An Actionist Begins to Sing
An Interview with Otto Mühl
"I have been making art for 50 years and have never allowed myself
to be corrupted. Quite the opposite, I was locked up. "
~ Otto Mühl
As I tremulously reflect on what a lifetime of canonical film-watching has taught me, I must accept that what I have learned is, though not totally worthless, probably
useless. A certain director knows how to emphatically move the camera in a self-conscious way, one employs moody colors, another (such as Truffaut) employs
self-reflexive sentimentalism to win acclaim, another trades in allegedly transcendental minimalism to prompt discussion about how narrative is being excitingly
restructured, and so forth. Cinephiles, apologists, pedants, and, worst of all, journalists, insist that I should care about such things, though it's unclear why I should care, as
if all aesthetic values were self-evident. I am tempted to half-jokingly agree with the Maoists the only ones, I think, who have claimed commercial cinema is
inherently harmful and assent that the enterprise of the cinema, which can now only be repaired with most radical consciousness-raising, should be totally
Logically, then, I turn my head away from the narrow parameters of the cineaste toward a new art, not a projected frame controlled by commerce and critics, but one
that strives for a new, autonomous way of being. Nothing better represents such a new praxis than the 1960s Austrian actionist movement, whose principal members,
Otto Mühl (or Muehl), Rudolph Schwarzkogler, Günter Brus, and Hermann Nitsch, scandalized the public with staged performances of materialistic body art, saturnalia,
and polymorphous perversity under the banners of the "Vienna Action Group" and the "Institute for Direct Art." Sometimes the actionists would be jailed for weeks or
months on public obscenity and lewdness charges, and actionist art became the subject of several momentous German and Austrian censorship trials. In the early 1990s,
Mühl became the subject of a highly politicized trial once again, this time on trumped-up, vindictive accusations of rape and molestation, resulting in a seven-year
imprisonment. In a grand irony, however, Mühl's legal martyrdom also cemented his artistic legitimacy, for it was only after his release from prison that Mühl, now well
into his seventies, could enjoy two painting exhibitions at the Louvre.
"The artist does not stand in front
the picture, but he is in the picture."
From the action "Can Anyone
Explain?" (Otto Mühl, right)
For our discussion here, I am most interested in Mühl's
"removal of the frame," his jump from being a painter, sculptor, filmmaker,
and actionist to the founding of his Viennese "actions-analytical" commune,
where actionistic art and performance were transferred from the imagined
spaces of fiction and recontextualized as "practical actionism...extended
into everyday life."1
members of the commune collectively owned property, practiced exogamy,
and used psychophysical aesthetics to expand the idea of the body-as-text
into the realm of naturalistic autotherapy.
For over four decades, Mühl's work has been the subject of agitated, often venomous debate in Germany, Austria, and France, but has become in North America
to use Mühl's own word a "vortex" of speculation, misinformation, and tenebrific rumor, to which I have fallen victim as much as anyone else. I am no
expert in actionism if I were, I would have little to discover here, and little interest in this encounter. Not having been privy to the politico-artistic throes of 1960s
Austria, my first impressions of Mühl came mostly from Amos Vogel's seminal picture-book cum leftist primer Film As A Subversive Art (1974), and from Mühl's
autobiographical appearance in Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie (1975). Yet Vogel unintentionally subverts his own intentions at subversion by insisting all art
conform to the narrow assumptions of humanism, and Mühl is quick to distance himself from Sweet Movie, whose sensationalism he dismisses as "downright
More recently, and invaluably, Malcolm Green's English-language anthology Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, Schwarzkogler: Writings of the Vienna Actionists
has granted us access to Mühl's performance art action scripts ("I spread artificial honey on an old grandmother...and then allow her to be attacked by 5 kg of flies that I
had previously starved for 7 days in a box...I then kill the flies on her wrinkled skin with a fly-swatter"2
), and the
absurdist manifestos and pamphlets intended to accompany actionist happenings and festivals. Of the greatest literary value is Mühl's manifesto written to accompany the
1967 "Zock" festival, a stream-of-consciousness satire that, though clearly a parody of the very idea of revolutionary manifestos, is refreshingly fearless and still socially
relevant: "ZOCK [mandates] general prohibition of sexual intercourse between people of the same color...the color of future ZOCK people will be grey..." But actionist
satire is generally less mystifying than it may at first seem. For example, Herman Nitsch's remark, "I love my mutilated lamb more than the Minister for Education,"3
may initially seem like a pure perversity, but it states with perfect pith the alienation existing between nature and the
State, between the unorganized individual and over-organized corruption (at least it is my
Integral to Mühl's idea of communal action-analysis is the work of Wilhelm Reich, and particularly Character Analysis, which outlines Reich's theories of a
quantitative sex-economy and the egoistic "character armor" that socializes, alienates, blocks, and represses healthy libidinal energies. While Reich borrows heavily from
Freud and Marx, he was beholden to neither, repudiating the mechanized, bureaucratic, and nationalistic tendencies of traditional Marxism and trading Freud's cycles of
inescapable neurosis for an optimistic model of non-neurotic, hygienic sexuality and tension release derived from his own orgasmic therapies. More importantly, Reich,
unlike Freud and Marx, breaks with the traditional linguistic understanding of alienation and anxiety and turns to biophysics, the polar drives of productive sexuality and
consuming hunger, to address the workings of psychopathology. It is thus no accident that Mühl's early films not only are body centered (and without dialog), but are filled
with literal, ritualistic representations of food consumption and ecstatic-orgasmic release (including vomiting). Just as Buñuel mocks hypocritical anxieties about
consumption and biological function in The Phantom of Liberty (1973), in whose most famous scene the privacy of fecal discharge and the publicity of food
consumption are inverted, so too must we reconcile what in Reichian-Mühlian terms are the polarized spheres of egoistic production and the consumption of the outer
Detritus of a Mühl action
Many of Mühl's most famous actions of the 1960s were documented by
the Austrian experimental filmmaker Kurt Kren
, whose patented "flash-editing"
technique mathematically fractures images into multiple cuts per second,
creating a stroboscopic effect wherein the number of cuts within each
frame is determined by the number of cuts in the last.4
We are therefore left with the paradox of Mühl's real-time, "materialistic"
performances being discontinuously flash-edited and temporally reconstituted
through the anti-real machinations of Kren's avant-gardism. The effect
of Kren's stroboscopic editing is at once futuristic and primitively
daguerreotypic, recalling everything from the revolutionarily flashing
machine guns of Eisenstein's October
(1928) to the animated stop-motion
anatomies of Jan Svankmajer. If anything, this paradox of a real-time
performance represented within a restructured frame only reminds us
further of the limitations of temporal representation, and the eventual
necessity of moving from representational art into the realm of Mühl's
action-analysis, or living "self-representation."
In Mühl and Kren's early collaborations, the human body is just as much an object to be manipulated by Kren's editing as it is an organic canvas to be slathered with
Mühl's paint and trademark foodstuffs. In O Tannenbaum (1964), a red-painted woman orally services Mühl, while human bodies alternate their sexual positions
not through moving about the mise-en-scene but through Kren's omnipotent, scene-jumping cuts, as if the pulsating sexuality of the models were being displaced to the
technology representing them. Libi (1968), whose title is perhaps a punning conflation of "love" ("liebe" in German) and "libido," begins with an onscreen title:
"DIESER FILM ZEIGT WIE DAS LEBEN EBEN SO IST" ("This film shows how life actually is"). We are treated to a blowjob, an umbrella indiscreetly protruding
from a man's ass as he reads the newspaper, anonymous people contorting their asses before each other, and scenes of priests performing sacraments whose moldering
ritualism stands in contrast to Mühl's liberated sexual display. A sign reading "Direct Art" is then pulled away to reveal a close-up penis lurking beneath yet
again, it is Kren's editing that actually "performs" or mobilizes these actions, as if the materiality of the temporal-material action rests in the mechanical apparatus of the
Mühl and Kren's Amore
(1968) bluntly satirizes bourgeois normativity, as a naked woman and man whip, in slow motion, a second man covered in the drear
of daily newspapers. When the newspapers have been totally whipped away, the man is painted with the foodstuffs, as if being anointed by natural, life-giving juices. Yet
much of Mühl's work avoids overt satire or allegory,5
drawing instead abstract inspiration from Dadaism, Duchamp,
and Tachism, the painterly equivalent of the trance-like automatic writing once practiced by the Surrealists. In O Sensibility
(1970), Mühl rises up, spirit-like,
behind a woman as she makes love to a goose, passionately kissing it on the beak with questionable consent from the animal. Mühl then licks the goose, thrusts it onto his
pelvis, embraces it like a child, lashes it with a strap, and gives it over to a communal group where it is finally decapitated and its stump bloodily utilized to masturbate the
woman. Though suggestive of mystic, pagan rites of purification and primitivism, the film, like all true surrealism, outrageously defies attempts at pigeonholing analysis and
close reading. Unlike the simplistic, mock-Christian allegory of Thierry Zeno's pig-fucking Vase de noces
(1974), Mühl's zoophilic act is tautegorical, not
allegorical, restating selfhood in different, non-linguistic terms whose only offense is unapologetic naturalness.
