Fuck the Biedermeier, new attitudes for Vienna!
by Albin Bergström

The genesis of this text is a trip to London I took last year together with dis/claim’s editor Leonie. We spent a lot of time then complaining about how everyone in Vienna complains all the time, which is in itself very Viennese behaviour. Leonie is, as you can probably glean from this, a very dear friend, and she has also always encouraged and sometimes enabled me to write more. The majority of my writing consist of one liners and punchlines that I put down in the Notes app on my phone or in different notebooks. They tend to be the response to something that, in the moment, feels urgent. Some of these punchlines end up in the “real” texts I write, and I would also say, act as the skeleton for them. An example of such a sentence is: Blow up the mountains and give people horizons. When I wrote that I meant it literally, and still do, because I truly think that it would be to everybody’s advantage if we got rid of the Alps, and in this text I’ve simply tried to make an argument for that. At some point in this text, I mention in passing how nobody in Vienna dares to bite the hand(s) that feed them, so in honour of that I’ll provide a little 200-Euro nibble: Leonie sometimes has difficulties with allowing for things to be said in between the lines.

“Come on baby you can thrive; but I can’t”
 – Lana del Rey

“Bitte unterhalten Sie sich ein bisserl leiser”
– The owner of Malipop

       An attitude can be defined as the way in which a person views or evaluates something or someone, a predisposition or a tendency to respond positively or negatively toward a certain idea, object, person or situation. Or put in simpler terms it can also be defined as a manner of acting, thinking or feeling that shows one’s disposition. The dispositions shown in the Viennese attitudes that I’m particularly interested in in this text could be summed up as the following:

    1.     a sense of entitlement;
    2.     a constant state of suspicion;
    3.     a measure of fear;
    4.     a level of ignorance that only could be described as clinical.
       It is, as you can clearly see, a bad cocktail in an even worse bar, where toilet water is the only mixer, es ist aber nachhaltig! You’d be lucky to come out of there alive, but if you don’t you can rest assured that the people inside will keep on drinking until they close. Because if one sticks it out a bit longer, they might lock the doors and shut the blinds and one can finally smoke inside, and not even a dead body is going to keep us from that: it is Vienna after all. So, this text is about these attitudes, and by implication how much better this city could be without them. And it’s about how these attitudes are not only being reproduced, but even romanticised by us. The “us” here is important as it is my firm belief that no one can live in Vienna for too long without being guilty; everyone is complicit in this story. The evidence I will present in order to prove this is anecdotal at times, and otherwise entirely fictional, but I do believe that for anyone who’s lived in Vienna for a longer period of time, it will all ring true.

Some case studies pulled out of my ass

A while ago, I saw a headline on Der Standard in which a woman was referred to as a “Wahlwienerin”. I stopped at this term; I had never heard it before, and there was something about it that unsettled me. It doesn’t feel like anyone really chooses Vienna, and this whole incident, if one can call it that, reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend years ago. It was late at night in the cellar of Einhorn and you could still smoke inside. My friend was hammered, along with everyone else in there, his eyes was wandering aimlessly across the room, neither of us could barely speak, until he suddenly managed to fix his gaze onto me and said: “Has it swallowed you yet?”
“What?” I asked,
“Vienna, has it swallowed you yet?” He was silent for a few seconds and then added,
“If you stay here long enough Vienna swallows you, you end up staying here for good, you won’t notice it, but the city swallows you, believe me: if it hasn’t already, it will soon”.
This is what WahlwienerIn truly means I think, it’s the result of a digestive process, once you’ve been churned through the bowels and guts of the city, the 23 districts of Vienna, the 4 bellies of the cow, die Alpträume! you come out the other side a piece of shit: WahlwienerIn. This year marks my 10th anniversary of living in this city so I would assume I am a Wahlwiener according to whatever metrics Der Standard uses; I’ve been properly swallowed, devoured, digested, ravaged, fucked. It’s BDSM without safety words.

We’re at an off-space opening arguing about which bar to move on to, a person I don’t know and that seems new to the city asks a friend of mine if he likes it in Vienna. He replies with a theatrical laugh and then says: “Yes I do, I mean, it’s a good city to be depressed in.”
This is true, but it’s true because Vienna is a city where everyone collectively pushes their angst to the forefront, a constant performance of existential dread, weil Todestrieb so sexy ist, I guess. Vienna is a scenography for the compulsive and morbid staging of one’s own unhappiness and it’s oh so chic.

Blow up the mountains and give people horizons!

Sometimes when people find out I’m Swedish they tend to ask if I’m from Stockholm, to which I reply that no, I’m from Gothenburg, which often results in the follow-up question: “What’s Gothenburg like? Is it different from Stockholm?”. My reply to this question is always the same: Stockholm is a coke city and Gothenburg is an amphetamine city. Vienna, on the other hand, is a stoner city with a burning desire to start macro-dosing heroin.

I don’t know about you, but I at least have countless of friends who’ve spent years in psychoanalysis, who still, on a regular basis tell me about their most recent therapeutical breakthroughs, their latest realisation on the couch; yet, like some miracle, these friends remain unchanged, exactly the same as they were before they lied down on that infamous sofa.

It wears you down, slowly, the slow death, death by a thousand spritzers, to the point where you suddenly find yourself shouting, “zweite Kassa bitte!” without any sense of shame.

