A post-modern party for Vienna
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., May 21, 2002) – How do you throw a party to celebrate Vienna and incorporate both that European capital’s illustrious cultural past and the ambivalent, sometimes tortured ferment of its present?

It begins, as always, with the waltz, the signature one-two-three rhythm of formal Viennese dance. And if you are Mass MoCA, that hotbed of post-modern, ironic detachment, you hire one of the world’s best avant-garde dance bands to deconstruct the waltz tradition, recombine it with other elements, and reconstruct it as the foundation for an evening of multimedia performance art that will also include a trans-Atlantic collective of electronic musicians and video artists.

This, in the broadest of terms, is how The Vienna Project – the summer-long collaboration among Berkshire cultural instititutions, including North County’s three museums – will kick off tomorrow night at 7 at Mass MoCA. The “Viva Vienna” dance party will feature the New York-based jazz band Sex Mob, led by composer/trumpeter Steven Bernstein, with special guest saxophonist Max Nagl, of Vienna, followed by a techno dance party with the DJ/VJ collective Blow Up! Vienna.

Local outfit the Flying Garbanzos will also be on hand tomorrow night, entertaining patrons with traditional waltzes at MoCA’s courtyard café, which will be converted into a Viennese-style beer garden.

Tickets are available from the box office at Mass MoCA, by phone at 413-662-2111, or on the Internet at

Tomorrow marks the opening of MoCA’s exhibition, “Uncommon Denominator: New Art from Vienna,” featuring works by 15 contemporary Viennese artists, including three new commissioned works. Vienna’s best known living artist, Franz West, will also be represented in “Merciless,”an exhibition of his work.

Tickets for tomorrow’s opening will include admission to MoCA’s galleries until 7. “Uncommon Denominator” features dozens of richly painted canvases and large-scale wall drawings from artists working in Vienna today, many of whom will be in attendance at tomorrow’s event. Much of the work in the exhibition is informed by Vienna’s new status as the geopolitical crossroads of eastern and western Europe, and the visual art as well as the music that will be performed tomorrow night references the strong influence that Turkish immigrants have had on the city’s cultural scene.

The dance party will take place indoors at the Hunter Center. Dance instructors arranged by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival will offer waltz lessons at the start of the evening, and Viennese food and drink will be available throughout the evening. The MoCA event is co-presented by the Clark Art Institute in conjunction with the Williams College Museum of Art. The opening party and the exhibition are both sponsored by The Porches Inn. Additional support for “Uncommon Denominator” is provided by the Austrian Cultural Forum-New York and the City of Vienna Department of Cultural Affairs.

As with most of MoCA’s live events, much care and attention to detail has gone into the conception and planning of tomorrow night’s party, so that in the end it will be more an overall work of performance art curated by the museum than just a series of disconnected performances by different musicians and new media artists.

“The main objective of the evening is a celebration of the opening of these shows,” said Jonathan Secor, Mass MoCA’s director of performing arts, in a recent interview in his office at the restored, 19th-century factory campus. “It’s a dance party, but at any given moment if you stop dancing and watch the bands play, you will be mesmerized by the musicianship and showmanship.

“Sex Mob is a great band to watch. I saw them in New York at Tonic a few weeks ago and they were amazing. Steve Bernstein flies all over the place conducting the band, and they’re definitely into making it all danceable.

“And the visuals will be stunning for Blow Up! Vienna. There’ll be forty different screens. A VJ will sit next to the DJ and the imagery will be in response to the music, like a call-and-response to the music that they’re hearing.

“It’s a lot more interesting than just watching one guy fiddling with knobs and dials. There’s a relationship between the musicians and the visuals and the computers.”

In putting the show together, Secor first approached Sex Mob and asked them if they would be willing to incorporate the waltz into a grab-bag approach that has seen them filter everything from Abba to the Rolling Stones to James Bond movie music through their avant-garde, party-band sensibility.

Under the terms of the deal, they also needed to team up with a musician from Vienna for the night. As it turned out, the group had recently performed in the Austrian capital with saxophonist Max Nagl, whose music has been alternately described as “filigreed salon chamber music” and “harsh clusters of sound.” Nagl’s sonic palette is as diverse as Sex Mob’s, and his music has incorporated salsa, polka, tango and funk.

Blow Up! is a partnership between sonic collagists Swipe, whose members are from Boston and San Francisco, and conceptual video artists MVD, whose members call Vienna and New York home. For tomorrow’s performance, the group is calling itself Blow Up! Vienna, and the visual portion of the show will mix images drawn from the museum exhibitions as well as original footage shot around North Adams and in Vienna, all mixed live and in real time.

Secor said that the electronica scene in Vienna is where the city’s political vitality finds its most expressive outlet. “The electronica artists tend to be more politically-based than others,” he said.

In the making for the past half year, tomorrow night’s event, like most of MoCA’s dance parties, represents thousands of man-hours of preparation that will culminate in a one-time-only, here-and-gone affair.

“The amazing thing about Mass MoCA is that all our spaces are versatile,” said Secor. “And the horrible thing about Mass MoCA is that all our spaces are versatile.

“It’s great for the audience, but very hard on the staff. For any given event we can look at the space and make it anything we want, which means redesigning the room each time.

“We try really hard to make each event you come to as different and unique as possible. The event is not just what is happening on the stage. It’s the food and drinks being served, it’s what you see and hear in the lobby, it’s the lighting and configuration of the room.

“We spend all our time for weeks working on a party that will last three hours, then take a day off and begin working on the next one.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 24, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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