Kurt Kren. Action Films

A DVD Review by Diana Bulzan

In the Index DVD Series

Something was bound to stir the waters when Otto Mühl and Günter Brus, two artists from the Vienese Actionism, and Kurt Kren, the filmmaker who practically invented structural film, decided on a collaboration. The DVD produced by INDEX offers a detailed account of this collaboration, structuring it in a chronological order and thus allowing a visible change of tone in Kren’s own way of filming and editing, switching from the use of an editing plan to intuitive filming. Furthermore, the DVD is accompanied by a bilingual brochure, consisting of an extract from Michael Palm’s essay “Which way? Drei Pfade durchs Bild-Gebüsch von Kurt Kren“, an excellent introduction and a very useful tool for scraping meaning through the confusion. The short text is followed by excerpts from two interviews with Kren conducted by Hans Scheugl, which offer further information on the context and consequences of the films and a short descriptive biography. This DVD is the first one produced by the DVD-label INDEX, founded in 2004 by sixpackfilms in collaboration with Medienwerkstatt Wien for the very purpose of the distribution of experimental films and video art, Austrian as well as international, that have made a significant contribution to the history of film.

The history of Austrian avant-garde begins in the years following the Second World War, during a time when every piece of film produced evoked a return to the idealistic Habsburgic landscape as if to do nothing but ignore the horrors of the Nazi regime, a climate begging for a change in scenery. The birth of Austrian avant-garde is particularly sensitive to two names, that of Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren, both marking the emergence of structural and metric films. But when Otto Mühl convinced Kurt Kren to film his Actions, he had something quite different in mind. Maybe something that resembled a documentary, maybe something that would lock on to his gesture and portray it in a flattering way. However, Kren took the filmed material and with it made a gesture all of his own. Thus, instead of giving way to the portrayal of the maniacal attitude and approach of the artist as a master of grotesque ceremonies (a role which Mühl evidently wanted to assume and which was most likely intentionally subverted by Kren), the filmed material was subjected to an invasive operation which, in a manner analogous to the Actionist treatment of the body, minced the narrative, bypassed any temporal coherence, thus becoming an Action in itself dealing with the filmic body. Moreover, while his previous films tell the story of a different mechanism that lies beneath them, more specifically a structural gesture based on mathematics (a calculated number of frames for each shot), the Action pieces are filmed without any previously settled frame scores, in an improvised and intuitive manner, leaving Kren with the option to adjust his filming to the specificities of each of the two artists. Therefore, Brus’ Actions tend to be more  prolonged, only black and white, while Mühl’s are more rapid, always in colour, much more repetitive, thus giving way to feelings of hysteria and mania. The viewer is left disoriented, unsure of what he has seen, as any attempt to fuse meaning has already been subverted by the rapid succesion of frames, constant repetions and fleeting back to the same haunting images as if there is a conscious choice behind it all, a way of rationalizing this visual assault on the viewer, but one that refuses to disclose itself. As any sort of coherence is undermined, the viewer’s eyes are left bare with the sight of something he cannot make out, finding himself on an unstable ground.

6/64 Mama und Papa / 6.64 Mom and Dad. 16mm, colour, silent, 3:57 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
6/64 Mama und Papa / 6.64 Mom and Dad. 16mm, colour, silent, 3:57 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The Actionists’ materialaktions deal with the body in a violent and abusive manner that tries to reinforce its material reality as opposed to the usual rejection of its bodily fluids, its metabolism and its sexual function, all of which make up a taboo for mostly any society. This confrontation of the reject pile would have been very badly portrayed in a documentary style that respects any and all conventions – for if the materialaktions of the Vienna Actionists are radical gestures, its rendering cannot be anything short of a gesture in itself. In this way, what remains of the performance is not the narrativity of the discourse or even the abuse of the body as done by Mühl and Brus, but the only thing that is worth preserving – its core, its essence, its pulse. Contrary to what one might believe at first glance, Kren’s Action Films are more loyal to the Vienna Actionism than any simple recording could have been.

