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Lord of the Frames: Kurt Kren

Peter Tcherkassky

From Millennium Film Journal No. 35/36 (Fall 2000): The Millennium


In 1964, Wien Film Laboratories refused to print 6/64 Mama und Papa. When Kurt Kren submitted the original, the film grader said with an undertone of sympathy that, given the number of cuts, one would not be able to make out anything anyway. His worries were groundless: when Kren came to pick up the print, some technicians with flushed faces left the projection room, telling him to get out and never to come back again. A few months later, a similar scene took place at Listo Labs, where 9/64 O Tannenbaum was not accepted. Kren ultimately found a lab that would accept his films, based on actions by Otto Muhl and Gunter Brus: a company on Peter Kaiser Gasse in Jedlersdorf, a neighborhood in the east of Vienna. There, in the most remote outskirts of the city, films were developed and printed in home-made contraptions reminiscent of washing machines. The man who ran the business single-handedly intimated that he was used to explicit images: his primary customers were in the ‘blue movie’ scene. The fact that the credits in a few Kren works from those days are misplaced and that the name “Kren” next to the copyright symbol extends beyond the edge of the frame can be explained by this. Credits were produced by the lab, but they were made with a camera that had no viewfinder. There were no objections to the films’ content.

The “© Kren” hanging over the frame line can be seen as a metaphor of the Avant Garde and a harbinger of cinema beyond the screen: Expanded Cinema. It is, indeed, during the “Jedlersdorf period” in his oeuvre that Kurt Kren developed some of his most lasting techniques.

In his essay “On The Question Of Form,” dating from 1912, Wassily Kandinsky proclaimed that “Great Abstraction” and “Great Realism” were equivalent. Kandinsky’s text marks the acme of a development in Western art that started in the late Middle Ages and has been clearly pronounced since the Renaissance. It is a development that oscillates between two polarities. One polarity is found in a type of painting that sets considerations of form and composition aside in order to depict nature as accurately as possible. The contrasting polarity is the approach that strives for a strict adherence to formal principles, understood as a reproduction of reality which seeks to express that which is hidden behind appearance. This attitude unites a great variety of styles and artists, allowing Classicism, Gauguin, Expressionism, and Mondrian’s extreme formalization of the phenomenal world to be seen as aspects of the same line of visual development. Kandinsky deals with what he calls the other genealogy of modern art which is based on “realistic” art, driven by a striving to depict everything true to nature. However, when art turns away from space to represent the moment as we perceive it, it introduces the component of time into the structure of the picture, something reflected in the light application of paint, in sketchy freehand drawings: objects become volatile. The imminent renunciation of form found in Naturalism (the reproduction of phenomena as they appear) eventually leads—via Impressionism—to a two-pronged approach, ending in the disintegration of form, in Kandinsky’s free abstraction and in the extreme realism of the ready-made and comparable collages of objects from the workshops of the Dadaists. Great Abstraction foregoes the mediation of the perceptual world and represents the creative media themselves, while Great Realism foregoes representation, substituting for it the object itself. Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Duchamp map out the terrain wherein twentieth century art is located. The aesthetic issues at stake in the conflicts among these positions in the visual arts also animate cinematography, after some delay. Perhaps because of the delay, their impact is stronger, and Kurt Kren’s contribution in this context is no less than outstanding.

Gunter Brus and Otto Muhl, as artists, depart from easel painting and use the human body as the central means of expression in their art. This common trait tends to obscure the fundamental differences between their action works. On the one hand, Brus and his grandiose pathos belong to the tradition of Expressionism. His use of paint grants it a continuing central function as a link between body, surrounding space, and delimiting surfaces. On the other hand, Muhl is the Dadaist among the Actionists. His version of realism does not require the expressively fraught grounding in a special world of signs (as in Brus’s surgical gauze, scalpels, scissors, razor blades, and tacks). Muhl’s staged realities are still lives of paint, refuse, and food in motion, spirited, and devoid of symbolic or allegorical allusions. Whereas Brus arranges a mise-en-scene of creatures suffering, Muhl is looking for fun.

Kurt Kren enters the picture amidst these two contrasting Actionist programs, and he, too, reacts in strikingly different ways. Ever since his second film, 2/60 48 Kopfe aus dem Szondi –Test, Kren had organized his material according to serial rules.

1. He counteracted the mimetic overdetermination of film with brittle mathematical principles (the length of a take was determined from the sum total of the two preceding takes: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 frames). All his early films were edited in the camera by means of the single frame mechanism. Kren made his lasting mark in the history of cinematography when he developed his flash-editing technique from his fifth film onward: 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, etc. is characterized by cuts as short as single frames. Here, too, the sequence was determined by serial patterns laid out in scores.

