Hans Ulrich Obrist on Sun, 1 Feb 1998 07:58:05 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Interview with Alexander Kluge (by Hans Ullrich Obrist)

A conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alexander Kluge

You regularly do programs on RTL and Sat 1.

For ten years our programs have been airing on RTL and Sat 1. Those are the
two main private stations which have been around from the very start, one
run by the Kirch group from Southern Germany, the other one from Northern
Germany by Bertelsmann and CLT. As a neutral, independent third party one
can only take the stance of an unarmed independent. That's why our cultural
shows are on at 11 p.m. on both channels. I didn't choose that, it means
that I am competing with myself, but the more important aspect is that if
I am not present in both competing systems, I am not present at all. And 
that is true for the entire remaining field of independent third parties. 
We are not just representing the cultural magazines here, but also an
investigative journalistic position which is part of the classic public
sphere. Here, this position is represented by Stern, Spiegel, Suddeutsche
Zeitung, Neue Zurcher Zeitung and it would be the same if we included Le
Monde or The International Herald Tribune. That's what we call the
publisher's principle: the idea that the press knows responsible authors
who are accountable for what they write.

Could one say that this third space circumscribes a kind of independent
gap in the sense of Hakim Bey's "temporary autonomous zones?"

The objective is autonomy. Such a zone is full of conflict and initially
not at all autonomous. There is a conservative interest in the classic
public sphere at a time when this public sphere is being destroyed. The
classic public sphere of our cities is an achievement that has really only
been functional for a very short time and that is now severely threatened.
The cities starve to death, the public is in danger of being scrapped.

Isn't the public sphere more and more related to time? John Latham speaks
about time-based art.

If you were a filmmaker or a writer and wanted to create an autonomous
event of seven seconds or one minute in length, you would first have to
produce a continuum of about 45 minutes within which it could exist. When 
you make a picture you not only need a frame, but a house or a museum where
you can hang the painting. First you have to organize open areas 
within the mass media, spaces where participation is still possible. When 
it is the tendency of the media to replace the public sphere with 
commercials, when everything is about selling an audience to the retail 
business, then the arts have to take precautions to ensure moments of 
authentic communication (what people express with their lives and what 
the arts call a message).

Fellini said that the spectacle has always already begun and that there are
always moments before and moments after, and that film, not least of all,
deals with showing those moments.

That is absolutely correct. The event is only possible in a flow. You need
a full circus show and for a long time nothing happens. Then you have a
trapeze act, during which the artist either doesn't fall or the
catastrophe does occur, he falls....

To come back to your two shows: why do you operate within the parameters
of existing television stations? Why don't you start transmitting on  
your own? Is it a kind of a Trojan horse?

For that, you'd need the Greeks and Troy and a Trojan horse; I mean, the
Trojan horse in itself is entirely meaningless. The central notion is that
the arts alone, separate from the rest of society, are not capable of
expression. They would somehow become purely academic.

In the midst of things, in the center of nothing?

Basically, you have to venture forward again and again, to get in the    
midst of what people are interested in. You have to seek out the remote 
and wild places for art to renew itself. We set out as filmmakers in 
the GDR imitating the French New Wave. We were two years late. We 
advocated the idea of auteurist cinema and then carried it out in a slow 
manner, as things are done in our country, so we did it rather thoroughly 
and now we have reached the phase of auteurist television. With his 
series Heimat, Edgar Reitz created a unique 26-hour film. He was like a 
cousin when I was working on cultivating those independent broadcasting 
times on RTL or Sat. We are both gardeners in the foreign soil of 
television. We are both incredibly suspicious of the medium of television.

How did the transition from writing books and auteurist filmmaking to the
daily practice of making television happen in your work? Is it actually a
transition, or are these parallel activities? Are you in fact concerned
with the different manifestations of the same thing?

We don't perceive a contradiction between writing books, making films or
producing a television program. These days you can't choose how you want to
express yourself anymore. When I think of the library of Alexandria and of
the fact that, although it burnt down, people continue to sort the letters
of the alphabet according to that tradition, then that makes certain
expressions of modernity, even of interventions on the textual level,
possible. I don't pay attention to target audiences and therefore I often
hear that I am a ratings killer, somebody who fundamentally doesn't care
whether one person is watching or an entire soccer stadium.

So, is it a question of le temoin, the witness?

