Conversation between Benjamin Heisenberg and M+M
H: To begin with, I have a very general question: where did your interest in films originate? Was it inspired by your studies or your private lives, for instance, by cinematic memories from your childhood, or are you interested in film for formal reasons?
M+M: There were parallel influences: of course, as children we both watched “Bonanza”, or “Get Smart” incessantly and later on also other films. So initially, our interest was fuelled by the national TV programmes which were around in the 70s. These things simply became embedded in our collective consciousness. Films are just as unavoidable as social and political matters. Everything is infected by the cinema. It is like an acquired language which can also be used for communication – by using allusions, for instance, one can point out that something is like this or that movie. On the basis of one and a half hours watched in the company of others, on the basis of this experience, one can not only sound out the other person’s interests but also articulate one’s own. Initially, there were some movies we watched together several times, above all, as a reference to the topics that generally interested us, even before we actually worked with this medium ourselves. There is always intense interaction between life experience and film experience, it is virtually impossible to keep them apart.
H: To be more specific: which movies made a particular impression on you? And furthermore, are these films especially interesting because you feel that they represent something different, a certain social context, or also, a certain political or artistic statement?
M+M: Initially the films by Cronenberg, Lynch or Peter Watkins fascinated us. For instance, “Dead Ringers”. But we were also thrilled by B movies or TV series. Above all, it is about those pivotal moments that become favourite moments. We always watch movies with an eye to key scenes. Usually there is a crucial scene – and this scene makes the whole film worthwhile. One has the feeling that this one gem, this specific situation, actually inspired the director to make the picture. Of course, in “The Shining” it is the scene in which Torrance’s wife finds his manuscripts with the one recurring sentence. This is a distinctive turning point. It is so very moving because everything is contained in this repetition. Many films have that one central moment that stays in the mind and remains with the viewer forever, even long after the rest of the film has been forgotten. Another example is the Book of Love in “American Pie” which we turned into the “Pie Bible”. These pivotal moments can be used as a source of inspiration by isolating and radicalising them. However, these kinds of moments can also get to us while reading, listening to music or visiting an exhibition.
H: Do films such as “The Shining” and “Le Mépris” (Contempt), which have become embedded in society’s collective memory, also have a kind of iconic status with regard to your cinematographic education?
M+M: If so, then in different ways. “The Shining” was made when we were old enough to see it at the cinema. The memories connected to films from the 60s, on the other hand, developed along detours.I remember that we had heaps of ancient movie magazines at home. The magazine “Film” was pretty good. It was black and white, and had its very own flair. It was full of pictures of Godard, Antonioni and their colleagues. I was forever looking at those pictures. I had a poster of Godard’s favourite actress, Anna Karina, hanging in my room, even though at that point I had never even seen a movie with her. These figures seemed to come from picture books and not so much from films. I had the feeling that there was a treasure hidden somewhere, a myth. Films such as “The Shining” got under our skin more directly. The first time that we specifically drew on “The Shining” was during our stay at the Villa Massimo. Suddenly striking parallels started to emerge. We sat in this huge studio knowing that we had a year in which to create an important work. So we unpacked our things and had a long hard think. After a few days, one of us started throwing a ball against the wall and catching it with a mixture of aggressiveness and boredom. And then we realised that this is exactly the way things happened in “The Shining”. In a state of total boredom Jack Torrance throws a ball against the wall of the hotel lobby over and over again. Apparently Rolf Dieter Brinkmann also went round the bend in the Villa Massimo. It’s not a good situation, the prospect of a great work and the growing feeling of emptiness that sets in. This is how the book “Was du heute kannst besorgen, …” (All work and no play ...) came into being. So we published the manuscript which Jack Torrance wrote in the remote Overlook Hotel. One single sentence is repeated over and over again on hundreds of pages.
H: Interestingly enough, you chose the German translation and not the sentence from the original version. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a different sentence and has a totally different meaning from “Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen.” (Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.), the sentence in the dubbed version. Why the German sentence?
M+M: We believe that the sentence in the German version is the only truly usable one. It incorporates the ultimate temporal moment and necessitates the creation of a great work because of its rigidity and implacability which is why it lapses into a loop. The sentence is impelling. It suited our situation in the Villa Massimo perfectly, with a certain amount of pressure to do something, with these conditions which demanded the creation of something “great”.
