When the police intervene in a work of art, there’s a good chance something transgressive is happening. If the political aim of transgression, as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White aptly defined it, is to invert and recode the symbolic binaries subtending the ruling state of society’s affairs as protected by law, then its poetics must entail both perceptual and epistemic operations capable of “reveal[ing] the disgust, fear, and desire” inscribed like a secret in the status quo.1 But what exactly constitutes a poetics capable of revealing such critical knowledge? Are transgressive poetics penetrating like the lens of a documentary camera, or do they distort like a carnivalesque house of mirrors? Or does transgression lie less in any one particular aesthetic and more in the conscious act of looking itself? An anecdote from exactly a half-century ago sheds light on these questions regarding the structural contingencies of transgression.
On June 28, 1963, the Viennese police raided Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch’s “Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism” organized in a basement atelier. Intended to achieve an “artistic equivalence between a swamp, human beings, rags, glue, bread, and cement,” Muehl’s contribution, The Degradation of a Venus, was never realized for the 70 onlookers in attendance.2 Only 30 minutes into Nitsch’s piece involving a slaughtered lamb and buckets of entrails and blood, police swooped in, dispersed the remaining audience not yet repulsed, and charged the artists with public indecency. It was not the first time that the Viennese Actionists’ taboo-breaking, stomach-wrenching spectacles were censored, and it wouldn’t be the last.
In the intervening months before he served his 14-day sentence, Muehl finally realized not just this first “material action” but also five more in the privacy of his own apartment before police interfered once again. With Destruction of a Female Body, performed in the spring of 1964 at a new jazz club in Vienna’s city center, Muehl made good on his manifestos and his intent to reduce the human being to just another body among many. Cornerstones of these early actions were the lifelike illusion of bodily dismemberment, the mixing of limbs and organs with other raw materials and waste products, and the creation of a sullied reality beyond the flat shiny surfaces of the “technologically civilized world” characteristic of postwar Austria.3
Visceral mixes of sex, violence, and profanity, Muehl’s actions were always performed with the camera in mind. Accomplished photojournalist Ludwig Hoffenreich, among others, was regularly on hand to document the Actionists’ early performances. While Hoffenreich fulfilled the artists’ wishes for sensitive visual reporting devoid of “gimmicks,” those few contemporaneous films shot by experimental filmmaker Kurt Kren turned out to be a disaster. 4 “When [Muehl] saw the first film, his face grew rather pale,” Kren recollected decades after shooting Muehl’s Mama and Papa,filmed in August 1964, in which the artist inundated a nude woman model with various powders, liquids, plants, and foodstuffs before simulating sex acts with her. “He wanted,” Kren added, “pure documentation.”5 For Muehl, Kren’s frenetic montage, which reduced his elaborate action to less than four minutes, destroyed the sequencing of his art and neutralized what Muehl himself saw as its intended “scandalous content.” 6 After only three collaborations, Kren and Muehl went their separate ways.
Kren’s approach to Muehl’s material actions was no different than that which Kren had taken for his earlier, far less titillating structural films. Although he knew nothing of Muehl’s intentions beforehand, Kren nonetheless approached the filming of Mama and Papa with a meticulous plan, which he mapped out in a score delineating 82 different shots arranged in a repeating series of accelerating and decelerating waves (fig. 2). (The editing on Kren’s makeshift light table at his day job at the Austrian National Bank lasted two months.7) While Kren insisted on a correspondence between the drama of Muehl’s mise en scène and his own masterful montages, the score for his filming of Mama and Papa—its “skyscrapers” recall the blueprints from his earlier films—confirms that Kren was far more interested in “the rhythm of the visual,” with its leitmotifs, crescendos, and decrescendos.8
Charging Kren with aestheticism fixated on technique and form—as the Actionists were wont to do—overlooks the fact that he, too, was subjected to police harassment, denied service at printing labs and film distributors, and suspended by his employer.9 By repelling both authorities and artists, Kren effectively transgressed Actionism’s intended transgressions against the rituals of bourgeois intimacy. Not only did he expose the fiction underlying the artists’ naïve wishes for immediate documentation beyond all mediation, but he also invited spectators to think about how they look at what is supposedly shocking, offensive, and salacious. The fast pace of Kren’s brief film pushes us viewers along, past the tantalizing images we really wish to pause and behold before possibly feeling queasy, incensed, or indifferent. The herky-jerky flow has us reflecting on our gaze, how it latches onto repetitions in vain, and gasps for air when the flicker momentarily lets up. Transgression, Kren shows us, is often contingent on purportedly realistic ways of showing and looking that are endemic to the very status quo it seeks to scandalize. Rather than inverting symbolic binaries, Kren’s own higher order of transgression arises from the tension between the desire to put and see transgression on display and his technically mediated disavowal of that very gaze.
- Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986) 17-19, 202
- Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch, program for the “Fest des psychophysischen Naturalismus” (1963), reprinted in: Vienna Actionism: Art and Upheaval in 1960s’ Vienna, eds. Eva Badura-Triska and Hubert Klocker (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2012) 77.
- See Muehl’s manifestoes “Die Destruktion” and “Das Intrem” as reproduced in: Vienna Actionism 78-9. See also the translation of Muehl’s “Material Action Manifesto” from 1964 in: Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, Schwarzkogler: writings of the Vienna Actionists, ed. and trans. Malcolm Green (London: Atlas Press, 1999) 87.
- For Nitsch’s notion of the photographic gimmick, see: Hermann Nitsch, Das Orgien Mysterien Theater: Die Partituren aller aufgeführten Aktionen 1960 – 1979, vol 1: 1.-32. Aktion (Naples: Studio Morra, 1979) 18. Cited in: Vienna Actionism 130.
- Ex-Underground: Kurt Kren, seine Filme, ed. Hans Scheugl (Vienna: PVS Verleger, 1996) 166.
- See Miehl’s broadside in: Vienna Actionism 142. Kren’s film 6/64 Mama und Papa (otto und soraya) is included on: Action Films, dir. Kurt Kren, Index, 2005, DVD.
- Hilde Schmölzer, Das böse Wien: Gespräche mit österreichischen Künstlern (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1973) 108. Cited in: Ex-Underground 151
- Peter Tscherkassky, “Gespräch mit Kurt Kren,” Avantgardefilm Österreich: 1950 bis heute, eds. Alexander Horwath, Lisl Ponger, and Gottfried Schlemmer (Vienna: Wespennest, 1995) 127.
- Ex-Underground 169 and Tscherkassky 130. See also: Sigrid Sprung, “Kurt Kren: Ein Leben in Kadern,” Kurt Kren: Das Unbehagen am Film, ed. Thomas Trummer (Vienna: Atelier Augarten, 2006) 162.
RICHARD LANGSTON is an associate professor of German literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Visions of Violence: German Avant-Gardes after Fascism (2008).