Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Beautiful destruction: Einstürzende Neubauten's biography

[first time appeared in The Wire #339]

Blixa Bargeld and Einsturzende Neubauten: German Experimental Music
Jennifer Shryane

Ashgate 253pp Hbk

The first full-length study on the band, Jennifer Shryane’s book is already more in-depth and interdisciplinary than any fanatic of the group could demand – it was researched for a decade, and it has 17-pages of bibliography. A paradigmatic cult band and one of the most esthetically powerful bands of post-punk era surely deserves this kind of investigation. But on devouring the erudite pages of philosophical, cultural and artistic references one may have a feeling that the original topic gets a bit lost, or rather that the author’s flow has been suppressed to fit the rigours of academic presentation, thus obscuring Neubauten’s pop-cultural origins.

Einstürzende Neubauten - Interim Lovers from on Vimeo.

With Neubauten academic approach seems initially apt: their roots come from the high art just as pop and it is precisely the way they play with both the high and the low, that demands studying. Their meaning exceeds music or the Neue Deutsche Welle scene they helped defining by opposing everything it soon came to stand for. Their music embodied a vision of post-war West Germany: from the perfect name, to Entartete Kunst, cold war, DDR, Berlin Wall, Vergangenheitsbewältigung (German for ‘overcoming the past”, referring to the post-Nazi era just as to the post-unification process), architecture of ruins, decomposing cityscapes, fall of industry, Cage, Stockhausen, trash, punk, destruction, morbidity, dada, and in general the bleakest unfulfilled promises of modernity. You can’t think of them without seeing the city of Berlin, which was their site of creativity/destruction, and indeed they contributed to its lasting image as infinitely edgy place of experimentation, even if it bears little resemblance to the current reality. They also pressed heavily on the "Ostalgic" buttons, having had played in Berlin's Palast der Republik in 2004 shortly before the venue was demolished for purely ideological reasons, again, as a part of "overcoming the past".

The book is most interesting when it traces the historical meanings of the generation of so-called Nachgeboren (‘born later’, after Brecht’s famous poem), stylistically put between Darmstadt school of Serielle/Elektronische Musik and Kosmische-Krautrock eruption. Bargeld himself quotes Can, Kraftwerk and NEU! as major inspirations. It’s articulated, why Neubauten were cut off from, for example, the NDW label, as it become a curseword in result of German labels' rather careless ferocious signing and later - an easy term to put any German band from that era to the same sack. Still, musically, with time it seems it's the dance-rhythm oriented bands, like D.A.F., Grauzone or Palais Schaumburg, that get resurrected in pop music. It is because EN never were a band of tunes, they were a band of style, more like a conceptual theatre of method actors or performance artists, a cabaret in a post-Baader Meinhof house of fear that Berlin was, reenacting the German trauma in their driven shows. With their name calling for ‘new buildings’ to collapse, they were the model for a post-68 disillusioned generation lost in the ashes of history, unsettled by the uneasy peace West Germany had made with its past.

It is this cultural meaning that still haunts the arts and esthetics. They keep being referenced by the new generations of visual artists: in 2007, Jo Mitchell performed Concerto For Voice & Machinery IIat London’s ICA, a reconstruction of an infamous  Neubauten-related performance at the same venue in 1984 featuring Genesis P-Orridge and Frank 'Fad Gadget" Tovey, which caused some riots and destruction.

