Date: Sun, 25 Feb 1996 15:00:47 -0800
From: Scott Stark Subject: Lord of the Frames: Kurt Kren (1/2)

Below is an essay about filmmaker Kurt Kren by filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky
from the catalog of his current retrospective at Wiener Secession in
Vienna, Austria.


Scott Stark

Lord of the Frames: Kurt Kren

by Peter Tscherkassky

Translation: Elisabeth Frank-GroBebner

In 1964, "Wien Film" refused to print 6/64 Mama und Papa. When Kurt Kren
handed in the original, the film grader said with an undertone of sympathy
that, given the many cuts, one would not be able to make out anything,
anyway. His worries were groundless: when Kren came to pick up the print,
some people with flushed faces left the projection room, telling him to get
out and never to come back again. A few months later, a similar scene took
place at "Listo", where 9/64 O Tannenbaum was not accepted. Kren ultimately
found a place that took his films, based on actions by Otto Muhl and Gunter
Brus: a house on Peter Kaiser Gasse in Jedlersdorf, a neighborhood in the
East of Vienna, on the other side of the river Danube. There, in the 21st
district, on the most remote outskirts of town, films were developed and
printed in self-made contraptions reminiscent of washing-machine drums. The
man who ran the business single-handedly intimated that he was used to
explicit images owing to customers from the blue movie scene. The facts
that the credits in a few Kren works from those days are slightly out of
place and that the name "Kren" next to the copyright sign goes beyond the
edge of the frame can be explained in this context. On request, credits
were in-house productions, but they were made with a camera that had no
view finder, for which reason slipped boards were none too unusual. There
were no objections to the films' content, formal and creative issues played
a secondary role.

Be that as it may - the "(c) Kren" jutting out over the frame can easily be
understood as a metaphor of the avant-garde and a harbinger of cinema
outside the screen - Expanded Cinema. It is precisely during the
"Jedlersdorf period" in his oeuvre that Kurt Kren demonstrates some of its
best knacks to modern cinematography.

In his essay "On the question of form" dating from 1912, Wassily Kandinsky
proclaimed that the "Great Abstraction " and "Great Realism" were
equivalent. Kandinsky's text marks the acme of a development in Western art
that started in the late Middle Ages and can be followed stringently ever
since the renaissance. It is a development that oscillates between two
polarities: on the one hand, there is a type of painting that sets aspects
of form and composition aside to depict nature as accurately as possible.
On the other hand, there is the opposite type of painting that strives for
the strict adherence to formal principles in all its idealizing styles.
This longing for a lofty reproduction of reality, which concurrently seeks
to express that which is hidden behind the appearances, unites a great
variety of styles and artists, such as idealizing Classicism, Gauguin,
Expressionism and Mondrian's extreme formalization of the phenomenal world
along the same lines of visual development. Kandinsky deals with what he
calls the other genealogy of modern art which is based on "realistic" art
striving to depict everything true to nature. However, when it turns away
from space to represent the moment as we perceive it, it introduces the
component of time into the structure of the picture, something reflected in
the light application of paint, in sketchy freehand drawings: objects
become volatile. The imminent renunciation of form found in Naturalism (the
reproduction of phenomena the way they appear) eventually leads - via
Impressionism - to a two-pronged approach ending in the disintegration of
form: in Kandinsky's free abstraction and in the extreme realism of the
ready-made and comparable collages of objects from the workshops of the
Dadaists. The Great Abstraction foregoes the mediation of the perceptual
world and represents the creative media themselves; the Great Realism
foregoes representation, substituting for it the object itself. To put it
in a nutshell, the names Kandinsky, Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp map out the
terrain wherein twentieth century art is located. As we all know, the
aesthetic issues at stake in the conflicts between these positions in the
visual arts also come to bear on cinematography with some delay. Their
impact is all the more tremendous, and Kurt Kren's contribution in this
context is no less than outstanding, from a global perspective, too.

