out ensures the dissolution of the boundaries between one day and the next, while the thresholds between public and private and work and leisure collapse and collide. The initial feeling of relief at the prospect of suddenly ‘having time’ morphed quickly enough into despair at having to censor one’s usual life-sustaining intimacies.

The sparkling waters of the Zell Am See | Staying Alive | STIRworld
School of Temporalities, How is Public Time? Image: Courtesy of School of Temporalities; Camera Austria

The School of Temporalities, comprising artists Annette Krauss, Maja Bekan and Julia Wieger, used their time to stage a series of conversations with 12 female Graz residents, from tram drivers to gardeners and curators, and displayed catalogued excerpts from this archive on the walls of Camera Austria. I was struck by a dialogue between Krauss and Bitter, one of the show’s curators, that emerged from a conversation held between the first and second lockdowns in Austria. When asked about how the experience was for her, Bitter responds, “It was frightening. But it was also a time with optimism... at least in the beginning... and then it faded away. If the state of exception goes on too long you lose interest”. Without the distractions that are bound to our encounter with the quotidian, many people, particularly women, were saddled with thoughts about the quality of their lives. Aged populations across continents, but especially those living in retirement homes, recorded spells of depression, loneliness, and possibly also skin hunger. If time was still alive, how was it being activated?

I was grateful to have been offered the mind space to dwell on some of these complexities, especially because my experience of the last year has been shaped by bureaucratic forces outside my control and defined by the immense generosity of my partner’s family. After having struggled for almost a decade trying to hold myself emotionally and professionally as a writer and art critic, I was suddenly receiving the financial support I never had. I was able to save my income since I wasn’t paying rent and I was living in what is possibly one of the most beautiful regions in the world. After the last five winters in smog-choked Delhi, where the air was so toxic that wearing a mask at an outdoor picnic had become our normal, I was now breathing clean air. I didn’t need to ‘buy’ drinking water. What came out of a tap or a fountain was totally potable. A few disturbing and troubling racist interactions aside, I was relatively out of harm’s way. Not having to worry about casual daily molestations and street harassment or whether I was dressed in a way that didn’t attract more attention, I found I had more mind space to think, to assess my feelings and emotions, to be able to articulate them to myself. Was I finally living ‘the good life’?

Amanda Strong’s stop-motion-animation film explored indigenous loss | Camera Austria| STIRworld
Amanda Strong, still from Biidaabad (The Dawn Comes), based on three stories from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, 2018 Image: Amanda Strong, Courtesy of Camera Austria

The question mattered because the show was premised within the Graz Culture Year 2020 (Graz Kulturjahr 2020) under the rubric, The City & The Good Life. The curators themselves were interested in thinking along such investigative lines of enquiry. In their statement, they ask: “Is there an opportunity for public time to fulfil the promises of public space that have been blocked by design, by financialisation, by privatisation and its hybrids, by policing, by surveillance, and by the imperative of consumption? Can the right to space, the right to the city, be reimagined as the right to time? Can the right to a good life also be the right to image and live a different rhythm, a different time?’ Many of these provocations found voice in the film Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes), a 2018 film by Michif interdisciplinary artist, Amanda Strong, based on short stories by the indigenous writer, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a scholar who uses Nishnaabeg intellectual practices and is an off-reserve band member of the Alderville First Nation and lives in Peterborough, Ontario. The moving stop-motion animated film tells the story of Biidaaban, a non-gender conforming Anishinaabe youth, and their 10,000-year-old friend, Sabe, who must resort to ‘trespassing’ gentrified suburban neighbourhoods in order to harvest the sap of maple trees to make sugar, thus laying bare the violence of settler colonialism that has relied on the displacement of indigenous communities, tasking them, frequently, with the onus of having to prove their ancestral claims within legal frameworks that do not account for their systems of place-based consciousness. I watched the film soon after having been introduced to the work of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective, based in Philadelphia, a collaboration project between Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) and Rasheedah Phillips. Having recently re-explored Adrian Piper’s 1971 performance in a New York loft in which the mirror performs the role of validating her female body’s selfhood in moments she felt swallowed by her immersion into Kantian philosophy, I was more persuasively drawn to their 2017 film Time Travel Experiments. In it, a voice over instructs the listener to encounter the theoretic crux of Black quantum futurism through performative embodiment, by placing two mirrors next to each other and poising one’s body in front of it while repeating the words, ‘Who am I, where have I been’ over and over, ‘until you no longer recognise the words.’ “If you take each reflection to your left as the past, and reflections to your right as the future and use each reflection to signify one day, you can see yourself yesterday and yourself tomorrow, or as far ahead or behind as you wish. Your images in the mirror should morph, the further back or forward you look. To conclude the exercise, count backwards from 10. When you get to one, you will be fully back in the present.”

Suggestions for time-traveling | Camera Austria | STIRworld
Black Quantum Futurism Collective, still from Time Travel Experiments Image: Courtesy of Black Quantum Futurism Collective; Camera Austria

Right behind this work lay several full-bleed spreads from Crip, a magazine founded and self-published by the artist Eva Egermann that furthers queer and disabled subjectivities. “Looking for Time Travelers!” read one such poster-page, inviting prospective applicants to participate in a Utopia meeting. ‘What possibilities lie beyond normative-linear notions of time and biopolitical time regimes? Along with the ruptures and multitudes in the present time (present scope of action), we are also interested in transhistorical and futuristic actions,’ read the open-call. I immersed myself in the two editions of the brilliant magazine, available online, as I settled into my seat on the train that would return me from Graz to Innsbruck.

Had the trip been worth it?

The cover of Crip Magazine | Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
Reading issue three of Crip Magazine on my train back to Innsbruck Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

I thought of my conversation with Helmet Weber, one of the curators, and his enthusiasm in telling me how one aspect of the curatorial intervention was to blow up a photograph they had made of a quote by Marx, then have it along with its mirror image woven onto cloth, using a Jacquard technique to produce the curtains and sheets that were spread over the foam seating that occupied the gallery. Through this anecdote, Weber was also reminding me that this ‘show’ was not so much an exhibition as much as it was an extension of several conversations generated by their explorations of the core idea (The City and The Good Life), many of which were cut short because of the pandemic. “At the end of one hour’s spinning, that act is represented by a definite quantity of yarn; in other words, a definite quantity of labour, namely that of one hour, has become embodied in the cotton”. Weber told me the curators wanted to speak about that moment in our past when time got commodified within capitalism. I had to think again of what I call Penelope Time, an embodied process of making and unmaking only to remake in an attempt to have self-agency, or, as Adriana Cavaro suggests, to belong to oneself within the domestic.

View of the artworks at Camera Austria | Markus Krottendorfer | STIRworld
If Time is Still Alive, installation view, Camera Austria Image: Markus Krottendorfer

What I enjoyed most about the show was how it wasn’t concerned with objects so much as ideas, how they travel through time, how they are received and heard and transform across futurities, a notion beautifully manifest in Ultra-red’s political sound piece, What is the sound of the good life? Which asks listeners to record on chart paper their interpretation of whatever they hear transmitted by the overhead speaker. I photographed my response to one of the first four sound pieces: “Objects being stacked or arranged or moved. Or a large train. Motorised sounds with the flipping of pages, some intentional, some accidental. Before, a woman explaining a vision of two lives, she is not sure if they can be compared.”

The exhibition If Time Is Still Alive: The City & The Good Life is on display at Camera Austria, Graz, Austria, till May 23, 2021.

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