In the Mix

Artists Henning Fehr & Philipp Rühr discuss their influences

A common thread in our work is the way in which social groups and communities see and represent each other. A point of departure for our most recent film project is our interest in Rhythm and Sound, a Berlin-based dub-techno project by Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald (known as Basic Channel). In the early 2000s, the two began collaborating with Caribbean musicians and reggae artists. While the recordings were well-received in the German dub music scene, Basic Channel’s Jamaican partners garnered less individual attention. In New York, recently, we spent a week with a number of them – Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes, Jah Batta and Claudette Love Joy – in Bullwackies’ recording studio in New York. As well as being one of the first US reggae labels, Wackies, founded in 1974, was one of the first large independent music labels in the US, working with artists such as Sugar Minott, The Love Joys and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Bullwackies’ has long been a hub for Jamaican culture in New York. While doing interviews for our film, accompanying these artists as they worked, we came to wonder how the collaboration between this label and Basic Channel had evolved.

Our research into the roots of dub took us to Jamaica, where we came across the book Natural Mysticism – Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic (1999) by Kwame Dawes. Part personal memoir, part cultural analysis, Dawes’s book describes the processes through which roots reggae emerged: how writers such as Roger Mais and Sylvia Vinter developed their own forms of literature, in part by emulating European and American models, though always with
the goal of a ‘Jamaican’ style. This eclectic combination of traditions resulted in many key literary works, including Vinter’s novel The Hills of Hebron (1962), the story of an autonomous religious community in the mountains of Jamaica, and Mais’s Brotherman (1954), about a proto-rastafarian. In the 1930s, the rastafari movement advocated a radically anticolonial position and influenced Jamaican music: syntheses that ultimately gave rise, in the late 1960s, to reggae.

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Stan VanDerBeek, Movie-Drome, 1963. Courtesy: Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.

Stan VanDerBeek, Movie-Drome, 1963. Courtesy: Estate of Stan VanDerBeek

When Perry Henzell’s crime film The Harder They Come hit screens in 1972, it came as a shock to many people in Jamaica. In the film, a young man moves from the countryside to Kingston with dreams of becoming a reggae singer. While working for a producer who financially exploits him, he begins selling marijuana, increasingly gets in trouble with the system and is finally shot dead by a policeman. For the first time, the ruud bwai – played
by singer Jimmy Cliff, who recorded the well-known soundtrack – allowed Jamaican audiences to identify with a Jamaican hero on screen. According to Dawes, the impact of this film on Jamaican culture cannot be overstated.
It was due to the cultures of rastafarians and reggae that Jamaican music and literature were able to break completely with their European and American forbears.

Scientific and theoretical inquiry have often had an influence on cinema, too. In 1929, while experimenting with mescaline, the German psychiatrist Hans Bensheim identified two kinds of hallucinatory tendencies: ‘schizothemic’ (figurative) and ‘cyclothemic’ (ornamental or abstract). A year later, Sergei Eisenstein wrote his famous lecture on the ‘dynamic square’ while in Mexico, researching for a film intended to be set there titled ¡Que viva Mexico! (Long Live Mexico!). In his address, Eisenstein spoke of zaumny (‘transrational’ or ‘transmental’) filmmaking that would go ‘beyond’ language and reason. However mystical Eisenstein’s approach, he did not ideas, their roots in the folk spiritualism of the Soviet regions as well as, perhaps, Mexico. Writing over 50 years later, in his book Cinema 1: The Movement Image (1983), Gilles Deleuze posed the question: was the promise of early Soviet
cinema ultimately realized in the psychedelic explorations of US counter-culture? Deleuze was interested in the Californian cinematic experiments of the 1970s and ’80s that occurred in spaces such as planetariums. After LSD was banned in the USSR, the Czech psychoanalyst Stanislav Grof proceeded with countless hallucinatory investigations in California and founded the International Transpersonal Associ-ation in 1978. Transpersonal psychology,
today a recognized sub-field of the discipline, seeks to integrate spiritual and transcendent elements, such as ‘exceptional human experiences’ (EHEs), into the field of psychology. Perhaps, with hindsight, it’s possible to modify Deleuze’s theory: the transrational attempts of Russian cinema were realized in the transpersonal research that occured on the US west coast.

