KAREN FROSTIG, artist, writer, professor, activist, and founding director, producer and lead artist for The Vienna Project, the first major memorial in Vienna to name multiple Austrian victim groups, persecuted and murdered between 1938 and 1945 under National Socialism.
Karen is a conceptual, interdisciplinary public artist, a writer, cultural historian and professor, most recently engaged in international activist projects dealing with traumatic memory, inherited erasures, and new forms of testimony. Karen’s commitment to issues of social justice is long standing. A number of significant projects bring this work to light, most notably “The Vienna Project,” the “Exiled Memory” project, the “Tattoo Project” and “Earth Wounds.” Early on in Karen’s career, she worked in a psychiatric facility as an art therapist, conducting art therapy groups with women survivors of sexual abuse. The work occurred at a time when sexual abuse and harassment were deemed taboo subjects and at a time when women were still being diagnosed with “as if personality" disorders. The work set the stage for her subsequent development as a public memory artist dealing with legacies of genocide, histories of denial and global issues of accountability. Karen came to The Vienna Project as an activist with years of experience organizing programs, actions and projects in the community. In the late 1980’s, Karen joined the Boston chapter of the Women’s Caucus for Art, chairing the program committee (1989-1990). She was recruited to co-chair the 2006 National WCA conference, held in Boston. In charge of the panel program, Karen developed seventeen panels, consisting of seventy-three established and emerging feminist artists, art historians, journalists, critics, activists, performance artists, ecofeminists, public arts and architects from across the country. The panels examined relationships between second and third wave feminist artists and art historians, promoting new exchanges between these two groups. The conference was a huge success, paving the way for a decade-long celebration of feminist art in a variety of venues across the nation. Following the conference, Karen co-edited Blaze: Discourse on Art, Women and Feminism, with Kathy Halamka in 2007. The book captured an overview of the conference, highlighting fresh ideas about feminist art in the new millennium. The book was organized into four parts: Leadership, Criticism, Collaboration, and the Work. Forty-two writers addressed a number of key questions: What changes have occurred in the last 35 years that are significant and transformative for women and art? What is the common ground between feminism, activism and art? Has the feminist commitment to activism deepened over the past 20 years? What does the explosive number of public works projects launched by feminist artists, say about asserting the feminist voice in the public domain? How has transglobal feminism, supporting women from different cultures, classes, sexualities, and circumstances, enlarged our understanding of feminism? What unique contributions can feminist artists, art historians and art critics make to Women's Studies Programs at this juncture in time? Melding theory with practice, Blaze was also the first publication to document the history of the WCA and its enormous contribution to feminist art in the United States over the past 35 years. Karen continued her active involvement with the WCA for the next three years, becoming co-president of the Boston Chapter with Kathy Halamka (2006-2008) and serving on the national board (2006-2009). She also joined the Feminist Art Project as a regional coordinator (2008-2011). Earthwounds (2003) was the first of four communal projects representing paired issues of power and destruction. Earthwounds addressed the loss of 26 acres of woodland located across the street from Karen’s home. Urban developers rescued the Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Center, founded in 1807 and facing bankruptcy in 1998, by converting the woods into an elite and exclusive, gated community. Karen created a communal burial ceremony to honor the trees and the community members who had worked diligently to save the trees. The project included representation from the mayor’s office, city’s councilors, community activists, conservationists, and the principal, students and teachers at the local school. Fielding a growing appetite for increased tax revenues, the project produced three new city ordinances, spearheaded by the Newton conservators, to protect the rising assault on green spaces in urban environments: the Tree Preservation Ordinance, the Community Preservation Act (or The Conservation Act), and The Inclusionary Ordinance (or The Affordable Housing Act). Tattoo Project (2004) addressed three core questions: What if women were to choose solidarity over exploitation, voice over silence, and visibility over shame? What if women and men were to wear a series of temporary tattoos designed to disrupt the persistent commodification of women’s bodies? What if tattoos displayed the harsh reality of a culture in denial, depicting the staggering numbers of women who are raped and battered each year? A series of tattoo designs, derived from tattoo culture, were reworked to communicate new messages about the use of power in relationships. Reading as a string of statistics quantifying crimes against women, the wearer of these temporary tattoos would subvert popular images of conquest, to deliver new messages of resistance, directly on the body. Conceived as a social intervention, the tattoos would generate spontaneous conversations about sexual abuse in a variety of contexts, including: checkout counters of grocery stores, bookstores, cafes, gyms, schools, in bed with partners, over