Shryane is passionate for ultra-modern elements of the band: the meaning of rubble, ruins, decay, destruction. Even when it comes to describing the music and sound itself, usually the weakest points of academic music books, it’s engaging, focusing on vocal, writing, sound and pivotal instrument-making techniques. What then makes it in the end underwhelming? Perhaps the presentation itself. We don’t really learn the way Blixa & co were absorbing influences or whether the namechecking by Bargeld came later. It’s great to know Bargeld acquired singing techniques from Artaud, Heiner Muller (a father figure and one of many, it seems), Diamanda Galas, Dadaist performances, cabaret and non-western practices, but it should be clear, that what Bargeld was absorbing is not identical with his creation. At points one would like the author to analyse the influences themselves, minus the band. Still, we have no doubts that their reading of Benjamin’s ‘Destructive Character’ and bringing it, with the meaning of ruins and faded industry, to music was really interesting. I only protest, when I’m supposed to consider still menacing what Bargeld is doing right now. Why was this band so subversive and revolutionary, if they fit so smoothly a set of high-art references? Without doubt, all the initial menace has faded by now, but the question is rather: was it there at all?

You’ve noticed the name written separately in the title and it’s not accidental: from his lyrics and way of life we know he likes being on the frontline. He smoothly adapted to the role of a celebrity and in a contemporary creativity-driven era, he’s a perfect gallery product, giving mostly poetry readings to his faithful audience who frankly, would probably just as well appreciate his reading of a laundry list. It’s obviously a result of his earlier output and charisma, but let’s not deceive ourselves: it’s as badass a thing now as having a latte in a Mitte bar. Fortunately, the book is rather a portrait of the whole era, not Bargeld, with compelling commentary on the newest German history and place of culture in it, best defined by “transparency” of sir Norman Foster’s Reichstag and Frau Merkel’s policies.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Ancien Regime: Laibach in Retrospective

[a full version review of a gig which appeared in The Wire #340]

Laibach – Monumental Retro-Avantgarde Show
Tate Modern, LondonUK

Every movement that tries to perpetuate itself, becomes reactionary – said no one else than Marshall Tito, repeating Marx. Ask Laibach fans what they think about it, gathering that windy night around sinister edifice of Tate Modern, monochromely clad in black leather ankle-length coats, white shirts with omnipresent medical looking Malevich crosses, thigh-high platforms and officer boots. The discipline of a Laibach fan is military, not only to get the quickly disappearing tickets. Like mercenaries for hire, wristbanded, we queque, surrounded by men in black, no matter, if you’re Mute's Daniel Miller, Hanif Kureishi or Anat Ben-David, we, the Laibach Police. As long as it is for fun and we don’t really have to worry about the rise of the far right sure, why not!

In the Turbine Hall, Albert Speer-like as ever, they’re already showing typical communist agit-prop for the last hour, after a conference that was taking place all day in Tate, where Laibach themselves were discussing their status as the walking work of art. But as it’ll become clear during this show called Monumental Retro Avant-garde, it is exactly the strong insistence on art origins and the relation with the art world, that in the end, instead of adding another layer of meaning, turns back onto them. Problem with many groups of 'conceptual' provenence is that they overtrusted in irony, overidentification, 'intellectualisation' as if it was in any case a road to artistic success. The knowing kitsch, vanity and irony, implied by the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) movement is precisely what is preempting the possible ideological menace both politically and as objects of art. The questioning of ideology and post-modern mindset of NSK (IRWIN, Novi Kolektivizem) begs question as to whether by questioning the political order of the 1980s group was yearning to the early communist collectivism or merely was embracing the western version of capitalism.

When the Fab Four, or rather the inter-generational combo, retrospective also in terms of line-up, enter the stage and begin their freak show, the latter seems more possible. The monumental Intro is stupendous and then they go nostalgic – fittingly with the Retro-Avant Garde in the title, they play a bunch of songs from the early postpunk period as a reconstruction of historical performances at Music Biennial Zagreb ’83 and Occupied Europe Tour from the same year. Milan Fras has the lowest, darkest and most piercing of basses – not surprisingly, Laibach did an opera once – and the first five or ten songs sung in Slovenian possess the dark, menacing, almost chthonic power, culminated in the Mi Kujemo Bodosnost (We’re forging the future), which, accompanied by the images of gigantic factory hammer and machinery, though thrills, provokes instantly the opposite: No, you actually don’t anymore! The constant references to industry, which shaped their youth and pervades especially their early work, can be now rendered only in an aestheticised form in a former power station turned gallery.