The serial flash editing technique is what Kren uses to create a contrast to “Realist” Muhl’s actions. Unlike single-frame editing in the camera, real editing enables a much more appropriate option of formalization within the sequence of images. A single-frame process in nature, as shown in 3/60 Baume im Herbst, has no repetitions; each frame contains a new view. In the first action he filmed, 6/64 Papa und Mama, Kren’s editing leads to many interlocking continuous shots; central takes recur like a leitmotif—circular motion and networking can be observed throughout the film. Kren painstakingly weaves the fury in front of his camera into dense geometrical figures. Shot/countershot sequences alternate; jumping back and forth between single (!) frames, they turn the Actionist turmoil into ornaments, rigid geometrical patterns, the equivalent in time to what Mondrian used to distill on canvas in space. Then comes Kren’s first film with Gunter Brus, 8/64 Ana - Aktion Brus. The expressive style Kren is suddenly confronted with makes him depart from seriality and flash editing. His response is “Great Abstraction.” Free gestural photography corresponds to Brus’s pathos; Kren pumps images of Tachist disintegration onto the film strip. While flash editing had made Muhl’s actions rage, the repetitive qualities had ensured that the “moving ornament” was still legible. The single-frame process Kren uses to record Brus’s action, as if writing with his camera, makes the image almost indiscernible. 10b/65 Silber-Aktion Brus floats even more freely in the pre-representational haze of gestural traces. When Kren steadies his camera slightly, he is less interested in the action than in the abstract traces left by the act of painting-the splashes of paint on the studio walls. Where Dadaist Muhl celebrates Naturalism taken to extremes, Kren responds by strategies of concentration as found in Mondrian, or in Expressionism. Confronted with Expressionism, as continued in Brus’s actions, Kren resorts to “Great Abstraction,” clearing the board of all signs fraught with meaning. However, there are two exceptions to this rule: 9/64 O Tannenbaum, featuring Muhl, is characterized by the use of the single frame mechanism and a static camera; 10/65 Selbstverstummelung shows Brus in relatively long takes following an A-B-C-B-C-D-C-D-E-etc. pattern. These two films function without applying an aesthetic opposite in terms of structure, and as a result, they are comparatively documentary in character.

The dialogue with Modernism, which Kren had an important share in shaping, can be tracked down in most of his forty-nine films. Even Dadaist realism is represented: in 18/68 Venecia kaputt, in 27/71 Auf der Pfaueninsel , in 29/73 Ready-made, in his expanded movies.

In 1995 Kurt Kren turned the centenary of the cinema into a commemorative year. The organization “hundertjahrekino” commissioned him to make a trailer which he gave the title Tausendjahrekino.

2.  For several weeks, Kren filmed tourists in the square in front of St. Stephen’s in Vienna while they were taking pictures of the cathedral or recording it on video. He used frequencies of 2, 4, and 8 frames per second and used the limits of his lens: maximum focal length (66 mm) and minimum distance (1.2 meters). The takes are usually two to four frames long; they do not follow any fixed rule. The soundtrack is a brief sequence from Peter Lorre’s movie Der Verlorene (FRG, 1951), in which a drunkard recognizes a killer protected by the Nazis, accosts him, and repeats over and over again: “We’ve met before, I don’t know where, but we’ve met before. . . “ When the end of the film draws near, the same voice is heard again over the din of an air alert: “Everybody down to the heroes’ shelter, everybody die a hero. . . .” Kren associates the anniversary of cinematography with the Third Reich, which was to last a thousand years. “One Hundred Years of Cinema” also implies images that rule for one hundred years, images which have lost their referentiality and come to dominate reality. The question is whether the tourists will actually have come to know St. Stephen’s Cathedral. When the voice on the sound track sends everybody down to the heroes’ shelter, Kren pans up St. Stephen’s, his camera shaking. At the end of the film he seems to seek the lost reality of the cathedral, but it has been bombed by the images.

3. Tourists taking pictures of cathedrals and similarly large structures may move the onlooker to ask: “How do you get such a big building into such a small device?” The trivial technical reply would be: by focusing at infinity and using a wide-angle lens. Kren takes the opposite approach, using a telephoto lens. Furthermore, instead of seeking clarity by keeping a distance and focusing at infinity, thus concerning himself with mimesis, he gets as close to his subject as his lens allows him. The low frequency of frames he works with stipulate long exposure times: in combination with a hand-held camera and telephoto lens, this leads to rather blurred images. Again, we have arrived at the figure of handwriting on the way to Kandinsky’s “Great Abstraction,” and again, Kren wants to visualize the other side of appearances.

What about the people whose outlines haunt Kren’s hazy shots? They all look at the cathedral through their viewfinders, at the sculptures adorning its facade. These sculptures of human bodies are precisely the objects through which reality as perceived by the human eye began to enter the realm of art in the late Middle Ages. These sculptures were the first formulations of a program that was ultimately to be implemented by the Renaissance, and its visual echo is still reflected in the construction of the camera lens. In Tausendjahrekino, we witness a meeting with the “Lucy” of the photo, film, and video generation: these Gothic fossils are to photographic mimesis what the first example of humankind is to anthropologists. The only difference is that the participants in this family reunion on St. Stephen’s Square are not aware of the fact that they are related. “We’ve met before, I don’t know where, but we’ve met before....” For Kren, this is tausendjahremimesis, and there is no end to it.


  • This article was reprinted from the exhibition catalog, Kurt Kren at Wiener Secession, 1996.
  • Translation by Elizabeth Frank-GroBebne
  • For a detailed analysis of his first, pre-serial film 1/57 Versuch mit synthetischem Ton, see Peter Tscherkassky, "Die rekonstruierte Kinematographie," in A. Horwath, L. Ponger, and G. Schlemmer, eds. Avantgardefilm. Osterreich, 1950 bis heute, Vienna 1995.