Let’s Talk
René Block and Wolfgang Müller on Berlin Sounds

For more than 25 years, Kumpelnest 3000 has been synonymous with Berlin subculture. The bar started as an art project. It was the ideal meeting place for two pioneers of a kind of art that cannot be pigeonholed: René Block and Wolfgang Müller. The discussion was moderated by Christiane Meixner.
Christiane Meixner: Mr. Block, what brought you to Berlin from the Lower Rhine fifty years ago?

René Block: Back then, I believed I absolutely had to live in a city. I was trying to choose between Paris and Amsterdam. Then a friend of mine lent me Berlin Alexanderplatz. I read the novel, grew curious, and traveled to Berlin in 1962, and I was immediately fascinated—not by the art, because the contemporary scene wasn’t at all interesting, but by the vast and fantastic music scene—the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Deutsche Oper.

CM: Despite this, in 1964, at the age of 22, you opened a gallery in Kurfürstenstraße, where the first thing you showed were paintings by Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke.

RB: I lived in a shop apartment at the time, thinking I could exhibit friends from the art academy in the shop. Before that could happen, though, something occurred that completely altered my ideas about art: I came into contact with Fluxus. In the summer of 1964, the Festival of New Art was held in Aachen. It was a big happening and an even bigger scandal with artists like Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys taking part. Subsequently, it was clear to me that I wanted to belong to them and cater to a completely new German art scene around young artists like Richter, Polke, KP Brehmer, and K. H. Hödicke. In addition to exhibitions, my gallery hosted soirees in the Dada tradition for which I brought Fluxus artists to Berlin. Individual artists—I couldn’t afford more than one. After Vostell, Beuys, and Stanley Brouwn, Nam June Paik came with Charlotte Moorman to perform music in keeping with Fluxus. The response was tremendous—which was negative. It wasn’t taken seriously and was dismissed as nonsense.

CM: Mr. Müller, you left Wolfsburg in the early 1980s to study at the HdK in Berlin. What’s changed since?

Wolfgang Müller: I found the West Berlin art scene weak overall. Except for Galerie René Block, which no longer existed but was already a myth. Block had shown art we found exciting because it was interdisciplinary. The record shop Gelbe Musik, that Ursula Block ran in her husband's former gallery since 1981, also  subscribed to this concept. I myself was more involved in the post-punk than the art scene, because I found it more exhilirating. In Berlin, countless art students were punks.
CM: Was Kumpelnest one of the places where these scenes encountered each other?

WM: Yes, similar to the Frontkino where the Canadian artist and German Academic Exchange Service scholarship holder Michael Morris put on a performance with an iron at three in morning at the Tödliche Doris party in August 1984. It wasn’t art versus punk, there was overlapping. For example, I had short hair dyed green and a cross inspired by Beuys shaved on the back of my head (laughs).

RB: The SO 36 in Kreuzberg was also frequented by both scenes. In 1980, I had curated the large exhibition Für Augen und Ohren (For Eyes and Ears) at the Berlin Academy of Arts with the aim of showing transgressive experiments of artists and composers from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.

CM: Who came from music, and who came from art? Or was it impossible to separate the two? 

RB: A distinction was made regarding whether an artist worked with sound and viewed this as an extension of his work, or if a composer ventured into the area of visual arts. The results are clearly different, even if a crossing of boundaries is increasingly taken for granted today.

WM: It’s not always possible to tell if someone has crossed a boundary. One of Tödliche Doris’s photo motifs was taken in the men’s toilet at Kumpelnest. Three people smiling happily behind two filthy urinals, an ad for our performance in Japan in 1988—and we’re reminded of Marcel Duchamp’s famous readymade Fountain. At first it looks like punk, yet at the same time it’s art.
CM: And didn’t you want to cross genre borders with Edition Block, which since 1964 has brought out portfolios, books, and records?

RB: For me, this division never existed. We followed the artists. Composers wanted to make graphics and visual scores, while visual artists wanted to make records. We tried to realize this. There’s an edition by KP Brehmer, who listened passionately to music. He fed the main motifs of Modest Mussorgski’s composition Pictures at an Exhibition through a sonogram and used the images generated as a basis for his etchings. To me, they looked like musical scores, and so I asked musicians to translate them back into music and record them.

WM: That reminds me of my first solo LP BAT, which used the ultrasound echolocation of bats. They see through their hearing, and they feel out the space around them with ultrasound, which I found fascinating, particularly as a visual artist. A biologist made recordings available to me on which echo sounds are audible against a considerable amount of background noise. After Michael Jackson’s album BAD was released, I brought out my record BAT. Jackson’s LP was a bestseller, whereas mine turned out to be a real “bad seller.” I sold a thousand copies in twenty years. My only consolation is that today, BAT costs a lot more second-hand than BAD.
CM: As a visual artist, why was music so important to you to begin with?

WM: When Nikolaus Utermöhlen and I founded the artist group Tödliche Doris as a band in 1980, the music scene interested us the most, particularly the subculture in occupied buildings. There was an audience that was open to all kinds of oddities. And to inept, dilettantish efforts. People took a closer look at first, even with the boring things, like Andy Warhol’s film Sleep, which went on for hours. In 1983, for instance, I hosted an evening at Kreuzberg’s Frontkino together with Bruno Hoffmann, who lectured for six hours without interruption, on Duchamp’s Large Glass. Around 20 audience members sat on balls of straw while sheep from the children’s farm wandered freely around them; some of them laughed a bit crazily at the end. In contrast, the gallery scene seemed pretty conservative and tame.