As Mühl says in his "Material Action Manifesto" of 1964, "the material action works with symbols (its difference from theater), which in themselves constitute the
storyline, a consecutive series and mingling of symbols as self-existing realities...they do not aim to explain anything, they are what they appear to be."6
Nothing better represents this paradoxical "transcendental literalism" than Mühl‘s coprophilic-urolagnic films
(1969) and Sodoma
(1969), which likewise thumb their noses at interpretation. But their flash-edited imageries of enemas, urolagnia, and
coprophagia sometimes rendered in extreme slow-motion are not simply an affront to the denial of bodily realities. The ass is not always a black vacuum
or the gaping unknown but, contrarily, can be that which is known all too well, and the shit issuing forth frightens for its transparent universalism and incorruptible
democracy. And if we garland, either resignedly or with idiotic glee, the figurative shit that clogs our cinemas and here I mean the supposed art houses more than
the popular cinema, which at least has fewer illusions are we not hypocrites to be repelled by the genuine article?
Mühl's painting Vulkan (Volcano)
Malcolm Green concludes the introduction to his edition of the actionists'
writings with a warning: "To portray the actionists simply as (auto-)
therapists would be to miss the point entirely...they had too much destructive
glee, too much verve and downright humor, or too much aesthetic power
to be passed off as mere social workers."7
With all due respect, I disagree enthusiastically with this unwittingly
conservative view, whose covert romanticism cannot progress beyond caricaturing
social change as the territory of banal policymaking and uncreative
bureaucracy in fact, this caricature is itself the greatest of
all banalities. There is nothing "mere" about social transformation,
nor is it clear why humor, destruction, or aesthetic power should be
at logical odds with the restructuring of social orders. Utilitarianism
needn't be lifeless, nor is it opposed to art. For me, Mühl is no "mere"
controversialist or provocateur, but a pragmatist whose radicalisms
are entirely rational responses to both moral hypocrisies and the limitations
of representational objectivity. Admittedly, in this interview
conducted entirely by written correspondence8
Mühl acknowledges there were limitations to this pragmatism:
"I was of the erroneous opinion that the group as a social, sexual experiment
would itself be a kind of remedy for people with great difficulties."
Nevertheless, I look undeterred to this experiment, where aesthetics,
sociology, biophysics, and psychology intertwine, where "art" is not
understood as representation but as life, as self-representation, regulated
neither by commerce nor the State.
PART TWO: AN INTERVIEW WITH OTTO MÜHL
Translated from German by Robert M. Grossman
Andrew Grossman: In Germany in the late 1980s, and then in the United States in the late 1990s, there was a revived interest in your art, which prompted a number of museum showings and publications about your work. What caused this resurgence of interest?
It's really simple. If something appears too bold or outrageous to the public, it needs its time. Regis Michel, who prepared my exhibitions in the Louvre, said that four or five years ago, it would have been impossible to exhibit Mühl either in the Louvre or at the Pompidou Center. Now the time is ripe. I had two exhibitions in the Louvre: the first was in April 2000, with the provocative title "Possess and Destroy: Sexual Strategies of the Art of the Occident."9
I was exhibited alongside Freud, Michelangelo, Genet, Poussin, David, Géricault, Delacroix, Ingres, Degas, Picasso, Duchamp, Artaud, and Yves Klein.
The title is sensationalistic. Sexual strategies are strategies used to gain attention. I don´t relate the title to art but to society. Criticism in art appears as destruction. But art is a long way from murder. Modern art directs itself against old values.
"The artist clears away taboos.
What really shocks is being confronted."
Muhl's painting 11 September 2001
The second exhibition, "Painting as Crime"10
the title comes from a manifesto by Rudolf Schwarzkogler
was in the Fall of 2001. This concept has its roots in surrealism. Breton
writes in his surrealist manifesto that it would be a surrealistic act
to go out on the street and shoot passersby at random. The Dadaists
tried to eliminate art. But I cannot recall that the Dadaists were criminal,
although it was very dangerous to be around them they actually
shot at the public in their plays. I don't identify that with my actionism.
After the First World War, people expressed outrage against society,
because millions of human beings were killed. No one was making art.
The artists turned to destruction. Everything was possible.
After the Second World War, Tachism came on strong. Marcel Duchamp played an important role, just as he did in object art. He simply exhibited a bicycle or a urinal and wrote underneath it: "Fountain." In art, the rules are broken I'm all for that.
An important event for actionism occurred in 1966: "DIAS," the "Destruction in Art Symposium" in London. Destruction within art, but not outside it. Hitler wanted to become an artist, but he destroyed in real life. He was never an artist. If something is too potent, it is rejected vehemently, as with Van Gogh and Cezanne. At first they were placed ad acta. No one was interested in them. Marcel Duchamp needed time, and I have also taken a very long time.
It is probably a cliché to say that there is a tension in, or irony about, the idea of Actionist art being "legitimized" by bourgeois institutions such as museums, etc. Have you long since reconciled this tension, or do you still have misgivings about your work becoming part of the canonical politics of the museum?
This assertion is a total misrepresentation of reality. I make art because I enjoy it, and naturally, I also want to get something from it. I must live from it. I am no idealist. After ten years of actionism I gave it up and continued it in reality as social transformation. By that I mean making life into a work of art. After the dissolution of my marriage, I founded the commune. Not to save the world, but rather out of "self-interest" (Max Stirner).11
I am an egoist who is not materially, but idealistically oriented. My life should be perfect, have direction, be an artwork.
I have nothing against earning money through art. It is a fallacy that someone starves to death willingly. But I say, whoever works for a salary turns himself into a slave, just as anyone who accepts employment in the state apparatus sells himself. Here Marx's comment is valid: "Being (existence) defines consciousness." What you do for a living, that is who you are.
I need art for myself. It is my spiritual and ethical bodybuilding.
I have been making art for 50 years and have never allowed myself to
be corrupted. Quite the opposite, I was locked up. That would no longer
be possible today after two exhibitions at the Louvre.
You had written that in 1961, as a young painter, you realized that the act of "daubing a canvas is itself half-witted," whereupon you "fetched a kitchen knife, slashed the canvas, tore it apart with both hands," and then "set [your] sights on the human body." Can you explain how this epiphany came about? Was the idea of focusing on sculptural forms a personal, spiritual transformation, or did this idea come about through the influence of other artists?
It was not completely my invention. There was already Tachism. Picasso and Matisse joked that every ape could perform this style of painting. But here it is not a question of formal criteria, but energy. I would view the destruction of the canvas in 1961 as my big bang. That´s when I started to exist as an artist. There are forerunners like Lucio Fontana, Pol Bury, Milares. Their works are too aesthetic for me. I worked a lot with material with plaster, cement, ashes, and cigarette butts. At that time I went into the artist's café Hawelka in Vienna, where cigarette butts were collected in milk cans to be taken to the garbage tip. I fetched two of these buckets and worked them into a picture. That work actually still exists, but doesn't belong to me. While I worked, I felt "IT" build up inside me and the emotions exploded. I had opened the gates of the unconscious. It streamed out. I knew it was good, but I didn´t know how to continue. Sometime later, I painted again tachistically, with insane energy. What was left afterwards looked rather like a pattern. I see something similar in Jackson Pollock when he drips. It is decorative, and doesn´t reflect intentions. I went into the kitchen, took a knife and thought: "Now I will try it and go a step further." I slit the canvas open, tore it to shreds, and knotted it together; but that was not enough for me. I lay the picture on the floor, trampled the wedge frame underfoot, and hacked and smashed it to pieces with an axe. Nothing was left of the picture. It was a shattered frame, little more than wooden sticks wrapped up in the canvas. I put more material on it. That could have remained without consequences. But the most important thing was the evolution in my thinking. I had neither destroyed a picture nor art itself. No trace. I was merely going in another direction and arrived at sculpture.
