In Conversation with Kilian Jörg

As in almost all European cities, only around a third of people in Vienna own a car. Nevertheless, in most alleys and streets in the city, 70–80% of traffic and parking space is dedicated to cars.

About cars and mobility; to the series Exhaust(ed) Entangelements and the project The Cars We Like

Dear Kilian, in March you will be implementing the workshop and symposium The Cars We Like together with Rainer Prohaska's Futurama.Lab at the AIL. Both are part of the Exhaust(ed) Entanglements (EE) series. What kind of series is this, what is it all about?

KJ: I designed Exhaust(ed) Entanglements (EE) almost two years ago as an international symposium series that deals with the topic of “business as usual” in catastrophic times in a transdisciplinary manner. What do I mean by that? Almost everyone in the Global North now knows that their so-called footprint is too large and that we are triggering a catastrophe of global proportions with our “modern” lifestyle. Yet far too little changes and no one really feels like they can change – we seem to be stuck.

Hence the title Exhaust(ed) Entanglements – exhausted – or exhausting circumstances that we have to overcome as quickly as possible, but don't yet know how. A bonus in the pun is that “exhaust” also represents the exhaust (fumes) of a car. Since the topic as a whole is so vast, the series focuses on the car in particular, and mobility in general, in order to develop productive analyses and answers to this generational issue. The first edition of EE took place last May at the FU Berlin and at other locations in the city. Further editions are planned in London and Bogota.

I am producing this edition of Exhaust(ed) Entanglements (EE) in the AIL together with the Futurama.Lab, led by Rainer Prohaska, whose utopian designs I find very inspiring. After a rather critical and analytical first edition, my aim in designing this second part of EE was to present small micro-utopias as concretely feasible. In so doing, our aim as part of the five-day workshop is to overcome the traditional separation between theory and practice by – informed by the inputs from the symposium – building practical vehicles that can “hack” urban space in an experimental way.

I think it is very forward-thinking to consider theory and practice together in this way, because if you stay purely in the realm of discourse, while you may be able to present problems in their entirety, you don't realize how many adjustments and transformations the rocky path to implementation requires. I think this kind of building on utopia is an essential part of sustainable “theoretical work” that no longer has to be dualistically different from practice.

(A glimpse into previous editions can be found here)

What exactly is your background, and can you explain a bit about what drew you to the topic of cars?

KJ: My name is Kilian Jörg and I've been working at the intersection of theory and practice, or more precisely, art and philosophy on the topic of ecology, for years. After writing my PhD on very “abstract” topics in eco-philosophy, I felt the need to ground these very important theories in a concrete object and thus make them more generally understandable: the car fits the bill like no other object. Because everyone has an affectively charged relationship with the automobile, whether they want to or not. And if you dig a little deeper, almost everything in the modern world is connected in some way to the car: from the rubber monocultures for tire production that now blanket tropical zones, to the “salvation visions” of the electric car, to proto-fascist, turbocharged masculinity that has wreaked havoc in the hearts and minds of people from the time of Futurism and Fascism to the present day.

My book on the subject will be published by Transcript this year, probably in June. The title will be decided in the coming days. Since I never work purely theoretically, as part of my research I also worked artistically and activistically on – and against – he car. In addition to the project The Cars We Like with Rainer Prohaska you can, for example, also call my performance project Diverting the Public Space…

Why, in your opinion, is it so important to unite theory and praxis?

KJ: I believe that the separation between theory and practice is a very artificial one that has little basis in the world. Unfortunately, most of our educational institutions are built on this separation. Since I come from more of a so-called theory background, I can answer it better from this point of view: if you stay too “purely theoretical”, you can easily become entrenched in claims that are nice, good and correct, but that are rarely tested in practice. There is a kind of stiffness and hesitation among theory colleagues to concern themselves too much with concrete experiments, as these almost always fall short structurally and (can) fail. I love this – and much more – about working with Rainer: failing, trying things out, having fun with the next attempt in the knowledge of its shortcomings; that sort of thing is an extremely valuable virtue at a time when none of us know how we can get out of the predicament that modern consumer culture has put us in. It is a desire for and a joy in trying out and experimenting in catastrophic times that brings playful opportunities where there is too much calculation and metronomic calculation. I don't know whether this is something new, as the “new” is often just a fetishism of the neoliberal sales logic. It is definitely refreshing and motivating at a time when little appears that way from the outside and in the realm of “facts”.

As mentioned at the beginning, we will be dealing with the topic of the automobile in March as part of your workshop and symposium. Please give us some quick food for thought and an introduction.

KJ: As in almost all European cities, only around a third of people in Vienna own a car. Nevertheless, in most alleys and streets in the city, 70–80% of traffic and parking space is dedicated to cars. In the same way, traffic light settings and public spending are geared towards giving preference to cars. A parking space for a car in the city center of roughly 12m², for example, is much cheaper than a children's room of approximately the same size – even though rooms can be stacked more easily than cars.