breakfast, etc. The tattoos would be distributed via the new “antishutup.com” website. The Exiled Memory project (2008) represented Karen’s first international project dealing with Holocaust legacies in Austria. Holding dual citizenship with the Republic of Austria as the granddaughter, great niece, and great granddaughter of Austrian Holocaust victims, Karen was invited to install a series of twelve memory panels, entitled “Exiled Memories,” at the Institut für Rechtsphilosophie, Religions-und Kulturrecht Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät der Universität Wien Juridicum. Karen’s father was a graduate of the University of Vienna’s Law School, earning a Ph.D. in Law and Economics in 1936. The law school regarded National Socialism as a period of lawlessness. Obliquely referencing this history through coursework on restitution law, it was the last of the professional schools at the University of Vienna to acknowledge the gravity of this history within its pedagogical framework. Karen’s exhibition was dedicated to commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss in conjunction with staging a formal launch of new curriculum dealing with Holocaust history and Austrian law. The Vienna Project (2013-2014) was developed as a social action, public memory project situated in sixteen districts on the streets of Vienna. The project posed the question “What happens when we forget to remember?” challenging prescribed habits of remembrance and fixed formulas of memorialization. The Vienna Project marked the 75th anniversary year of the Anschluss in 1938, when racial persecution officially began in Austria. Unfolding over the course of one year, the memorial presented as a dynamic series of performative events, dedicated to stimulating fresh conversations in novel formats regarding the history of National Socialism in the territory of Austria. Fusing public memory with participatory methodologies, the memorial project engaged the Austrian public in a communal experience of remembrance. Developed as an interactive, multi-media production occurring at thirty-eight sites around the city (referencing 1938), the project featured video projections, performance art, installation art, photography and videography, social media, an interactive web site, plus the introduction of an ephemeral “Naming Memorial” project prepared as digitized scroll slides, projected onto the walls of historic building surrounding Josefsplatz at the Hofburg Palace. The “Naming Memorial” featured the names of 91,780 names representing seven different persecuted victim groups, murdered between 1938-1945. These groups included: Jews, Roma and Sinti, the mentally ill and physically disabled, homosexual victims, persons persecuted on political grounds (communists, dissidents and socialists), Slovenian partisans, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. As founding director, producer, sole fundraiser, and lead artist, Karen initiated meetings with city officials, museum directors, university rectors and religious leaders as early as 2010. With three permanent memorials installed in Vienna’s first district, many Austrian officials believed the Holocaust had been sufficiently memorialized and discouraged any further plans for memorial development. From a distance of 4,000 miles, without family in Austria and no advance money, and not speaking German, Karen singlehandedly defied expectations by launching an ambitious public memorial project, intended to impact memorial culture in the nation’s capital city of Vienna. With tremendous foresight, Karen built The Vienna Project’s infrastructure, designed to support project development over the next four years. She established a distinguished, forty-two member international board, consisting of three Nobel laureates and a host of renowned historians, writers, artists and lawyers. She assembled a large interdisciplinary project team that could expand and contract in response to various stages of project development. The team was comprised of artists, designers, historians, technologists, a performance art curator, a social media coordinator, educators, photographers, videographers, architect, grant reporter, research assistants, journalists and consultants. Karen also established international partnerships with twenty-two organizations. By 2013, the project gathered wide-spread support and interest. The Federal President of Austria, Heinz Fischer attended opening ceremonies and the President of the Parliament, Barbara Prammer (2006-2014) was Chief Ehrenschutz (patron). Slated to be the keynote speaker at the closing ceremony, her untimely death resulted in the first lady, Margit Fischer serving as keynote speaker for the Closing Ceremony. Dr. Johanna Rachinger, Director General of Austria’s National Library at the Hofburg Imperial Palace provided space for the closing ceremony. Additional in-kind support came from the Wiener Philharmoniker, performing at both opening and closing events. Financial support was forthcoming from federal ministries, city offices, thirty-nine foundations and corporations, plus one hundred and thirty-six individual donors. Political support appeared in Austria’s most revered newspaper, der Standard. Additional reviews included twenty-two newspaper articles and six TV and Radio interviews, plus 1,212 Facebook followers from ten countries, and 46,798 visitors to the project website, Six hundred people attended opening and closing events, and another four hundred people came to the “Naming Memorial” projections at Josefsplatz. Additionally, the project’s Memory Map, a large three-dimensional map designed by award-winning, Austrian artist, Nikolaus, Gansterer was acquired by the Jewish Museum Wien and placed on permanent display.