On the next day, I was riding on my bicycle. A piece of barbed wire lay on the ground. I picked it up, took it home with me, and added it to the sculpture, twisted it around so that it held together, and hung it on the wall. I began a picture again. But I didn't paint. I started by putting material onto the canvas and demolishing it. A frame shattered, but not completely. I left the torn-up section where it was, so that it would be more visible. I began the next picture, no longer as a picture at all; rather, I took an already shattered frame and added new materials to it. The first materials were wood and canvas. The next was wire. I stretched the torn-up bits of cloth tightly, pulled the pieces together, and once more tore them apart. By this means, forms came into being, completely unconscious forms, and I entwined the whole thing with wire. And thus once again, I destroyed it. I have often experienced this destructive action in painting, whenever I was dissatisfied with a completed picture. If I attempted to improve it, the changing of one part made it necessary to form the entire picture anew. The destruction progressed until finally the old picture was destroyed and a new picture came into being.
Now one may ask, is destruction a crime? On the contrary. I produced a kind
of psychological analysis. Many new possibilities came to me in a blinding
flash. I was enthralled. Every day meant a new step forward. Why should
a picture always hang on the wall like a hunting trophy? I already had
the structure in my head: I could lay it on the floor or hang it up
in the middle of the room; soon the sculpture filled the entire space.
Moving away from the wall was an important step. I could no longer work
in my studio. I actually lived there as well. I rented a cellar, the
so-called "Perinetkeller." All kinds of other materials were added,
at first sheet metal and cans, to be precise. With an old handcart I
went down to a second-hand dealer on the upper Augartenstraße.
There were even old roller blinds there. I took all the interesting
items with me, old bicycles. Naturally I smashed the pots to pieces.
It was in this act of destruction, where the spokes of the bicycle splintered
off, that I came to know the material. I trampled it to pieces, bent
the bicycle as it might appear after an accident. I deformed the objects,
unlike Marcel Duchamp, who left the object unadulterated. I consider
him to be a philosopher, who makes use of artistic media and museums
in order to make a statement. That's okay too.
Your early filmed
actions such as Mama and Papa must be very different
from your live performances, as they are necessarily abstracted through
Kurt Kren's radicalized editing techniques. How do you think Kren's
formalistic editing changes the content of the action and the way it
Kurt Kren's editing technique was totally new. To a certain extent I liked it. I was pleased that someone filmed the actions at all. I wanted to document the actions. Kurt Kren's intention was not to allow the action to dominate; rather, he wanted to maintain and preserve his method. He showed the films in Berlin, and the public asked whether this filming of the Mühl-action did not constitute a break in his work. I didn´t see this as a break at all. He never shot screen-played films; rather, he worked with existing material. He used my actions in this way for his ideas. He is a concept artist.
Did you also have input into how these early actions with Kren were filmed and edited?
Once Kurt became angry. He came and said he would no longer film for me. I told him that in that case I intended to film the works myself. Then Kurt said, "What, you think that it´s so easy! You want to film, now that really is a joke."
To edit the filmed action using Kren's method was wrong in the sense that the action had its own movement. This whole course of movement was carved up he edited it to bits. From the outset, he always filmed only individual settings, which he then cut quickly so that it looked like movement. A film consists of many separate frames, so it's a fraud to say that one can capture movement on film.
With the film O Tannenbaum, edited by Kren, I saw that a strange effect had been produced. In the film, it all went briskly and the themes were rapidly cut together. That was not bad. I have always worked by quick editing. What I liked best of Kurt Kren´s was his "Szondi-test," photos of a number of mental patients. You´re supposed to choose the one who most appeals to you. Based on this, it is determined whether you are schizophrenic, very aggressive, or autistic. The idea to make a film out of a test was very appealing to me. It is an alienation. That is one of his best works.
I'm not this kind of concept
artist. I stage situations. No editing technique. I do not want to simulate.
My "actions" in the basement were made for still photography. I planned
every shot. The action is divided into various phases. First comes the
still life. It begins very economically. You start with warm water on
the bodies of the models, which runs it doesn´t do any damage.
Then comes oil, various soups with dumplings, meat and vegetables, perhaps
even a bunch of grapes. Than comes color: ketchup, marmalade, red beet
juice flows down. The skin is still visible. Then it gets going and
the heavy artillery is brought out. I often made dough, which stretched
down ponderously, or an egg, flour, or cabbage. Finally I poured on
bed feathers. There was a certain structure there, how the materials
were used one after the other. It was almost like cooking. I also once
made, "The Breading of the Buttocks."12
First milk, then flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. I didn't take the entire
body only the ass, very provocative. The woman knelt in an armchair,
her ass turned to the audience. First I sprayed the buttocks with milk.
Then I dusted it with flour, as if breading a Wienerschnitzel. The flour
stuck. Then I spread the egg yolk over that and at last the breadcrumbs.
That looked really great! Once Schwarzkogler dropped by and I asked
him, "How did you like it?" He said, "very dirty!"
To my knowledge, your actions and thus your films were screen-played far in advance, though they may have the appearance of a spontaneous performance. Did you ever perform any actions spontaneously?
I have also made spontaneous actions, the public performances. I had an idea first, but what actually took place was spontaneous, as in Cologne, for example the action with the rolling pin. It is true that we had used the pin when staging this action earlier. But it was not planned that I offered the rolling pin to the mother and daughter out of the audience, and allowed them to put it between the legs of the model. I made another spontaneous action in London during "DIAS," where I decided on the spur of the moment to do something in Conway Hall. Jean-Jacques Lebel and Julien Blaine made actions with voices. One of them intensified his heartbeats with a microphone. I saw that and thought, "Wow!" "Hey Brus, get this, we're going to make a breath concert." Actually this was a forerunner of actions analysis. We sat outside. I planned it quickly: breathing, stronger breathing, voice, "hhhhööööööhhhh," loud breathing, hoarse groaning to the point of vomiting, holding one's breath so that one almost becomes giddy. Finally staggering, knocking over the chairs and going around on all fours. Brus became slightly faint. He breathed too much and got an oxygen rush. It was a great success.
Through the 1970s and ‘80s, one of the only commonly available books in English that discussed your films was Amos Vogel's 1974 Film as a Subversive Art. Vogel says your films are suffused with, ". . . a stench of concentration camps, collective guilt, unbridled aggression, hallucinatory violence that . . . has the dimensions of an atavistic generalized myth of evil." Do you demand that your works be understood within a particularly Austro-German (or other historical) framework?
I know that they cannot be understood because people aren`t interested in art. They don`t care about the medium, are too uneducated, and superficially see only the repulsive. Art is an attack, an accusation. It is something critical.
It is not my fault that my films are suffused with the stench of concentration camps. I can only subscribe to this: that the stench which I experienced in the Nazi period and during the war was the most horrible thing imaginable. In 1945 I experienced something grotesque. The war was just over. Ceasefire. We were quartered in a school in Czechoslovakia when I heard an extraordinary report over the radio: the Führer had fallen in battle while spearheading his troops against the Bolshevik menace. Then Wagner's music was played. The most astonishing thing about this is that everyone who heard this believed the lie. This announcement showed that these people were criminals.
I fling the stench of the concentration camps into their faces with pleasure. In 1970, German television approached me to film an "action." The action was called "SS and the Star of David." A playpen for small children was set up. Lisl Nürnberger joined in and played the Jewish girl. She was familiar with the Nazi theme and understood our criticism. Herbert Stumpfl, Otmar Bauer, and I made the action. We wore pants and our upper bodies were bare. I think we even had armbands with some kind of insignia on them. We danced homoerotically with one another. We had leather straps, with which we beat the mesh of the playpen. Lisl slipped back into her childhood in such a panic that she fled out of the door on all fours. The cameraman said he wouldn't go along with it anymore, that it wasn´t true, that the SS were certainly not such queers, and weren´t as malicious as we had represented them.
