Jan Svenungsson

Heiser, Jörg; Svenungsson, Jan. "Lieber zu viel als zu wenig. Kunst, Musik, Aktionen zwischen Hedonismus und Nihilismus (1976–1985)", in: Neue Review, Ausgabe 3, Oktober 2003

Jörg Heiser: This August the famous SO36 punk club in Kreuzberg turned 25 years old. Just across the street on Oranienstraße, this exhibition hailed the times of 1978 that sparked Punk, New Wave and not least "New German Painting". Oddly enough, the club, which has a hotch-potch-program these days, including everything from Loveparade-Superstars to Karma-Club with India-feeling to plain old Pubrock-Punk, is refurbishing it's floor over the summer – and the legendary parquet is up for sales. I must say the show at ngbk itself had an air of nostalgia too, though it remained rather minimal in terms of presenting souvenirs. The history of Neue Deutsche Welle and the Neuen Wilden has been subjected to several historicizations (spelling?) already in Germany, not least in the book "Verschwende Deine Jugend" (Waste Your Youth, after a song by Düsseldorf outfit DAF, now also title of a feature film), which is about the Düsseldorf scene. I wondered whether you think this show gives you enough of an idea of this history? Is it possible to connect to it from a non–German perspective?

Jan Svenungsson: Frankly, I was surprised by the conception of the show, and its low level of "noise". It seemed so timid. As I remember punk there was noise everywhere, of all kinds. There is this enormous painting of a subway train, by Bernd Zimmer, lining one long wall, but apart from it there is very little that stimulates visual imagination. No documentary photos. No gallery of personalities. No biographies. Two rooms with music samples, but apart from the name of song and band no information on what is what or why. Some experimental films. For an exhibition with a historic character I want to see the main connections (between people, places) first, and progress from there. In Sweden, during the same period, Berlin had a mythic aura. Every other punk band had a song about the Wall... and everyone was convinced there was so much going on in Berlin – but nobody knew much. And very little actually travelled – except the painters. Was it in fact a very elitist scene: in the catalogue I read about all those art professors hanging out at SO36? Maybe West-Berlin as a place was so weird to begin with that the revolt aspect of punk was brought immediately onto a meta level?

Jörg Heiser: Whether it was an elitist scene? Yes and no. SO36 was frequented by artists and professors, but Ratinger Hof in Düsseldorf was even more so (in fact Düsseldorf was more sophisticated, Punk and New Wave there were already a reaction not least to Beuys and Kraftwerk). The interesting thing about that time is that, at least for moments, the line between intellectuals or artists on the one hand and ‘proletarian’ street kids on the other blurred. The former envied the latter for their raunchy directness, while they in turn beat them up for being too arrogant and know-it-all. (Kippenberger’s famous painting “Dialog mit der Jugend”, Dialogue with the Youth, is the deadpan work based on himself being severely beaten up by a drunken guy at the SO36; the piece is referred to in the catalogue, but not shown). But still they hung out in the same bars and clubs night after night. That was the very mixture that promised ‘revolt’. I’m too young to know first hand, but the book “Verschwende Deine Jugend” with its oral history of people who were part of the scene gives – in contrast to this exhibition – a vivid idea.
The painting by Bernd Zimmer that you mention was originally shown at SO 36, a long tube of a space quite similar (though bigger) than the ngbk, for just one day. For better or worse, it was a rock club prop. This is crucial information that makes it possible to think of it in terms of graffiti or ‘environment’, rather than large scale museum painting. This crucial information is only given, in passing, in the catalogue – not in the exhibition. That’s the biggest issue I have with this show: it takes punk’s negation of thoroughness, history, and didactics as an excuse for sloppy curating. Not only are there many omissions, the most obvious being the Einstürzende Neubauten, who embodied the “Endzeit”–pathos of Berlin most vibrantly (there is a song or two on the compilation played in the last room, but that’s it; they possibly declined to participate with more than that). But also is information virtually made inaccessible. The first space you enter is in itself a great idea – to have a kind of “floodgate”, a “rubber cell” of listening (metal floor, foam wall panels, two speakers, and nothing else) so you can call to mind the impact of “noise” this music once and still has (provided that they haven’t turned down the volume because the bookshop owners next door complained). But then when you want to know what band or song you are actually listening to, no info is provided. So it’s either only for those who are in-the-know anyway, or those who take the music as an indifferent Zeitgeist backdrop: two horrible alternatives.

Jan Svenungsson: It's an interesting problem: how do you tell the story of a movement which was intent on negation (actually, I'm not sure whether that is a true description of the deeper motivation of punk, but let's say so). If you want to make the act of negation come alive you will have to do the opposite: affirm it. Negate the negation. For an exhibition about punk I see two possible ways: either maximum blast and re-creation (which would have meant that first room unbearably loud...), or detailed social history and analysis, with diagrams of influences and strategies. I guess I would have preferred the latter version, because there is a number of things I would like to know about this period. I actually did make a brief visit to the Berlin scene, in early 1981. My band had made a record and when I travelled I tried to sell it to some alternative places (in those days my ideas of international distribution were rather naive...!). Rough Trade had taken it and now I was in Berlin looking for some similar place. I found Zensor on Belziger Strasse, and the guy behind the counter bought a few. We started talking and he seemed an interesting and connected type. I got the idea I should interview him and some others about the scene in Berlin (it later became my first published article). He was all for it and proposed I talk not only to him but to a girl who was also working in the shop. And so it happened that I came to interview Frieder Butzmann and Gudrun Gut. Gudrun was positively charismatic, and very ambitious. She was about to launch Malaria. The group had not yet played live but there was a record, and you could sense that this was going to be important. One thing that struck me was the way she was totally in control of her image. No negation or sloppiness here: she was aware of her face. In the exhibition there are some primitive music videos with FSK and one with Malaria. Look at the way FSK seem awkward and antiquated, whereas Malaria still projects authority. They wanted to reach out, like all good artists. That's why I don't believe in the myth of negation.