Head wants to explode among the intensifying rumbling of the rhythm and the drums. At some point a man steps out of the band, looking like a forest monster, a butcher or rather a steelworker who stepped from the screen, and exudes terminal gargle. The public freezes. More Slovenian songs, like Smrt za Smrt, causes the applause and singalongs of the Slovenian community in London by my side. Like on every cult band gig, there’s a strong sense of a ritual going on between the band and the crowd. Everything seems synchronized. A spectacle is a spectacle and Laibach are better in it than anyone else. I’m drinking the 5 L beer over the Yugoslavian newsreels, party meetings, fragments of Leni Riefenstahl and Yukio Mishima's PatriotismStalin and Tito speaking over the scene, which is decorated with the iconic deer’s head. A deep sigh. When Laibach came to concerts in Poland during the late Martial Law in 1983, at the conference, asked about political views, they said “we are communists”, much to the organizers and crowd’s dismay. What the band was excavating when they started in the late 1970s/early 1980s, was not to call the late Tito’s (the marshal died in 1980) socialist Yugoslavia ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’ or ‘Stalinist’ – as eternal pranksters and born postmodernists, they rather wanted to wind up the 1980s Slovenian society by quoting its 1940s and 1950s past. The aim always was to shock and repulse.

Whatever works: in 1983 it was communism, in 1987 it was “songs for Europe”: a Nazified Queen’s One Vision, Geburt Einen Nation and Opus’ Life is Life. That was probably their peak and the songs of course appear in the gig, as carefully planned encore. Not only it worked at the time as a wind-up, it was really touching upon unhealed traumas and real shame in the country, that was the Nazi era or collapsing communism. The later re-makes mark their nature of recyclers: The Beatles (tonight with Across the Universe), Bach's Kunst der Fuge, The Normal’s Warm Leatherette, Gainsbourg’s Love on the Beat and Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, which they perform as the last track. In theory, what's not to like about them. And in practice, I'm enjoying it, because how could I not, the look of it, the muscular sound, the aesthetics are everything to satisfy my perverted sophisticated needs; it's an intellectualised GWAR for art teachers or Slavoj Zizek. One could say: “they can get away with the ‘fascist’, because they’re from Soviet Bloc. If they were Germans, people would eat them alive.” But they did, with DAF, who not only wore uniforms similar to Nazi in the videos and gigs, Tanz der Mussolini (which also contains a line about dancing with Hitler) and Greif Nach Den Sternen contain quite straightforward fascistic repercussions, for which the band was severely attacked back in the 80s. DAF got played too, their Alle Gegen Alle.

Laibach were the anti-Kraftwerk, a projection of Ian Curtis turned real. In Turbine Hall in 2012 they are stripped to what they have always been, fancy dressed pranksters on sheer dregs of what they could’ve meant in the 80s, a pantomime, a splendid Grand Guignol without much reference to what is now happening in their country: recession after joining the Eurozone and a crisis of the whole post-Soviet region. In them, we seemingly cherish everything, that is disturbing in art, from Wagner to Leni R. to Syberberg. But here, we can start asking questions, whether they really could be put in the same line? There’s nothing they can do to still shock, cause resonance, even if they did a Socialist Realist album on the bad European Union, sucking all the energies from the remnants of the welfare state. Instead, they did a soundtrack to a film about Nazis in space.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Ostalgic Flying Circus