H: Of course, the iconic status of a film changes from generation to generation. Chances are that the average 15-year-old will not have seen movies by Godard and only might just have heard of “The Shining”. That means that a scene in which you refer to one of these films looks completely different to him, he is not aware of the context. Is this something you take into consideration, or do you assume that viewers automatically develop a certain amount of space for associations?
M+M: The viewer does not really need to know the cinematic references. First and foremost, the film in question provides us with a language that helps us to implement the themes that generally interest us. However, our methods often resemble a palimpsest because we use certain images, texts or impressions like a foundation on which we work. Although we cover it, the mood still shines through. For instance, the dialogue in the double scene in the two-channel film installation “Montag” (Monday) is also from “The Shining”. Initially, we were simply looking for a text which contained forms of affection, aggression or exhaustion – probably we could have written it ourselves. The dialogue was supposed to be simple and was meant to show how the outlines of individuals are liable to dissolve in connection with their parallel roles. We realised that many everyday conversations contain subliminal tension and aggression. Because we all use the same kind of language, regardless of whether we are speaking to our wives or to our daughters for instance – and as a result it is impossible to arrive at concrete statements: what exactly do I feel for which person? To what extent am I influenced by my partner in a conversation? And are the outlines of my identity dissolving in a communal, vague sense of family? So, while looking for a text along those lines we came across the scene in “The Shining”. This dialogue has an ordinary beginning and then reaches a climax, an emotional concentration, and in the end it marks the beginning of an outburst of violence. This is a crucial moment. The scene remains unresolved and ends with the girl and in turn, the mother, standing in the doorway once again. What we find particularly interesting is the development from an everyday atmosphere to one which is hard to bear. In the end the viewer is exposed to this atmosphere and left alone with it.
H: Let me ask you something about your filming technique. Your works contain quite a few references to and influences by the camera and sound work of contemporary television and cinema which you use in order to reinterpret the scenes from “The Shining” or “Le Mépris”. Are viewers meant to acknowledge these formal deviations from the original, or is the main point that these films should “function”?
M+M: That almost sounds as if our work is mainly about cinematic references. There are also influences from pop culture, literature and visual art – a wild mixture of semantics. We are not interested in a self-referential system; art in particular isolated itself that way. We are searching for an amalgam of means of expression beyond all genres. But let us take another quick look at the question of filmic methods and at your work “Montag” which refers to cinematic key scenes, as does the whole series “7 Tage” (7 days). In the scene in “The Shining”, Kubrick limited himself to two long shots. However, we wanted to stay very close to the figures. It was supposed be uninterrupted. That is why we only used hand cameras and worked at very close quarters. Consequently, we became a lot faster than Kubrick. The viewer is right in the middle, a lot closer to the figures. As a result our work lacks the rigid coldness of “The Shining”. However, both parallel projections had to be absolutely synchronous and the movements of the figures had to be parallel and very similar. But inevitably, the atmosphere of the “Shining” scene remains in our interpretation like an underlying foundation – in other words, the palimpsest-symptom.
H: Perhaps it’s a bit like a play which unambiguously interprets a particular work. In “Montag” you use the camera in such a way that nothing remains unnoticed and this creates an unpleasant proximity. So this approach can also be seen as a modern answer to Kubrick’s old camerawork which created a static and consequently explosive atmosphere. In this respect, there is a great difference between Kubrick and Godard. Godard had to make an additional scene in order to show Brigitte Bardot in the nude. So he let the camera glide across her naked body with three different colour filters. You do something completely different: you do a full shot with this woman and small child, only the dialogue is the same. Of course, this leads to completely different associations, such as violence inflicted by adults, paedophilia and so on. Actually you use a kind of emotional technique in order to achieve a concentrated situation so that you can implement an existing film in the way in which theatre scripts are transposed.
M+M: Yes, the comparison with a theatre script is good. Or like a piece of music, a score that one interprets because one feels that it contains something which is relevant for oneself. A kind of reinterpretation or cover version. Maybe Godard didn’t want to show Brigitte Bardot in quite such a state of nudity, but we did! And the things that we got out of the scene were not added to it by Godard in exactly that way. Nonetheless, there are certain aspects that we focus on, dissect and scatter: Bardot’s ambivalent nature, for instance. On the one hand, she plays the femme fatale and on the other hand, the naïve Lolita.
H: At first there is a certain feeling of normality, in spite of all the tension. But then when the child asks, do you love my breasts and so on, the viewer experiences a kind of involvement which, needless to say, is a lot more critical. And it’s similar in “Montag”. Initially, there is a sense of normality but when the girl asks, would you hurt me or my mother, there is a definite feeling that something is wrong.
