Nicole Weniger
Ursula Maria Probst

We claim space!

Open Practice

In 2013, in the middle of a city square – the Landhausplatz in Innsbruck, to be precise – there stood a large yellow box: a temporary installation as a pronouncement of a contemporary applied urbanism. After profound planning and sketching, the creation of a 3D model, and the development of a precise concept, Nicole Weniger's Scream Room intervention was finally realised in the form of an 'Art for All' viewer-participation project. The concept deals with new formal aesthetics in the areas of conflicts between art and public space, between architecture and landscape, and between urban strategy and political action as public art. Every visitor was invited to take part; to get on board; to step into the Scream Room; to throw off all inhibition and release suppressed emotions and built-up aggression by letting out a liberating scream. Passing pedestrians became protagonists as they were integrated into the project.

With its proportions derived from those of a megaphone, the box had the dimensions of an accessible room. The Scream Room, which according to Nicole Weniger constituted an "absurd sculpture", functioned as an interactive platform and performative installation. The entrance could be found at the front, beneath thick black lettering forming the word "SCHREIRAUM" (English: SCREAM ROOM). After passing through the entrance one could close the sliding door to create a soundproof chamber. The Scream Room was constructed from mass-produced yellow wooden planks of the type that are often seen in the urban environment and are part of the city's standard architectural repertoire. During the construction process Nicole Weniger treated the material both functionally, as befits its intended purpose, and in an abstract more sculptural manner. Despite its bias towards community based art (interactive / service to citizens), as an interventional manifest the Scream Room managed to avoid being reduced to either a social conflict resolution program or a prototype for urban furniture. With her project, Nicole Weniger successfully combined diverse aspects of conceptual, sculptural, medial, performative, urban, socio-political and interactive practice.

Externally, the wooden box-like Scream Room had an airless, claustrophobic quality. Conversely, upon entering the room one was met with the unexpected sight of a mountainous landscape: a rear projected livestream from the Patscherkofel and a panorama that imparted a virtual mountaintop experience. The cries emitted within the Scream Room were broadcast live to the 2,246 m elevation of the Patscherkofel summit, where Innsbruck's radio transmitter stands. There, the screams of the city were released into nature over the signal sender's speakers. The ensuing echo resonated back to the city with a time-lag effect.

Nicole Weniger had created an other space and, in an action recalling Michel Foucault's heterotopias, placed it both in the way and simultaneously at the disposal of passers-by, prompting a departure from daily routine and reality. The scale of the response to the Scream Room was made evident by the crush to use it. A queue could also be found whilst the project stood in its modified form in front of the Vienna Künstlerhaus 2013. The Scream Room proved to be a space for imagination and for compensation.

The public square as a space for the freedom of expression, as a place for the deplaced, as a site for the recognition of something that is – like the full-throated shout that represents all that is usually pushed aside and repressed within society – claiming its right to exist. With these notions, Nicole Weniger poses spatial and social questions, which provide society with food for extensive reflections. The structures of urban spaces influence our daily routines, our actions, our encounters, and the ways in which emotions are either experienced or suppressed. The sociologist Martina Löw carried out ambitious studies on the sociology of cities, based on numerous city profiles, which showed how urban structures affect the behaviours, actions and desires of city dwellers. Compared to Henri Lefebvre's Marxist concept of social space and Michel de Certeau's spatial conflict, Löw brought into play the way in which social networks relate to one another and how they are subject to transformation through social interaction. In her publication 'Art and Architecture. A Place Between' (2006), Jane Rendell commented on alternative ways of dealing with social space in art and architecture and the resulting definitions of space and place. In the 1920s the sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin had already coined the term 'social space' under the focus of social mobility. Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept further. Social space was for Bourdieu a relational alignment of groups of people in permanent competition with one another for position. According to Bourdieu, the effect of social space on physical space is consistent with physical space informing position within social space. Henri Lefebvre drew a distinction between social and physical or natural space, emphasising that the latter is increasingly absent and has the character of a background image. People fill this backdrop with fantasies and memories. In practice, space is both physical and social because spaces result from actions and are based on performative structures. With her installations and performances, Nicole Weniger addresses socio-spatial structures, the needs of the city dweller and the increasing gap between culture, nature and the economics and perceptions thereof. Thus, she carries out thorough social investigations.

Against All Expectations

Emergency blankets – the golden or silver shimmer of which add a certain glamour to a crisis – are a material that Nicole Weniger has put to use in various contexts and works. In The Last Wave (2012) she incorporates their intended purpose as a first aid device to protect against cold, wet and ultimately hypothermia, in the theme of the installation. The life-saving function of the material correlates directly with an apocalyptic scenario of her setting. A room with dimensions ample enough to allow a certain freedom of movement is reduced to half its usual height by an awning constructed of 38 emergency blankets stuck together. The movements of passers-by underneath the canopy cause it to swell in wave-like movements as a result of the air circulating below. The impression created is that of a room flooded by a wave. The material's airiness and semi-transparency cause it to shimmer with reflected light. The installation The Last Wave – the title of which plays on the idea of an apocalypse and the recurring angst of the past decade that the end of the world is nigh – is by its very repetitive nature subject to a paradoxical new interpretation. The word apocalypse stems from the Greek, meaning unveiling or revelation. As a performative installation, The Last Wave is aesthetically pleasing, effects a convolution of the room, and comments critically on the medial aestheticisation of natural disasters and the entertainment industry's promotion of apocalyptic scenarios.

The Forbidden Fruit has been tasted

In a project realised in collaboration with Vincent Bauer under the name WENIGERBAUER, Nicole Weniger's work leans again towards the performative. The project Society of Posthuman Experience (2012) was developed for The Last World-Exposition at the Gschwandner establishment and is based on the theme of how one could deal with possible future apocalyptic scenarios artistically in a performative process. The project began with the founding of the fictional organisation, the Society of Posthuman Experience, which carries out research and experimentation that should lead to the survival of humankind after the apocalypse. The performance operates with modes of scientific research, focuses on red-haired people and is carried out by several performers. It is redheads who would have a higher chance of survival in the case of an apocalypse, for according to WENIGERBAUER the end of the world would mean the loss of all sunlight and redheads (with their pigment mutation) are less dependent on solar radiation than any other people. In the artistic installation that is the laboratory, redheaded performers are at work as lab technicians.

The performance consisted of artfully staged experiments on the subject of light and happiness. The performers involved in the project took on roles according to a script. Visitors had the opportunity to become involved by positioning themselves under a specially built installation and taking part in the 'Young Light' experiment, under supervision of the red-haired lab technicians. The blue drink that was to be drunk during this process carried the label 'Complementary Nectar'. "The Society of Posthuman Experience has already begun researching methods for genetically preparing the ordinary masses, by way of the Alpha Group, for the dark future", read the thought-provoking slogan, evoking Michel Houellebecq's literary style. As with her solo projects, in this collective venture Nicole Weniger develops open processes, thus leaving room for expansion by potential participants.

Ursula Maria Probst, 2014