I have good memories of Amos Vogel. He thought I was one of the most radical filmmakers. At that time I got to know him personally. I had a very good relationship with him.
In his edition of your and other actionists' writings, Malcolm Green implicitly criticizes those who have recontextualized actionism to fit their own political ends. However, in your Material Action Manifesto of 1965, you emphasize the importance of the "associative" meanings of your work. Does the insistence on understanding your work within the context of postwar Germany and Austria limit these associative meanings?
Art contains everything that one has experienced since childhood. The artist creates from the unconscious. He makes it visible. The musician makes it audible, and the writer makes it readable.
Returning to Amos Vogel, he goes on to say that your films "captur[e] society's essence by means of harrowing violence and perverse sexuality . . ." Do you think that critics have dwelt excessively on the "shocking" qualities of your films, to the exclusion of everything else? In a live performance, an act such as shitting may repulse because of its immediacy. In a film, however, we are alienated from the action, not only because it is framed and edited, but because we can use only two of our five senses to experience it. So, for example, when I see the shitting close-up in your film Sodoma, rendered in extreme slow-motion, it strikes me as oddly beautiful rather than repellent. It is a liberation.
You must mean the film Scheißkerl.
Yes, that's the one. Did you intend to aestheticize or romanticize the action through slow-motion?
I wanted longer scenes because they´re wonderful. In reality everything happened very quickly; all at once it went "brrrrrrrrrrr" and splashing, it fell down and was over. It was too short. I used slow-motion. I wanted to make it visible. That is a means of communication. Art makes the invisible visible. If you don't see something in a film, it doesn't exist. One should also see the repulsive.
I wanted to film this movie, and everything was agreed upon. Suddenly the people who were meant to be the models said that they wouldn´t do it because they were afraid that the film would be shown somewhere. It was understandable. Then I said, "I´ll do it." I didn't really do that voluntarily, but the film couldn't be cancelled as I´d gone there with a bunch of people, and besides, I believed it was important.
Let's turn to the film
Oh Sensibility, one of your most taboo-breaking works. The killing
of the goose and its subsequent use as a sexual tool in
this film is not merely shocking, however, but somehow transcendent,
because the act of swan-love that precedes it seems so remarkably tender.
We have seen many animal killings on film, but this is a rare instance
in which the animal has first been made love to; would you define the
intercourse with the swan as an act of love?
"Would you define the intercourse with the
swan as an act of love?" Leda and the Swan
For the action O Sensibility I did not use a plastic blow-up doll or a dummy for the swan, but a real goose. It was a transgression of boundaries in the direction of reality. The goose was already destined for slaughter it would have been eaten anyway. It was shortly before St. Martini. During the Martini festival, more than 2,000 geese are killed in Burgenland. In this country, there is a genuine goose massacre every year.
The goose was no aesthetic object. It was not a tender play, but a trance. At first it was restless. If one looks at the goose, speaks with it and sways it gently, in a short time it falls into a trance. I held it in my hand. When I performed dance-like movements with it, it became calm. It no longer fluttered, and went about with me willingly. It sat quietly on my shoulder. Its tranquility affected me in return, and put me in a trance as well. With this, I became Jupiter, and it became the symbol of woman. I became the priest who would not kill it in order to devour it, but rather to carry out a kind of magic ritual with it. I placed the throat of the goose between its legs; with one sharp cut, the head was neatly severed. It was not my intention to torture either myself or the animal. I did it according to the proper method, just as I had learned from my grandmother. Once, when I was younger, my mother asked me to slaughter a chicken for Sunday dinner, and at that time I couldn´t. In the action many things became possible for me that I would not have been able to do in everyday life, because art is ecstasy for me. The process of artistic creation is a stepping out from the day-to-day. In the last shot of this performance, I hold the goose over me and the blood drops onto my face. I feel guilt-ridden, like a murderer. I had no sexual experience with the goose. In another action with a goose, I used it as a dildo after I cut off the head. I stage myself pornographically in order to show truths. I provoke the moralists who do the same thing on a daily basis. I hold the mirror before them. They have marriage laws, morals, and at the same time, the brothel. I make no accusation, but I demonstrate the two-sidedness, the split in which human beings live. The public was appalled by my intentions. The spectators rejected the slaughter of the goose. If I think of the killing of human beings in the prisons of the USA, that is a crime. I do not condone animal murders. I show the sentimentality and hypocrisy. With tears in their eyes they gobble up their geese! Actionism is provocation and performance, the representation of moral double standards. Lately I have avoided meat from mammals. For the last five years, I have lived in the Algarve in a commune, and we live mainly on vegetables, fish, tofu, and soy products.
Are there any contemporary filmmakers including those who may cite you and the other Actionists as "inspirations" whom you think are truly subversive? Or, contrarily, are there any contemporary filmmakers whom you would single out as people whose attempts to shock have failed?
No, I'm not familiar with anyone. The avant-garde is not shocked by my films. Many of my films are deeply human. I inform and show what should be. I do have a flaw, a weakness. I have a great lust for women. If that were depicted, everyone would get all worked up. Those who are shocked I have rightly shocked. I count on shocking them and attune my actions to it.
Today, has the very possibility of "shock" been forever lost to commercialism?
The artist clears away taboos. What really shocks is being confronted with the facts. There is plenty to show. No one questions the State. The State doesn`t work. One cannot change it, not even through revolution. Private property is the end of ethics. Rousseau writes: "The first person to fence off a spot of earth and say, ‘That belongs to me, no one is permitted to trespass,' should have been declared insane or beaten to death." With this, the catastrophe of exploitation began. In the end it´s the police and the courts that hold the State together. Mr. Bush would have signed 400 death sentences had there been no protest in Berlin. A judge commits a murder without further ado. He represents this position. He must murder because he does not wish to lose his job. But I say that all murderers are innocent. No child is born a murderer. If a murderer comes up, one must remove him. The murderers should live in luxury. Every one of his wishes should be fulfilled. We are all responsible. We have allowed him to grow up in the ghetto. He has been trampled underfoot. We fail to cope with the world. We let it drift. Where is the critique of our educational system? Since when is that product of cultural education, the child, so deformed that murderers, thieves, muggers, armed police, priests, deceivers, proletarians, swindlers, and normal idiots are produced? I saw some Russian artists who imitated Actionism. One had himself chained like a dog and then barked. What's the point of that? Insulting the public? That's an absolute joke! It has never yet been shown in a film that fidelity in marriage is only preserved by the brothel. The State needs the whorehouse for the maintenance of law and order. The brothels bring money and taxes to the State. Sexuality cannot be ruthlessly lived out, but must receive a social framework. It should not be purchased. Sexuality is no game. Sexuality without social ties is imperiled by AIDS. Someone who has had a bad childhood finds it difficult to recover, stays perverse and needs his porno. He has anxieties. He can only react in front of the TV or with porno films. That gives him pleasure. He takes no risks. He plays it safe. The imagined woman can´t defend herself. There, in his fantasy, he can do whatever he wishes with her. Free sexuality is an ethical, moral undertaking.
"Soon the sculpture filled the entire space."
A typical Mühl action.
One needs to create an organization in which the sexuality of the group
is socially bound. Then no one will need to go to a brothel or sit in
a restaurant or a coffee house. All of these businesses that exploit
frustration would no longer exist.
I see the family as a model. But I'm not returning to the monogamous nuclear family, but rather to the large extended family, which in this form probably never existed. Men and women have equal rights. There is democracy.
Getting back to your work in the 1960s, how do you view your ZOCK manifesto of 1967 today? Though undeniably a product of its times, its vicious social satire is in a sense more relevant and revelatory today than it was in the 1960s.
