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Karen Keifer-Boyd’s Fulbright in Austria, Spring 2012

As the Distinguished Chair of Gender Studies for the Zentrum für Frauen- und Geschlechterstudien at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt (see http://www.uni-klu.ac.at/gender/inhalt/1621.htm), I taught two courses: Visual Culture, New Media, and Gender Studies; and Social Justice Activism through Feminist Arts-based Research: Agency and Transformative Identity Politics. During my Fulbright semester, I met artists, visited museums and galleries, presented at symposia, and developed networks through travel to several cities including Altenmarkt, Graz, Linz, Vienna, and Villach, Austria; Grado, Italy; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Ankara and Cappadocia, Turkey.

Keifer-Boyd_mtns Karawanken Mountains, Klagenfurt Austria

While on a Fulbright in Austria during spring 2012, I loved watching from my flat in Klagenfurt how the Karawanken Mountains changed with the lighting and weather. At times, the mountains were, as one Austrian put it, “sugar-coated,” and at other times they disappeared in the stormy weather with lightning flashes dramatically illuminating part of the mountain range. Sometimes I watched helicopter rescues and would hear reports of death because of accidents from treacherous mountain conditions. The Karawanken Mountains are in view from most any location in Klagenfurt. When a new media artist visited me in my flat at the end of my first week of my arrival, and asked how I liked Klagenfurt, I mentioned the beauty of the mountains. She responded that she would like to “blow them up.” We were new to each other, and I was not sure if this was her sense of humor as we looked at what to me was a spectacular mountain view. I commented that the mountains have been blown up with the tunnels through them, many created during the Nazi regime with slave labor from the concentration camps. She saw the mountains as a barrier that separates and isolates people and has a history of violence in the Alps along the Austria, Slovenia, Italy borders.

A few weeks later, I would visit a memorial to the lives lost at a former KZ Mauthausen camp with my new Austrian friend, an artist who had created video art in 2004 with a dance improvisation at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp. I showed the video in my course, Social Justice Feminist Arts-based Research, that I taught at Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt after introducing three levels of witnessing (i.e., to self, to others, and to the process of witnessing). Below are student responses to the film. They wrote the responses in the last 15 minutes of the class, submitting them online in a way in which their identity was masked to me, the teacher, and to others in the class. The journal entries are about political performance art, use of camera angles in video art, identity, witnessing, possibilities with new media, social justice, and challenges in crossing borders.


1.     JOURNAL: At a cruel place, one woman moves; determined with pain, fears and depression, but also with hope for a way out. The dancer is standing for the painful feeling of women in concentration camps, but also for physical and psychic discrimination of women in general. Actually, this place is more imaginary and not bound to the real place as it could be any place where women suffer from cruelty and hopelessness; so it could be any woman who suffers from violence. The sense of feeling and moving is transferred into a contemplative video, where the camera also adopts the powerful eye of the observer, the voyeur, but in opposition, also the eye of a person deprived of the power to aid. As a dance video it has been created by a silent improvised performance without spectators, where experiment and unrepeatable time have been captured.

2.      JOURNAL As we saw in the video, the face of the woman who was suffering (in my eyes) was never shown. I thought if her fate was not important at that time, why should her face be? It was clear that I would not see her face. I didn‘t need to. I didn‘t want to see the pain in her eyes. Individuals were not important, they were forgotten. People were a mass of useless dirt. It is hard to understand. It is hard to speak about it.

3.     JOURNAL: When I first saw the video with the dancing women, it didn`t mean anything to me, I did not know how to connect with the topic of feminism or abused women. But after some time it got really clear, and I suddenly understood this inability to move, and that it is not that easy to escape from something that is so cruel; but on the other hand so comfortable, because it is something well known.

4.     JOURNAL: At the beginning of the lessons the teacher introduced us to some art projects in which we could clearly see how art’s function is a political matter. The project, which impressed me more than the others, was surely that of artfem.tv, the dancer in Mauthausen. Her performance was very emotional. She was lying on the floor and was trying to make some movements that seemed to be painful, or that she didn’t have enough power to do them; the camera was turning around her and this gave movement and dynamics to the scene, and also created expectation in the audience.

These art pieces represented, in my opinion, the hurt and suffering of a whole population, of all these people which had to die and were killed not only in Mauthausen, but also in all the other concentration-camps during deportation in the Second World War. This was an example of how we can, through art, politicize the personal. The dancer, in fact, didn´t shows her face while she was moving/dancing, maybe to embody all suffering and dying people, and not just a particular one.I said before she was lying on the floor, as if she were dead. But she wasn´t. With her movements, even if they were or seemed to be heavy, full of pain, through them she was showing that she was alive, like the witnessing function of the arts is alive, like the memory of this event is also alive.

5.  JOURNAL: I think the video with the woman crawling on the floor in de KZ without being able to cross the border says a lot. It represents the cruelty the people were treated with then, and the struggle and will to survive. For me, this is art because it expresses many things, and the film transports a certain message to our minds. It`s not only the acting that fits the depressive theme, but also the surrounding is dark and lifeless.


Mauthausen_Keifer-Boyd photos



 The memorial marked the location of the camp in the mountains. The Mauthausen complex of camps was the most horrific of the Nazi regime during World War II, classified as Grade III. This was the classification for camps to torture intellectuals, artists, poets that the Nazi regime intended to exterminate through extreme labor building tunnels through the mountains. I began to look at the mountains differently, a place of division, bloodshed, and torture.

During my Fulbright in Austria, with visits to nearby Slovenia and Italy, I listened to many stories from different perspectives of the people and place. The Karawanken Mountains create the political borders of Austria, Slovenia, and Italy. These borders have shifted, in the past according to monarchy and kingdom proclamations up to World I (1914-1918), when the border was decided by plebiscite vote. The Carinthian region in which Klagenfurt is situated held a plebiscite in October 1920, and decided that the crest of the Karawanken Mountain range would be the border between the Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenia peoples. The Karawanken Mountains are one of the longest ranges in Europe dividing the land physically, yet traversed by historically important trade routes. After World War II (1939-1945), the Karawanken Mountains became the border between Austria and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and this border was maintained by military force. Only since 2007, has the political border been opened to a free movement of people and trade between Slovenia and Austria. Slovenia received independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The events leading up to independence were shared with me in traumatic childhood stories of heartbreak and loss, in conversations often begun from discussing artwork. Some spoke of a desire for economic integration between borders. Through the telling of individual stories, collectively, they communicate about possibility and about systemic forms of oppression. During the five months living at this borderland of the Karawanken Mountains, I photographed, drew, wrote, and thought about the mountains as metaphor and lived experiences.

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