M+M: Of course, other moods also play a part: how do the different sexes and generations behave toward one another and at which point does an abyss open up? But also, at what point could an idyllic situation develop? These are the questions in “Sonntag” (Sunday). Documentary photographs by Claude Lévy-Strauss dating from the time when he wrote “The Sad Tropics” show native families in Brazil lying together harmoniously in the nude in a state of intimate closeness. When looking at these pictures, it seems that this kind of scenario has become unthinkable in our society. “Sonntag” toys with this lost paradise in the viewers’ minds.
H: Back to the loop in “Montag”. Suddenly the child or the woman is standing in the doorway again and once again runs up to the man. Of course, it would have been possible to stage this scene seamlessly: she leaves the room and comes back in again, these scenes could be morphed digitally, this way viewers would not notice a transition and the story could continue, like in “Groundhog Day” – back to the beginning. Hence the formal question: is the cut and the awareness of the loop important, is invisibility not intended and if so, why not?
M+M: There certainly is a hard cut. However, it also has a dreamlike quality. And then the command can be heard again: “Komm erst mal zu mir” (Come here for a minute first). It feels as though a dream is ending but at the next moment one is being forced back into the same dream. This effect actually works quite well and doesn’t even require a technical trick. Besides, our installations are not real films. Of course, they aren’t just pictures either. They hover equivocally somewhere in between. They are trips running in circles – without a plot. In films, even in “Groundhog Day”, there is always a plot. However, in our more extensive installations – such as the “Johanna-Zyklus” (Johanna Cycle) – the loops vary each time. They are “dirty loops” so to speak, they make viewers think: just a moment, something was different before. For us it is also important to present the whole story as a spatially perceivable situation. It is about more than mere cinema, the works are also always designed as installations.
H: The “Johanna-Zyklus” occurred earlier and many aspects differ from the previously mentioned works, especially with regard to the concept. However, the perception of simultaneity and the recurrence of motifs can also be found here, albeit in a completely different way. How do these projects relate to one another?
M+M: The “Johanna-Zyklus” is one of the projects in which completely different dialogues are shown at the same time on various screens. Our main idea was that the viewer should experience a film with six sequences which are cut in exactly the same way but follow a completely different course. The viewers are called upon to develop their own thread to this story. This is a major balancing act between an overall picture and separate stories. Other works are based on practically identical texts that run simultaneously, such as “Dance Köln” (Dance Cologne) or the “7 Tage” series. Basically, we have always tried to present synchronous descriptions of situations that probably did not occur at the same time. In “7 Tage” these situations could even be separated by half a lifetime. In fact, the girl and the mother could be the same person in parallel projections. The idea is to create an ultimately concentrated sense of time. This feeling profoundly defines us today because we see ourselves as a child, and an adult and a grandfather all at the same time. And suddenly, actions that normally refer to one another both causatively and temporally occur at the same time, as if in a dream sequence. Or like zapping through different channels. Our aim is to choreograph this effect synchronously which is why we developed these absolutely simultaneous cuts and the dramaturgical parallels. It is an attempt to discipline this overabundance of perception and to then create a concrete image on this basis.
H: This kind of parallelism, which also causes mutual interference, reminded me of something my grandfather Heisenberg said about his work processes regarding physical questions. He said that, while discussing the nuclear theory, it was good not to be too specific for quite a while. Just like going up a mountain in the mist without really knowing what it looks like and how one is supposed to reach its peak. The top of the mountain can only be seen once one has passed through the mist. Maybe trying not to envisage the mountain until that point is not such a bad approach, that way developing wrong ideas about it can be avoided. Perhaps this also applies to the perception of stories in these kinds of cacophonic projections during which one initially loses track of the big picture.
M+M: Yes, that image also applies to the development of our projects. Initially, we look for a feeling, a mood, instead of a precise picture. And then this multiple story develops which evolves along different lines, but does not yet have a clear master plan. Parallel texts develop, however, without matching each other straight away. In other words, the process is not like film-making. There is no clear story that can be pitched in two minutes. Regardless of the structuring phase in the end, the themes actually seem to come together in a kind of musical moment. And the approach your grandfather described also goes for viewers of “Schlagende Wetter” (Firedamp Explosion), for instance. Some people maybe enter the room with ideas which are too precise and are in too much of a hurry to know what’s going on. However, we have also seen people sitting on the floor letting the whole thing infiltrate them for one and a half hours. This work is like a symphony, instead of grasping every musical thread immediately, one can just let it flow.
