Useful disruption and productive conflict have always been part of steirischer herbst—an institution that has sparked dialogue time and again throughout its history. Every autumn since its founding half a century ago, the festival has provided a platform for new productions, provoking and shaping public debates in a variety of forms across disciplines and media. Reinventing itself many times over, steirischer herbst has always redefined the terms of the conversation about what culture might mean in a changing contemporaneity, as seen in Graz, Austria’s second most populous city.
steirischer herbst was founded in the pivotal year of 1968, in opposition to the resurgence of nationalist cultural initiatives gaining traction at the time. This founding moment drew upon a tradition of international modernism in music, theater, and visual art—which the Nazis had labeled “degenerate” three decades before—and the belief that it could (still) provide a bulwark against the deep-seated remnants of the totalitarian mentality in the world. steirischer herbst would appear on the scene with the unexpected force of an earthquake, cutting across the wholesome idea of a cultural “autumn harvest” in a region very proud of its wine and fruit. It would enchant, confound, and shock audiences out of their complacency, in the seemingly placid former retirement-capital of the Hapsburg monarchy.
Indeed, part of what has made steirischer herbst unique over the course of its history is its engagement with the city of Graz itself. The festival emerged through the initiative of the local scenes and continues to play an important role establishing networks to this day. It has also regularly featured work that delves into Graz’s uneven present and its complex, sometimes troubling past. Activating many if not most of the city’s cultural spaces, the festival rendered the city legible as a text, with new chapters appearing every year.
From its very beginnings, steirischer herbst stood out as one of the world’s few multidisciplinary art festivals, long before the fashionable overuse of the term. Fostering dialogue between the arts by combining aesthetic positions with theoretical reflection, the festival’s various iterations have integrated visual art, music, art in public space, theater, performance, new media, literature, and everything in between, with an emphasis on one field or the other varying over the years. This point remains central to the festival’s approach today, as it emphasizes work that refuses to be bound by the rules and traditional scope of separate cultural fields.
In 2018, the festival continues in the collaborative spirit of its founding and stays true to its focus on international breadth and local depth. It seeks to foster long-term engagement and the production of new work based on in-depth research and emphasizes urban and regional narratives in their sometimes bizarre relation to global processes. Its central projects can be read as one big exhibition—a single parcours—its elements time- and site-specific, presenting a new way to inhabit the city’s social spaces and be engrossed in the stories they might tell.
A strong focus on the social and political urgencies in Graz and Austria goes hand in hand with an international orientation. An integral part of the festival in its early years was the so-called Trigon Biennial, named after the polygon shaped tri-national border of Austria, Italy, and former Yugoslavia. Now, once again, as inequality and nationalism spread both in Eastern and Western Europe, it seems crucial to rekindle this interest in the search for points of connection and solidarity. It is precisely the feeling of marginality, sometimes poignant, sometimes cozy, as experienced in Graz that fosters a sensitivity to other frontier regions, where the purported normalcy of the global order appears in all its surreality and weirdness on the fringes.
steirischer herbst pursues a critical agenda and supports practices that are engaged and engaging. That does not mean that the festival is simply a platform for alternative politics. Instead, it aims each year anew to turn the city into a stage upon which art’s unique imaginative potential—its capacity to tell wild stories and shift shapes, to make impossible conjectures and poetic jokes, to take over spaces and occupy the imagination—is on full view.