Read an interview about the emerging art scene in Vienna with artists Christian Bazant-Hegemark and Alexander Felch, two of the team behind mo.ë, an artist-run space with a very extensive program of contemporary art exhibitions, concerts, and more.
How did the project start?
Christian Bazant-Hegemark: mo.ë was founded in 2010 by graduates of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna who were brought together by Hannah Menne. It is a space intended to enable a wide range of art processes, from production to exhibition, experiment to archive. In the first year there was a big group of twenty people, so everything tended to be chaotic – but also extremely energetic and immensely effective. I joined the project in its second year, after having finished my diploma at the Academy of Fine Arts, looking for a studio myself – and ended up initiating mo.ë’s initial group studio. I convinced the team that it’s possible to get professional artists in, once the infrastructure was improved. Today, our “Atelierhaus” hosts ten artists from all disciplines, and we are proud of running a truly transmedial space – having hosted writers, documentary filmmakers, painters, a fashion designer, media artists, dancers, photographers, theater people and others.
Since we are a non-profit organization, the studios are affordable – we really only want to be able to keep the thing running – it’s not about making profit. At the same time, we strongly believe in paying people for the work they do for us – which is the reason why we don’t have interns: we don’t want to take advantage of people wanting to work for free. In the end, the only self-exploiting group within mo.ë is its management.
After setting up the studio infrastructure, I guess the next milestone was September 2013, when Alex stepped in as our main curator.
How did you two meet?
Alexander Felch: I was involved in Anna Mitterer’s “Remains of Space” installation back in 2012, and got to know mo.ë’s team.
Christian: It was an amazing project – Mitterer rebuilt a scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey” in our venue’s main hall, which also was used for a separate Mitterer movie since then.
Alex: During the production of “Remains of Space”, I was approached by Hannah Menne whether I’d be interested in curating mo.ë’s contribution to that year’s art week (Vienna Art Week, a yearly contemporary art initiative). That exhibition became “Dimensions Variable”, which also featured quite a bit of events from a variety of media, and probably was my first in-depth contact with the space. There will be a second “Dimensions” during this year`s art week, and I’m quite curious how it’s going to be, because mo.ë has changed so much in the meantime.
Christian: Once Alex stepped in last autumn, I’d say he mostly raised awareness within the team about the importance of continuously reaching a certain level of quality regarding our program. Ultimately, this meant stopping certain collaborations, which was an important cleansing process which by that time we were, as a team, eager to implement.
You said you curate the program; tell me more about this process.
Alex: I established a scheme where we have a two-month program, in which every Tuesday there’s an opening of a new exhibition in the gallery space – which we separated from the main hall. From Wednesday to Sunday we organize a variety of events from all different media: discussions, screenings, concerts, and theater performances, each on dedicated week days. To get to these events, the audience needs to go through the exhibition space first – so we make them see art they might not otherwise ever notice.
Christian: With the spatial separation of the gallery space, which we call MOE CONTEMPORARY, and the original factory hall, we also now are able to do parallel programming – we can have two different shows at once. When you enter, first you see the exhibition – and only after that the stuff you actually came for – which usually stems from a different artist and a different medium.
Alex: This way, we increase each exhibition’s audience: usually you have a lot of visitors on the opening night, and not a single visitor for the next four weeks. At mo.ë, each exhibition lasts only for one week instead. Sometimes it happens that we have fifty people at the opening, and three or four hundred during the rest of the week, accumulated through the various events. People see the exhibition regardless of whether they came because of it. This also works well for music promoters because every time they use our space, it feels like a different, new space to their audience.
How do you select artists?
Alex: The main point really is the individual approach: if someone is sincere and serious about their work, and really wants to do it, I go for it. There are so many people who are really just doing design and think that they are artists or want to promote themselves as artists – those we tend not to show.
I am now finalizing the bi-monthly program for September and October: 35 events in two months. In order to be able to curate that many events, we collaborate with curators and music promoters whom we trust artistically, whom we know do good work. We ask them to make regular activities in our space – Christian calls this “meta-curation” – we curate curators.
So you give them the space and they take care of the program on a certain weekday.
Alex: Exactly. For young curators it’s an unusual opportunity to be offered to curate two exhibitions a year, where they don’t have to pay for the space and infrastructure. The same goes for concert bookers, who organize monthly or bi-monthly events in an everchanging space. For us, it seems like a good strategy to keep the quality on a high level.
