Give Me Space! Street Art in Vienna
Making street art a respected genre is not easy, say gallerist Nicholas Platzer and curator Sarah Musser
Adding colour to grey walls: Street art is gaining a better reputation in Vienna | Photo: Sandro Zanzinger
Nicholas Platzer invited ROA to Vienna to make this mural of birdlife | Photo: INOPERAbLE
Imagine an empty lot between two abandoned buildings. Now imagine it overgrown with scrub trees and weeds, perhaps a pile of old tyres and some scrap metal. There may even be the occasional group of adolescents smoking cigarettes out of the watchful eye of their parents.
Places like this exist in Vienna, whatever the tourist posters say. But for the past few years, local creatives have been engaging with government officials and cultural fora to turn once lifeless or run-down patches into integrated art spaces. Or at least that’s one approach in the ever-growing street art movement in Vienna.
The lot on Lazarettgasse, adjacent to Vienna’s General Hospital in the 9th District, was the first big win for Nicholas Platzer, a street artist and co-founder of the street art gallery INOPERAbLE. In this lot, the City of Vienna allowed INOPERAbLE and renowned Belgium-based artist ROA to create a mural that dominates the 23-metre-high side of a building.
It was a feat. After almost a year of negotiation with officials, Platzer and his crew were allowed to use the space. They invited ROA back to Vienna (after having exhibited at the gallery) to paint a fantastic high-contrast collage of local birdlife.
“In the past years, we’ve been behind other cities,” Platzer admits. “But now what we have as an advantage is that there isn’t overkill. In a city like Berlin or London, every wall is tagged; everyone you meet calls himself a street artist; it’s just about [being a part of] a ‘movement’, and it gets to be too much.”
Platzer pointed out that the pace at which street art in Vienna is developing is making it an art form that people shouldn’t fear, describing what he sees as a mixture of strong city ordinances and provinciality that tends to keep the city a few years behind the times.
“Not everybody is doing it all at once, so you don’t get overkill. We have the chance to take the time and build it up in a good way, as a respectable thing, rather than with hype, and have it be gone tomorrow.”
Using what we have
Platzer explained how he’s trying to push the city to allow artists to change more wasted spaces into inspiring ones, and has been faced with the challenge of turning conservative Viennese views of public art on their head by actively engaging with the City, local businesses and students, all of whom wouldn’t otherwise have an outlet into the street art scene.
“Our goal is to keep changing the image of the city,” Platzer said. “The MA 19, in charge of the City’s architecture and design, and the Antiquities and Monuments Office (Denkmalamt), are very friendly with us, and are very willing and open for this kind of stuff, as long as you don’t go and say ‘we want to paint the Stephansdom or the real tourist attractions’.”
He explained that as long as the art is manageable and doesn’t really change the classical image that the city has and loves, then there’s a lot of potential for cooperation. Platzer also sees street art as an opportunity to improve the image of the city and attract tourism.
“If you build up the reputation that there are a few cool walls to check out in the city, there will be people coming here,” Platzer said, but that “they skip over Vienna because they don’t know about this stuff happening here. But the ones that do come here end up loving it, and say it’s one of their favourite cities.”
While the street art scene has been expanding, from the legal tag spaces on the Danube Canal to the Street Art Passage Vienna behind the MuseumsQuartier, there are people who have different ideas of what it should be, and how to make it happen in Vienna.
Finding traditional spaces for urban art
“It’s one of the rarest art movements right now,” said Sarah Musser, the curator of the recent exhibition, Escape the Golden Cage, but explained that she’s promoting street and urban art in a different way, by putting on a non-traditional exhibition that includes side events like panel discussions and parties.
“Working with people who aren’t usually involved in the art scene or market makes it work,” Musser said, “like throwing a party with the Viennese pop-culture magazine, The Gap, to attract different types of people.”
In that sense, both Platzer and Musser are promoting street and urban art, only in different ways; either by legitimising it pedagogically and through government interaction, or by marketing it as a new form of art that should be adopted by and into traditional institutions.
For some artists however, this is a dilemma and raises questions of legitimacy. As an art form that was born in the street, traditional institutions such as museums and galleries take it out of its natural setting.
“There are a lot of people trying to bring street art up to that ‘Banksy level’,” Platzer said, referring to the England-based graffiti legend. “I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with that, as long as it’s done authentically and you try to work with the atmosphere.”
Platzer raised the idea of the Mona Lisa hanging in the street, rather than in a museum.
“The thing about museums and galleries is that it gives the art form credibility in a different sense. People would say: ‘Okay, what’s that? It’s (just) another painting’.” The museum gives art prestige, which he says is also important to give artists the kind of respect they deserve.
As the street art scene joins the top faction of art movements in Vienna, and as views about it continue to develop, expect to see more art in the streets and street art in both museums and galleries.
7., Burggasse 24
Tue.-Fri. 13:00-18:00, Sat. 13:00-17:00
For more a history of public street art in Vienna, see “Public Art Vienna: A History and Handbook” in TVR Jul/Aug 2012.