The abuse of the body eats away at its integrity – what we will be faced with is a body torn between its functions, its needs and its representation. This abuse is transferred by Kren onto film where even the depiction of the mutilation of the body is itself subjected to a similar process, destroying its unity as if there is no longer any relation between its parts and no sort of dialect between the parts and the body conceived as a whole. The editing done by Kren literally grinds the body so that in the end we are left with mere fragments. Moreover, it is these cuts and repetitions that will transform the Action and bring it close to a form of ritualistic behaviour, placing an emphasis on the gesture of the artist.

6/64 Mama und Papa / 6.64 Mom and Dad. 16mm, colour, silent, 3:57 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
6/64 Mama und Papa / 6.64 Mom and Dad. 16mm, colour, silent, 3:57 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Also, the narrativity of the Action is torn apart – there is no continuity of time, the rule of succession being replaced by that of repetition, slicing the time process and thus dissolving any sort of possible coherence. This allows for a feeling of alienation and distancing to creep in, enticing a dialogue between interiority and exteriority mediated through perception, a feature that will be further present in Kren’s later work, such as 31/75 Asyl and 38/79 Sentimental Punk. How does this play in 6/64 Mama und Papa? The Action film is violent, torn apart then stitched back together, the rejection of any meaning being ensured by rapid cuts which hardly allow the viewer to keep up, leaving him somewhat unaware of what is actually hapenning in front of his eyes. There is no chance for a pause to rethink a scene without risking being left behind by the film, without missing out, the severing of the cinematic process leaves it bare in front of your eyes and in such a way that any attempt of a discursive treatment will have made you miss it. Otto Mühl was most likely upset because Kren stole his Action and made it his own. 6/64 Mama und Papa and 7/64 Leda mit dem schwan are not as much depictions of Mühl’s gestures as they are gestures in themselves. In this way, the critique of the family institution and the acknowledgement of all the rejected pulsions that come with it and of a mythification of the body that ends up being consumed by bodily existence is transferred to the way we perceive the screen. There is a certain ideology that impregnates the screen (more specifically, the visual and its narrative construct), thus the screen can be of itself a construct that has social relevance, embedded with prejudices in such a way that its perception can also be subjected to scrutiny. 6/64 Mama und Papa is the first Action witnessed and filmed by Kren and it is basically the incoherent rendition of Mühl’s abusive treatment of a woman’s body by splattering liquids, flour and mud on it, most likely a metaphor for bodily liquids. Also, every once in a while the Action itself is interrupted and we are confronted with a pair of red lips sometimes saying something inaudible on a white background, this being the opening sequence as well, while Mühl appears in a child-like posture, sucking at mama’s breasts. The film depicts the fragmented body of the mother and focuses mainly on the disarranged and violent gestures of the artist. 7/64 Leda mit dem Schwan  presents once again a woman whose body is sprinkled with diferent liquids, this time including eggs and nails and on whose body lies a swan that appears, in one shot, to stretch out its neck as if to see the surroundings and what is hapenning. Also, the title and at least a part of the Action itself is a depiction of the myth in which Zeus disguised as a swan seduces and impregnates Leda. However, the Action was cut short and Kren had to insert a few shots from 6/64 Mama und Papa in order to complete it.

6/64 Mama und Papa / 6.64 Mom and Dad. 16mm, colour, silent, 3:57 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
6/64 Mama und Papa / 6.64 Mom and Dad. 16mm, colour, silent, 3:57 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The way that Brus’ Actions are portrayed allows them to have more of a documentary feel, particularly 10/65 Selbstverstümmelung, Brus’ self-mutilation. The process of self-mutilation is rendered painfully accurate by Kren, closely and slowly following the self-destructive gestures of the artist, his tools and his head and his face, whose expression is that of utter agony. The artist’s body is covered in a sort of white mud which allows it to blend into the surroundings, ending up being indistinguishable from the screen. Also, if for Brus the Action of self-mutilation was a process, Kren dismembers its very continuity. So for the viewer, the action will not be progressive, it will have no before or after, being something more like a standstill of agony. This immersion of the body in the screen up to the point where the body becomes part of a canvas that is to be painted on is also present in 8/64 Ana, which was also Brus’ first collaboration with Kren. This film is more of a painting Action where the body, absorbed into the surroundings, is also subjected to the gesture of the painter, the entire set being turned into an abstract painting.

