5 February 2015
Fiktion recently released its third e-book, Herr F (Everything Living Forever Is Screaming Forever), a new take on the Faust legend by Scottish musician and writer Momus. The experimental narrative is soaked in abstracted ideas of German-language literature, drawn mostly from English translations of twentieth-century figures like Brecht, Kafka, Rilke, Klee, Fassbinder, and Adorno. In the following text Momus writes about the beginnings of his ongoing fascination for German-ness:
THE ART CREEP GOES TO BERLIN
I’m not sure when I started thinking of myself as “the Art Creep”. Quite often, when catching sight of myself in a mirror, the phrase pops into my head: “Oh, there goes the Art Creep.” Or: “The Art Creep is looking quite interesting today!” (as if I were a critic appraising the Art Creep’s visual statement).
The negative tone is probably due to my internalisation of the voice of one of my exes, who went to art school but later went off artists in a big way. I imagine this ex-lover hate-reading my Tumblr and saying: “There goes the Art Creep in his stupid clothes!” If I call myself “the Art Creep” affectionately, it’s because I still feel affection for her, and even for her disaffection with me.
I prefer the term Art Creep to the term “hipster” or “trend-setter” or “artist” or whatever. It’s fun to find negative terms for all the things this type is supposed to be good at, like picking up on significant trends early. Like gays earthing the homophobia in the term “queer”, I can lighten the load of disapproval others feel (and I share, to some extent) for this type of hipper-than-thou fellow—the one in the mirror—by inventing new terms of affectionate abuse, like “Knobhead Bellwether”.
“Hey, Knobhead Bellwether, what’s in? What’s coming up? Where’s hot?”
When did I first become an Art Creep? Probably when I first began to creep up the iron, poster-pasted stairs leading to Edinburgh’s only serious contemporary art gallery in the late 1970s, the New 57 on Market Street. The posters were important: they showed what else serious art galleries were showing across the country, and in other countries too. Long before the internet with its clickable links, these posters gave exciting and valuable evidence that there was an international network of furtive Art Creeps like myself, creeping up similar staircases in other cities, keen to spend time with interesting, boring, challenging or colourful work made by professional Art Creeps.
At about the time I’m talking about—1980 or so—I began to notice that Art Creeps in the UK were dressing like Germans. Some of them, like New Order’s Bernard Sumner, had even changed their names to make them sound more Germanic (Sumner opted for “Albrecht”, which evokes both Brecht and Durer). In retrospect, it’s easy to make a list of reasons for the pseudo-Germanic fashion that swept the land:
- The clean, electronic lines of Kraftwerk’s music had made American rock sound utterly antiquated.
- David Bowie’s move from LA to Berlin had conferred considerable subcultural capital on all things Germanic.
- Films like Cabaret and The Tin Drum had a high profile.
- The arthouse cinemas were full of the products of German New Wave directors like Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog.
- The Neue Deutsche Welle (Der Plan, Palais Schaumburg, DAF) was getting Peel Show plays, and British bands on labels like Mute and Factory were listening intently and copying what they heard.
- There was a Krautrock influence on fashionable groups like John Lydon’s PiL.
I was still seven or eight years from my first Berlin visit, but I remember at this time meeting a film-maker called Gerd Konrad. He’d come to learn English at a language school my father was running. My summer job was to “monitor” these students, which meant taking them to Edinburgh landmarks and giving them the chance to improve their English conversation skills.
With Gerd, I did more listening than talking. I wanted to know all about Berlin, which seemed to me—the apprentice Art Creep—like the place where you could be more arty and more creepy than any other in the world.
My favourite writers used the German language, of course. I bought Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (doubly impressive because of the combination of German-ness and fearfulness: this was the age of jittering nerves) and everything ever written by or about Kafka. Theodor Adorno became my guru.
It must have been about this time that I saw a film at the Edinburgh Film Festival which impressed me enormously: Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971. You don’t need a tiny cinema off an alley to see it; these days you can watch it on ubu.com.
Thanks to the diaries this young Art Creep was keeping assiduously at the time, I can give you an account of my impressions just as I wrote them down that day:
Monday August 18th 1980
Galleries. Kafka’s Amerika back home. Possessive, clutching destruction of the self. Outside threats are competitors who can be afforded no foothold (especially not the binding, straw to flesh, of dummy self to partner, saviour, killer, woman).
A film, Journeys from Berlin/1971 (Working Title)—all human life is contained in it. If only I could have it in writing, yet, no, that was its greatest fault, the words flow incessantly, arrows which were unbearably accurate, unscrupulously demanding: “You are God, you are our victim, you are omniscient, you are stupid,” they cried as they hissed into our helpless flesh (which is, after all, only that)…
Stonehenge from the air over/under a girl’s sensitive diary entries—her distance from the feelingless slabs, her necessary involvement nonetheless. “There will be no steerage on spaceflights departing from the earth…” Want an axe to break the ice (‘Ashes to ashes’)—here the axe was that of the R.A.F. (‘What makes you think anyone’s worried about you?’—Eno, R.A.F.). Psychoanalysis, surrealism. “My brain is lying on the floor beside tramlines that go through the wall to the asphalt six feet away…”—but it was a camera track, not a tramline.
The shots of street scenes through windows, landscapes from trains. How Kafka would have liked them! The scenery always a slap in the face to the ideals of the captions and words on the soundtracks—not because they were ‘real’, but because they were so ruthlessly realised a dream.
The director of Journeys was there, waiting to be addressed by her audience in the bar. I couldn’t bring myself to confront this person who had just widened my appreciation of the possibilities of expression, and my sense of community with anyone at all, vastly. At the door of what I took to be the bar, where everyone but me seemed to be going, an official asked to see a blue card which everyone but me seemed to possess. Such devices of exclusion, even though enigmatic, surprise me less than the simplest inclusion.
Later, my sense of exclusion would end. I’d visit Berlin (East and West) for the first time on a rock tour with Primal Scream in 1987, and move to the city in 2003. I’d get to know the Bethanien centre in Kreuzberg, where many of the Rainer film’s scenes were shot. I’d learn to complain about gentrification and rising prices and upstart curators just like all the other adoptive Berliners who act as if they own the place.
Even now I’ve left it, Berlin is still the place where I—an absolutely unbearable Art Creep, let me stress—feel most at home. It’s the world centre, after all, of that utterly artificial, dandyesque, exotic and totally made-up thing: German-ness.