It’s time, once again, for the Pennies, the prestigious international award for creativity in protest signage.

Today our Impartial Jury covers the May-Day Festivities in Vienna—a task made especially difficult by a serious Austrian deficiency in left-wing angst. The Socialist president of Austria was re-elected a few days ago with a crushing majority, and the Socialist hold on Vienna’s city administration seems pretty firm, so there was a certain rubber-stamp dullness to most of the placards, posters and flags, like a Mayday parade in Moscow, minus the missiles.

The Postmodern Cognitive Dissonance Award goes to the Red Bikers, a Leftie version of Hell’s Angels: not for their signs, but for the sight of a bunch of hairy guys with studs revving up before the beribboned Burgermeister on the podium in front of City Hall. The Burgermeister’s response: “Hail to the Motorized Proletariat!”

The Kaspar Muesli Prize for Supine Liberalism goes to the red flag with an outline of a Buddha sitting in the mudra of Passive Acceptance. This noble call to armlessness was sighted in a small feeder group for the larger march, next to a sound truck playing syrupy arrangements of labor songs. Comment from one marcher: “Can’t we at least sing our own songs?”

Can’t we make our own signs, while we’re at it? The Nostalgia for the Future Award goes to the old man carrying a beautiful antique embroidered flag it: might have been a hundred years old. Actually, this award should be shared with those numerous participants who had come to remind themselves and others that Vienna between 1919 and 1927 led an impressively progressive experiment in “Austro-Marxist” government. Who needs innovation when you’ve got a tradition like that?

The Pre-Postmodern Irony Award goes to those few signs or posters that used the memory the Glorious Past to push the present government in the left direction. First in Show to the banner that showed an empty circle, with the header: “Where did the arrows go?”

So now we explain the joke: the widely used symbol of the SPÖ (Socialist Party of Austria) is a circle with three downward thrusting arrows: it, too, goes back to the ‘thirties. The arrows represent the fight against Fascism, Capital, and Repression. As in Hungary and elsewhere, the Austrian neo-liberals have been using the threat of Fascism to stifle dissent in the interest of cooperation against a common enemy, the far right. Judging from this and other signs, the gloves are off. Or should be.

Another reminder that neo-liberalism and fascism are the common enemy came from the very large presence of immigrant groups. The Indirection Award for Cultural Politics goes to the Austrian Cricket Club, who turned up in full gear and bats. I had no idea there were so many Pakistanis in Vienna. Most moving, though, were the scattered groups of dark-skinned folks demanding equal pay for equal work; those were the only hand-made signs in sight.

And finally, the Revolutionary Spontaneity Prize could not be awarded for signage; this does not mean there was no spontaneity at all, just that it was more…improvised. The prize, therefore, goes to the young woman who stood next to the march, without a sign, without an explanation, handing out bunches of radishes. Which happened, by a clever trick of branding, to be red. Another prize should go to the thousands who joined in the Internationale. Last year, I’m told, most of the participants didn’t even know the words.


- Paul Werner

[5//2010; last revised 3/16/2013.]