H: So it’s just like in a pub, I hear the people next to me talking but I stop trying to understand what they are saying. Then it’s like listening to Arabic.
M+M: That’s the way a seamless narrative is meant to function. It is like a new kind of music, albeit with a pictorial, narrative side to it. In “Schlagende Wetter” one can try selecting separate voices, also by actively walking about in the installation as if in a walk-in film in order to seek physical contact with the figures. Or one can stand on the outside and experience the kaleidoscopic interaction from a distance. We also see this as a development and a radicalisation of the Extended Cinema approach, in other words, an enhanced and expanded filmic realm, not just in conceptual, but also in concrete terms.
H: There are certain very noticeable recurring elements in your installations. For instance, the phrase “Vater sag deinen Satz” (Father, say your line). It is like an isolated, constantly resurfacing note in a piece of music. And it’s also very funny.
M+M: Yes, we always wanted do something with this sentence. Now we are finally rid of it.
H: Let’s get back to the film narrative. What I also find interesting is the question of acting. The way in which you direct the actors is not naturalistic. Instead it resembles Bresson-like acting where people portray something without becoming too naturalistic. How do your acting directions work?
M+M: To begin with, we choose actors according to the expressiveness of their faces. Of course, working with actors is always a bit tricky because they are slaves to the rule of time. In other words, even if a dialogue in one of four scenes is very calm, and highly emotional and aggressive in another, they still have to occur at the same time. This regulates the actors’ own dynamics. Although they are charged with completely contrary emotions, the rhythm in these scenes has to be the same. Often the result has nothing to do with a naturalistic portrayal and takes on a dreamlike and floating, hypnotic character instead. In addition to concentration, we also have the delaying effect of language. However, something else also happens, namely a kind of psychological and personal assimilation. Actors, with completely different aptitudes, have to become analogous in their acting, the way they pause, and in their movements. This approach leads to the impression of a personality which has been divided into different embodiments. This idea is already recognisable in the “Johanna-Zyklus” script. In this work, everything revolves around three people who behave in a similar way. We always described this phenomenon as a kind of trizophrenia, an extended form of schizophrenia. Inside the installation it felt like being in a brain which was split into three parts. To some extent this also applies to “Schlagende Wetter”. This work deals with the loss of identity in modern society. During the past years, mirror neurons became a much discussed topic. This theory is also used in order to criticise the influence of certain computer games. Apparently, by repeating virtual activities in the brain certain patterns become memorised that can be accessed in the real world if need be. These references between thought, speech and action patterns in connection with completely different situations are fascinating – for instance, when certain behaviour patterns or dialogues which feature in a family reappear in various scenes with slight emotional variations. This leads to an ambiguity of will, or maybe identity, and to the standardisation of completely different moments. This phenomenon, this mirror level, also plays a part in our installations. From a neurological point of view, it is the recurrence of patterns. And this leads to the question: where does freedom develop? And at which point does the whole thing succumb to a web of mysterious dictates? When is a human being, or in this case, the film character, a puppet determined by behaviour and speech patterns which he follows and which resurface elsewhere? In other words, we play with duplication or also with the doppelganger concept. Within this jungle of changing roles and reflecting facets we are looking for a kind of essence -- let’s call it a new self. Recently, this has been the driving force for us.
H: Well, in my opinion the feeling in the two-channel installations “Montag” and “Sonntag” is more naturalistic than in your other film installations. Due to its style, “Schlagende Wetter”, on the other hand, resembles a kind of 60s/70s proletarian film. The timing of the action in your films leads to the kind of stylisation which is actually more typical for the theatre tradition. And of course, phrases just like “father, say your line” could also surface in a Fassbinder movie.
M+M: Yes, the movie tradition of the 60s also inspired us – especially with regard to texts and female characters. They are defined by films such as Antonioni’s “Il deserto rosso” (Red Desert) which we watched very carefully – not only with regard to rhythm but also to the way in which the figures are presented. Of course, Antonioni’s slow narrative style suited our purposes very well because we knew that the speed and rhythm of the scenes would quadruple. That’s why the tempo of the solo film in “Schlagende Wetter” is relatively slow. Apart from that, the atmosphere, the spirit and of course the impression of the city during the time of industrialisation are very important reference points for us in Antonioni’s film. Nonetheless, the figures in “Schlagende Wetter” are inescapably situated in the present, in the post-working-class environment, in other words, the workers’ ethic is gone and a cynical attitude dominates the atmosphere. In any case, the 60s elements are bizarre. For instance, when watching a film by Antonioni on television today, we think that it is totally off the mark. However, this ability to observe a woman who takes forever to walk across a rice paddy or an industrial wasteland produces unforgettable images. In other words, Antonioni takes a great risk. When we try to integrate a landscape in a particularly intense way, to isolate a figure in a frame, or to let a strangely floating image develop, we get into a sweat because we know that we are going out on a limb. However, we do not see our projects as mere narratives but as overall pictures.
