What does it mean to recognize a documentary gesture in Kren’s films? What is being documented? The documentary images that Kren uses in his works do not arise out of a plan, but instead, come from the right moment, a coincidence, a momentary observation, or a seized opportunity. (Michael Palm)
Kurt Kren was born in Vienna in 1929 to a German mother and an Austrian father of Jewish decent. In 1939 the ten-year-old was sent via „Kindertransport“ (organized by the British Refugee Children Movement) to Rotterdam. In 1947 Kren returned to Vienna and was given a job at the National Bank by way of reparation. Shortly afterwards associated with members of the Art-Club, a circle of progressive artists. In 1955 Kren bought his first Regular 8 camera and became a member of an amateur filmmakers’ club, Klub der Kinoamateure. Some of his first artistic experiments with film were made in collaboration with the poet Konrad Bayer. As of 1957 Kren created his first 16mm film and in 1960 made his first serial montage film of many to follow. It is due to these early serial works that Kren is considered one of the most influential pioneers of structural filmmaking. From 1964 through 1966 Kren made films based on “material actions” staged by Otto Muehl and Günter Brus performed exclusively for Kren and several photographers. In 1966 he participated in the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, during which the Viennese Actionists made their first international appearance. In 1968 Kren took his first trip to America to present his films in New York and St. Louis. In the same year, he was wrongly accused of filming the scandalous Action Art and Revolution staged at the University of Vienna, directly leading to the termination of his bank job. In 1971–1976 Kren lived in Cologne. 1972–1973 he produced a series of 5 boxes, each containing a super 8 print of one of his films, a copy of its handwritten score and several stills. In 1976 he moved to Munich, participated in Kassel’s documenta 6 in 1977, and emigrated to the US in 1978. In 1979 Kren married Marnie Rogers and they lived for a few months in Europe on a DAAD scholarship. After returning to America they divorced in 1980 and Kren moved to California, without a steady address and sometimes living out of his car. In 1981 he worked with a group of housewreckers in New England, making money from the wood they salvaged. Kren subsequently moved to Austin and then relocated to Houston, Texas. From 1983 to 1989 Kren worked as a security guard at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. His films were presented in many different cities and prints sold to numerous international collections. In 1989 Kren returned to his homeland and was provided an apartment and a small pension by the Austrian government. In 1997 he worked as an actor and cinematographer for Christoph Schlingensiefs’ Die 120 Tage von Bottrop.
Co-founder of the Vienna Institute of Direct Art (1966) and of the Austria Filmmakers Cooperative (1968). Member of the Vienna Secession, the London Filmmakers’ Coop (1967), the New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative (1968), P.A.P. Munich (1969) and of the Assembly of Authors in Graz. His work is distributed by sixpackfilm (Vienna), Light Cone (Paris), LUX London, Canyon Cinema (San Francisco) and New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative. Kurt Kren died in 1998.
Kurt Kren: Which Way to CA? Review
Anthony Nield, 05-09-2006, thedigitalfix.com
Following on from Index's previous Kurt Kren compilations, Action Films and Structural Films, Which Way to CA? gathers the filmmaker's "documentary" works. Of course, any such term becomes extremely slippery when applied to Kren, hence the inverted commas. You could argue, for example, that his capturing of various performances by Gunter Brüs or Otto Mühl constitutes documentary representations even though their editing structures make them distinctly "experimental" in execution. Similarly some of the titles which figured on the Structural Films disc could happily earn the documentary tag courtesy of the manner in which they capture the landscapes around them; I'm thinking, in this case, of the likes of 31/75 Asyl and 37/78 Tree Again. Indeed, even this particular disc has difficulty staying within its own remit. 26/71 Zeichenfilm - Balzac und das Auge Gottes is a 31-second animation which prefigures the work Phil Mulloy has been putting out since the early nineties. 42/83 No Film, even shorter at just three seconds, is just that: the words "No Film" onscreen for what seems like barely a moment.
