Kurt Kren: Bastard of Film

Film has a long and convoluted history that usually comes to a stop HERE, at this formal screen that you are looking at now with its modular layout and animated styling. A leading protagonist of the Viennese Actionist and Structuralist film movements of the 20th Century, Kurt Kren‘s (1929-98) contributions to film and cinema far outreach his niche and specialist bracketed appreciation. YES!

Sex, mutilation, pissing, shitting, being smeared in food, and people walking through parks. To speak about the visual content of Kren’s films often feels like a regression to the baby state, where upon we must take something obvious and give it a name. His subject matter is so normal and so obvious that it’s simplicity is overwhelming. A part of the reason for this is that base activities that are normal to everyday life have been cornered by a senseless sensibility of censorship that we are not able to fully overcome. It is in our social conditioning that is conditional to our environment and today is manifest as utilities such as Facebook and leads to our ability to sit and use the computer endlessly.

Let’s take the film 16/67 September 20th, this film contains footage of a man, Gunther Brus, pissing, shitting, eating and drinking and this, and its blunt presentation of these acts is almost all it is known for. Whilst the frank presentation of these actions is appreciably honest, a characteristic editing style is clearly seen in this piece of work. Kren’s technique is a stylized movement between camera shots that is usually explained as an A, B, C, B, C, D, C, D rhythm, where the letters regard a particular camera subject. This piece uses this technique in a much slower manner than other films but still this technique is used to form a relationship with the visual subject, as if in conversation the attention of our gaze is directed from one participant in the conversation to the next. This dialogue could be very boring but Kren’s subject is the human body, he connects it with the technology, it is a part of the technology, it is perverse like a human is perverse, and as such he makes his films in a way that makes them timeless. Whilst the editing technique can be outdated, the human body as a subject can not.

If you want to see the film click here, however if you are easily offended please don’t offend yourself by watching this film.

In 1962 Kren launched his first piece of work that used his flash-editing technique. This technique is not described anywhere yet is widely cited as being an important contributor to the history of film for the simple fact that it meant films could be cut quickly and shots could be only one or two frames long. The mathematical rhythms that Kren ubiquitously applied to his film making are present here too. In 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, etc. rules were applied by Kren but he was working with them in his own way, formulating variables and triggers in his work that allowed him to flex the rules and invert their properties. For example Kren decides the longevity of a shot based upon the length of the previous two shots only increasing and decreasing the sum in order to create waves. This follows Fibonacci, even if not strictly, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 34, 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1.

Kurt Kren’s films could be described as being a kind of video nausea, his work continues to be provocative decades after its presentation and his death. Even when he is not representing carnal acts his films are difficult to watch and the maths behind them ever elusive. Kren in portrait, Rischart, is just as difficult to watch, his image is not confused or incoherent, but it is misleading. The overlapping of exposures in this work create a pluralistic portrait of a man, smiling, smoking and looking away. Where do we stand as a viewer, are we looking at Kren or are looking at the film technique. What does Kren want or care, it is all in his ego to be this way. Perhaps if Kren teaches anything clearly it is about the happy marriage that film and math have, math being formulated and specific and film being a mystifying second perspective.

Peter Tscherkassky, avant-garde film maker, interviewed Kurt Kren over his thoughts and past works. The interview is distributed as follows:

Peter Tscherkassky: In your first film An Experiment with Synthetic Sound (Versuch mit synthetischem Ton) the objects are out of focus and the images look as if they had been created by chance – this has nothing to do with the tradition of avant-garde cinema!

Kurt Kren: Those images had been carefully selected. Chance didn’t enter the game until the film 48 Heads from the Szondi-Test (48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi- Test). I wanted to make a film about human heads, and found the Szondi test. It was divided into six groups of eight different types, all of them numbered. I started playing with these numbers, created a notation for them, and filmed them using a single-frame technique, in other words, turned the mathematical series into images.

PT: What was the audience reception like?

KK: Good! People have always been interested.

PT: Your first and third film have sound, but your later films don’t. Why was this?

KK: I am more visual than audiovisual. In those two cases the sound didn’t quite fit in with the 16 mm film either. Moreover, there is the danger that the image and the sound start competing with each other. The rhythm of the visual has always interested me more. It can produce inner music within the spectators themselves.

PT: Your film 5/62: People Looking Out of the Window, Trash, etc. (5/62: Fenstergucker, Abfall, etc.) is the first one where you use flash editing. Could you tell us something about it?