"Sending messages in bottles": it means that I don't make what I want to
say dependent on somebody else declaring his interest first. On the other
hand, I am no Cassandra who doesn't care whether her messages are heard or
not. As soon as you judge communication a little more rigorously, there is
a possibility that the message will not be democratized. It does not
matter whether "consent unfolds" (Heiner Muller); I have to say what I 
believe to be right. And beyond that I have to at least make an effort to 
say it with all possible means, on horseback, on foot, or crawling. I 
have to spread out the statement among all the means of expression 
available to us at present. Leibnitz, the Futurists or Beuys would not 
have said it any other way; you cannot limit yourself to one area of 
specialized craft. Instead, regardless of craft, you have to charge all 
forms of expression that lead to the community, to other people, with 

This interview with you will be published in the catalogue of Stockholm
Cultural Capital '98 as part of the ARKIPELAG project. Instead of a single,
major large-scale exhibition, Stockholm, quite interestingly, decided for
a heteroclitic project. About 30 artists and curators have been invited to
each realize a small-scale project in a space of their own choosing
somewhere in Stockholm. When I first visited all the possible locations,
all different kind of museum spaces, I  proposed instead an exhibition on
TV Throughout 1998 artists will be invited to make  short one-minute-clips
for Swedish television. The clips will be shown in the intervals of 
existing TV programs, as a supplement or a perturbation, hopefully both 
at the same time.

This deconstruction is aimed at the notion of programming. Similar to the
telescope or the telephone, television enables us to see or hear things
we never dreamed of. When you look at the details, a concrete scene between
people is really something incredibly unlikely, something subtle that
requires extended description. You need the entire stream of consciousness
of a Joyce to arrest situations between people, because the micro-     
structure is an uncannily rich narrative, and rich in narratives, and 
narratavizable. And in between there is this program which doesn't 
narrate much, but regulates like a school teacher who paralyzes the 
vitality of a class. In contrast to that, we are concerned with the 
dramaturgy of the break between classes.

A syncopation, perhaps...

Syncopation in music is exactly the same. Again and again we are faced with
this dual task: we first have to create the space, deal with the timeframe
and produce it and then we have to politically adapt to such programming
niches by doing the opposite of programming. Not realistic, naturalistic.

In our last conversation you said that it's not about naturalism, but
rather about a small dose of reality. Could you develop that?

I would explain it with the example of the time problem. We all know the
mechanical time of a television program which is basically derived from
peoples' working hours and the petty mercantile uses they make of their
leisure time. For the Greeks, Chronos stood for time that leads to 
death, time that consumes itself. Chronos is a gigantic god who devours 
his own children. His antipode in the Greek pantheon is Kairos, "the 
fortunate moment." Kairos is a very small, dwarf-like god with a bald 
head. But on his forehead he has a tuft (of dense hair). If you catch the 
tuft, you're lucky. If you are just a moment too late, your grip on his 
bald head will slip and you won't be able to hold on to him. This 
character, Kairos, is the "happy time" that is hidden in the time of 
people's lives, in their working time, in everything they might do. He is 
an object of aesthetic activity. With Chronos on the other hand, you can 
only become a watchmaker.

The time-machine...

Artists can't really stop the time-machine either. And it's not even worth
describing it. Kairos is the element through which we live, and to
recreate this principle in the center of TV-Chronos, even if only for 
seconds, is our sole purpose. And it is no different with texts. Hidden 
in a long text, there are perhaps three lines that count. A small amount 
of Chronos is still very dangerous: his canine tooth can crush you, while 
at the same time a very small dose of Kairos will suffice, as it is a
counter-principle, a completely different kind of time.

What possibilities do you see for a project like the one we are doing in
Stockholm, where this kind of time, this flow of before and after doesn't
exist, where floating Mc Guffin-like  clips infiltrate the program?

That's incredibly important, because what you achieve is the opposite of a
program. Those one minute clips can soar through the program like comets.
If we were to talk about something like Noah's ark today, where the best
qualities are preserved, it would not be one ship, but a multitude of small
boats. The one-minute comets, soaring through the program, can interrupt
it. Ten years of watching TV have taught us that viewers are extremely
sensitive to breaks. Anything that occurs outside the program and takes
them by surprise will act as a zapper trap, meaning that they pause in
their zapping, they wait, they pay attention. Years ago Rudi Klausnitzer,
a former program director for Sat 1 and now a theater manager in Vienna,
came up with the idea that the evening program should be showered in the 
manner of shooting stars by 60 to 80 one-minute spots every night. A 
meteoric shower...

A sequence of irritations that ruptures the indifference?

And maybe it is not only an irritation but also the opportunity to peek
through, in the same way that children can immediately detect gaps.