Gunter Brus and Otto Muhl: they depart from the easel painting and use the
human body as their expressive central means in art. This common trait
tends to obscure the fundamental differences between their actions. On the
one hand, Brus and his grandiose pathos belong to the tradition of
Expressionism. The way in which he uses paint gives it a continuing central
function as a link between body, surrounding space and delimiting surfaces.
On the other hand, Muhl is the Dadaist among the Actionists. His version of
realism does not need the expressively fraught double bottom of a special
world of signs (as in Brus's surgical gauze, scalpels, scissors, razor
blades and tacks). Muhl's staged realities are still lives of paint, refuse
and food in motion, spirited, and devoid of symbolic or allegorical
allusions. Where Brus arranges a mise-en-scene of creatures suffering, Muhl
is looking for fun.

Kurt Kren enters the picture amidst these two contrasting Actionist
programs - and he, too, reacts in strikingly different ways. Ever since his
second film - 2/60 48 Kopfe aus dem Szondi -Test - Kren had organized his
material according to serial rules.*1* He counteracted the mimetic
abundance of the film with brittle mathematical principles (the length of a
take was determined from the sum total of the two preceding takes: 1, 2, 3,
5, 8, 13, 21, 34 frames). All his early films were edited in the camera by
means of the single frame mechanism. Kren lastingly made his mark in the
history of cinematography when he developed his flash-editing technique
from his fifth film onward - 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, etc. is
characterized by cuts down to single frames. Here, too, the sequence was
determined by serial patterns laid down in scores.

The serial flash editing technique is what Kren uses to create a contrast
to "Realist" Muhl's actions. Unlike single-frame editing in the camera,
real editing enables a much more appropriate option to formalize within the
sequence of images. A single-frame process in nature, as shown in 3/60
Baume im Herbst, has no repetitions; each frame holds a new view in store.
In the first action he filmed, 6/64 Papa und Mama, Kren's editing leads to
many interlocking continuous shots; central takes recur like a leitmotif,
circular motion and networking can be observed throughout the film. Kren
painstakingly weaves the fury in front of his camera lens into dense
geometrical figures. Shot/countershot sequences alternate, jumping back and
forth between single (!) frames, they turn the Actionist turmoil into
ornaments, rigid geometrical patterns, the equivalent in time to what
Mondrian used to distill on canvas in space. Then comes Kren's first film
with Gunter Brus 8/64 Ana - Aktion Brus. The expressive style Kren is
suddenly confronted with makes him depart from seriality and flash editing.
His response is the "Great Abstraction." Free gestural photography
corresponds to Brus's pathos; Kren pumps images of Tachist disintegration
onto the film strip. While flash editing had made Muhl's actions rage, the
repetitive qualities had ensured that the "moving ornament" was still
legible. The single-frame process Kren uses to record Brus's action as if
writing with his camera makes the image almost less than discernible;
10b/65 Silber - Aktion Brus floats even more freely in the
pre-representational haze of gestural traces. When Kren steadies his camera
a little more for a change, he is less interested in the action than in the
abstract traces left by the act of painting - the splashes of paint on the
studio walls. Where Dadaist Muhl celebrates Naturalism taken to extremes,
Kren responds by strategies of concentration as found in Mondrian, and
Expressionism, for that matter. Confronted with Expressionism as continued
in Brus's actions, Kren resorts to the "Great Abstraction'", clearing the
board of all signs fraught with meaning. However, there are two exceptions
to this rule: 9/64 O Tannenbaum featuring Muhl is characterized by the use
of the single frame mechanism and a static camera; 10/65
Selbstverstummelung shows Brus in relatively long takes following an
A-B-C-B-C-D-C-D-E-etc. pattern. These two films do without applying an
aesthetic opposite in terms of structure, and as a result, they are
comparatively documentary in character.

The dialogue with Modernism, which Kren had an important share in shaping,
can be tracked down in most of his 49 films. Not even Dadaist realism is
missing in 18/68 Venecia kaputt, in 27/71 Auf der Pfaueninsel, in 29/73
Ready-made, in his expanded movies. But let's move on to Kren's latest
film, thirty years after he started.

