Erik Bulatov’s triptych of paintings in the New Museum’s third floor gallery comprises one of the key encounters of the exhibitionOstalgia. The yearning, majestic beauty of these oil-painted skies is invaded by text, Cyrillic letters spelling “home” or “blue skies” that claim the canvas’s territory. The number of contradictions illuminated by these paintings is astonishing: between discourse and reality; between sloganeering and everyday life; between the weight of classification and the airiness of the things being named. Alternately, all of these contradictions can be viewed as the collision between idealism and oppression.
For Westerners who saw something beyond anti-Russian US propaganda, this is the crisis of the Soviet Union. Millions of people pinned their hopes to the idea of a Socialist state, to the possibilities for a freer, better life as imagined, for example, by my great-grandmother and her student friends in Kovno circa 1906. But the agonizing process of watching this dream collapse under the pursuit of power contaminated this idealism, and undermined everyone’s faith in the notion of a cooperative nation. It begat confusion, a sickness of the past and a sickness of the future that was further muddied by the resilience of hope, as persistent as the blue sky behind the boot-print of text.
The first time I sawFelix Kubin in concert, his performance spurred my imagination to an elaborate, absurd fantasy about the genesis of his music. The songs were glittering, energetic, delightful, and wholly disorienting.
A two minute song like “I left my heart in Reykjavik” bounced between the comic scores of Raymond Scott, the prophetic swing of Sun Ra, and the dancefloor insistence of Cylob. But culturally, it had nothing to do with UK raves, free jazz communes, or commercial composition. These dizzyingly fragmented sounds, unified by Felix’s charismatic, singular persona, felt visionary and antiquated at the same time. I imagined some Brezhnev-era Soviet plot to create future music, the rally call for young Socialists serving a 21st-century USSR. Hobbled by cultural isolationism and the burden of state-approval, this music would necessarily feel welcoming and untouchable at the same time. And this push-pull spirit reinforced Felix’s authority throughout. But at the core of each song, almost beyond his control, this tiny hope for freedom would unfurl with the irrepressible spirit of a blue sky.
Felix, as it turns out, is not a Soviet agent or propagandist, but as a native of Hamburg, Germany, grew up on the cusp of the Iron Curtain and is a firsthand witness to the development of capitalism in Eastern Europe. As a musician, artist, DJ, and curator, Felix has had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout these new nations, encountering the art and music that carried these regions through the dramatic transitions of the last 30 years. The tension between East and West that I blindly intuited in Felix’s performance was in fact the outcome of his lengthy consideration of these borders.
When I invited Felix to perform at the New Museum in relation to the exhibition Ostalgia, he replied, “yes, this topic is my topic.” We discussed his research into underground music of Eastern Europe, his time as a member of the dada-communist singing group Liedertafel Margot Konecker, and of course, the strange border-crossings of his live performance. Through these discussions, Felix has developed a unique event that will take place at the New Museum on September 23, 2011.
Titled “The Symptom of the East,” the evening will begin with a lecture by Felix to discuss his fascination with East European culture, drawing on his work as a curator, archivist, and performer, and illustrated by excerpts of film, music, and radio plays. Following this lecture, Felix will perform a live concert of electronic compositions for theater and radio, derived from Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Elegies (1942) and Vladimir Nabakov’s short story “A Matter of Chance” (1924). For Felix, these fatalistis stories are exceptional treatments of typical Eastern European concerns. As articulated by these examples, the banality of everyday life–eking out a living, missed connections, anxiety–is not the prettiest topic for an artist. But it is an unavoidable one, and rife with the possibility of imbuing a sliver of hope. Or as Erik Bulatov said in 1987 of his community of Russian artists, “our art is concerned with problems that are not so relevant to people on an artistic level, but in their everyday lives. What matters about a painting is not its conceptual aspects or the way in which it has been created, but the problem it embodies.”
In between a concert performance and a workshop for children at Holland’sIncubate festival, Felix answered a few questions by email in advance of this performance.
Ethan Swan: Let’s start at the beginning. You grew up in Hamburg, close to the border between East Germany and West Germany. Can you describe your first understandings of this border?
Felix Kubin: I got aware of the fact that Germany was split into two countries when I started to watch TV programs of the German Democratic Republic at my grandmother’s place. She seemed to be the only person in town to receive that particular signal. The special irony was that she hated the communists. While I watched “Der schwarze Kanal“ (propaganda program “the black channel“) with the sarcastic comments of Karl Eduard von Schnitzler, she shouted at the TV screen: “Lies! Lies! You are all lying!“ She also asked me if I was a communist – but I was only 9 years old. At school we were actually more confronted with the 3rd Reich and the Nazi history than with the German division. The 80s were very dense in terms of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung“ (do you know the English term for this, Ethan? It means “the way of coping with one’s own history“). You could see documentaries about the Holocaust nearly every day on TV. And I am sure the old Nazis who were still working in well-paid jobs (some of them even in leading positions) were not the ones to watch that. In contrast, there was hardly anything about communism on TV. At home we talked more about the cold war and the “Wettrüsten“ (arms race) than about the GDR. We were all afraid of a 3rd world war and we knew that Germany would be the first country to perish. That’s why we developed such an extreme underground culture and humor at that time.
People in West Germany weren’t necessarily pro-American, although we were part of the NATO. The monstrosity of concurring bomb arsenals in East and West were equally threatening for us and we didn’t care much about who would kill us first. In intellectual circles it was sort of fashionable to identify with socialist ideas, to wear Russian T-Shirts etc. but this was basically a protest against Western propaganda and politics.