Zock is a comedy. The new humor. It made many things look ridiculous. I also make fun of myself. Everything´s overdone, but behind it all there´s a small truth. I don't believe anything. I don't even believe in myself. I also don't believe in the commune, in the future, and so forth. I believe that I'm very happy at present. Whoever wishes to participate is cordially welcome. You too, Mr. Grossman, to whom I write this letter. My dear Mr. Grossman, change yourself. You also presumably live wrong. I enjoy confounding people.
That is my big idea. I have nothing more. Cezanne did not believe that he was a great artist. Rather, he believed he wouldn´t make it, but by then he was already amongst the gods. But I don´t want to go up to that heaven. It is pretty boring there. I want a heaven on earth.
What prompted you to stop making films in the early 1970s?
I won't give that away. "That is my secret which I will take to the grave." This quote comes from one of my films. But I have never stopped making films. You are misinformed. Rumors make their way to America. It seems to be a vacuum which exercises quite a suction. I am very inclined to throw myself into this vortex, because it will be to my advantage.
Did you continue to make films, then, once you started the commune?
I was in America in 1973. After that I started the commune. The actions became self-representation; the material action became therapy.
In the commune I made films: a "Picasso" film and a "Van Gogh" film, each of which ran more than an hour. A film, Back to Fucking Cambridge, which dealt with the society at the turn of the century in Austria, Emperor Franz Josef, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, and Arnold Schönberg. Many artists from Europe participated (Naim June Paik, Philipp Corner, Dokupil, Orlan, Francesco Conz, Brus, Nitsch, Dieter Roth, Oberhuber, and Norman Rosenthal). I filmed Emily, Inferno, No cookies today, a "Stalin" film, a "Hitler" film, and I filmed many others with the children.
Jesus was my last film. I could not finish my "Andy Warhol" film because I had to go to prison. That was the enforced seven-year break, because I was on State vacation. In jail I developed a "Freud" film.
Recently I have done many photo actions. My "Grimuid" actions13
are actions that are made from single photographs.
"Will you ever make any more films?"
From the action "Can Anyone Explain?"
In the action "Can Anyone Explain?", every adjustment was checked in
front of a mirror. The staged photograph transformed the snapshot into
a work of art. Just like a painting, a photo also transports art. The
art is not in the photography but in the staging of the scene. The art
is in the staged happening with objects and material. In the material
actions of the 1960s, there was still a difference between the actionists
and the model. I now enjoy making myself into an object of art. The
artist does not stand in front of the picture, but he is in the picture.
He does not sit like an analyst behind a screen. The analyst-patient
role is abolished. It is preposterous and obsolete. These are despicable
old roles, playing the priest and sinner in the confessional, the teacher
and the pupil, the judge and the accused.
Your Blood Organ Manifesto of 1962 openly admits your "craving for recognition." By the 1970s, would you say that perhaps you received too much recognition?
The Blood Organ Manifesto is naturally humor and provocation. All of Austria was up in arms because we had elevated ourselves to the status of doctors. I don`t care about any doctor title. I don't need that. The Beatles, every pubescent child, even you and I, we want to be famous. Naturally one has to do all kinds of things to achieve that. I have never heard of you (laughs). Perhaps I am misinformed. You can also send me your works. I would like to exploit you a little too. I find no one whom I could exploit. If one is still a beginner, one can exploit Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp. In jazz, Charlie Parker is great, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Schönberg can also be exploited. But they are already gnawed-up carcases. All that is left over are the bony remains. Now is the time in which the worms begin to gnaw at me. I'll gladly let myself be exploited. It is a great honor for me.
Yes, it is a great honor to be exploited, if one is so lucky it presupposes you are worthy of being exploited. Anyhow, was the creation of the actions-analytical commune tantamount to renouncing public life?
The "creation" of the actions-analytic commune was not a renunciation of public life. I hate public life. I am no politician I don't even know what that is. I no longer worry about painting or art. I make a higher art, the art of life. The praxis of creating life as it would be worthy of the 21st century. That's what it is about, it´s about the future.
Indeed, the creation of your commune seems to signify the destruction of the boundaries between life and art, as the "frame" that defines art becomes indistinguishable from the social "frame" that defines a life-as-performance.
It did not destroy the boundaries, but it was stepping over the circumscribed boundaries that lay in the brains of little dwarves. It is completely natural to create one's own life. A person cannot only make art. That is a petit-bourgeois thing. The artist makes art, is free, and lives without sex or must go into the whorehouse. It is pitiful what Van Gogh or Gauguin had to go through. What kind of freedom is that? Nobody is changed by art. Life is art and not a show. Performance is a show that is limited by theatrical means. The action also has a frame, a stage, and people stand around. It is not serious. It is artificially produced. I want to rid myself of the word "artificial." What interests me is the border that lies between reality and the artificiality of art. In my actions I became aware that the crossing of boundaries is as much formal as it is thematic. In my 10 years of continuous Actionism, which practically speaking began in 1961 with the destruction of the canvas, I worked my way through paintings to spatial figuration and finally to temporal events. The creative process of formation was more important than the production of pictures. The pictures thrust out of the artist, like a woman giving birth. Actionism overlaps into life. Then there are other aims. Everything changes.
I never wanted to change the political world. I have, at the most, undermined it. I am no warrior.
How was your commune formed, and what kinds of people joined it? Did the commune members come from particular social classes? Had they been previously involved with your art works?
They were naïve people who were washed ashore during the student revolts in the 1960s. They came in innocent and left the same. They didn't know what they were saying: "We don't want couple relationships." They didn't know what that meant. They thought they could fuck around. They saw that they couldn`t handle their sexuality. The women in the commune were those who created culture. They chose their partners for themselves. Those who could not succeed outside in society in inspiring a woman to love them had even less success in the commune because the competition was greater. Many were very disappointed.
I invented the action-analytical method very effective! It is like an injection, as when someone gets lumbago and receives a shot. For two or three days it calms down; then it can happen that the pain returns. Action-analysis was also like that. They made analyses. They were in a good mood. Maybe it lasted a week until the next disappointment, when a female commune member was suddenly not so thrilled with her partner. He experienced a rebuff. I believe that no analysis can change anyone. People can only change if they do something themselves. Art is an analysis in itself. The members of the commune did not change themselves.
How many children were in the commune? How did you educate them about sexuality did you treat child sexuality differently from adolescent and adult sexuality?
There were no sexual secrets. Everything was talked about. Whenever children asked questions, we informed them. I remember my mother and my father. I was 4 or 5 years old. When I saw a stork, they told me a story that it would bring small children. We did not tell our children such absurd nonsense. We told them no fairy tales. The information should be normal, nothing special. One can talk about sexuality just as one speaks of food. Coming to terms with sexuality is not perverse. The perversion comes from the denial of sexuality. I believe that sexuality is energy that binds society. When sexuality is embalmed in marriage, it is wasted. One cannot functionally avoid marriage in the state. Whoever does not marry is not nourished. In marriage, someone is always there when something happens to you. The problems of old age are the worst, suddenly finding yourself alone, a consequence of unsolved sexuality. I knew people where the wife died and soon thereafter the husband. He was totally alone and old. Nobody cared about him. In this respect the group is a thing of the future. The group is the ideal accommodation for the aged, not only financially, but also in the communication. One is never alone. No one wants to be alone. Aristotle once said that man is a social creature. That is a function of sexuality. It brings us together by its power. It is an extremely positive energy. It is no original sin, nor does it soil; one should not damn it as the church does.
The Art & Life Sahara Baby Jazzband
Human beings are exogamous. Marriage contradicts this exogamy. People
search for variety and go outwards. Marriage is thus no solution for
Our youngsters formed a band two years ago. They call themselves "Art & Life Sahara Baby Jazzband." There are 9 children. The oldest is 19 years old and the youngest is 12. They practice incessantly, except when someone nags them to stop. They often practice 8 hours a day, alone, then together, and every night at our evening session.
They made a great leap to the Bebop of Charlie Parker in a very short time. No artist can surpass this musical giant. Charlie Parker is Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso in one: wild rhythm, powerful expression mixed with objective mathematics. In the meantime, the band has become well known in the Algarve. I have taught them actionistic interludes. The public is very enthusiastic about this, especially when they lay down the "Baby Rap," for which I did the text and choreography. It is music, actionistically expressed, without instruments (only voice, noises, and movement). Jazz musicians who have had public jam sessions with our Baby-Band asked where they would be headed next. They considered them to be more than an ordinary show. One even said: If you take it further, then you will become world famous.