KK: Flash editing was already familiar to me, I had tried it out before. But this film was the first time it was taken to the level of the individual frame. The rhythm was 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and 34 frames. It involved a written score, which resembled skyscrapers.

PT: The second phase of your filmography – which really can be divided into different phases – begins after Fenstergucker and includes the Actionist films.

KK: Those films were never intended to be documentaries, although Mühl and Brus hoped they would be. They have made or let others make documentaries afterwards, but as a matter of fact I ruined the whole project at that time, by trying to make a new film myself out of the footage that was shot.

PT: Were the actions public, or staged for you?

KK: Not just for me – there were others shooting them as well. I did, however, have the right to say “Cut!” in order to reload, prime or focus my camera.

PT: One cannot help noticing the absence of Schwarzkogler and Nitsch from your films.

KK: I have later often regretted the fact that I never did anything with Schwarzkogler. But he was even more introverted than Brus. I never saw a single one of his actions. What comes to Nitsch, I had difficulties with the religious aspect of his actions, as I have no relationship with religion myself. I once filmed one of his smaller actions, one that featured Reinhard Priessnitz as well, but the film vanished without a trace. The films brought the actions to larger audiences. We even screened them at the Amerika- Haus in West Berlin, although it had to be kept secret from the officials. This was in 1966 or ‘68. They were screened often in Vienna also. The screenings at Künstlerhaus used to be sold out, with more people still queuing outside.

PT: I return to the Actionist films: 13/ 67: Sinus Beta clearly signals a change in your films. You mix other images with the footage of the actions, although Mühl and Brus are still seen in the long takes crawling and dancing in a childlike manner with the female model. It looks as if you consciously refrained from editing, opting instead to show it how it really…

KK: … was. It took place in the “Destruction in Art” Symposium in London, where I had been invited with my films. I found the editing method much more radical than the actions themselves. I prefer combinations such as Sinus Beta and others like that. The material goes together pretty well.

PT: If you compare this film with your earlier ones, you can see a logical development taking place. This is where it had to go, and this is the logical ending. Then you had those photographs of gestures…

KK: They were from a book on mimicry and gesticulation.

PT: Was that intended to be an ironic comment on the typical and at that point already familiar gestures repeated by the Actionists?

KK: That gets explained by the film itself. We were a loose group, and maintained an outward appearance, but there were significant disagreements inside the group. Moreover, I wanted to make different films, such as 17/68: Grün-rot (17/68: Green-red), the one with the shattered beer bottle. It is also a very erotic film.

PT: Yes, but the eroticism is very aggressive, like in the actions.

KK: I no longer made films with the Actionists, just some photos of Brus, her daughter and an egg, etc. But I had it in mind to make something about defecating, and I happened to meet Brus and Schwarzkogler in a café. Brus asked if I wanted to photograph him taking a crap, and I said no, let’s make a film instead. Combined with eating, drinking and urinating it became 20. September.

PT: It arouses strong reactions even today. People laugh, however…

KK: Yes, but it is quite a particular kind of laughter, like in Pasolini’s Salò. Then in 1968 was the episode with the National Bank of Austria. I used to work there, but I was never welcome. My father had arranged the position, they owed him that much, because the Wiener Giro- und Kassenverein had sacked him during the Nazi period. I was a black sheep from the very beginning, but I had the status of an official and therefore couldn’t be dismissed.
When I returned from my first trip to America I though I would manage somehow, and let them know that I would quit by the end of the year. After a while, in June, the “Art and Revolution” event, or the so-called university outrage, took place, and made the headlines in the Blauer Montag. My name was also mentioned in the headlines, along with citations from the Süddeutsche Zeitung of “girls from good families” running out from the theatre in order to throw up as a reaction to 20. September. The film was screened in Munich then. On Wednesday I was called into the department of personnel administration and given the notice, saying that I have been dismissed immediately. They would pay may salary until the end of the year, though. I should have withdrawn my own application to leave and sue them, that would certainly have earned me an early retirement with full pension, but I just wanted to get out.
I turned on my heels and walked out of the bank. But after all it was a job where I could remain myself. During that time I wrote my scores, and also edited Mom and Dad (Mama und Papa) and Leda and the Swan (Leda und der Schwan). In the evenings I would return from work and brush the dust of the bank off my clothes. It was quite something else than being a museum attendant in Houston… and they had good food at the bank, too. But I thought: I will make it, somehow!
The problem is that nobody buys films – you can’t hang them on your walls as status symbols. We did, however, make small boxes covered with serigraphs together with the painter Wolfgang Ernst. They contained serigraphs of my scores, some of my photographs and one Super-8 print of one of my films each. We sold them for 150 Deutsche Marks from 1971 onwards. I heard one was auctioned at Düsseldorf recently for 1800 Marks…

PT: When did you move to the United States for real?