CM: There were experimental bands that became very successful commercially around 1983 as the New German Wave. Doesn’t it bother you both that you played a major role in the public’s acceptance of a new movement, but didn’t really manage to make any money off it?

WM: This was never an issue for me. I implemented ideas and did what I considered important—if I could afford it. Back then, this sometimes happened via the owner of the Kumpelnest, Mark Ernestus, a classmate of mine. He lent me the money for the record with the bat sounds and for the first LP of the band MUTTER. He gave generous loans to his friends, based on trust. Today, Mark is a famous techno producer, but at the time he was a patron.

RB: With our editions, and that also goes for the books and records, I’m always more interested in the production than the distribution, which Gelbe Musik eventually took over.

WM: After we made our first black vinyl Tödliche Doris LP and started thinking about making a second, it was clear that the music on a subsequent production would always be compared to its predecessor. In order to break this convention, something had to happen to make reviewers literally forget about form, shape, content, in other words, the music. And then I discovered this little record in KaDeWe that you could insert into talking dolls. We adopted this as our concept: an album of doll records with a battery-run mono player. But we had a lot of trouble finding someone to fund it. Ursula Block and Carmen Knoebel were the only ones who wanted to produce Chöre und Soli in 1983. They understood the artistic concept, including the decision to package the production in an LP-sized box that made Chöre und Soli look like a massive record box. We wanted the punks to believe they were buying the new Tödliche Doris LP. We didn’t necessarily want them to notice that they were also purchasing art. On the other hand, it was fine if certain art collectors didn’t notice Chöre und Soli or mistook it for a silly, worthless punk product. Today, they have to pay a high price to own the box.

RB: Our first record was a project with Conrad Schnitzler, a Beuys student who discovered the synthesizer and founded the Zodiak Free Arts Lab—a completely black room at the Hallesches Ufer in Kreuzberg—which became a hot spot for electronic rock music. Then we edited acoustic compositions by Roman Opalka, who spoke the numbers he painted. It sounded very meditative, but always remained visual art.

WM: Buying records was a part of my youth culture. In Wolfsburg, Klaus Hoffmann, director of the Städtische Galerie, opened up a world for me with his wonderful collection of records and art. It was what saved me. I only realized in retrospect that music and fine art had already been brought together for me here. Yet there were a lot of indications like these. When I happened upon a Velvet Underground record, for instance, whose music I really liked and whose cover was designed by Andy Warhol, it was right in the midst of this mixture of youth and high culture, of music and art. In the ’70s, I bought Lou Reed’s album Metal Machine Music at the flea market. It was a real shelf hugger in Wolfsburg, but shelf huggers often turn out to be the most interesting records—or works of art. What I didn’t understand made me curious.

CM: Tödliche Doris was quickly accepted by cultural institutions and received invitations, although that wasn’t its intention. Or was it?

WM: Tödliche Doris was invited to take part in documenta 7. We declined the offer, because we didn’t want to provide decoration for the Wild Painters, who were very popular at the time. There wasn’t even an exhibition honorarium, for instance. We even would have had to pay our own travel costs to Kassel. Five years later, we were invited once again to documenta. This time, however, it was with an attractive budget and as officially invited artists with several pages in the exhibition catalogue. Things like this are often misinterpreted. As a decision for or against high- or subculture, or for or against success. But there is no either/or.

CM: But why did Tödliche Doris attract so much attention? Not everyone is invited to take part in documenta.

WM: Because, we seized the opportunity to create interesting artistic concepts with sound in new and different ways. That drew attention. Perhaps because initially our perspective was that of visual artists. Conrad Schnitzler is considered a part of the music scene today, although he began as a fine artist. It’s similar to Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, which no one really accepted at first, but both sides later claimed as their own. Art in an intermediate area that cannot be categorized immediately either ends up in Nirvana or, sometimes, on fertile ground. Gunter Trube, one of the waiters at Kumpelnest, selected the base tracks for the first Tödlicher Doris LP in 1981, and he was deaf. Of course, people from the music scene at the time found that grotesque. But it also captured attention. Today, there are deaf rappers like Signmark and deaf slams.

CM: What became of the movement you both were instrumental in initiating?

RB: Many things were intuitive, and interdisciplinary approaches dated back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, it is taken for granted that performance art combines acoustic and visual aspects and that artists translate their systems into sound.
WM: Twenty years ago, it would have been almost inconceivable for a talented deaf artist like Christine Sun Kim to be acknowledged at all in the realm of performative music. Her work would have been dismissed as just another oddity and would have remained unnoticed. Thanks to transgression, it became clear for the first time that a deaf artist can think about acoustic phenomena from her perspective and be found new and insightful even by people who can hear. This confidence and openness to performance resulted from the emancipatory effect at the time and continues to influence society today. If we both have helped promote this acceptance, then it’s perhaps a sign of the quality of our work.