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  • What Fears May Come?
  • Christine Sustek Williams (bio)
Phobiarama, concept by Dries Verhoeven, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, Austria, May 11–22, 2018.

As we enter the space to see Dries Verhoeven’s Phobiarama, audiences are stripped of personal objects, paired up with strangers, and sent down a darkened hallway with numbered doors. Set in the thriving Museum Quarter in Vienna as part of the 2018 Weiner Festwochen, the performance occurs in a carnival tent reminiscent of a funhouse, including flashing bulbs and an eerie musical score. As the gathering of twenty participants is sent down the hallway into the dark, each pair has to decide how to proceed for the duration of the performance. Phobiarama centers on an immersive experience in which audience members are confronted with fears both real and imagined, triggered by the surrounding environment.

Dries Verhoeven is an artist who exists on the boundary between performance and installation art, emphasizing aspects of everyday reality and contemporary social engagement within his art through intermedial performance. He is concerned with unbalancing the spectator to evoke a shared vulnerability among audiences. Verhoeven is known for provocative artistic experiences anchored in municipal spaces. Some of his past works include Sic transit gloria mundi, a monument and visitor center devoted to the fall of Western hegemony; Ceci n’est pas . . . , which featured a glass booth placed in a public square playing out a different scene each day disrupting passersby; Wanna Play? (Love in the time of Grindr), which questioned the changing nature of love and the influence of the smartphone on life in the public domain; and The Funeral, which included ten baroque funeral masses grieving the symbolic death of cultural ideas and values. In Phobiorama, one of his more recent works, audiences go into a funhouse to be confronted with frightening images and distorted reflections of the surrounding world. By entering this space, we give our control to the performers and to the limitations of the space. The work was originally co-commissioned by the Onassis Cultural [End Page 80]

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Phobiarama, Wiener Festwochen, 2018. Photos: Willem Popelier. Courtesy Studio Dries Verhoeven.

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Centre Athens and Holland Festival, and has been performed in Greece, the Netherlands, Austria, England, and Denmark.

Since 1951, the Weiner Festwochen has sought to create interaction and discourse between Vienna, Austria, Europe, and the larger world through arts and culture. The festival strives to create frameworks to generate new alliances across these borders as well as intersections between high culture and existing countercultures. Phobiarama fits suitably within this framework as a performance that breaks down the dividing line between performers and spectators, taking audiences on an amusement park ride dramatizing the angst-fueling rhetoric of politics and contemporary media.

The performance program notes that Phobiarama “presents a counterpart to the fearmongering of terrorists and populists in Europe’s cities”; indeed, the rising tide of populism across Europe makes this piece especially timely. Six months prior to the premiere of the performance, the new Austrian government took office and included the populist Freedom Party in the new coalition government. These political shifts have been echoed across Europe and in Trump’s America. By forcing spectators to confront the saturated images of terror in the media and then physically to confront our own fears mirrors the levels of the distortion of truth and reality in contemporary life.

At the outset of the performance, each pair opens an assigned doorway and enters a stark white room containing a track featuring two-person bumper cars. The track follows around the periphery of the performance space, while in the middle of the room is a maze of walls and doorways that becomes the playing area for the performers. The outside walls are lined with analog television sets playing static. As each pair climbs into their assigned car, the televisions begin displaying distorted coverage of terrorist attacks and images of social unrest. The soundscape is extremely loud, almost painful at times; the environment is meant to serve as a heightened version of the twenty-four-hour news cycle we confront on a daily basis. As the cars begin to automatically move slowly around the track...


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