Christian: On one hand, this scheme is a necessity because it is physically impossible for one person to organize that many events. On the other hand, it means that we bring totally different people and their networks into our space. We do something that very few places dare to or think about doing, where a variety of different aspects of contemporary life is on display under one roof – whether it is a fashion show, a two-day workshop about building instruments, a movie-set or an immigrant worker’s choir.
Alex: It is a rather popular concept in the last few years. At brut (a local institution focusing experimental and innovative performing arts) for example, it’s called “cooperation house” – they basically host different productions from independent groups.
Do you think that contemporary culture is well represented in Vienna?
Alex: The general question is rather: “what is contemporary culture?” This changes quickly and is not really such a good specification. There is the hipster movement, for example, who have their own view on contemporariness. I think that there is a large scene, but it’s not really visible, especially for people who come from abroad. When you don’t have anything to do with art universities, it is quite hard to get in contact with the scene: most of these art and music spaces come from those universities. It’s not like Berlin, where you have fifteen independent art spaces or techno bars on every corner.
What is the way forward? And does Vienna need that many spaces?
Alex: There are certain networks trying to do that, but they often want to go mainstream as soon as they have the chance. “Insiderei” tries to promote these kind of spaces, but they don’t actually want to remain in this emerging area and stay independent. Rather, they want to become the Next Big Thing ASAP, because their main interest, obviously, is a commercial one.
Christian: When your initial focus is on emerging art – however you would define that – it is hard to actually stay there, to focus it – because culture constantly canonizes its outputs, and much faster in today’s globalized visual western societies: whatever was emerging today, won’t be so tomorrow. So you try to focus on people who haven’t made it yet, who you believe in and in whose vision you believe, and about which you feel to express something worthwhile. But obviously, in the end it boils down to making individual, selective choices.
Alex: We have shown many artists at our space who are emergent on an international level, like Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke for example, who did a piece on NY’s Brooklyn Bridge recently. In May they exhibited at our space, and in September you read about them in all the newspapers. We feature many artists like them, and most of them tell us afterwards how nice it was to be working with us: with the space itself being interesting because of its roots going back to 1881, when it was founded as monarchal medal/insignia factory – but also, and probably more important, because they don’t have the impression that we are exploiting them in any way. We are on their side, since our main interest is to show art on a high level – it always boils down to that.
How did you finance the project before the grants and support from the ministry of culture?
Christian: In the beginning, it was simply our priority to truly stay independent – meaning you depend on the team to donate their own money. But ultimately, we started receiving funding once we first applied for it, which we didn’t do for a long time. It took as some time and thought, all in all maybe three years, to understand that funding is more than just about receiving money: it’s about making your work transparent, to put your work on display and have it be judged by others – it’s about gaining visibility and recognition. I think we wanted to know exactly what it was we were doing, before asking for tax money to be sent our way.
And where did the money come from before that?
Alex: There was no need for money.
Christian: We didn’t have any employees, which financially is the biggest “burden”. In Austria the payroll related costs basically make the employer pay twice the amount of what the employee sees after taxes – the result of a social security system totally gone haywire. So instead of hiring anyone, we exploited ourselves: nothing had to be paid except the lease – and that money we got from events we hosted. Originally, against everyone’s intention, It was more of a party place – we didn’t like it, but the audience loved it – probably also because some of them could behave like pigs.
Alex: People really misunderstood it to be a squat, leaving cigarette butts everywhere, although we paid quite a bit of rent every month.
Christian: By now this is different: our visitors understand mo.ë to be an art space, so obviously it’s a non-smoking facility. This change was a somewhat magical development – I think our audience grew up together with us.
Alex: Over the course of two weeks it became a non-smoking place – people simply accepted it. Now we usually don’t have to approach anyone about it anymore. I think we managed to make clear that it is a public space, and no longer a private party where you can come and do whatever you want.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Christian: I worked as a programmer for video games at Rockstar Vienna six years altogether. At the age of 24 I wanted to get out. Obviously I didn’t know what to do; I misunderstood the entry requirements for the Academy of Fine Arts here in Vienna: I thought you were required to deliver drawings to get in. Huge misunderstanding. But because of this, I started drawing every day for one hour in the morning, and another hour after work. After maybe three weeks I skimmed through these drawings, and thought that they were rather shitty, but I also realized how much I envied an analog working process without “undo” possibilities – it was at that time that it got clear that I wanted to become a painter.
Alex: I finished the Academy and wasn’t sure at all if I wanted to be a part of it, or if I had enough talent. After my studies I went to St. Petersburg and met Mikhael Crest, who showed me a totally different approach to art. He told me what it’s all about, and I realized that I like it, that I am able to do it.
What did he say?