Karen has received numerous awards for her work. In 2017, Karen was given the Massachusetts College of Art and Design Distinguished Alumni Award. The Vienna Project garnered tremendous international support. Karen received grants from major foundations in Austria including the National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism in the Republic of Austria, the Zukunftsfond of the Republic of Austria, and the Karl Kahane Foundation. Multiple grants also came from Austria’s BKA-Federal Ministry of Arts and Culture for New Media and the BMBF-Federal Ministry for Education and Women, from the city of Vienna’s Cultural Council (Magistratsabteilung 7) and from Mayor’s offices for Districts 2,3,6,7, 8, 9, 15, and 20; plus the University of Applied Arts Vienna. Grants were also issued from the US Embassy in Austria and Embassy of the State of Israel in Austria. Multiple awards came from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Cambridge Arts Council; as well as Faculty Development grants and Russell Fellowships from Lesley University. Corporate grants came from Kapsch AG in cooperation with CSS GmbH; Raiffeisen Zentralbank Österreich AG; Kathrein Privatbank AG; Raiffeisen Bank International; and Ottakringer AG; also from the Puffin Foundation, the Otto and Marianne Wolman Foundation, and Marcie Tyre Travel Fund.
Publications and Speaking Engagements
A prolific writer on topics concerning traumatic memory, genocidal history, Holocaust studies, public art and public memory, performative memory, art activism, new media, feminist theory, interdisciplinary art, public education and art therapy, Karen’s publications include books, book chapters and articles in professional, peer-reviewed journals. Book publications: co-editor with Kathy A. Halamka Blaze: Discourse on Art, Women and Feminism (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, 2009). And co-author with Michele Essex, Expressive Arts Therapies in Schools: A Supervision and Program Development Guide (Charles C. Thomas Publisher LTD. 1998), and translated into Korean (Sigma Press, 2007). A listing of book chapters: “Activism and Citizenship: Performing Memory and Acts of Memorialization in Austria” in Making and Being Made: Visual Representations and/of Citizenship (Routledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies, 2018); “Coming to Terms with the Past: The Vienna Project as an interactive, interdisciplinary model of memorialization” in Genocide, Memory and Representation (Springer Publishing Company, 2017); “Anne Frank’s House and Memorials as Texts” in Critical Insights: Anne Frank Diary of a Young Girl (Grey House Publishing/Salem Press, 2017); “Embodying Otherness.” in Home/ Land: Women, Citizenship and Photographies (Liverpool University Press, 2016); “Making Memory Visible” in Memory and Meaning: Digital Differences (Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2013); “Citizenship After Genocide: Materializing memory through art activism” in Beyond Citizenship: Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging, UK: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd. (2013); “Transnational Dialogues Dealing with Holocaust Legacies” in GLOBALIZATION, Art & Education, National Art Education (2009); and “Data as Memory and Memory as Data.” In Digital Memories: Exploring Critical Issues (Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2009). A selection of articles in professional journals: “Ruptured Memory on the Streets of Vienna.” Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, Special Issue: Oral History and Life Stories Network (2016); “Performing Memory on the Streets of Vienna.” About Performance Journal of the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney (2014 ); “The Public Sphere: The New Performative Space.” Women’s Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal, Taylor and Francis Group, published by Routledge (2012); “Arts Activism: Praxis in Social Justice, Critical Discourse, and Radical Modes of Engagement.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association (2011); “Importing Arts Activism and the Culture of Dissent into the Classroom.” The International Journal of the Arts in Society (2010); “The Permeable Classroom or the Tilted Arc Revisited.” Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (2006); and co-authored with Michele Essex and Julianne Hertz “In the Service of Children: Art and Expressive Therapies in Public Schools.” Journal of the American Art Therapy Association (1996). Karen’s work has also been reviewed in numerous journals, magazines and newspapers. In der Standard (Austria's version of the New York Times), Karen was named “Kopf der Tages” which translates to “head of the day” (referring to someone with leadership capacities) in an article about The Vienna Project titled “Gedenkaktion als persönliche Identitätssuche” (24 October 2013). A frequent speaker at international conferences across the US and in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, Argentina, and multiple cities in Canada, Karen was honored to be a keynote speaker addressing topics about memory, memorialization and activism at the following venues: Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre Johannesburg in South Africa, “The Vienna Project: Historic Complexities Surrounding Memory in Austria” (2017); the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflictat Harvard University,“The Vienna Project, Holocaust Memory and Social Activism” (2017); the Holocaust Center at Wagner College, “The Vienna Project” (2017); Cambridge Public Library, “The Vienna Project: Building inclusive communities” (2016); Department of Culture and Aesthetic at Stockholm University, “Performing the Archives: Art, History, and New Models of Memorialization” (2016); Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek at Hofburg Palace, “Memory and The Vienna Project” (2014); Art Therapy Symposium at the School of Art Institute in Chicago: Memory: Me (personal) We (social) and Us (global)” (2014); OdeonTheater in Vienna “Introducing The Vienna Project” (2013); Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, “Memory, Meaning and Materiality” (2012); Museum “Jews in Latvia” in cooperation with the Art Academy of Latvia in Riga “The Arbor of Remembrance: Comparative Discussion of Holocaust Memorials Featuring a New Design Concept for a ‘Living Memorial' (2010); Institut für Rechtsphilosophie, Religions- und Kulturrecht Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät der Universität Wien Juridicum, “Erinnerung aus dem Exil/Exiled Memories” (2008); and The Seventh Annual Women’s Studies Conference at Southern Connecticut State University, “Art as a Critical Tool for Women Studies Programs” (2007).