H: And due to the four synchronous scenes, this tranquillity does not develop in your version. On the contrary: I always have the impression of a very fast story telling process because the viewer’s attention is constantly shifting from one film to another. My next question is of a slightly different nature. There is a longstanding discussion in the world of cinema about the morality of pictures. Perhaps you know that famous text by Jacques Rivette “On Abjection” which deals with this topic, or the quote by Godard: “tracking shots are a question of morality”. What is you opinion on this matter?
M+M: Well, we wouldn’t go as far as Rivette who uses camera work in order to argue a particular moral point of view. During our mobile phone project “Song fuer C” (Song for C) we forced our cameraman to focus on the aspect of coincidence. We were toying with the question: what should be seen and what should be withheld by means of “random” camerawork? The aspect of dignity was never an issue. However, we did have to put up with being told that making a film for a mobile phone is a “kick in the ass of cinematic art”. But actually, a tiny screen with a supposedly impossible frame can powerfully stir the imagination: the mind produces many more images than when looking at a big movie screen. Of course, the idea behind “Song fuer C” was also to send a story directly into a person’s everyday life via Push technology. This way, you catch the recipient at random, at different times of day and in different situations. The point was to achieve a maximum alignment between the fictitious story and the reality in which it is received.
H: You exhibit in different contexts, to begin with, in the traditional museum setting. However, you also create works for public places, or, as in the case of “Song fuer C”, for the mobile phone network. How important are these different contexts?
M+M: They are pretty significant. “Dance with me, Germany” is a good example. Initially, this work was produced for an outdoor context, as a kind of open-air-cinema on four screens. It constituted an area at a “non-place” on the periphery. The way the project functioned in this context was quite different from the way it worked in an exhibition room. We developed very slow pictures for the outdoor setting through which the – sometimes random – viewers could stroll.The project was inspired by an experience we had in Rome. Back then there was this incredible series of movies. Films which had been made at specific venues in Rome were projected at these very places in open air screenings. This collision between life and fiction was definitely also an experience that was important for our architecturally inspired video installations and art projects in public places. When showing the legends of crime or cowboy movies outdoors, it becomes noticeable that young people experience these stories on a different level. Once again, strange mirror images are the result. Subsequently we tried to adapt “Dance with me, Germany” on a one-to-one basis for a show in a museum. It didn’t work. That’s why we only focussed on the key scene with the pupil and the teacher, and cut out everything else. This, on the other hand, worked very well. Consequently, this isolated scene became “Dance Köln”, a new work, so to speak.It’s similar with “Schlagende Wetter”. In the first version, which takes place in a digester tower in the middle of the Ruhr Area, the emotional concentration reflects the architecture – in the septic tank in which chemical reactions previously took place. This led to a very intense interaction between the filmic realm and the architecture. The whole Ruhr Area environment comes across, with the sets which are in the direct vicinity and with the very specific atmosphere. When this work is shown in this context, it causes a distinctive dissolution between the fiction presented and the reality of the venue where it is being projected. The outdoor situation has the potential to add coincidental events to the story. The people and sounds become integrated and in turn the film filters into the atmosphere. You can play with this option; with very few means you can then link complex issues. This is not possible in the cinema and even less so in a museum. In those venues everything else is blocked out. People look straight ahead and only straight ahead. It’s a black box situation. However, an approach that has always been very interesting for us is the Expanded Cinema movement of the 70s, in which attempts were made to interactively involve viewers.By the way, in Neuperlach the outdoor screening of “Dance with me, Germany” was prohibited. Nobody there wanted to have anything more to do with Mehmet’s story. “Dance with me, Germany” refers to this case. Without having seen the project, the district council feared that we wanted to pay homage to Mehmet. They felt that he had tormented them for far too long as it was. And a daily paper from Munich printed the headline “Mehmet spreads terror once more”.
H: That’s a good closing line and shows that besides galleries, museums, the cinema and public places, the media publicity is also a context which you effortlessly explore with your works. (Laughter)