Alex: He talked about how art is not about doing funny art pieces; it’s a life decision: Either you dedicate your life to the artistic way – or you skip it. You can also use art as a sort of religion or medicine, to see and reflect upon certain processes in a different way. Understanding art like this ultimately made it more interesting for me, and helped me rediscover and like my previously created work.
What are the challenges of being an artist and running your space at the same time? How do you find a balance?
Christian: When you do a project of our size, you really have to find a group of people you can trust, plus proper ways of communication. You cannot pull off something like mo.ë alone. Today, over many generations of participants, we have founding member Hannah Menne, who ensures that the initial vision and ideas stay on track; Katharina Day, who manages all matters related to finances, funding, and sponsoring: she makes sure we can sleep well every night; Matthias Gassne, a neuroscientist who is not only responsible for the artists’ studios but also acts as a general co-curator; Alisa Beck, whose background in art history makes her a valuable co-curator in addition to the PR work she performs; curator and program manager Alexander Felch; and last but not least myself, Hannah’s deputy. Basically, I’m trying for everything to run smoothly during her current absence, from discussions with the landlord, funding institutions, lawyers etc. And then there’s the “Beyond Mimesis” plattform, focusing contemporary painting with lots of exhibitions, artist talks etc.
So basically, you have to balance your interests every hour, every day.
Alex: I realized that I had to have a regular job to make art because I won’t sell much of it, nor be part of a gallery system with it. So this job is a perfect symbiosis for me: I can work the way I want to, I can show what I think is on our side, and at the same time, it is a regular job for me, which pays my bills.
You make a new exhibition every week. Is it difficult to find that many artists?
Alex: It is not that difficult to make a solid, good exhibition of works, which is aesthetically and/or conceptually interesting every week. If earlier you could say that every third guy is playing guitar, now every third guy is painting or making art. By now it is a real career option.
Christian: Another thing I like about our space – with its high frequency of exhibitions compared to other spaces – it that it is possible to show such a huge variety of thoughts and manifestations. The amount of artists that come to our space to show their work is incredible.
I think that because of this, we can say that mo.ë is a contemporary space – because it shows so much of what contemporary life includes.
Alex: Regarding this selection process, I’d like to point out one thing that bothers me – I’m not sure if it is a contemporary problem or if it has always been like this: the main point when any committee selects a work is not necessarily its quality, but rather whom you know and who knows you. I don’t really understand this. I won a contest last year for the monument at the newly built Vienna University of Economics and Business. The submitting process was anonymous, the committee had no names and didn’t know who did which work. They had to choose the winner only on the quality of the work. The question I ask myself: Why are they not doing the same in the ministry of culture, or in general with grants?
You had a lot of different events during the year. What were the highlights?
Alex: In the realm of performance I liked Michael Turinsky in July and Claire Blake in May – those were quite professional productions. I wouldn’t highlight anyone in our music curating because we had a lot of great independent hip-hop artists, improvisation, and also new music shows this year. In arts, the exhibitions of Peter Fritzenwallner, Tempelhofer Ufer 10 and Stefan Kreuzer could be highlighted – but again, it’s quite difficult to highlight a single artist.
Christian: I agree – I think the whole idea of mo.ë is the contemporary insanity of opulence, of excess. Not one show every other month, but instead one every week, where then every day you have a different event in that exhibition. Plus you have the parallel installation in our factory hall, which you can only watch through three big windows from the outside. We invite artists to do something that will stay there for one month, and some of them did really amazing things. But in the end, it’s the sum of all this that gets the message across and makes me happy: as a generation, as a group, we are able to easily offer an insight into our culture, which as an individual artist working on their oeuvre, most of us won’t ever be able to pinpoint.
We often hear: “Oh, that happened at your space?!” There are so many people in Vienna who have been to our space and they wouldn’t know the name of it, or that they ever were there – because the next time they come, everything’s different again. Jokingly, I call it the space whose events remain unseen – because we change them so quickly. But luckily, our audience stays interested and with us.
You have an artist in residency program. Is it different from other programs in Austria?
Christian: There are a lot of residency programs, all somewhat different. In the end, each addition expands the opportunities for visiting artists to come to Vienna and create synergies, to do art. Ours is just one more space doing that. Our residence area is rather small, but since it is thought to be used mostly as “square one” to explore the city, I think it works well. We offer the contact to our in-house and exhibiting artists, as well as to our guests – a lot of interesting people to hang out with. To temporarily stay inside an art space with up to five events per week is a somewhat unique situation. The amount of networking possibilities is rather unusual.
1170 Vienna, Austria
Open on event days from 7:00 pm onwards