Lord of the Frames: Kurt Kren (part 2)

by Peter Tscherkassky

Translation: Elisabeth Frank-GroBebner


In 1995 Kurt Kren turned the centenary of the cinema into a commemorative
year. The office "hundertjahrekino" commissioned him to make a trailer
which he gave the title tausendjahrekino.*2* For several weeks, Kren filmed
tourists in the square in front of St. Stephen's in Vienna while they were
taking pictures of the cathedral or recording it on video. He used
frequencies of 2, 4 and 8 frames per second and touched the limits of his
lens: maximum focal length (66 mm) and minimum distance (1.2 meters). The
takes are usually two to four frames long, they do not follow any fixed
rule. The soundtrack is a brief sequence from Peter Lorre's movie Der
Verlorene (FRG 1951) in which a drunkard recognizes a killer protected by
the Nazis, accosts him and repeats over and over again: "We've met before,
I don't know where, but we've met before. . . " "When the end of the film
draws near, the same voice is heard again over the din of an air alert:
'Everybody down to the heroes' shelter, everybody die a hero. . . '. Kren
associates the anniversary of cinematography with the Third Reich, which
was to last a thousand years. 'One Hundred Years of Cinema' also means
images ruling for one hundred years, images which have lost there
referentiality and come to dominate reality. The question is whether the
tourists will actually 'have come to know' St. Stephen's Cathedral. When
the voice on the sound track sends everybody down to the heroes' shelter,
Kren pans up St. Stephen's, his camera shaking. At the end of the film he
seems to seek the lost reality of the cathedral, but it has been bombed by
the images."*3* The technical-formal givens mentioned above arouse
curiosity beyond such an interpretation. Tourists taking pictures of
cathedrals and similarly large structures may inevitably move the onlooker
to ask: "How do you get such a big building into such a small thing?" The
trivial technical reply would be: infinity focusing and the longest focal
length possible - a wide-angle lens. As regards the focal length of the
cameras used, Kren positions himself on the opposite end of the scale from
the tourists. But that is not the only point. Instead of seeking clarity by
keeping his distance (infinity focusing), thus concerning himself with
mimesis, he gets as close to reality as his lens allows him to. The low
frequency of frames he works with stipulate long exposure times: in
combination with a hand-held camera and telelens, this leads to rather
blurred images. Again, we have arrived at the figure of handwriting on the
way to Kandinsky's "Great Abstraction," and again, Kren wants to visualize
the other side of the appearances.

What about the people whose outlines haunt Kren's hazy shots? They all look
at the cathedral through their view finders, at the sculptures in the round
adorning its facade. These sculptures in the round of human bodies standing
freely are precisely the objects via which perceptual reality began to
enter the realm of art in the late Middle Ages. These sculptures were the
first formulations of a program that was ultimately to be implemented by
the Renaissance, and its visual echo is still refracted by every camera
lens of this world. In tausendjahrekino, we witness a meeting with the
"Lucy" of the photo, film and video generation: these Gothic fossils are to
photographic mimesis what the first mother of humankind is to
anthropologists. The only difference is that the participants in this
family reunion on St. Stephen's Square are not aware of the fact that they
are related. "We've met before, I don't know where, but we've met before...
" For Kren, this is tausendjahremimesis, and no end to it.

*1* For a detailed analysis of his first, pre-serial film 1/57 Versuch mit
synthetischem Ton cf Tscherkassky, Peter: Die rekonstruierte
Kinematographie. In: Horwath, A./Ponger, L./Schlemmer, G. (eds.):
Avantgardefilm. Osterreich 1950 bis heute, Vienna 1995, p. 41-44.

*2* Kren has been making films to order for some time: 44/84 foot' age
shoot'- out was the first commission, three trailers (45/88 Trailer; 46/90
Falter 2; 49/95 tausendjahrekino) and an episode for the compilation
Denkwurdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, part 3, after Ernst Schmidt jr.,
followed. Moreover, in 1996 Kren will be on screen playing a hard-rocking
bishop who is also an expert stripper for the cinema advertising film of
the movie magazine "Meteor" (directed by Franz Novotny).

*3* Jutz, Gabriele: Eine Poetik der Zeit. Kurt Kren und der strukturelle
Film. In: Scheugl, Hans (ed.): Ex Underground. Kurt Kren seine Filme.
Vienna 1996, p. 109.

Scott Stark
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