The Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group

By Stephen Barber

mama-and-papa-vienna-action-group-2.jpgMama and Papa, 1964

The Vienna Action Group generated a body of films which are unique – in their contrary forms, strategies and preoccupations – as the essential counterpart to a twentieth-century performance art movement.

The Action Group was not the first such movement to recognise the potential of cinema – from the Dada and Italian Futurist movements of the first decades of the century onwards, the realization of performance through its transmission into film images had been a primary preoccupation; but that preoccupation often initially mediated itself through film manifestos (or, in the case of the Futurists, through film-experiments which are now lost), rather than via a tangible body of performance-impelled films. In the mid-1950s, a decade before the Vienna Action Group’s films, the Japanese Gutai movement in Osaka had often documented their performance actions (such as those of Kazuo Shiraga and Saburo Murakami, acts of corporeal struggle and annihilation against the media of paper-screens and mud) on super-8; but those films served essentially to carry the linear documentation of actions, rather than existing as works which fired autonomously from the performances that they confronted.

Throughout the period until the open availability of video-cameras in the 1970s, the medium of photography remained dominant in documenting performance art worldwide; the traces of the Action Group’s work pivot vitally between photography and film, with the work of the highly professional commercial photographer Ludwig Hoffenreich (used by the Action Group artists precisely for its cold, objective beauty) forming the pre-eminent photographic representation of their actions, both in black-and-white and colour images. By contrast, the filmmakers allied to the Action Group became active participants and collaborators in their work, often immersed as intensively in corporeal and visual experimentation and provocation as the artists themselves, and incurring some of the same reactions of social retribution as a result.

Although two filmmakers in particular – Kurt Kren and Ernst Schmidt Jr – became entangled in the Action Group’s work in the mid-1960s to the extent that (in Kren’s case) the still-discernible division between artist and filmmaker disintegrated to some degree, the Action Group also intermittently filmed their own actions or those of one another, seeking to eliminate the intervening element of representation which presented an impediment to their actions: the Action Group’s films often emerge as mutating counterparts to their actions, rather than as the secondary documentation of those actions. Particularly in the final collaborations between the artist Otto Muehl and Kren, from the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s (at the time when Muehl had largely abandoned his public actions and was consolidating his experiments in communal life), a more open equivalence is reached between artist and filmmaker: in those films of gleeful acts of sexual and excremental furore, such as Sodoma (1969) and Shit-Bastard (1969), both Muehl and Kren appear as prominent figures within the film image (animatedly sodomizing the other participants, or being soaked in and made to drink liquid excrement), and the artist/filmmaker division evanesces.

During the period when the films of the Action Group were made, they were occasionally projected together as spectacles in their own right, within the same spaces in Vienna – cellars, insalubrious clubs and art-galleries – which also formed the venues for the Group’s performances; they were, however, not screened during that period at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, despite the prominent engagement of its young director, Peter Kubelka, in experimental and structuralist film. The films of the Action Group – as intensive ocular and sensorial assaults on their spectators – were certainly never conceived to be projected in commercial cinema spaces, and programmes of experimental film staged within European museums of modern art were then extremely limited; the films acquired an itinerance and haphazardness in their projection, screened at that time before wild or drunken audiences at events which also incorporated small-scale actions staged to complement the film-screenings.

mama-and-papa-vienna-action-group.jpgMama and Papa, 1964

The artist Hermann Nitsch also occasionally projected films of his previous actions during the actual performance of new actions, imparting to film the quality of a seminal reference or launching-point in generating his obsessions from one action to the next. In the following decades, the films were shown intermittently at experimental film collectives such as Anthology Film Archives in New York and the Film-makers’ Co-operative in London, in programmes that also encompassed far less spectacular film works concerned insularly with the nature of film itself. After his departure from Vienna in the 1970s, Kren would become the embodiment of the films’ uprooted itinerance, endlessly travelling between American university campuses to screen his films of the Action Group to audiences of art students. It was only with the elevation of experimental film as a prominent art form in its own right, and the institution of large-scale film programmes within contemporary art venues in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that the Group’s films began to regain a strong public visibility.