A look at history shows us that the car did not have this privileged position right from the start: at the beginning of automobile history, only a very few privileged people owned an automobile and the workers, farmers and poorer citizens simply did not see why on earth the car should suddenly take up so much space in their living space.

A quote from Otto Julius Bierbaum, an early car fetishist, is instructive here: “Never in my life have I been cursed so much as during my automobile trip in 1902. All German dialects from Berlin to Dresden, Vienna, Munich to Bozen could be heard, as well as all dialects of Italian from Trento to Sorrento, not even counting the silent curses, which include: shaking fists, sticking out the tongue, showing the back and much more."* People even stretched wire ropes across the streets and there were repeated lynchings. This resistance was broken over generations by the often violent introduction of the car.

The problem with the car is that it creates a “feeling of majority,” even if drivers almost never form the de facto majority.

This starts on a small scale, on streets where perhaps only one car drives through every five minutes, while dozens of pedestrians with strollers, bikes, etc. are constantly moving through: nevertheless, on a typical Viennese street, pedestrians must squeeze between walls and rows of parked cars. We consider this to be normal – as is the everyday danger of death that the car poses. The fact that today we almost instinctively step aside on the street when we hear an engine somewhere in the distance is also the result of getting used to the routine deadliness of modernity (and nowadays this lethality is also slowly making itself felt globally in the form of a climate crisis).

I believe that this micropolitical everyday circumstance actually has major political effects that can explain the above-mentioned paralysis in the face of the ecological catastrophe.

You mentioned the “violent” introduction of the car above. Can you explain this to us in more detail…? Perhaps we can take a step back and you can give us some input on the history of mobility, which goes hand in hand with that of the car.

KJ: Germany's famous freeway plans were already being drawn up by the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. So Hitler is not, in fact, the “inventor of the German freeway network” as he is sometimes portrayed. But what Hitler and his NSDAP managed to do was to enforce a previously unpopular mobility paradigm so powerfully that it then became a generally accepted normality as part of the so-called “economic miracle” of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1933, 0.2% of Germans owned a car. So, no democratic party would ever have built highways. A modern-day analogy would be parties in the current day promising to massively expand private jet runways everywhere.

But the highway plans were a decisive signal to industry and the bourgeoisie that their privileges were not really in danger, even if the party called itself National Socialist. For the interests of large-scale industry and its massively growing sales markets (as well as military calculations for troop movement), the Third Reich built miles and miles of freeways and, as a complementary counterpart, designed the “Strength through Joy” car – the forerunner of the VW Beetle – under the leadership of Ferdinand Porsche. With this, every man was sold the idea that he too would soon be able to take part in this bourgeois automobile privilege for little money, and that he would be able to take his blonde, heterosexual nuclear family on day trips to the German countryside.

It was here that the amalgam of automobility and masculinity, which is still very toxic today, was decisively shaped.

Incidentally, very few “Strength through Joy” cars were completed until 1945, and automobilism was only able to reach its current expansion in post-war Germany – you can only talk about the economic miracle if you leave out some dark chapters of German history. To this day, many laws that massively favor cars, such as parking regulations, freeway laws and many more, are a legacy of the Nazi era that has been adopted unquestioningly into our supposedly “liberal” order. Since then, not only in Germany, but also in countries like France and Great Britain, the rail network has been massively neglected and dismantled, and freeways have been built everywhere because of the clamor to emulate the “economic miracle” of Germany, a country that had actually just been defeated.

My thesis is that without the era of fascism, at least in Europe, there would not have been such a great – almost monocultural – dependence on the car as we see today.

Is there anything positive that can be said about cars?

KJ: There are of course a lot of positive things to say about the car: we all know it and have (almost) all enjoyed it: driving quickly into nature after work or on the weekend is great, just as it is in rain and snow moving around the city in a heated cage – to name just two of many positive factors.

The problem is that thanks to advertising and the normalization that took place over the last century, we have been conditioned to only see these positive aspects: when we rush out of the city center in the SUV in the evening, while ensconced within it we don't notice that as a result the outside space of the city becomes increasingly loud, ugly and more dangerous – and more and more people are structurally seduced into wanting to retreat into a car.

This is particularly noticeable now in winter: winter, with its short days, could actually be a time of contemplation and pleasant slowness. But due to the bright LED headlights that constantly blind you and the massive noise from the unceasingly wet roads, you can't find peace in your surroundings… and you want to escape in a car to an increasingly distant quiet zone. You can't tell from the interior of the car that this is a vicious spiral. I feel like our heads metaphorically rarely leave this interior space at all...