9/64 O Tannenbaum, another one of Mühl’s Actions, is a parody of the Christmas traditions of the family reunion around the Christman tree, while making use genitalia to construct grostesque images, particularly the penis used as a nose or decorated using food, specially eggs, spraying different colours on male and female nude bodies and arranging them in different sexual poses. There are trees jutting out their asses and while laying on their back a tray is used for the decoration of the genitals while a Christmas tree rises to the left. Also, 12/66 Cosinus Alpha, which is the last Mühl Action filmed by Kren, presents nude bodies stacked and tied together in sexual positions while sometimes being sprayed with coloured powder and continuing the emphasis on male genitalia. These last two Actions performed by Mühl seem to be an exaggeration of what social normativity supresses and a ridicule of such behaviour.

8/64 Ana. 16mm, b/w, silent, 2:40 min. Action by Günter Brus. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
8/64 Ana. 16mm, b/w, silent, 2:40 min. Action by Günter Brus. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

In 10B/65 Silber – Aktion Brus the editing of the film minces all coherence, permitting only the coexistence of a frantic series of gestures crossing fleeting figures, while in 10C/65 Brus wünscht euch seine Weihnachten, the editing of the material presented circles around a message transmited by the artist, as the lines “Nur der traute hochheilige Bauch” (“Only the trusted, highly holy belly”) are written across his chest, a clever twisting of a line from the carol “Silent Night, Holy Night” replacing the Jesus and Mary with the holy belly [Stefan Grissemann – “Fundamental Punk. On Kurt Kren’s Universal Cinema”, in Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, edited by Peter Tscherkassky, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, a book by sixpackfilm, Vienna, 2012, p. 108.]. The gestures of the artist and of the other participants become increasingly fast and even difficult to distinguish, until their figures remain nothing but spectres, brief flashes of light in the images. On the other hand, 13/67 Sinus Beta is Kren’s gesture that combines the filmed material of an Action with other filmed materials, such as a crowd of people and a seashore, and intersecting filmed photographs, more specifically portraits, a technique that Kren had used before. In this way, there is not only an Action that is minced altogether in order to be made nonsensical, but a certain coherence creeps in, maybe not in the terms of an elaborate discourse, but certainly in a feeling that is slowly induced in the viewer. It is this film out of all the filmed Actions that changes the set mood and allows for something other than confusion to set in.

9/64 O Tannenbaum / 9/64 O Christmas Tree. 16mm, colour, silent, 2:56 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
9/64 O Tannenbaum / 9/64 O Christmas Tree. 16mm, colour, silent, 2:56 min. Action by Otto Mühl. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

16/67 20. September is what is generally referred to as Brus and Kren’s metabolism film, a slow intake of a small amount of food that alternates with the two results of the digestive process, disallowing any temporal coherence and thus removing the body from its temporal flux. The cyclicity of the metabolism is more evidently brought out in this way, while also bringing a feeling of absurd into the process. It seems to serve no purpose and to only be the same repetitive action all over again, without ever ceasing. While the act of excretion is repeated over and over again, it is intersected with filmed material of other people, sometimes apparently doing the same thing in an open field, thus creating a space for a generality that attaches itself to this process. It is as if the message conveyed is that everyone does it, therefore what is usually considered to be the most intimate and private act is in fact the one that is the most common and even public. Furthermore, what comes to the surprise and discomfort of the viewer is not the act of excretion, but the long duration of the film that eventually becomes an excruciating experience.

Together with Brus and Mühl, Kren created a body of work that impecably retains the vitality of every Action he filmed, keeping interest after almost fifty years while nonetheless making each and every one of them his own gesture, perhaps the very thing that makes them still relevant.

10b/65 Silber - Aktion Brus / 10b/65 - Action Brus. 16mm, b/w, silent, 2:34 min. Action by Günter Brus. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
10b/65 Silber - Aktion Brus / 10b/65 - Action Brus. 16mm, b/w, silent, 2:34 min. Action by Günter Brus. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
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