Jörg Heiser
: I think any kind of recent history – i.e. as long as the main protagonists are still alive – can only be adequately based on oral history. Not in the sense of ultimate authenticity, but in the sense simply of highest level of information – including all attempts to mystify and legitimise the own position, which is interesting in itself. Those people are still alive, and possibly still kicking, and I find it such a waste to just ask them to go into their cellars and send some of their old stuff – as this exhibition seems to have been created – rather than interviewing them in person, or use existing interviews, and making that accessible in a very pragmatic way. These people are wells of information that should be tapped. As to the negation question: FSK were precisely part of what could be called strategic over affirmation. One of their best early songs is “Ja zur modernen Welt” (“Say Yes to the Modern World”) – they were one step ahead in that they already questioned the comfortable posture of negation. Maybe that’s why they seem ‘antiquated’ to you, because they played on this. Their whole ‘oeuvre’ between 1980 and 1985 (a time the show claims to cover) is very sharply and quickly moving from ‘stiff’ New Wave Punk to countryesque ballads, they were purposefully out of joint (the closest thing to them in the Anglo-American music scene are probably The Mekons). Just a couple of years later they appeared in jeans, suede shoes and lumberjack-shirts (long before Grunge), again counter to the then hip New Wave coldness look. All these subtleties get lost when you try to include a lot, but nothing thoroughly.

Jan Svenungsson: Irony is fragile. When circumstances change it might no longer be visible for what it was intended to be. In this show I was staring dumbfounded at a film, 20 minutes long, depicting a lovely young woman in a lovely flowery dress rolling out large flowery canvases on the lawn in a park, and then placing herself on top of them so as to mimic the figures painted. Lovely, shyly erotic and a bit boring. I didn’t “get” it. Later I read this is Michaela Melian, bass player of FSK, in a performance on the theme of "harmlos" (harmless, innocent), filmed by Jutta Winckelmann. For a "punk" performer very definitely meta level! I was intrigued, but I don't know what to do with it. A little bit later in the same program (the films in this exhibition being the most interesting part) came two films of quite another character. First Thomas Kiesel: "Sich bewegen 1 & 2". Now here was NOISE, finally: an intense black and white stream of collage film and abstract material tumbling over in chaos and married to a screeching soundtrack which sounded to me like Japanese noise music from much later. Then the same Kiesel (now WHO is he???) teamed up with John Veght (?), Butzmann and Gudrun Gut, in "Spanish Fly". Just five minutes long, a supremely low tech super-8 experimental film which to me was everything that the rest of the show was not. Avantgarde on speed, indescribable, extremely intense and annoying ("japanese" noise soundtrack again), erotic (but no flesh); of its time (as I would like to imagine it) and completely timeless (in the era of the avantgarde). This film doesn't need to be "understood" and it doesn't need any biographical information (of which – of course – there is none) – but it makes me want to know all about it.

Jörg Heiser: One thing the show attempted to address where splits and parallels between East- and West-Germany. There was a film by Tohm die Roes, from the same year as Melian’s film, 1983. It’s the complete opposite: a guy standing on a grim, shabby roof of an old residential building in East-Berlin, pissing on a sandwich he placed on the floor, then biting off and choking on a few bites before throwing it away angrily. Making that film on the roof is odd, you can sense that it must have made him feel a bit like any other exhibitionist, trying to find a ‘public spot’ that is nevertheless removed from Volkspolizei or other possible intrusions. But the anger is there. These are wildly different approaches which are still seen as part of the same ‘movement’ Punk/New Wave. In 1998, I saw the exhibition “Out of Actions”, shown in Los Angeles, which documented Performance and Happening of the 50s and after. I had some problems with the way it focussed more on the objects produced in the actions than the actions themselves, but what was really great was the way they showed the films: they were distributed among the space on monitors, with about ten short films on a DVD each. You could watch them all in a row, or you could access each of them individually: it must have been very expensive back then to compile these DVDs, but nowadays it’s not a big deal and it allows people to skip, shuffle and focus on individual works, like they do when they walk through a show, rather than forcing them to sit through the whole, unstructured thing. “Out of Actions” was also about sometimes wild, obnoxious, abrasive things, and you could argue that making them accessible in such a neat, practical manner means to tame them. But I think it’s quite the opposite: showing excited confusion in a confused way is boring. Most of these things are like illicit production, kept in boxes in the attic, or second hand record shops – so to uncover them from the rubble of history with an almost scientific rigour is the way to give them back the elbow room they need to hit you.

Jan Svenungsson: Yes, I agree completely. You can never come back to the same place – because both you and the place will have changed irrevocably!

Jörg Heiser / Jan Svenungsson