Kurt Kren’s Action films are the most tangible way of comprehending the nature of Actionist works of art and events today. I’am not referring to the recognizability of an action’s dramaturgical details, but rather to the fact that Kren’s Action films make it possible to immerse oneself into their structural essence so as to grasp their energetic and aesthetic meaning.
Kurt Kren was born in Vienna in 1929 to a German mother and an Austrian father of Jewish decent. In 1939 the ten-year-old was sent via „Kindertransport“ (organized by the British Refugee Children Movement) to Rotterdam. In 1947 Kren returned to Vienna and was given a job at the National Bank by way of reparation. Shortly afterwards associated with members of the Art-Club, a circle of progressive artists. In 1955 Kren bought his first Regular 8 camera and became a member of an amateur filmmakers’ club, Klub der Kinoamateure. Some of his first artistic experiments with film were made in collaboration with the poet Konrad Bayer. As of 1957 Kren created his first 16mm film and in 1960 made his first serial montage film of many to follow. It is due to these early serial works that Kren is considered one of the most influential pioneers of structural filmmaking. From 1964 through 1966 Kren made films based on “material actions” staged by Otto Muehl and Günter Brus performed exclusively for Kren and several photographers. In 1966 he participated in the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, during which the Viennese Actionists made their first international appearance. In 1968 Kren took his first trip to America to present his films in New York and St. Louis. In the same year, he was wrongly accused of filming the scandalous Action Art and Revolution staged at the University of Vienna, directly leading to the termination of his bank job. In 1971–1976 Kren lived in Cologne. 1972–1973 he produced a series of 5 boxes, each containing a super 8 print of one of his films, a copy of its handwritten score and several stills. In 1976 he moved to Munich, participated in Kassel’s documenta 6 in 1977, and emigrated to the US in 1978. In 1979 Kren married Marnie Rogers and they lived for a few months in Europe on a DAAD scholarship. After returning to America they divorced in 1980 and Kren moved to California, without a steady address and sometimes living out of his car. In 1981 he worked with a group of housewreckers in New England, making money from the wood they salvaged. Kren subsequently moved to Austin and then relocated to Houston, Texas. From 1983 to 1989 Kren worked as a security guard at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. His films were presented in many different cities and prints sold to numerous international collections. In 1989 Kren returned to his homeland and was provided an apartment and a small pension by the Austrian government. In 1997 he worked as an actor and cinematographer for Christoph Schlingensiefs’ Die 120 Tage von Bottrop.
Co-founder of the Vienna Institute of Direct Art (1966) and of the Austria Filmmakers Cooperative (1968). Member of the Vienna Secession, the London Filmmakers’ Coop (1967), the New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative (1968), P.A.P. Munich (1969) and of the Assembly of Authors in Graz. His work is distributed by sixpackfilm (Vienna), Light Cone (Paris), LUX London, Canyon Cinema (San Francisco) and New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative. Kurt Kren died in 1998.
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.
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.
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.
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 behavior.
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. 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.
 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.
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.
Diana Bulzan, anti-utopias , 03.2014
Kurt Kren et l’Actionnisme Viennois
Parmi les légendes les plus sombres des avant-gardes du 20e siècle, celle de l’Actionnisme Viennois figure en très bonne place. Les performances empreintes de sexe et de violence réalisées au début des années 1960 par Otto Mühl (inaugurant le passage de l’Action Painting à la performance directe avec ses Materialaktionen), Günter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler et Hermann Nitsch (fondateur du Théâtre des Orgies et des Mystères), mêlant flots de peinture, dépouilles d’animaux, performers nus, scarifications, excréments et autres sécrétions corporelles ont gardé leur aura de scandale et leur parfum d’interdit, jusqu’à en être presque invisibles. Certes, sont diffusées nombre de photographies documentant les actions, souvent directement pensées pour et par l’image photographique; mais, alors que les Actionnistes se sont posé très vite la question de la captation cinématographique de leurs performances, les films en question sont rarement montrés.
C’est ce qui fait le premier intérêt de l’édition inespérée en DVD des „Action Films“ de Kurt Kren, cinéaste expérimental autrichien qui filma en 16mm plusieurs actions de Günter Brus et d’Otto Mühl sur leur demande: enfin, au-delà des habituelles vagues ekphrasis, il est possible de voir les gestes des performers, de saisir un peu de l’énergie vitale dépensée au cours de ces saynètes reconduisant des mythes grecs (Léda et le Cygne) ou bafouant la morale (Mama und Papa). Kurt Kren ne cache pas ce que tout celà a de grand-guignolesque,de caricature de l’anti-bourgeois (les actionnements Viennois „performent“ la transgression, ce qui redouble leur provocation); et dans un même temps, il saisit ce que ces performances ont de pictural, les projections de pigments sur les participants imprégnant la pellicule.
Cependant, Kurt Kren n’a rien d’un simple documentaliste, quand bien même les Actionnistes exécutaient certaines de leurs performances spécialement pour sa caméra. Kurt Kren avait en effet déjà réalisé à la fin des années 1950 plusieurs films ayant trait au lien entre images et pulsions humaines ; proche de ce qui a été appelé ensuite „cinéma structurel“ (soit une pratique expérimentale du film dont le but est d‘analyser ses composants essentiels), il s’attachait à construire le montage de ses films sur des bases sérielles à partir du photogramme.
Kurt Kren, „témoin“ des Actionnistes, ne cherche pas à représenter les actions dans leur continuité; bien plutôt, il tire parti de ses recherches sur le rythme et la tension du montage pour tâcher de restituer le sens de la performance, voire de l’appuyer. Ainsi, Kren rend manifeste la part de véritable composition des performances, saisissant en des plans d’autant plus frappants qu’ils sont brefs les tableaux vivants et autres images créées au fil de l‘action. Décomposant les gestes les plus symboliques et les rapportant les uns aux autres par un montage alterné très rapide, Kren restitue la frénésie du rituel. S’il n’y a plus ni l’odeur du sang ni les bruits des bris organiques, la stupéfiante insurrection esthétique est bien là, encore palpable 40 ans plus tard.
Benjamin Thorel, art21.fr, 2005