Can you tell me how you applied the principles of Wilhelm Reich in the actions-analytical commune? In his Character Analysis, Reich suggests that the key to therapy lies "not [in] the use of human language, but by getting the patient to express himself biologically." This seems like a core idea in your approach to Reich.
With respect to body therapy, I moved farther in the direction of self-representation. I expanded Reich in the direction of actionism. The patient was no longer a passive object, but became the subject, becoming active himself. The actions-analysis had the aim of awakening creativity. One becomes an expressive artist. The development of artistic creativity applies to life as well as art, using ideas to realize your own way. The artist does not have a picture before him, he himself is part of the picture and makes himself the object of creation. But I can no longer make sense of Reich's late period in which he worked with orgone.
When did you begin to study Reich's work?
I began to study Wilhelm Reich's work at the beginning of the 1960s. I worked in Vienna in a therapeutic home which was founded by some American Quakers after the war. It was under the psychoanalytic leadership of Frau Rosenfeld, a friend of Anna Freud. There I came into contact with psychoanalysis. Frau Rosenfeld gave lectures, carried out dream interpretations, and conducted a kind of group therapy. A friend who wanted to become an analyst asked me if I would like to be a patient for a training analysis supervised by his teacher. I gladly participated for a very humble compensation. It lasted two years. I grappled with the literature of Reich, Freud, and Ferenczi, but also Jung and Adler, whom I did not value because they denied sexuality.
The psychoanalysts make a living from the health insurance companies. They completely conform with the State. Freud fought against this, as one gleans from Freud's so-called Wednesday evening psychoanalytic sessions.
Mühl in prison
I used the work of Wilhelm Reich as a stimulus. One should never hold
on to a theory. Otherwise one might remain an eternal student, an idolater
and a parrot. I would be an epigone and no artist if I only used the
experiences of others without developing them any further. I went beyond
normal psychoanalysis. I used the psychomotoric action in actionism.
The essential idea was that by breathing to the point of regurgitation
and by body movements, one could enter the state of ecstasy. That brought
me to Reich, and the ecstasy brought me beyond him.
Some filmgoers in North America who may have not had a chance to see your avant-garde short films are perhaps most familiar with you from your appearance in Dusan
Makavejev's Sweet Movie (1975). Is the commune sequence in Sweet Movie an accurate representation of life in the actions-analytical commune?
No, not at all. The film is downright kitsch. I don't like this film at all. Today I would prefer that the film hadn`t been made. There was not much to do. To a large extent, it was all prescribed.
Was there anything you were not able to show in the film? Was anything cut from the film because of censorship problems?
Nothing was cut out of the film on account of censorship problems.
Naturally, people tend to focus on the literally and figuratively "sensational" aspects of your commune. But can you tell me something about your actual communal life?
In 1970, I took a decisive step from making art into shaping reality, and founded a living community. This developed very rapidly into a commune with the new lifestyle of the extended family group. Children and art stood at the center of this social project, which lasted twenty years, and at its peak totaled 700 members. The majority came from Germany and France, a few from Norway and Sweden, several from Holland, England, Austria, Denmark, and the USA. It was a social experiment with collective property, free sexuality, and collective children's education, and involved the private instruction and higher-level education of children and adults in the fine and performing arts, including: music, dance, theater, film, self-expression, painting, actionist art, and work in our own workshops and business enterprises. This time the actions were not carried out by me alone, but by all of the members: it was a commune of actionist life-praxis. Actionist art is distinguished by not aiming at an end result, but seeking to become a practice where all the developmental possibilities of a conceptualized project can be acted out. At that time, I had the hope that a new work of art could come into being in precisely this way, one that renewed and rejuvenated itself in an evolutionary way. As later became apparent, this project was infected with its own demise from the very outset. The idea was not able to sustain itself and to develop farther into the future. On the contrary, starting in the 1980s, the participants began to show signs of fatigue. Disagreements over collective property and private property, and over monogamy and free sexuality, which we could not resolve at that time, precipitated the dissolution of the group. I know today that monogamy and free sexuality are needs of equal value. The extremes of monogamy and free sexuality, private and collective, can only be solved by the synthesis of the "as well as" principle. I hold pure collective property to be an unsuitable form of social organization. Collective property belongs to no one. The individual owners of collective property own nothing; rather, the collective property owns them. They work not for themselves but for the collective property. Collective property led to self-exploitation.
To return to Dusan Makavejev his surrealism is largely satirical, and certainly his film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) presents Wilhelm Reich in a satirical, absurdist light. Did you also approach Reich with a sense of humor, and incorporate humor into your communal therapy? Or, on the contrary, do you find that elements of Reich that might at first appear absurd become quite normal and rational when practiced normatively? Is it necessary to view Reich with a sense of humor, or is humor a conventional defense mechanism that cheapens and trivializes Reich's work?
I cannot approach Reich with humor. I cannot joke. Humor is a characterization of the turn of the century: "That guy has humor" apparently things are going very badly with him and he is nonetheless merry. Maybe I would treat Reich with humor if I met him personally. Maybe I would make jokes.
In achieving a communal sexual life, did you go about destroying the conventional distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual relationships?
Not at all, certainly not! I must unfortunately confess that I had avoided homosexuality. That is different today. I have homosexual friends with whom I get along very well. The artist has a large feminine component. His feelings are as strong as those of a woman. He is a contrast to the tough world of heterosexual men. I think homosexuality is a product of education. Greece was an example of a homosexually constructed State, and the culture that was produced at the time would never have been possible without homosexuality similarly our western culture.
In the 1960s, you were employed as an art therapist for children in the therapeutic home you mentioned before. Were you able to use any particular therapeutic techniques you learned as an art therapist that were you able to translate into the therapies practiced into your life in the commune?
In the commune I invented action-analysis. The patient becomes an actor in front of the public and takes his therapy into his own hands. Instead of dialogues, actions are carried out. This was the origin of our so-called "self-expression actions." The material action is a group therapy, also in front of an audience. These material actions had a festive character. The material action could also be performed as individual therapy. The therapist had the task of encouraging the individual under analysis to continue and firing him on to dive deeper. In music it is Duke Ellington who fires on his soloists. He stands in front of them, and drives them to a frenzy with his shouts. This frenzy is creativity. The jazz musician is in a trance, experiences ecstasy when he improvises. He is suddenly "there." He becomes an "actionist." This ecstasy is not only a "being-outside-of-oneself," but also has form and reality. It is a kind of psychic discharge. That is pure art. I see it as a total therapy. Van Gogh would have surely killed himself much earlier without art. I learned to synthesize visionary and rational thinking, and to coolly and formally translate perception, ecstasy, and trance into pictures.
In the early 1990s, you were subject to another trial, this time on charges of child abuse. How did this trial of the ‘90s differ from the morality trials you endured in the 1960s?
In the 1960s, I was publicly denounced for pornography. I made an action in Braunschweig, Germany the Christmas action "O Tannenbaum." I lay naked in bed with a woman under a Christmas tree. I had hired a butcher. He killed a pig with a slaughtering-gun. He tore the heart out and hurled it onto us. The heart was still twitching. Blood spattered. Breathless silence reigned in the room.
I slowly climbed up a ladder and urinated on the woman and the pig's heart in the bed below. At that point, a women's libber lost control. She rushed the ladder on which I stood and screamed: "You pig, you filthy swine!" I had 1 kg. of flour and dusted her down with it. A white fog. She screamed again, "You swine!" and she was gone, vanished. In the meantime, someone attempted to pelt me with potatoes. He came closer and closer and it was dangerous. I had another 1 kg. of flour and dashed it against him. The flour dusted his face and his suit. He stood there white as a snowman. The public laughed, even applauded. That was the end of him and his potatoes. Some days later there was a big political discussion. The butcher had been expelled from the butcher's guild. The director of the academy where our action had been staged was fired, though he was later reinstated. Today both are very proud of their courage. An association for the salvation of human dignity had been formed, which filed a complaint against us. The Mühl affair was discussed in the German Parliament. That time I was acquitted by the state prosecution, who said it was a matter of art. If it had been in Austria I surely would have been locked up for months, because I was naked, and on charges of desecration, violation of religious symbols, and insulting behavior toward animals.