Dear reader,
I really wish I could break the bad and boring habit of only posting the already-printed-elsewhere material. Unfortunately, at the same time I'm now too incredibly busy to write anything fresh. Meanwhile, with the beginning of the summertime, I start a book-writing regime, and to inspire/divert myself (and you, hopefully), I'm going to post here with a great regularity bits and bobs from my vast archive and research and maybe also fragments fo writing. My book, published on the hopefully still cool & sexy Zero Books, if you didn't figure it out already, is going to be on the productive or not, encounters/misunderstandings/exploitations between the Cold War East and West and beyond. It will encompass art, politics, philosophy, design, film, culture, music; but I don't want it to be purely cultural, conventionally attractive as a book (although this wouldn't be that bad). As if writing in a second language wasn't an experience weird enough, the aim is ambitious and it's also political: especially since I've become a "British journalist", I see a growing discrepancy between how I perceived my life when I lived only in Poland and how it is perceived in here, regardless of education or ideology; that noone got the communist years and then the transition right, on both sides. Post-communist countries tend to repress it completely and condemn unilaterally, the western perception is often lacking the experience and is foreshadowed by fetishization. It made me curious, where we, the former Soviet camp, are in the end: are we looking backwards at the past history in a melancholic 'ostalgic' gesture or were we indeed the forerunners of the present crisis. What was indeed the effect of the cold war: maybe rather than split us irretrievably, it provided a mutual great narration, a great history, in which both me and my English partner, who couldn't grow up in different conditions than mine, can find each other?

I felt I have to tell this story of a peculiar transformation from victims to pioneers and back to myself: do I still feel that I come from a "post-communist" country, or did it just become an excuse; worse, do I want to be exotic (are we exotic?); I hope this will also enable me to understand better the current crisis and to construct a new map of influences and tensions, that were and are the shapers of the world I grew up and live in. Wish me luck.

Meanwhile, here's a brief recollection of my current writing in the UK press, which I cannot simply connect under some mutual thread; perhaps this multitasking is very telling of what is necessary for a writer today. Most topically, I written on the Yugoslavian modernism, yugo-nostalgia and its contemporary "albumisation": how a complex story is being condensed to an elegant, palatable and somewhat vain form. This for Architecture Today.

Then, unfortunately paywalled, I'm trying to reassess the vast and splendid career of the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov and his Berlin retrospective for the German edition of frieze. Mikhailov's vision of the USSR public/private life is a complex and unique questioning not only of the image of the daily communist ideology, but also image as portable ideology. Here, you cannot easily speak of communism as something that was simply "done" to people; question of subjugation and repersentation dissolute within layers and layers of image, that denies to unfold itself. It's neither critique nor apology; it's very funny, he's clearly making fun of the ideology, as if he could place himself outside of the system, which is impossible; the girl's buttocks may be only her buttocks, but through the color they start to belong to the revolutionary landscape; is the ferocious color just to prove the life under communism wasn't only miserable? He's intelligent enough not to suggest whether it's good or bad.

For the UK edition of Frieze I interviewed Eyal Weizman on topics, that are beyond anything on this blog; lesser evil, liberal idea of evil, famines, Holocaust, world order, forensics - interview had to be censored at the wish of its hero, because the truth of the Mittal Olympic Tower was not supposed to be given away - now its a public knowledge to everybody. Next, for this month's issue of ICON magazine I reveiwed the much-talked about show of the every archi-cum-psychogeo coat-wearing aspiring London bohemian favorite artiste, Patrick Keiller in Tate Britain. If that wasn't enough of my expansionism, I also dared to review for #342 The Wire an exhibition on socialist experimental music + art "Sounding the Body Electric" in the Polish city of Lódź, which is the most inspiring show I saw this year and items from/around it will feature a lot in the book/on the blog. This issue of the mag also contains my review of the Tri-Angle label showcase in Salford, UK and the reissue of my favorite band's Deutsche Amerikaniche Freundschaft debut album "Ein Produkt de...".

If that wasn't enough, for the venerable Sight & Sound magazine, I also written an essay on one of my favorite German directors, the provocateur, trash lover, social fuse and "a bit of a dick", as certain fellow artist called him, Christoph Schlingensief and his retrospective in Tate Modern. There may be more of that, unfortunately, but I forgot for now. I'll be back here next week with my regular Ostalgic pictorial/musical/other installments. Stay tuned.