Karen’s academic appointments and accomplishments are extensive, dovetailing her scholarship in the public arena. In 2002 Karen earned a Ph.D. in visual culture, critical theory and artistic practice from Union Institute and University. She was invited to teach at Massachusetts College of Art and then at Lesley University, where she is currently an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education. During her tenure at Lesley University, she worked with the Art Therapy Department in partnership with Cambridge Youth Guidance Center and the Cambridge Public Schools to established an art therapy program in the schools for at-risk youth. She also established an art education placement office, was coordinator for partnership development, co-directed the Cyber Arts Festival "Night Vision” in 2007 & 2009, and partnered with the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center on a major “Passport to Cambridge” project dealing with local issues of gentrification. Karen designed and taught twelve new courses in two programs. She currently teaches “Interactive New Media,” “Public Art and Activism,” “Art, Culture and Community” and “Visual Inquiry” on campus and in an Integrated Arts, satellite program. Traveling to rural towns in the southern and western states, Karen works with public school teachers on topics of arts integration, critical pedagogy, cultural pluralisms, principles of democracy and institutionalized racism. In 2010, Karen was given an academic appointment at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center as a Resident Scholar, where she focuses on scholarship dealing with genocide, art activism and feminist theory. Active on committees and study groups, Karen regularly presents her work as part of the center’s lecture series. She is currently working with technologists at the Maker’s Lab at Brandeis University to incorporate augmented reality into a new naming installation, currently under development.
While the range of Karen’s work is far-reaching, The Vienna Project stands apart as a distinctive, international achievement. The Vienna Project changed the culture of memory in Vienna by breaking through a ceiling of silence surrounding the names of 91,780 persecuted victims representing seven different victim groups, murdered under National Socialism. Up until this point, three of these groups had yet to receive public acknowledgement in Vienna’s public art program (i.e. Roma and Sinti, Jehovah Witnesses and victims murdered on political grounds). While numerous Austrian historians, writers and artists had previously addressed the history of National Socialism in Austria, it was The Vienna Project that definitively dismantled Austria’s long-standing “victim myth.” By specifically excluding Austrian Nazi perpetrators, bystanders, and members of the regime from public memorialization—even though these groups suffered casualties in battle or as civilians under allied bombing raids—Austria’s carefully managed history of exclusion and murder directed at Austria’s minority groups, the physically and mentally disabled and victims of political persecution, was now on public record. Under Karen’s bold leadership, The Vienna Project preserved the identities of the seven different victim groups, while withstanding substantial political pressure to present an undifferentiated mass of victims’ names. An undifferentiated listing of names would blur distinctions between victim groups, create an assimilated wash of sameness over crimes defined by difference, as well as obscure the hierarchy of hate and cruelty applied to the different groups, that was brutally enforced. Technically, Austria did not exist as a sovereign nation between 1938-1945. However, the Austrian people were overwhelmingly in support of Adolph Hitler’s fascist regime. The specificity of The Vienna Project’s reach, noting victims and group affiliations by name, and using street stencils to identify high-ranking institutional complicity with Nazism, starting with the Parliament, fulfilled the project’s foremost mission of making memory visible on the streets of Vienna. Systems of abuse aimed at silencing victims’ voices have long invigorated Karen’s work as an artist, art activist, writer and educator. At a time of global crisis, Karen remains committed to mentoring a new generation of art activists, invested in sponsoring innovative networks for civic engagement and social change.