In her artistic research Barbara Ungepflegt deals with the transformation of escapist places into reality and imagination. The Leo is the central starting point of her considerations. In Austrian usage, Leo refers to that place of refuge when playing catch where one cannot be beaten, where one is safe from the catchers. “To be in Leo” means to be safe, to be able to be prosecuted for nothing for a while. The concept of Leo in its constantly changing conditions is discussed transdisciplinary. Leo is not only examined from the perspective of escapism research, spatial production, cultural and media studies, but artistically explored and tested for its diverse manifestations. The still young Leo research works in an artistic-experimental way by conceiving places of retreat and analysing forms of Leos in their relationship to society, media and politics, dignity, participation, interior and comfort. 

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His spirit loves hiding places, hidden paths and back doors, everything hidden seems to him to be his world, his safety, his labsal. (Friedrich Nietzsche)                      

In my artistic practice and research, I deal with the transformation of escapist places into reality and imagination. The Leo is the central starting point of my considerations. In Austrian usage, Leo refers to that place of refuge when playing catch where one cannot be beaten, where one is safe from the catchers. “To be in Leo” means to be safe, to be able to be prosecuted for nothing for a while. The Leo is traditionally understood as the short form of Leopold and means the Babenberg Leopold VI, also called the Glorious (Duke of Austria and Styria). In this etymology, the sovereign and the church of the 13th century are granted the right of asylum. The expression Leo – so the common tradition – goes back to the Leopoldring at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. This ring served as a copy place; whoever made it to this ring was under the protection of the church and thus “in Leo”. Linguists, however, see a different linguistic origin in the meaning of Leo: “We may attribute greater probability to an origin which sees a relationship of Leo with the Middle Low German le(h)e and the Old Saxon hleo (in the meaning protection, blanket”). Le(h)e and Hleo come from the common Germanic *hlewa, protecting place, shelter. Sailors, of course, know the word from Lee, the (wind-)sheltered side of the ship that is turned away from the wind. Linguistics is still discussing the connections between lee and lukewarm.” The Leo is a protection zone, an escapist place that makes hiding possible. Giorgio Agamben (2005) discovers a deeply human desire in hiding: “The children feel a special desire when they are hidden. From this childlike palpitation of the heart comes both the lust with which Robert Walser secures the conditions for his illegibility (the micrograms) and Walter Benjamin’s stubborn desire not to be recognized. They are the guardians of that solitary glory that was once revealed to the child by his building.”

The joy of not being recognized, of being hidden is found in analog, digital and hybrid Leos: Hour-hotels offer retreat for secretly lovers, so-called hikikomoris lock themselves away in the children’s room for years, office workers find refuge in a cocktail bar, computer freaks tinker with encryption programs, others dive into darknet. A Leo for adults does not have a good image, there is always something forbidden or/and mysterious about him. Escapism, so a common accusation, builds castles in the air and is not interested in change or in the criticism of society. But it is precisely the escapist and utopian character of a Leo that enables change through his distance from reality (Peter Handke). According to Michel Foucault, Leos are counter-spaces or heterotopias that question all other spaces. And they are spaces or places that always presuppose a system of opening and closing, a system that simultaneously isolates them and makes them translucent. 

A further, essential characteristic of a Leo is the location between private, professional and public space; a third place, which suggests a certain degree of intimacy due to its protective function from the outside. Real intermediate locations, which are often inscribed with an (open) secret and which occupy the terrain away from home and work, are subject to social and political changes, are relocated to other terrains, displaced by other Leos, or disappear completely from the surface. The secret and the handling of secrets play a central role. Not least because, according to Georg Simmel, the secret is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Or to put it another way: the secret is a precondition and characteristic of every culture or “every kind of culture begins with the fact that a lot of things are veiled” (F. Nietzsche). Leo as a place of mystery creates distances and draws boundaries and connections between “prisoners” and “captors”. In addition, according to Aleida and Jan Assmann, the secret is the condition for the sacred and the profane: “Without mystery there would be neither guilt nor shame, neither respect nor interest for one another. (…) For the mystery not only holds the human world together, but embeds it in a broader concept of world and community that includes the gods, the dead, and spirits.” The secret as an essential component of a Leo is of central importance for Leo research, as is the investigation of how Leos are constituted, why they change, are replaced by other Leos or disappear completely. 

Filter bubbles, echo chambers – at home in digital Leo?