But I would like to address one aspect in more detail: that of the protective space. We will have two experts speaking about this at the symposium in March. Gretchen Sorin shows that people who increasingly must expect to fall victim to racist, misogynistic, transphobic or homophobic attacks in public spaces have a structural tendency to buy “bigger cars” because they feel safer. Based on the history of the American Civil Rights Movement, she shows that the car was essential to fighting for the rights of Black people. Markus Wissen, who will share the panel with her at the The Cars We Like symposium, has put forward a kind of “SUV thesis” that is similar. He argues that the majority of buyers of SUVs are not climate change deniers (as they are often accused), but quite the opposite: the fear of the coming catastrophe leads certain classes to buy a bigger and higher car: because of the feeling of security bestowed by this shelter.

I think that this aspect of the “protective space for cars” briefly outlined here is central to a sustainable mobility policy.

Through it we learn that ecological change can only be sustainable, fair and inclusive if the demand to create less toxic environments not only means that they contain fewer pollutants, but that they are also characterized by less patriarchal and racist violence.

So it’s not only about designing new cars and reimagining the automobile, but questioning and developing our relationship to them anew?

KJ: Yes, exactly. Hence the excursions into the early history of automobileism. I believe that the massive spread of the car has atrophied certain “mental layers” of ourselves that we lack today: the sensual connection to the environment, the trusting wandering around the neighborhood, the shallow exchange with neighbors at the nearby general store or inn – all of this has declined massively due to the pervasive spread of cars. In the same way, a patriarchal gender order has become cemented in the car, as I already suggested in the history of fascism. And to this day, mobility researchers never tire of pointing out that a car-centric transport policy massively favors male “breadwinner” models and disadvantages traditionally “female” work models that focus more on care work. I hardly need to explain that the car is also one of the central focal points of a rather problematic male desire (which basically equates dominance of nature with dominance of women). Turn on the TV: the next commercial or music video will probably demonstrate what I mean.

The way the car is viewed has grown historically and not only affects issues of “environmental policy” in the narrower sense, but must also take its patriarchal and colonial entanglements into account in order to promote future-oriented, different ways of mobility and lifestyle.

I find it striking that “mobility” is largely thought of and treated as a “given” in politics and in an array of sciences. Nobody seriously asks: Why do people commute an hour back and forth to spend eight hours looking at an LCD screen in a glass box somewhere? Why do people have to move a ton and a half of steel to get their dinner? What we now call the “need for mobility” is often due to the car and the environment it advantages (supermarkets instead of general stores, sleeper towns, monocultural agriculture, gigantic supply chains) and would not have arisen in this form without it.

Furthermore, the time that we sacrifice to this mobility at the altar of modern consumer culture is viewed as a kind of “dead time.” Nobody is seriously demanding that the journey there should be fun, that it can contribute to a socially and culturally satisfying lifestyle and that it could promote exchange in society. But ultimately everything depends on the car and its transport policy focus. As a first step, we could at least demand that if we have to commute, then let's at least have fun while doing it... Here we slowly come to The Cars We Like

Finally, what do you wish for the future?

KJ: I think my most concrete political wish would be to regain political self-determination over our environment. I am aware that a “car-free world” (whether one may want it or not) would be neither democratic nor economically feasible overnight. But this is too big and abstract for me: because there are certainly a number of lanes, streets, neighborhoods, districts and perhaps even communities that no longer want so many cars––or cars in general. My favorite example is the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district (in Berlin): according to some surveys, almost two-thirds of residents would like a completely car-free district. Nevertheless, there is not even a pedestrian zone in the district. Why? Because the Road Traffic Act [StVO in German] is a federal law and dictates a system of values from above that originally dates back to the Nazi era and is still being pushed through by car lobbies today, even against all resistance. So my wish for the future would be: politically empower the lanes, streets and neighborhoods so that they can decide for themselves about their environment! Because usually those who live there know best what is needed there. And it's easy to sidestep the accusations of dictatorship that “green politics” often has to face, because there can still be neighborhoods that specialize in car racing or God knows what, if that's what the residents want. But it could also be the case that the surrounding neighborhoods all decide for a total car ban and then the cars go where they belong: on the playground!

The toxic normality of commuter traffic jams could then become various utopian bubble worlds of playful and diverse movement.

Thank you so much for your time!

Image by ©

The Cars We Like:

Workshop 4 – 8 Mar 2024

Symposium 6 – 8 Mar 2024

*Wolfgang Sachs: Die Liebe zum Automobil. Reinbeck bei Hamburg: 1990 S. 23.

Kilian Jörg was at AIL in 2020 and 2022 with the collective project Toxic Temple. Kilian is alumni of the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Questions were asked by Eva Weber (AIL).

The Cars We Like is supported by:
MA7 . Stadt Wien . Kultur
Angewandte Interdisciplinary Lab (AIL)