Did the Austrian and German arts communities support you in your 1990s legal battle more now than they did in the 1960s?
My trial in 1991 was the settling of old scores with Actionism. "Art and revolution 1968" in the auditorium of the University Vienna was the greatest art scandal of the three. Republic! The press used terms such as the "university pigs." Günter Brus, Oswald Wiener, and I were in jail for two months pending trial. Everyone knows that the judicial system in Austria is reactionary, so it is easy to imagine the satisfaction of the judges at my trial in 1991. If Bruno Kreisky, who always supported the commune, had still been alive, this trial would probably never have taken place. After my trial, letters of appeal to the Austrian President arrived from American artists, and from others from all over the world. No reaction. The politicians were afraid of the fanatical Haider, who today sits in the government. It would have taken a lot of courage to pull me out after I had been labeled a child molester and a rapist. When the court in Austria pronounces the word "child molester," it amounts to character assassination. They wanted to completely finish me off. Seven years: they thought I wouldn't survive at my age. I was in jail from 1991 to 1997. I was 73 when I came out. Now I am 77 years old.
I have read
a number of conflicting accounts of the arrest and seven-year prison
sentence. At least one source I've read implies that your arrest was
the result of some sort of conspiracy, perhaps from within one of the
cliques in the commune. Is there any truth to this?
As the prosecution of religious cults became popular at the beginning
of the 1980s, anything was named a "sect" that did not correspond to
the worldview of church and state. At that point we had to give up the
public lectures and the promotion of our social model. We ceased working
with guests in our therapy, and creative, painting, and dancing courses,
whereby the creative elite of the group had earned the gross social
product. Instead of that, we founded corporations and worked together
with large insurance companies. We found ourselves in the quagmire of
a professional trap. Understandably, the sellers of insurance, capital
investment projects and real estate had control over the assets themselves.
Collective property got in the way of the desire for one's own apartment,
one's own vacation, and one's own family. The salesmen suffered most
under collective property, and they wished to introduce private property
as quickly as possible without regard for the continuity of the group.
At the end of the 1980s, the climate in the group deteriorated. They
repudiated collective property and free sexuality, dressing themselves
in the postmodern clothes of the old conservative values: private property,
marriage, and public schools for their children. They summoned meetings
called "overcoming the past," where they propagated the abolition of
free sexuality and private property. The women of the commune, economically
independent, had been decisively superior to the men as pedagogues,
artists, organizers, and leaders. After the dissolution of the commune,
they fell back into the old household roles of the nuclear family once
In the first group experiment of the Friedrichshof commune, it was
shown that many theoretical suppositions were false. I was of the erroneous
opinion that the group as a social, sexual experiment would itself be
a kind of remedy for people with great difficulties. It was demonstrated,
however, that precisely those people who urgently needed help became
especially active participants in breaking up the group.
The hierarchy, initially a simple structure of respect and a measure of artistic ability, served later as an organizational structure and finally solidified into formalistic affectations of a social ranking, which no longer had anything to do with reality and impeded the natural contact between individuals.
I am against organizations. Bakunin said: "Every central organization leads necessarily toward oppression of the individual."
In 1991, it then came to a trial against me in Eisenstadt. Now nothing more stood in the way of the dissolution of the group. I escaped the state "waste disposal" center still alive at 72 years of age, with Parkinson's disease and blind in one eye. The blinding of my eye was the fault of a doctor in the Stein detention center, who, as a member of the Haider party, acted out his aggressions against me as a Freudian slip.
Now in 2002, I have been living in the Algarve in Portugal for the last four years. Fifteen adults and 12 children make up a new communal effort. We have learned from the large commune experiment that the group should acquire a familiar framework in which each person knows the other and in which personal relationships are the basis of collective life.
In the future "state" I imagine an interlinking connection of small autonomous family groups, and everything that they do with one another will be voluntary. Nothing superfluous will be financed no officials, no justice ministry, no police. Family groups are autonomous and regulate their affairs themselves. It is clear to me that it's a matter of theory. Research and praxis will show where the path shall lead.
Although you now seem comfortable in Portugal, do you have any desire to return to Austria?
I have no love for my fatherland. I was always against that idea. My home is with the group, wherever it is. If the climate is to some extent tolerable, that's great. The most important thing is that the group is there.
Will you ever
make any more films?
I have never stopped making films.
Now I make photo actions. I revived the "grimuid" theme from Actionism. What´s important is not the execution of a program but above all the free associative communication between the actors through grimaces. I probably never would have discovered this new approach to actionism if my German dentist in Portugal had not given me a set of dentures. It was this detachable dental prosthesis that inspired me towards new "self-expression actions." I had been amusing myself in front of the mirror with my toothless mouth in a childlike way already for more than a year. I played the crazy, toothless, old man. I took the artificial teeth out, put them back upside-down in my mouth and played Mr. Hyde.
At a high school reunion in 2001, all my classmates became indignant about my prosthetic playfulness during a photo session. My colleagues, all over 70 years of age, also had such a device in their mouths and placed great value in hiding this fact. They felt violated and said, "Otto, please stop, it is so terrible, it is so unpleasant. Please stop it!"
The human being is not a predator. He does not need incisors to realize his potency. His potency lies not in his teeth but in his head. He replaces his incisors with the corresponding tool (knife, sword, hoe, hammer, lance, bow and arrow). The new self-expression action is about self-deformation, self-irony, and self-destruction. I'm clearing away all beliefs in illusion. I'm unmasking myself. I make myself ludicrous and expose that which everyone seeks to hide: his age. The collapse of my body and the toothless mouth are powerful means of expression. I transform myself into Dracula. I become "Rumpelstilschen." I lament, scream, frolic, and smile stupidly and with senility at all those around me.
The feeling of happiness that these grimacing "jaw actions" produces
in me is overwhelming. In my earliest photo-actions, which are presently
showing in Paris, I represent myself as a geezer, as a revolting old
man. Artists are enthusiastic about "De-monumentalizing actions," where
the monument of oneself is shown as a broken junk sculpture. The woman
is cynically eager to help, like a disparaging nurse. Young, somehow
very arousing. The French, my gallery owner, and all those who see the
photos compare Violaine to Marlene Dietrich. Violaine is a great woman.
My discovery. I cherish her. Of course we perform without language.
One can invent a text, but I think it should be representation. It is
dancelike, with gesture. What we do, the way we look at each other,
requires no words. It reminds one of a silent film.
1. See the excerpts from Mühl's text Catastrophe Measurement on
pages 122-23 of Malcolm Green's Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, Schwarzkogler: Writings of the Vienna Actionists.
2. See page 83 of Green.
3. The comment is from the 1963 "Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism."
4. For a brief discussion of Kren's editing technique, see Peter Tscherkassky's article "Kurt Kren: Lord of the Frames," at
5. Other Actionist films are arguably more transparently allegorical than Mühl's works. Gunter Brus's
10/65, filmed by Kren, calls to mind the forcible removal of concentration camp victims' gold teeth with its tableaux of human statues, silently screaming a la
Edward Munch, being prodded with needles and scissors about the mouth.
6. See page 87 of Green.
7. See Green, page 20.
8. The written correspondence on which this interview is based dates from July through October of 2002.
9. Posséder et détruire. Stratégies sexuelles dans l'art d'Occident.
10. La peinture comme crime.
11. The 19th-century philosopher Max Stirner championed egoism and individualism as a means of subverting oppressive social institutions (including religion), and maintained that self-interest was the motivating factor in human actions. His best-known work is Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum (The Individual and His Property), written in 1844.
12. Mühl's informal script and a photo of this earlier, 1964 action can be found on page 83 of Green's edition.
13. The "Grimuid" actions are explained at the end of the interview.
la peinture comme crime edition de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2001. 49. rue Etienne-Marcel, 75001 Paris. © ADAGP; Paris, 2001
Posséder et détruire ISBN 2-7118-4045-X.
49, rue Etienne- Marcel, 75001 Paris. © Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000.