A question about digital television: so far, digital channels are being
watched by very few people. Does this non-Audimat situation create a
laboratory, an openness for experiments?

The digital channels reveal an immense contradiction within the economic
powers that are now forming an alliance to set up a 'closed shop market.'
If corporations like Bertelsmann and the Kirch group form a monopoly
together with Deutsche Telecom, then that's a reality. Yet they do it in
an entirely virtual area, on the pay TV channels where there is no interest
from any audience yet. Once that changes-and they will make it change,
because such powers are capable of building freeways where no car
drives-they will be able to destroy the public TV stations too. And because
they will be unable to fill all this space aesthetically, they will   
exploit it, ruin it and create a desert. They have always done things 
like this on a virtual object, on something useless. The last time, ten 
years ago, all the political media alliances happened in the symbolic 
form of the debate about the German Television satellite. It has never 
broadcast anything since and circles earth as a ruin. But any group with 
power or legal claims in the media world of the Federal Republic defines 
itself through this ruin. There is this famous story of the alchemist 
Boettcher who wanted to make gold and happened to invent porcelain. This 
is analogous to the gigantic media conglomerates that are completely 
indifferent to what they produce and that construct their alliances-that 
is to say, their power-in the unreal in order to achieve later something 
real. Hence the system world I talked about earlier. We have to be able 
to orient ourselves, navigate on this hostile ocean or terrain and at the 
same time build something that isn't ruinous. We have to create an oasis 
in the desert. The oasis consists of a large terrain and water and a 
small piece of life. In this small piece of life there are a few happy 

Lately there have been more and more television stations founded by
artists: Fabrice Hybert transformed the French pavilion in Venice into a
television set for pre-production production and postproduction.
Pierre Huyghe collaborated  with the Consortium to run a television    
station in Burgundy which broadcasted  regionally. It seems as if 
artists, after decades of mostly unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate 
existing programs, are now taking television in their own hands, finding 
their own structures of production and broadcasting.

The reciprocal action of television and the Internet can lead to freedom of
trade. A process comparable to the dissolution of the guild system in 1789
when freedom of trade was suddenly established. For the first time the
directorial principle of mainstream program television, where viewers sit
in front of the screen like a school class, is being disrupted. The one
thing about program television that's absolutely incompatible with any
concept of art is that all decisions have to be made by program directors,
whereas art is autonomous. It may be dependent, but it knows no superiors.
During the early phase of the Soviet Union the arts blossomed thanks to
Alexander Bogdanov's cult-of-the-proletariat movement. Artists elected
their own department in the ministry of culture. All that is unthinkable
in television today, even on a station like Arte. If they had Mozart today,
they couldn't work with him, although he was a very adaptable man.

For Venice, Fabrice Hybert made this wonderful drawing which evoked
flexible broadcasting structures. A tent equipped with a transmitter.
Anybody can produce his own television anywhere, the distinction between
producer and consumer is blurred.

If these different, artist-run television stations collaborate, they create
a public. I can tell you from experience that the audience immediately
picks up on any authentic tonality. The homogeneity of program television
is intrinsically hostile to art. If all that's authentic and true, if all
material is robbed of its autonomy, there can be no art. Therefore the
synthetic principle of television and radio as we know it has to be
disrupted with the consent of the audience.

Another question is how you integrate participatory elements into your
shows. McLuhan speaks of hot and cold media, cold media being participatory
media with few details, like paper, while hot media offer little
possibility for participation, for example television. In this context the
question of black and white footage is very interesting. The fact that in
the middle of color TV your shows appear in black and white causes a

If some of the images are not in color, the imagination is stimulated much
more. Between either black and white or full color, it is also possible to
use color selectively. We disturb the gaudiness by taking some of the
color out. The viewer has to constantly leave colors and impressions out of
consideration to arrive at his own understanding. Which leads us to the
question of the economy of balance. This is one part of the economy of
labor that doesn't obey the laws of the market. It is an economy, a
subjective community, within which a human being can get along with
himself. And there are cases in which a person spends 90% of his energy
holding still, trying to get along with himself. This can devour a person's
entire energy so that, even though he is upset, rebellious, revolutionary,
he just sits there completely silent. There is the case of the person who
keeps an ax handy to chop the TV set to pieces. As soon as you address this
question of sedation, people answer actively. That is why this subjective,
inner dynamic is possible. If it isn't just used by a handful of
intellectuals, it becomes a virulent force.

Translation: Olav Westphalen

This interview will be published in the Archipelag-Catalogue in Stockholm 
in January 1998.

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