In the films of the Action Group, the impact carried by the sensory power of blood in performance is also carried by film itself: film materializes into an overwhelming and multiple substance, as capable of exacting resonances and responses on profoundly contrary and insurgent levels as is the blood unleashed in the act of performance: on corporeal, mystical, ecstatic, societal and aesthetic levels. Blood forms a pivotal rip in the temporal duration of a performance: the deluge it inflicts upon the action’s participants engenders an excessive calamity (often accompanied by the raw impetus of a sexual act in Muehl’s performances, or by the sudden revelation of the healing of a crisis in Nitsch’s performances); film too forms a point of visual overload from which all acts and elements of existence must be entirely reconfigured by the overhauled spectator. Blood and film also possess their gratuitous powers: in the flow of blood over the body in performance, that body becomes subject to a multiplicity of chance movements – each recuperable only in the film image – that all carry their own arbitrary, chaotic charge. And on a primary level, blood forms a powerfully glaring colour, in its collision both with the human body and with the film image that collects it.

In the mixing of blood (human and animal blood is infinitely mixed in the Action Group’s performances, with semen, urine, excrement, and other liquids and substances), an irreparable disruption of vision is generated both for the performance’s spectator and for the film’s spectator; even the potential healing of such a disruption, in the actions of Nitsch, forms a violent infiltration and erasure of the body, the dynamic scope of which can be rendered only by film. In the work of the Action Group, film constitutes the amalgam of corporeal debris and fragments accumulated within the image; however brief in duration that accretion of textures and layers may be (a fraction of a second in Kren’s films), it hooks into its spectator’s perception. The spectator’s eye then itself forms a screen, of horror, delight or fascination, for the impact of the action on film; and crucially, in the urgency of its rapport with film, that eye forms a lens of death with the aperture only momentarily open.

In the 1960s, the potential of film to carry such intricate resonances as those of bloodshed in performance was linked in the perception of filmmakers – including the Action Group’s principal collaborators, Kren and Schmidt Jr – to the celluloid film-stock itself, which became imprinted with the image of the performance, and also with damage inflicted by the scratchings, amendments or attacks of the filmmaker’s own hand. As in the experimental film culture of the same era in the United States, in the work of such diverse filmmakers as Kenneth Anger, Hollis Frampton and George Landow, the celluloid film-stock used for the Action Group’s films itself possessed its own magical aura as the receptive but capricious medium for the filmmaker’s obsessions. In the period before video and the digital image, the variability attached to celluloid film-stock constituted a pre-eminent means to explore the chance form of performance actions: the film image remained vitally unknown and subject to infinite deviation until it had been developed and projected. Even then, that vulnerable celluloid would go on to receive and accumulate the scars of each future public projection, just as the bodies of the Action Group’s participants held the physical or mental wounding of their intensive acts.

In Japan during the same period of the mid-1960s, the experimental filmmaker Takahiko Iimura evolved a particular strategy in his films of performance actions, such as those he made of the work of the choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata, undertaking what he termed ‘cine-dances’, in which he moved freely around the performance with his film camera, catching partial fragments which then transmitted a force of corporeal elation and visual compulsion to the resulting films (whose developed celluloid he then also subjected to manual assaults). The films of the Action Group’s performances hold a parallel experimentation upon the substance and potential of celluloid itself, to render the chance gestures, ecstasy and raw fury of the actions.

Although the Action Group artists maintained a high level of public visibility in Vienna in the second half of the 1960s, with the exception of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, their principal filmic collaborators – Kren and Schmidt Jr – remained far less prominent (as was the case too with their principal photographic collaborator, Ludwig Hoffenreich). Those filmmakers’ involvement with the Action Group imparted a degree of notoriety to their work – Kren in particular shared some of the Action Group’s persecution by the Vienna police – but gave them few financial or aesthetic rewards. While Günter Brus and Nitsch, in particular, had become viewed as successful art-market celebrities by the end of the 1980s, with large-scale retrospectives of their work in prospect, both Kren and Schmidt Jr remained largely peripheral, isolated presences. Despite that obscurity, they formed essential figures in the original creations of the Action Group, and also in the survival and enduring virulence of that work.

Stephen Barber is a prolific writer on avant-garde / experimental art, cinema and literature. He also writes on global topographies; his books are published primarily by Reaktion and Creation, who have just published The Art of Destruction: the Films of the Vienna Action Group, in their striking series Persistence of Vision.