KK: In 1978, from Munich. I had sent a card with a picture of the heads from the Szondi-Test to about a thousand addresses. I received some replies, and criss-crossed across the United States. Just before I was to depart an event entitled “Film and Sexuality” took place. The police raided it and confiscated the films, including my film Cartoon: Balzac and the Eye of God (Zeichenfilm oder Balzac und das Auge Gottes). The public prosecutor described the film for pages and pages… although it runs only for a couple of seconds. They regarded it as a case of disturbance of public order and an infringement of religious whatever. It doesn’t startle anyone in the USA, however, because they don’t recognise the triangle as the eye of God – even though they have it printed on the dollar bill, right above the pyramid.
In any case, at the time I assumed the police got that one film only, but on the evening before my departure I found out that they had confiscated the entire reel that I was going to screen over there. Despite all this, I got married during my tour, just like in the film American Dream. We then came to Berlin via the German Academic Exchange Service, and after a year got divorced. The film tours went very well, until Reagan became president. His slogan, “Less government, more freedom” didn’t materialise in cinemas any more than it did in the social welfare services. The popular, so-called independent film reigned at the box office, because it brought in bigger audiences.

PT: Your own films of that time are very melancholic.

KK: Yes, my personal situation was completely chaotic and I looked for order through my films. I finished three films during that period, “bad home movies” as I like to call them. I always put in them a story about my cars, too. 40/81 Breakfast in the Grey (40/81 Breakfast im Grauen) was filmed when I spent time in New England with my friends, pulling down old houses ripe for demolition and selling the timber. I was the nail puller; I pulled nails out of boards.

PT: Those images are very important and symbolic to me: crumpling, collapsing houses, something breaking down – it is very touching. The same applies to your film 41/82 Getting Warm: interior shots, America as you only can imagine it, a television in the middle of the room, turned on perpetually, next to an unmade bed with someone lying in it occasionally, sometimes empty… these are very sad images, but ones that still evoke a kind of homesickness. You used to live in your car at the time, didn’t you?

KK: I did. Reaganomics caused many people to lose their homes, their jobs, their cars, forced them to sit on the streets with their families. And me in my car, it was strange… The early winter in New England was quite cold, so I moved through California to Texas, arriving first in Austin. Parts of Getting Warm were shot there.
I would be standing in front of the Texas Employment Commission at seven in the morning; people who needed cheap labour used to call there. I still had my 300 dollar Thunderbird then, and it still looked decent inside, and the only reason I got hired often was that I could take in a couple of passengers. The bottom of the car would often scrape the ground. But eventually even those jobs became hard to find.

PT: How about 44/85 Foot’-age shoot’- out, your last film?

KK: It came about in the following manner: when I returned home in the evenings I was completely exhausted and unable to do anything. I laid down, and could have slept for a day or two, really. But, surprisingly, I received a letter from the San Francisco Cinematheque. They wanted me to make a film to be screened at the Chinese Theatre – with only a two weeks’ warning! A reel of colour negative was included with the invitation.
There I was, wondering what to do next. The stress of the situation made me furious: what are they doing to me, it felt to me almost like being raped. That is what the title of the film came from: a film duel, a footage shootout.
I was really worked up, and then I met Bruce Conner who was covering a story in Houston. “Forget it, they are out of their minds!”, he said, but I couldn’t do that. I just thought, “Shit, I’m going to do it now!” Furiously, I shot the Houston skyline with my camera – that’s all there is in Houston anyway – and then even the film got stuck in the camera. I ripped it out of the camera and shoved it in the express envelope that had come with it, complete with the address of the film laboratory, and mailed it away. They had added the music from Once Upon a Time in the West in ‘Frisco. It was less famous in the States. In Europe it is apparently known by everyone, and I hear they even use it in commercials.

PT: Could you imagine yourself doing teaching work?

KK: I hate school a priori. They only produce new teachers. All the Art Schools, they are just machinery producing new teachers. My advise to students: don’t make films – go straight on the dole!

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