CONSTELLATIONS AND CHROMOSOMES:
The Short Films of Conrad Schnitzler
In August, Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater hosted CON-MYTHOLOGY: The Moving Images of Conrad Schnitzler, four programs that showcased films by or featuring the titular German artist (1937 – 2011), selected by Schnitzler collaborator Gen Ken Montgomery. The screenings presented a side of Schnitzler hitherto hidden away in studios and archives because the artist, most popularly known as a musician due in part to his early membership in the vanguard bands Tangerine Dream and Kluster, never screened his films publicly—and quit making them altogether halfway through his career. Sitting through a few hours of short films that demonstrated a wide array of art-film techniques, from stop-motion animation to handheld documentary footage, viewers were consequently treated to an inside look at Schnitzler’s personal artistic development: a rare treat, especially in the case of a semi-reclusive, restless artist like “CON.”
Schnitzler’s creative path reveals a subversive streak; he constantly sought to change his audience’s relationship to, and conception of, art and physical space. He studied sculpture with Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf, was a peripheral member of the art collective Fluxus, and spent the late ’70s and early ’80s privately making films. But then, despite creative success, he abandoned visual media, settling on sound as his sole medium by the late 1980s. Of course, Schnitzler spurned the epithet “musician,” too, despite his work with so-called Krautrock groups and a slew of solo recordings from the 1970s onwards. Per Schnitzler (maybe drawing on his art-school background), he did not play music but “sculpted” with multiphonic sound installations. By using sound to explore relations of space and shape, he could surpass the physical limitations of painting, sculpture—even film. “Musik hat keine Grenze,” he notes in On Their Way, one of the documentary-style films screened at the Spectacle: “Music has no borders.”
If one were to listen to his music, though, Schnitzler’s transcendental motives might remain abstruse. Watching his films, however, viewers can more clearly see him figure out the nature of the spatial relationships that informed his more perplexing later output. Nonetheless, Schnitzler’s films share his sound art’s noted inscrutability. Each of the screenings at Spectacle proved his visual work harder and harder to pin down: some of the shorts, especially the Lou Reed-soundtracked WTC (1977), recall the smirking-yet-haunting objectivity of Andy Warhol; some, like Electric Garden (1978), have the stark contrast and simple geometricity of films by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy; others, meanwhile, like Take Off (1980), more clearly possess the character of a music video, with Schnitzler himself on screen as his throbbing music confuses the theater speakers.
In several of the films, Schnitzler investigates the physical space and shape of his immediate surroundings, directly supporting his (and Fluxus’s) interest in dissolving the boundaries between art and life. Zug (ca. 1978), for example, makes art out of life—it features grainy, Schnitzler-shot footage of a casual train ride. For nearly twenty minutes, viewers watch as the camera looks out the window, playing the role of Schnitzler’s eyes—peering up and down and side to side, seeing the station or other trains or the sky or the trees—as the train travels through what is likely the German countryside. It is as if, with each wide swerve of the camera, Schnitzler aims to measure the length and width of every form he sees.
On Their Way (1986), an hour-long documentary shot by Schnitzler’s son, Gregor, shows Schnitzler and Gen Ken Montgomery traipsing through mid-’80s Berlin, taking stock of its architecture and landscape while carrying boomboxes. Periodically, the two place four boomboxes on the ground as though they were the corners of a square, fleshed out by lines on the sidewalk. By engaging the physical structures of their day-to-day lives (buildings, walkways) with the physical manifestations of their art (tapes, speakers), they seem to question how their surroundings dictate their lives—in this case, how does Berlin’s architecture influence where they walk, or sit, or listen to or make music? In the then-walled city, of course, the surroundings are mapped with rigid lines. But “Musik hat keine Grenze.”
Almost as protest, then, the soundtrack to On Their Way is entirely non-linear, a multi-tracked mess of voices and electronic sounds, constantly resisting any sort of groove or legibility. Schnitzler favors how sounds travel through real space—i.e., not rhythmic; cluttered by other sounds, lost in the air—to how they may work in the context of a musical composition. When Schnitzler himself appears in these films, he often has one of his go-to devices nearby: a bust of a human head fitted with microphones in its ears, so as to pick up sound the way a human might hear it. Schnitzler’s insistence on the phenomenology of music carries into his film work.
His concern with spatial relations, the body, and shape are best distilled in his short animated pictures, such as the aforementioned Electric Garden, plus Ballet (1978), Con Film #2.
(ca. 1974 – 79), and others. In these, Schnitzler places cut-out or hand-drawn lines and shapes on a contrasting background, moving them not quite in time with the music provided. Ballet features pulsing circles, like moons or, perhaps, the spots you see when you close your eyes. Con Film #2, on the other hand, features dark shapes on a white background, arranged like a semi-askew Neo-Concretist collage. The film’s silent soundtrack forces viewers to concentrate on the rhythm of the shapes themselves as Schnitzler moves them into continually new patterns (sometimes exposing his hand—his process, his body—as he does so).
Electric Garden, an eight-minute piece featuring white illustrations on a dark background, brings Schnitzler’s concerns with physical space to outer space. Through a series of seamless pseudo-vignettes made up of warping lines and abstract backdrops, Schnitzler takes the viewer, in the vein of Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten, from outer space to the human body and back, all filtered through art: free-moving doodles that flow to the cling-clanging soundtrack. The images shuffle from comets shooting through the galaxies to stagnant planets. Then we see stars studding the background; lines, marking rigid space on the screen, converge to map out constellations. In time, the constellations become human chromosomes, mutating and reconfiguring, eventually into purely formal, Keith Haring-like tessellations. Through shapes—and crudely-drawn shapes at that—Schnitzler elucidates the fluid relationship between our bodies, the cosmos, and art.
That the animation is fairly simple, even messy; that many of the shorts are unfinished; that the footage in the live-action films is grainy (transferred from film to video by videotaping the projected film); that in the documentary shots, Schnitzler is shown creating his music with handheld tape players and rudimentary synthesizers—all serves his distrust of academic methods and categories. Indeed, Schnitzler considered himself not a “multimedia” but an “intermedia” artist, rejecting the buzzword “multimedia” because his various approaches were interdependent, not multiplicitous. In Electric Garden, our chromosomes and the constellations are not contemporaneous, but one and the same. Despite Schnitzler’s mid-career disavowal of film, and his reluctance to show his films even when he was making them, the moving images nevertheless seem to play an important role in his artistic development—in his so-called “kosmische Musik.”
Viewing Con Film #2, in particular, one can imagine Schnitzler mapping a certain sound, coming from a certain source, to a certain shape—and another sound, from another source, to a different shape. The particular tone of a sound, like the form of a shape, often stays rigid in Schnitzler’s “music”; rather than move melodically or harmonically, it moves forward and back, up and down, dancing with other solid sounds. “The Moving Images of Conrad Schnitzler” demonstrates a restless creative spirit, one with clear and practiced motives (subverting our relationship to our physical surroundings) but searching for method. The films require patience, even for Schnitzler fans, but they eventually elucidate a hitherto complex creative process in real time, in real space.
CON-MYTHOLOGY: The Moving Images of Conrad Schnitzler screened at Spectacle Theater (www.spectacletheater.com) as part of a month-long celebration of Schnitzler’s life and work. www.con-mythology.com
Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in Brooklyn.