A friend once said that where she is from people also complain all the time, it’s just that where she’s from people actually have things to complain about. Vienna is a city, a scene, where the curators and gallerists complain about having to do exhibitions, the artists complain about being in them, the writers complain about having to write the exhibition texts, the friends complain about having to go to the openings, the critics complain about having to write the reviews, and I’ve been complaining about writing this, but when we send our invoices we keep our mouths shut like the well behaved dogs we are, no hand is ever bitten, regardless of which arm it belongs to.

Earlier this spring I went to a reading together with M, afterwards we had a cigarette outside and we started talking to two strangers, and they asked us how we know each other.
“Vienna”, I can’t remember if it was me or she who answered. Always Vienna, all roads lead back to... No, actually no roads lead from Vienna, but somehow there we were outside a gallery in east London like fucking Houdini. They asked us what Vienna is like. M said: “You know it’s a strange place, it has the highest rankings in terms of quality of life, but the lowest scores in all expat surveys”.

       I thought how much this sums up Vienna, it really has the means and infrastructure to be a fantastic place, but it just isn’t and it’s because of the people, our mentality, attitude, it’s because of us, because we’ve somehow created and perpetuate a social climate that’s just unrelentingly hostile. “But where does that come from?” they asked.
I didn’t know what to say then, but after having had some time to think about this I wish I would’ve said this: I think it’s the toxic mix of the phantom pains of a crumbled empire, an acute inferiority complex towards Germany and of course the good old Mitläufer-mentality. It’s like a mouse wheel of nostalgia and paranoia, rage and shame. It’s financially liveable compared to a lot of other European capitals, it’s just that you pay a different price, the real currency of Vienna is one you cannot count, or trade with on the stock market.

Maybe it’s the tap water, yes the tap water is great, as clean as can be, crisp! It’s coming straight from the mountains, Alpwasser, laced with Edelweiss and Sisi’s piss.

This city is a flock of lovebirds desperately searching for the comfort of cages. This story is a romcom about two subs trying to fuck, but no one in the audience really seems to understand when they’re supposed to laugh.

If you, at any point while reading this, thought to yourself: Why don’t I just fucking leave then, if it’s so terrible here? – then this text really is for you!

A conclusion (of sorts)

       In December 2023, I went to London together with L, L in this case being the editor of this magazine. On our first day, we went to a pub somewhere on the edges of Soho where we managed to find a free table. The rain had been pouring all day and we were cold and craving our first English room-temperature pint. As we were sitting there recovering from a long day and lack of sleep, more and more people kept coming in. At some point I had to excuse myself to go to the restroom. I had to squeeze myself through all the people in the now over-crowded pub. I kept saying sorry to everyone in an overly submissive tone, expecting to get the angry looks in return that I’ve gotten used to over the years, but no one seemed to really care. In fact, no one seemed at all bothered by the fact that we were just short of a hundred people in a space with the capacity for half of that. On the contrary, people just seemed happy to be there, and even happy to have to engage with each other, forming new friendships even, albeit just for this one evening.

       As I came back from the toilet I shared this observation with L, and added that had this been Vienna anyone who would’ve opened the doors to this place would’ve been offended by the amount of people inside, as if that person had some god given right to be here more than anybody else; there would’ve been performative sighs and a demonstrative exit, and I guess there’s simply no room for that kind of behaviour here. When people decide to spend what little time they have left outside of work to actually enjoy themselves, they make sure to have a good time, otherwise you won’t survive. I’m not trying to forward a correlation between precarity and the ability to make the most of one’s time, or advocate that all Vienna needs is a slap in the face in the form of tripled rents under the guise of “property development”, but that evidently another way of life, or attitude towards it and each other is possible, – and that in spite of a much more precarious existence. What I’m saying is that we really don’t have any excuses for our behaviour. We kept on talking about Vienna, how it would benefit from this attitude, how it needs it, how desperately we need it.

       “Fuck the Biedermeier!” I said, and we both laughed. Moments later, L looked at me and said, “Maybe you should write about this. I remember the smell of wet wool from our coats, the beer soaked floor, the dark wood and stained glass, I remember thinking I shouldn’t be so loose-lipped around editors, I remember thinking about how sad I had been over the last months because no one asks me to write anymore, and I remember thinking about how I turn anything good that happens into a punishment. And above all I remember the strong feeling of not wanting to return home.

       Now, months later, as I’ve finally been writing this text, I thought about how much all of this comes down to rules, and how we approach them. I would say, as boring as it might sound, that rules are mostly good, at least as long as they are accompanied by a fundamental understanding that they not only can, but also must be broken under certain circumstances. At the core of these Viennese attitudes, you’ll find a total resistance towards this crucial understanding, which in turn takes the form of the passive aggressive policing of others: the Viennese death stare. I’m convinced that this is a heritage from the imperial days, when everyone was acutely aware of the existing hierarchies and their own place within them in any given situation. Sometimes one must bow, other times someone must bow to you. This inherently courtly behaviour serves the purpose of ensuring that nobody ever meets on equal terms. In Vienna, the emperor is either naked and we all pretend as if he isn’t, or he’s naked and we ostracize him for it. Take the fairly recent ban on consuming food and drinks on public transports for instance: the problem is not the ban itself, or even that it’s mostly being followed, but that when someone does break it, that person is being met with the utmost contempt, as if they were actually sitting naked on the tube. Or take the fact that nobody jaywalks, that we submit to an authority without any question or thought. I would argue that most of what I’ve tried to poke at in this text can be, with varying degrees of effort, traced to one of these two responses: the violent assertion of dominance or the total submission to it. The Viennese attitude is the acute fear of meeting on eye level, and that any possibility for it is immediately dismissed by all parties involved – because a Viennese sentence must begin with Sehr geehrte and end in tears to be considered complete.