Amid industry shake-ups such as video on demand and streaming, slow cinema is becoming more influential. 

Locations for film screenings have evolved over time and, according to film theorist Thomas Elsaesser, we are currently experiencing a ‘museumization’ of cinema. Nadin Mai, who writes the blog ‘The Art(s) of Slow Cinema’, notes that cinema is experiencing structural changes: many films are being made that do not correspond to conventional categories, lengths or distribution mechanisms. Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009) by Beijing-based filmmaker Liu Jiayin, for instance, portray the life of her family using only a few, long-durational frames. In such works, the screening environment becomes a place for extended reflection: a viewing experience more traditionally associated with visiting a museum. Amid industry shake-ups such as video on demand and streaming, slow cinema is becoming more influential: the 226-minute film The Woman Who Left (2016), by Filipino director Lav Diaz, for instance, was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival last year.

Worth noting in this context is Wolf Kino in Berlin, a cinema space that opened at the same time as the 2017 edition of the Berlinale film festival. In addition to two traditional cinema-style auditoriums, Wolf Kino offers a multi-purpose presentation room that functions somewhere between a cinema and exhibition space. Large, moveable curtains can cover the white walls, allowing lighting and acoustics to be easily modified. And, in contrast to traditional screening runs, which usually last only a few weeks, Wolf attempts to counteract the short-lived cycle of film with a longer-duration programme.

At the end of 2016, we saw the exhibition ‘Straub/Huillet/Weiss’ at Temporary Gallery in Cologne. The filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub developed a method for ‘collaborating’ with other authors by appropriating literary texts wholesale and turning them into films. Voice tracks, ambient noise and music were treated equally and recorded on location with no dubbing or post-production. Their films deliberately lack a uniform colour profile and no attempt was made to homogenize individual sections sonically. Straub-Huillet shot in several languages and embraced the various dialects of their actors. They undertook the translation and subtitling of their films themselves, adhering strictly to Walter Benjamin’s notion of a good translation: adopting the specific syntax of the source language so that audiences can ‘hear’ the sound of the original. Straub-Huillet’s first production for TV, Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene (1973), is a study of the stylistic conceit of the talking head. Their experiments have helped us to frame our own (at times) interview-heavy working methods.

How is a film affected when it is presented in diverse settings: an exhibition space as opposed to an auditorium, say? And what are the differences between the art and cinema industries? We began making filmsin the late 2000s, while studying at the Kunst-akademie in Düsseldorf, where the emphasis was always on minimal and conceptual art, under the omnipresent influence of photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The film institutions that existed in Düsseldorf at the time were dominated by programmes grounded in the classical American and European film canon, with little attention paid to film and video art. It was a significant step forward when Julia Stoschek opened her collection in 2007 with a programme dedicated to video art and, a few years later, filmmaker Keren Cytter became a professor at the academy. Yet, while film and video art have gradually found their footing in Düsseldorf’s institutions, our experience has taught us that – within contexts where terms such as ‘film’ or ‘video’ are not rigidly defined – artists are free to avoid the strict labelling of their work. This lack of genre distinction is something that, to this day, remains fundamental to our practice.

Main image: Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, 1972, album cover. Courtesy: archive.org

Henning Fehr and Philipp Rühr are artists based in Berlin, Germany. In 2016, they had solo shows at: Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna, Austria; Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany; ACUD Gallery, Berlin; Galerie Max Mayer, Düsseldorf, Germany; and the Swiss Institute, New York, USA. Forthcoming exhibitions in 2017 include: Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany, as well as a solo presentation at Künstlerhaus Bremen, Germany, in September.

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