A couple of days ago while standing in line at a Viennese supermarket I overheard a conversation that went like this:
What are you doing tonight?
I go to the beach bar. Want to come along?
What about football?
We can watch it there, no problem.
Inserted as a dialogue in a work of fiction, the above exchange would undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. A beach in Vienna? Watching football at the beach? These are the type of apparent non-matching associations that can very quickly spoil the reading experience which like many others builds around a set of assumptions about how our everyday life worlds are constructed.
And yet, there are beaches in Vienna and these are currently mainly used for watching football—two social facts that are interesting not only in their own right but also for illustrating how event culture is beginning to dominate our leisure time.
Vienna and much of the rest of Europe is currently in the grip of the UEFA European Football Championship—and not, really, as some like to think, in the claws of economic depression, concerned about the financial crisis or the outcome of the Greek elections on Sunday. The tournament, which is organized jointly by Poland and Ukraine and will last till the end of the month, is being broadcast live on television, on a daily basis, and public viewings are proving very popular for this purpose, since they are capable of fulfilling three important human likings, or even needs, simultaneously, namely, watching television, attending a sport event, and having company.
(There is no implied value order in the previous listing as I would not know what is actually more important and probably individuals differ in this respect, i.e. some favor (big) television (screens) over sports and sociability, others are there for the sociability first and foremost, yet others are just interested in sport but agree to be dragged along to a public viewing as a proxy for the dearly missed life experience of the football stadium).
As for the beach, there is, of course, no beach in Vienna since Austria is a land-locked country and as such has no sea, but with some imagination, and given its watery quality and despite its green color, the Danube can be thought of as an alternative. Moreover, in order to help our imagination even further, several club owners fly in tons of sand from far-away exotic countries and pile it up on their pavements—and some will even forego the need for water and will simply rely on sand to activate the imaginations of their clientele. And this is how it is possible to spend an evening in Vienna, at the beach, watching football.
I don’t mean to be deprecating of such events. In some ways they represent innovative means of bringing people together to have fun and that is a good thing. What’s more, football can be an interesting sport to watch, even for those, like myself, who is not really a fan. Nonetheless, I do find the rapid proliferation of event culture somewhat worrisome. Today, it is almost impossible to access the public sphere without staging or participating at an event of some sort. That is not only true of sports but also of the arts and, increasingly, also of politics, whether of the conventional or contentious type.
For sure, performance and make-believe have always been important elements of our public lives and public personae and, therefore, one could argue, there is nothing really new under the sun, the only difference being that in modern times, technology makes it possible to stage, and put on record, even more memorable happenings. The problem I see has rather to do with the numerous ways in which event culture is beginning to also colonize our private lives and leisure, and, hence, also the few spaces (and times) left for reflection or intimacy.
Nowadays, one is almost tempted to go through life hopping from one to another event, making superficial friendships and forming trivial opinions on the way, yet still continuing to lead a cocoon life alone or preferably à deux, and without ever really opening up to anything new that is not pre-packaged. To me that sounds more like distraction than experience—but maybe I got something wrong …
This is hopefully the first of a series of blogs on public spaces of summer-time Vienna