OMMÜhl: Aus dem Gefängnis 1991-1997. Brief/ Gespräche/Bilder. ISBN 3-85415-214-0. © 1997, Ritter Verlag Klagenfurt
Der Wiener Aktionismus und die Österreicher. Daniele Roussel Gespräche mit OMMühl. ISBN 3-85415-162-4. © 1995 Verlag Ritter Klagenfurt
OMMÜhl 7. Herausgeber/ Editor: Peter Noever, MAK. MAK- Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst/. Austrian Museum of Applied Arts. Ausstellung 18.Febr. – 5. April 1998. Exhibition February 18th- April 5 th 1998
la part de l` autre. ISBN 2- 7427-3829-0. © ACTES SUD / CARRE D ` ART, 2002
OUT OF ACTIONS. between performance and the object. New York: Thames and Hudson.
1950-1970. Cinquanta opere dalla Collezione Lanfranchi e dall ` Archivio Conz. Regione dell'Umbria. © 1998 by Commune di Todi.
OMMuehl sortir du bourbier. © OMMuehl, Weg aus dem Sumpf, AA Verlag, Nuremberg, 1977. © les presses du reel, 2001. achevé imprimer sur rotative par l`imprimerie darantiere á dijon-quetigny en octobre 2001. dépó légal: 4 trimestre 2001. n d` impression. 21-1106
c = camera; e = editor
Klarsichtpackung, 26.2.64, c: Peter Jurkowitsch (c), 8mm, BW, 5 min.
Gesäßpanierung, 26.2.64, c: Ingomar Lorenz (c), 8mm, BW, 3 min.
Mama und Papa, July-Aug.64, c e: Kurt Kren, 16mm, Color, 4 min.
Leda und der Schwan, July-Aug.64, c, e: Kurt Kren, 16mm, Color, 3 min., stumm
Cosinus Alpha, Oct.-Nov.64, c, e: Kurt Kren, 16mm, Color, 10 min.
O Tannenbaum, Dez.64, c, e: Kurt Kren, 16mm, Color, 3 min., stumm
Silberarsch, Jan-Febr.65, c, e: Ernst Schmidt Jr., 16mm
Bimmel Bammel, Febr.65, c, e: Kurt Kren, 16mm
Rumpsti Pumpsti, 8.5.65, c, e: Ernst Schmidt Jr., 16mm
Bodybuilding, May 65, e, e: Ernst Schmidt Jr., 16mm, BW
Turnstunde in Nahrungsmitteln, Summer 65, Ingomar Lorenz (or Günter Brus), 8mm, BW, 4 min.
Penisaktion, Summer 65, Günter Brus, 8mm, BW, 4 min.
Gehirnoperation, Summer 65, Günter Brus(?), Helmut Kronberger and Ernst Schmidt Jr., 8mm, BW, 5min.
Astronaut, Autumn 65, Günter Brus and Ingomar Lorenz, 8mm, BW, 4 min.
Kopf, Dec.65, Ingomar Lorenz, 8mm, Color, 7 min.
Das Ohr, Jan.66, Ingomar Lorenz (or Otto Mühl), 8mm, Color, 4 min.
Nahrungsmitteltest, Febr.66, OBWald Wiener, 8mm, Color, 4 min.
St. Anna, Mar.66, Peter Weibel, 8mm, BW
2. Totalakion mit Günter Brus, 24.6.66, Helmut Kronberger(?) and Peter Weibel, 8mm, BW, 8 min.
Funebre, Nov.-Dec.66, Peter Weibel, 16mm, Color, 7 min.
Grimuid, Helmut Kronberger, 16mm, BW, 10 min.
Zock – Exercises, 17.4.67, Helmut Kronberger, 16mm, Color, 12 min.
Psychomotorische Geräuschaktion mit der D.A.G. (Direct Art Group), Early 67, Peter C. Fluger, 16mm, BW, 12 min.
Wehrertüchtigung, Early 67, Peter C. Fluger, 16mm, BW + Color, 6 min.
Aktion für das Österreichische Fernsehen, Jun. 67, Podgorsky
Direct Art Festival mit G. Brus anda., 9.11.67, Helmut Kronberger and Reinhard Pyrker, 16mm, BW
Mit Schwung ins Neue Jahr with G.Brus and A.Schwarzkogler, Spermint (Dobrowitsch), 16mm, BW, 5 min.
Amore, Early 68, Spermint, 16mm, Color, 3 min.
Satisfaction with G.Brus and A.Schwarzkogler, Early 68, Helmut Kronberger and Spermint, 16mm, BW, 12 min.
Kunst und Revolution with G. Brus, O. Wiener, P. Weibel anda., Ernst Schmidt Jr. and Reinhard Pyrker, 16mm + Super8, BW
Fountain with Günter Brus anda., Early 68, Spermint (or Kurt Kren?), 16mm, BW, 6 min.
Libi, Autumn 68, Spermint, 16mm, Color, 6 min.
Aktion für WDR, 16.12.68, Film WDR, Köln
Apollo 10, Early 69, Hans Scheugl, 16mm, BW, 14 min.
"Champagnerreiterclub", Zsfg.der Aktionen: Nr. 63-65, Kurt Kren, 16mm, Color
Der Tod der Sharon Tate, 15.10.69, Hermann Jauk (or Hauk), 16mm
Scheisskerl, Kurt Kren und Hermann Jauk, 16mm, Color, 12min
"Sodoma", Zsfg.der Aktionen Nr. 52, 53, 59, Kurt Kren
Stille Nacht or O Tannenbaum, 16.12.69, H.-P.Kochenrath und Henning Freiberg (?), 8mm + 16mm, Color
Manotest, Director unknown, 16mm, BW
Morschl, Director unknown
Psychotic Party, Early 1970, Director unknown
Der geile Wotan, Summer 1970, Kurt Kren, 16mm, BW
Oh Sensibility, Summer 1970, Director unknown, 16mm, BW
Investment Fond, Autumn 1970, Unknown, or Hermann Jauk, 16mm, BW
Manirieren, with Peter Weibel, Autumn 1970, Director unknown
Pratersippe, Autumn 1970, Jörg Siegert, 16mm, BW
Manopsychotisches Ballett 1 8.11.1970; Manopsychotisches Ballett 2; with Charlotte Moorman, 8.11.1970, Jörg Siegert, 16mm + video
Aktion mit Hammel, 13.12.70, Unknown
Weihnachten 70, Bern, 16.12.70, Peter Schönherr, 16mm, BW
SS und Judenstern, Winter, Kurt Kren, 16mm, BW
Aktion 27.2.1971 in Liegen/Belg, Tajiri Shinkichi
Films During the Commune Period, 1971-1990
d = director; s = screenplay
Die Kirschen in Papas Garten. d: Otto Mühl, 16mm, Color, 50 min.
Sweet Movie. d: Dusan Makavejev
Hexenjagd. Videodrama. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 13min
On the road with Emilie. Videodrama. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 20 min.
Die Verwandlung. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 22 min.
Vincent Ein Film über Vincent van Gogh. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 85 min.
Inferno. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 7 min.
Zen. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 44 min.
Xidai. Ein Kinderfilm aus dem fernen Osten. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 19 min.
Der Maler Pablo Picasso. Ein Kinderfilm. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 30 min.
Dschugaschwili aus Georgien. Ein Kinderfilm über Josef Stalin. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 24 min.
Pablo. Ein Film über Pablo Picasso. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 60 min.
Der Führer kommt. (Ein Kinderfilm über Hitler). s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 18 min.
Back to fucking Cambridge.Ein Film über das Wien der Jahrhundertwende. s: Otto Mühl, d: Mühl and T.P., Video, Color, 60 min.
Caspar David Friedrich. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 18 min.
Columbus. Ein Kinderfilm. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 13 min.
Jesus. buch, d: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 24 min.
Keinen Keks heute. buch, d: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 24 min.
Andy´s Cake. Stories aus Andy Warhol´s Factory. s: Otto Mühl, Video, Color, 46 min.
M. Grossman holds Master's degrees in German and British language
and literature and is currently writing his doctoral thesis at the University
of Virginia on the social function of literary genre in representations
of public and private discourse in the 18th century. While overseas he
translated essays on media and education and maintains an interest in
academic disciplines ranging from social theory and intellectual history
to drama and media studies and comparative literature.