A Workshop for Culture and Peace

Turning 30, WUK is going strong as Vienna’s most prolific social and artistic stomping grounds with a history of citizen initiative

Squatters calling for “workshops and cultural centres for peace” in 1981 | Photos: WUK

If name recognition is a mark of success, WUK has made it. Hardly anyone knows its full name – Werkstätten- und Kulturhaus, or “workshop and cultural centre”. The parsimonious acronym is enough to call to mind sweltering rock gigs, the in-house bike workshop, and a welcoming atmosphere that stands as an example of social integration in Vienna.

On Oct. 3, WUK launched its weeklong birthday party of free theatre, exhibitions, and concerts, marking 30 years since its inauguration on the same day in 1981. Inspired by the motto “Und es wächst” (“And it’s growing”), over 2,000 guests gathered to express their admiration for the social engagement project. While many of them were young, most of the well-wishers were in their lives’ autumnal prime, having followed WUK’s changing fortunes since the beginning.

With now nine locations in Vienna, and an extended sister branch in Lower Austria, WUK welcomes over 200,000 visitors every year to its three organizational mainstays: cultural productions, consisting of theatre, music, visual arts, and a “Culture for Kids” programme; job training and counselling; and “WUK Autonomy”, providing meeting rooms and support to 130 autonomous groups such as Vienna’s Kurdish association (Kurdischer Verein), or Verein Virus, an advocacy group run by and for HIV positive people. As such, WUK is the city’s largest free, independent social and cultural centre, with a working space of 12,000 square metres.

 

Young radicals

The main site on Währingerstraße in the 9th District has seen great transformation: Owned by the municipality, the elegant, redbrick building was built in 1855 as a locomotive factory, accounting for its gaunt entrance gate and ivy-clad workshop yard. Soon after, however, it was converted into an engineering school.

But during the period of the Social Democratic Party’s (SPÖ) single rule in Austria, from 1970 to 1983, Vienna was undergoing dramatic changes. Young people staged recurrent protests, calling for a more democratic society and equal rights to the city: Municipal authorities’ plans to re-develop the Naschmarkt and re-locate the market to the periphery were thwarted by a citizens’ initiative. Similarly, after prolonged squatting, the Arena, a former factory in the 3rd District, was granted self-administration rights, as was the Amerlinghaus in the 7th District before it.

It was in this atmosphere that a group of activists dedicated to the “creation of open workshop and cultural houses” – or WUK, for short – set their eyes on the vacant factory yard, as the school for engineers had moved to a “modern” tower block. They confronted the city’s plans to convert the site into a training centre for General Motors by staging a “soft occupation” of the site. Cleaning up the derelict building, organising teach-ins, and carrying out social work in the district, the activists won over the sympathy of the locals – and eventually of the city government. In June 1981, the keys to the building were formally handed over to WUK’s representatives, and the now legendary opening party took place in October.

 

Institutionalisation 

Today, crowds fill the courtyard at WUK for concerts, exhibitions, flea markets and film screenings | Photo: WUK

Today, WUK – along with Arena and Amerlinghaus – is one of the few initiatives from the 80s that has survived. Certainly, this can be put down to the dedication of the people who have contributed to the centre’s activities over the years, initially with a vanishingly small budget of subsidies and donations. Even today, the ratio of volunteers to employees is 2:1, with sixty staff members on a regular payroll.

However, the breadth of WUK’s activities today surely wouldn’t be possible without city funding, making up the most part of the centre’s annual budget of €7 million. For example, the artist-in-residence studio and WUK’s annual performing arts festival “Kiosk 59” rely completely on municipal funding.

The question, of course, is whether this has meant a co-optation of WUK’s more combative side into a docile branch of the city’s social policy. Certainly, the one-time house occupiers have gained favour with the government: “Whenever I come to visit, I get a feeling of respect and solidarity,” Claudia Schmied, the SPÖ’s Minister of Culture, gushed at the anniversary celebration.

Similarly, Vienna’s secretary for culture, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, also SPÖ, said that the centre served as living proof that democracy and social solidarity go very well with “entrepreneurial swing”.

While this sounds like an advertising slogan for a social democratic party at ease with capitalism, WUK’s leadership is adamant about its continued independence and critical edge. “WUK isn’t controlled by party politics,” Vincent Abbrederis, the head of administration wrote in a letter to Falter on the occasion of WUK’s anniversary, “but acts autonomously, with a plan and a clear position against right-wing radicalism, xenophobia, and the exclusion of minorities, as well as questioning wrong social developments and deficiencies in cultural policy.”

Also, WUK’s chairman Rudi Bachmann took the opportunity to tell the event’s “guests of honour”, as he cheekily called the politicians present at the celebration, that government funding since 2008 has not been enough.

“Are we going to let this wonderful house tumble down?” he sighed. Urging the audience to remember a time when there were things worth fighting for, Bachmann recalled his institution’s past: Rough patches were meant to be overcome.

 

The personal is political

But expecting grand political designs from WUK is misguided. From the beginning, the organisation has stressed that politics starts in one’s immediate surroundings, with how others are treated and shared space is used. As such, accessibility to WUK facilities for people with disabilities is at the forefront of the centre’s current efforts.

While tight money has long hampered the redevelopment of the building’s tricky, industrial age terrain, the management proudly announced at the anniversary that its information office was now fully accessible. At WUK, then, political projects are taken, pragmatically, one step at a time.

Similarly, WUK’s education strand focuses on conveying the knowledge that a timid public school system omits, educating young people about domestic violence, drugs, sex and multiculturalism. The two-day workshop “Critical Diversity”, for example, invites participants to confront the challenges of working in groups with a mixed social and cultural make-up. Also, every Friday, WUK hosts a career counselling service.

Bachmann, the mastermind behind WUK since the very beginning, gave his speech seemingly with a heavy heart. It had been a bumpy ride until people actually started to change their perceptions of what they saw as an anarchist squat house. Though here too, the endorsement by the city authorities helped: Funds and legitimation from the public sector transformed WUK from a place for freaks and geeks into a professional working environment. Chaos turned into order.

Still, most of the people who have been around long enough to see the project through can hardly believe the reality of WUK’s progress. Back in the 80s, it was seen as little more than a handful of idealists’ attempt to “change the world”. But while most who start that way end up as disillusioned sceptics – perhaps gaining material wealth in the process – the WUK’s founders have remained true to their ideals, compromising them little in face of their municipal paymaster. They continue to work for nothing more than the personal satisfaction of having contributed to a more unified society.

And that, perhaps, is WUK’s most timely message.

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