I twice travelled with my parents to Berlin before 1989. The wall made quite an impression on me. That was like a nightmare, like wasteland, science fiction. I have to say that no-one expected the wall to come down so soon. We had all accepted the fact that there were two different Germanys.
ES: I am a huge fan ofParasol Elektroniczny, your radio series for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA). When and how did you first become aware of underground music being made in Eastern Europe?
FK: The idea for a series about East European countries came from Anna Ramos of the MACBA. I had already lots of contacts with artists in East Europe back then because I was one of the curators for a festival in Hamburg called ArtGenda. That was back in 2002. The concept of that festival was to invite 200 artists from 18 cities around the Baltic sea who would co-operate with the cultural scene in Hamburg in 40 projects.
Instead of having all the city councils decide which artists they should send to Hamburg, we travelled to different places ourselves and conducted our own research. My girlfriend back then came from Danzig, Poland, so we travelled there and met some people. They were very skeptical in the beginning but in the end several friendships sprung from this time which are lasting till today. That way I also got to know Wojtek Kucharczyk and his label Mik!Musik. I was very impressed by the independence of his musical approach. Technically absolutely up to date, the music sounded different from anything I knew in Western Europe. I put out a record of his music and in 2003 I invited him to create a radio play with me for the national broadcast about the mental and political borders between Germany and Poland. The history of Poland was soaked with blood, occupation and riots and the Germans had been particularly cruel to them during the second world war. We called that piece “Territerrortorium”. It was a noise battle that didn’t omit any prejudice. We had a lot of fun with it, especially with the bi-national hymn which was quite painful for the Polish to listen to because they take their national symbols more serious than the Germans.
After the ArtGenda festival I was invited to play concerts in Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Ex-Yugoslavia. During these travels I exchanged a lot of music with local musicians. If there was anything in common among their artistic outputs, then maybe a certain melancholy, a different understanding of time, a stronger influence of 70s rock, jazz and psychedelia, and a huge importance of literature in general.
ES: You’ve said that Parasol Elektroniczny is “not just about music, it’s mainly about mental and economical survival techniques, artistic visions, collaborations, and political backgrounds.” Obviously economic prosperity/economic crisis was a major force in the ideological battle between the East and West, and continues to define the relationship between the two. In this current era of global economic crisis, are there lessons to be learned from the artists investigated by Parasol Elektroniczny?
FK: I consider making art a constant learning process. If I wouldn’t find out anything new I would stop doing it. What I try to extract while working on the “Parasol Elekztroniczny“ series is what I call the particular “soul“ of each country, that is the way they comprehend and artistically process their cultural environment and the world in general. Even when the result is abstract or poetic it’s important for me. Estonia turned out to be the science fiction borderland that Andrei Tarkovsky manifested as the secret “Zone“ in Stalker (1979). The film was shot in Tallinn during communist times. There is a special Estonian genre in literature called Ulme which is something in between science fiction and poetry. It all makes sense when you add it together.
I was especially interested to interview the Estonians about the crisis subject. I got quite funny and heart-warming answers. These people have been living in economical crisis for their whole life, they are experts in dealing with it. Now that hardcore capitalism is causing one financial breakdown after the other in the West, we can learn from them. There is a strong solidarity among them. At the same time they believe that you have to take care of yourself because the state will let you down. There’s many little stories and facets about their improvisational survival talents but in general I think that they flirt more with life than we do.
ES: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the past and the future? Do you have the sense that the future seemed more promising in the past than it does now?
FK: There’s currently a lot of talk about the modernity of the past. I am not a very nostalgic person, so when I look at something I don’t care if it was made 200 years ago or just yesterday. The only thing that interests me is if I can bring it in touch with the world of today. This sometimes needs some translation from older categories to new ones but that can be very rewarding. A while ago I read an amazing book by Siegfried Zielinski, a philosopher and founder of the media art school in Cologne. He pointed out that we always pin the word progress onto the recent technological invention. But there have been much more daring and fantastic visions in the past that are worth being picked up and spent some thoughts upon.
What these times are lacking are comprehensive political and cultural visions. We are so much concerned with small messages that we have no time for bigger visions anymore. A certain naivety is gone. Everything is fragmented, a huge fragmentation hard drive that cannot create larger contexts anymore. I think that this over-fragmentation, the permanent cut-up technique of information and duty is exhausting us. I also think that the world is becoming more and more materialistic and that we lose our ability to interpret or “read“ it with a poetic, metaphoric mind. When I look back I am actually only interested in the strength of past visions that still burn in full (or even stronger) colors today.
I never think about anything when I create music. Every artist will probably agree that the process of creation is automatic, like playing in the sand pit. Only when you achieved a certain result you start to look at it critically and maybe change it – not always for the better. Thinking of the future is a very vague thing. It’s basically projecting desires. What would it be like, if we could revert decisions with a great “undo“ button? When you see sci-fi films there are often very archaic ideas hidden in it like designs of the ancient Greek or haircuts of Rococo.
The invention of new aesthetics – which can also just be a combination of already existing models – is important in order to adequately explain and read the world. If something looks dusty or obsolete it means that the aesthetic language cannot cope with the presence of present reality. This could also be a silly sound preset which was just totally hot 1 year ago. I try to create music and art that is a bit immune against temporary trends. That’s why I often take a long time to finish something. It’s a way to find out if it still has any relevance.
Felix Kubin performs live at the New Museum on Friday, September 23, 2011 at 7PM. For more information and tickets, visit the NM website HERE
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