So what is a Kren documentary? Hardly surprising, it appears to take on a number of forms. Early on in the (chronologically arranged) disc we find the likes of 18/68 Venecia Kaputt and 22/69 Happy-End. The former scrawls apocalyptic doodles over footage of Venice; the latter offers askew, barely-in-the-frame representations of Kren's trips to the cinema (Bullitt's famous car chase is amongst the near-unrecognisable snippets on slight display) interrupted by images of hardcore sexual imagery. In other words this is documentary as situationist prank; Kren having a little chuckle into his sleeve and inviting us, perhaps, to laugh along too.
But then this isn't all that Which Way to CA? has to offer. Elsewhere various shorts see Kren providing documentary as distillation, reducing events, activities and meanderings to their very essentials. In some cases the results are initially abstract and allow their realities to slowly creep in: 24/70 Western's representation of a photo depicting the aftermath of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam is a key example. Other films are more immediately perceivable: 34/77 Tschibo captures Kren's notes from previous projects in small frame bursts thus creating an onslaught of instantly recognisable, yet ultimately incomprehensible, words and doodles; 23/69 Underground Explosion is a chaotic blend of sound and image recording a festival featuring, amongst others, Amon Düul and VALIE EXPORT in a manner which captures its atmosphere just as astutely in five minutes as Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock does over three-hours-plus.
In this latter respect a number of these films recall some of Derek Jarman's earliest Super 8 experiments: TG in Heaven (proto-industrial band Throbbing Gristle performing at the eponymous nightclub), Pirate Film (featuring William Burroughs and Sloane Square: A Room of One's Own, this latter example essentially a home movie. Indeed, home movie is a key term when it comes to some of Which Way to CA?'s content. Kren himself even uses the expression "bad home movies" in respect of the completely amateurish nature in which he only edited in camera for a handful of these shorts, never knowing quite what the end results would be until the films were ready for their first viewing. As such the spectre of Andy Warhol's filmic output is also present when viewing the disc. Of course, Warhol's lack of editing was done in conjunction with simply leaving the camera running and producing long takes as opposed to the chaotic series of bursts which Kren gives us. Nevertheless, the lack of after-the-fact manipulation leads to an unavoidable sense that reality is in some way being captured. You could even argue, therefore, that these particular titles - amongst them 40/81 Breakfast im Grauen and the film which gives this compilation its title, 39/81 Which Way to CA? - are documentary expressions in their purest form: only reality, nothing else.
There's one further facet to these films worth mentioning and that's their often incredible visual beauty. 40/81 Getting Warmer, whether intentional or not, has a lovely off-kilter colour balance which brings out the reds and the greens. 33/77 Keine Donau attains a texture akin to either animation or genuine 3D. And then there's 43/84 1984, Kren's contribution to documenting American politics. Shooting a pre-election televised debate featuring Ronald Reagan, this short is oddly reminiscent of one of David Lynch's more bizarre impulses. It's a thing of strange beauty and one of the most beguiling pieces of cinema I've ever seen.
For the most part Which Way to CA? follows the pattern set by Index's previous Kren compilations. In other words the films come in as fine a condition as we could expect, any imperfections no doubt being the result of their productions as opposed to the manufacture of this disc. All of the films come in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios (non-anamorphic, of course) and are silent where applicable. Again, those which do have soundtracks come across as well as should be expected. 44/85 Foot' - age Shoot' - out, for example, makes use of Ennio Morricone's main theme for Once Upon a Time in the West, though of course it sounds nowhere near as crisp or clear as it does in the original film.
As for extras we find the usual Index booklet made up of bilingual film notes and interview snippets with Kren discussing each of the titles included on the disc. Furthermore we also find a major addition in the form of Hans Scheugl's 1988 documentary Keine Donau: Kurt Kren und seine Filme, a 55-minute interview with the director which sees him discuss many of his key works from his then home of Houston, Texas. As you'd hope for, it's all fascinating stuff and a hugely welcome addition. We can only hope that Index fish out such additions for their future releases. (Keine Donau: Kren Kren und seine Filme comes with German dialogue and thus has optional English subtitling.)