Since electronic media have become an essential part of our everyday culture, not only have new Leos emerged and are emerging, they are also changing existing ones (analogue or hybrid Leos). Therefore, the question arises which social effects of a “networked hiding place” emerge and how digital and analog Leos influence each other.According to Foucault’s heterotopology and transferred to digital networking, the Internet with its forms such as Deepnet and Darknet is the prime example of the counterspace of our time. The (conventional) Internet reveals itself like a reciprocal Leo: on the one hand, users can hide behind other identities here, too; on the other, personal data is checked and monitored by network analyses such as Big Data: Users are filtered on the basis of their likes and dislikes and divided into segregated neighbourhoods; filter bubbles and echo chambers are created and mark “non-places” on the World Wide Web. Non-place refers to a kind of Leo that, according to Marc Augé, the founder of an ethnology of the “Near”, describes a meaningless place. These spaces do not create an individual identity, have no common past and do not create social relationships. They are signs of collective loss of identity. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun sees the reason for the emergence of non-places, filter bubbles and echo chambers in the programmed homophilia (love of the similar). In her essay Queering Homophily, Chun describes how network analysis is not only based on homophilia, but reinforces it with the help of the method of differentiation and discrimination based on similarity patterns. Algorithms as artificial intelligences determine everyday life; they make decisions not (only) with us, but (above all) about us. If our thoughts and actions are determined by the algorithm of digital networking, the question arises as to whether we are even able to get out of digital Leo. Or is the (digital) future a future of lifelong Leo?

Leo Research

The analysis of digital, analog and hybrid Leos is the centre of my artistic-scientific Leo Research. The concept of Leo in its constantly changing and transforming conditions is discussed transdisciplinary in the various cultural contexts. Leo is not only examined from the perspective of escapism research, spatial production, cultural and media studies, but also artistically and scientifically explored and tested for its diverse manifestations and specifics. The still young Leo research works in an artistic-experimental way by conceiving places of retreat, paradises, utopias and analysing forms and variations of existing Leos in their relationship to society, media and politics, action and performance, dignity, participation, interior and comfort. This raises questions: How does a society change when Leos disappear in the sense of semi-transparent places, half-worlds, caves, hiding places in (public) space and other counter-worlds or hybrid Leos emerge in the digital network? Can art create new, different Leos? Or is it not a Leo itself? Which interactions between hiding and exposing create digital Leos? Is there a class-specific difference between upper and lower Leos? And does everyone have a right to Leo? The research focus Leo, the question of specific, protective places in public or private space – is of current socio-political relevance and new in this form in artistic research. The research topic pursued not only reflects a current social situation that includes the desire for protection from electronic surveillance, impairment of private or private life, the transformation of users into “transparent people,” the necessity of freedom from sexual or other harassment, and so on. Unfortunately, the desire for protection from persecution has also received special attention. At the same time, the theme has long been a common thread that connects my work as an artist, who has been appearing under my pseudonym “Barbara Ungepflegt” since 2008. In my performative interventions I continually try to produce situations in which a considerable – and courageous – exposition of my person seems to have been cancelled out by a secret retreat brought about by artistic means. 

This is illustrated, for example, by the performative installation “Airpnp – air pause and peep” from 2017, in which I lived for several weeks in a bus stop in Vienna. One of the questions underlying my performative and installative work and artistic research could thus be formulated as follows: Which symbolic walls can art offer in order to fulfil a protective function even in largely unprotected spaces?

Airpnp – Air pause and peep, 2017 

Michael Jeuter

In September 2017, Barbara Ungepflegt moved to a specially built extension of the 5B bus stop on Wallensteinplatz, where she spent two weeks watching her living. Similar to a terraced house, another bus stop was added to the existing bus stop. The glass wall of the bus stop shelter served as a connecting and separating element between the fixed and temporary waiting areas. Air pause and peep (AIRPNP) thematizes how one’s own four walls are increasingly made available to solvent strangers and throws the intimacy (of living) into the public, into the outside. Weaning takes place: At home all over the world and yet inside Leo. At AIRPNP, hostess Barbara Ungepflegt shared unique experiences with her (driving) guests that could feel at home in public. A proven observation system served as the basis for this trust: the hostess observed her fellow human beings. And vice versa. After all, the city belongs to you. Until the next bus arrives. Then maybe it belongs to me.

Leo at CARPA6, 2019

During CARPA 6, where she went out before the beginning of her lecture, had a seat in the adjoining cafe and let herself be watched drinking beer. Barbara Ungepflege’s discourses on real and imaginary places of escape, filter bubbles and hiding places could be observed through a window, hiding her face – and thus herself – behind a close-up silicone mask: an experiment to hide exposed secrets.

Pessi Parviainen


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Barbara Kremser

Barbara Kremser alias Barbara Ungepflegt is a multi-disciplinary artist. Her work comprises interventions, installation, performance, video and visual works. She created a new master programme for applied dramaturgy in March 2018 at the University for Music and Performing arts Vienna. Since 2017 she is engaged in her self-established Leo-Research, PhD student at the University of Art Linz (Supervisor: Robert Pfaller) and Minister of Homelandtrash. www.barbara-ungepflegt.com.