Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, April 3, 2017


I’m sure it must be possible to walk the streets of Vienna without whistling or humming “The Blue Danube,” but for a first-time visitor like me, it’s not easy: Air Austria even plays it over the aircraft’s p.a. system as you’re deplaning.  Other alternatives include the Third Man theme, or Ultravox’s “Vienna” – and the latter does have some oblique lyrics that mention walking but of course the only line anybody ever really remembers is “This means nothing to me – Vienna,” which seems a bit negative.

I was in Vienna for the launch of Wiener Blut.  What’s that you ask?  “Wiener Blut is an ambitious collaboration to photograph every street in Vienna.  As well as creating a work of art for an exhibition in 2018, we’ll be producing a visual social documentary of Vienna in 2017/18.”
It is a cousin of “Bleeding London,” the project and exhibition based on my novel of the same name, which photographed every street in London: both organized by Del Barrett.  (Wiener Blut, I know now, is also the name of a waltz by Strauss).

At the Vienna launch I made a short, clumsy speech about walking and observing and photographing.  I said that every street is interesting if you look at it the right way.  There are fascinations, marvels, on every block, probably on every square inch. I still tend to believe this is true.

After, and indeed before, the launch I wandered the streets of Vienna, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, looking at stuff, taking pictures, feeling the vibe, sometimes getting lost.  You don’t need me to make too many superficial remarks about the wonders of Vienna but let me share one or two things.

Walking down the street from my hotel, I came across a place named f*c, which I think stands for Frauencafe, a women’s (or at least not a men’s) café.  There was a mission statement in the window, in both German and English.  The English one read, in part, “If you are a cis gendered man, please leave the space without having to be asked.”  This seemed to anticipate an unlikely set of events, it seemed to me; that a cis gendered man (I guess that’s me) might enter the place, by accident, or perhaps to see how great it was, or in any case without having read the sign in the window, but then he would have to leave immediately before he was asked, but how would he know to do that unless he'd read the sign in the window, and if he'd read the sign in the window then surely he wouldn't enter, would he? And what happened if he did wait to be asked?  Would that be so terrible?  In any case the place looked closed every time I went past.

         Of course, like any good tourist, I gazed into shop windows as I walked around the city.  I swear I saw a shop that sold only exotic booze and light bulbs.  You can imagine the thought process: people are always going to need booze, people are always going to need light bulbs – there’s your business model.  I also saw this cocktail dress printed with images of rather lurid cocktails, not a look that everybody could pull off, I’d say.  And I imagine probably not what they're wearing in the Frauencafe, but who knows?

And then there was a walk around the Flak Towers – I hadn’t known about them, and I definitely should have.  Building started in 1942 on Hitler’s instructions, designed by Professor Friedrich Tamms, constructed using forced labor, and they were functional by 1944, which might be thought to be a bit late.  There were guns at the top on the outside, and an air raid shelter inside, and lord knows they were solid and impregnable.  They’re still wildly impressive and in their totalitarian brutality.

Jan Tabor, the Czech-Austrian architect and architectural theorist wrote, “Without wanting to deny the military purposefulness of these buildings completely, they were conceived from the beginning as above all ‘mood architecture’ … They are monuments of and for all times.  As a result they are without utilitarian value in the usual sense.  They are as useless as plastic art.  But they were carriers of an idea, an elementary feeling for power, stability and will to live.” 

As I walked around them, in what is now a very pleasant public park, it seemed that the local walkers ignored them completely.  Maybe they were too familiar with them, or maybe they hated them and preferred not to look.  Personally I kept thinking that Banksy might find a handy way of using those towers.

And speaking of Viennese blood, I did see this graffito which I believe translates as “Jesus pisses your blood,”

It made me think of the Vienna Actionists, a well-dodgy bunch of 1960s artists, performance artists we’d call them today, whose “actions” tended to involve blood, excreta, cruelty to animals, blasphemy and sex (most of it unerotic, I’d say, but these things are subjective).  
        It was all about breaking taboos and making Austrians face up to their country’s embrace of Nazism in World War Two, apparently.  I think you’re entitled to wonder how rolling around in animal entrails symbolizes these matters but it was a different age.  Hard to find an image of this stuff that I’d want in my blog but here’s a comparatively mild one.

         However, if you inevitably walk in Vienna in the footsteps of Strauss and Bernhard and Freud, you also walk in the footsteps of Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Otto Muehl, the four main Actionists.   Muehl was the best known  and most spectacularly appalling of them (that's him in the pic above), he was also the leader of a radical commune, as was the style in those days, and a thing that seldom ends well.

         Günter Brus seems, in some ways, to have been as bad as any of them. In 1968 he went to jail as a result of Body Analysis Action no.33, which involved cutting himself with a razor-blade, drinking his own urine, rubbing his naked body with shit, and masturbating while singing the Austrian anthem.  He got six months for “degrading the symbols of the State.”  I can’t believe he was surprised.

Before that however, in 1965, he performed “Vienna Walk” (Kopfbemalung, Aktion, Wien) a fairly vanilla-seeming piece in which he walked through the city, fully clothed but painted all white, with a black line, that looks quite a bit like medical stitches, dividing his body and his suit into two vertical halves, claiming himself to be a “living painting”.  Sounds pretty harmless but he still got arrested.

Otto Muehl in due course went to jail on charges of having sex with under age girls in his commune.  Günter Brus was awarded the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1997.  Maybe the Austrian State is a mass of contradictions.

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