an interview with otto mühl, september 4, 2002
by andrew grossman
Translated from the German by Robert M. Grossman
Andrew Grossman: In Germany in the late 1980’s, and then in the United States in the late 1990’s, 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?
Otto Mühl: 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 four or five years ago that it would have been impossible to exhibit Otto Muehl either in the Louvre, or the Pompidou Center. Now the time is ripe. In the Louvre, I had two exhibitions: the first was in April 2000, with the provocative title "Possess and Destroy. Sexual Strategies of the Art of the Occident" , 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 stir attention. I wouldn`t apply the title to art but to society. this criticism appears to be destructive in art. But art is far away from murder. Modern art directs itself against old values.
The second exhibition, "Painting as Crime"  (title of a manifesto by Rudolf Schwarzkogler), was in the Fall of 2001. This concept has its roots in surrealism. Breton writes in his surrealist manifesto it would be a surrealistic act to go out on the street and randomly shoot the passers-by. 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 objective art. He simply placed a bicycle or a urinal and wrote underneath it: "Fountain." In art, the rules have been overstepped before –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 wished to become an artist, but in reality he destroyed. He was never an artist. If an object is too powerful, it is vehemently rejected, as with Van Gogh and Cezanne. At first they were placed ad acta. No one was interested in them. Marcel Duchamp needed his time, and I have also needed a very long time.
AG: 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?
OM: This assertion is a total misrecognition 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 to make 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).  I am an egoist who is materially, rather than idealistically, oriented. My life should be perfect, 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 wage makes himself a slave, just as whoever accepts employment by the State 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.
AG: 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?
OM: 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. Since then, I exist primarily as an artist. There are forerunners like Lucio Fontana, Pol Bury, Milares. Their works are too aesthetic for me. I worked very much 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 and brought to the garbage receptacle. I fetched two of these buckets and fashioned them into a picture. That work even 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 knew nothing more. Sometime later, I painted again tachistically, with insane energy. What remained closely resembled an earlier model. I also see that in Jackson Pollack when he drips. It is decorative, not comparable with that which is intentional. 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 of my thinking. I had not destroyed a picture or art. No trace. I was merely going in another direction -and arrived at sculpture.
On the next day, I rode 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 it. I quickly pressed materials onto the canvas and dismantled it. A frame shattered, but not entirely. I left the torn-up section where it was, so that it would become more visible. I began the next picture, no longer as a picture at all; rather, I had taken 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 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 also really lived there. I rented a cellar, the so-called "Perinetkeller." All kinds of other materials were added, at first sheet metal and pots, to be precise. With an old handcart I went down to a second-hand dealer on the upper Augartenstraβe. There were even old roller blinds there. I took all the interesting items with me, old bicycles. The pots I naturally smashed apart. 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 in a different way than Marcel Duchamp, who left the object unadulterated. I take him for a philosopher, who makes use of artistic media and museums in order to make a statement. That’s ok too.
AG: 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 is understood?
OM: Kurt Kren’s editing technique was totally new. It was even pleasing to me up to a certain degree. I was happy in general 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. My opinion was that of the view that it was absolutley no break at all. He never shot staged films; rather, the cinematic action originated in the shooting. He used my actions precisely for his ideas. He is a concept artist.
AG: Did you also have input into how these early actions with Kren were filmed and edited?
OM: 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 would be so easy! You want to film, now that really is a joke."
To edit the filmed action using Kren’s method was difficult because the action had a single course of movement. This whole course of movement was carved up–he edited it to pieces. From the outset, he always photographed only individual settings, which he then quickly cut so that it looked like a single movement. Each film consists of many separate frames, so it’s a fraud to say that one could 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 about Kurt Kren was his "Szondi-test," photos of noisy mental patients. The audience is required to seek out the most agreeable among them. Afterwards it is determined whether the viewer is schizophrenic, very aggressive or autistic. The idea to make a film of a test was very appealling to me. It is an estrangement. 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. In the beginning we used warm water on the bodies of the models, which ran -it didn`t do any damage. Then came oil, various soups with dumplings, meat and vegetables, perhaps even a bunch of grapes. Than came color: ketchup, marmelade, and red beet juice all flowed down. The skin remained visible. Then we really got started and brought out the heavy artillery. I often utilized dough, which stretched down ponderously, or an egg, flour or kraut. Finally I shook bed feathers about. There was a certain separation there, as if the materials were being layered upon one another. It was almost like cooking. I also once made, "The Breading of the Buttocks". 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 was turned to the audience. First I sprayed the buttocks with milk. Then I dusted it with flour, as if breading a "Wienerschnitzel". The flour remained glued there. 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."
AG: To my knowledge, your actions -and thus your films -were scripted far in advance, though they may have the appearance of a spontaneous performance. Did you ever perform any actions spontaneously?
OM: I have also made spontaneous actions, publicly performed. 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 it when staging this action earlier. But it was not planned that I offered the rolling pin to the mother and daughter came up the audience, and allowed them to put it between the legs of the model. I made a further spontaneous action in London on the occasion of the "DIAS," where I decided in a split second 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 breathing concert." There I actually pre-conceived action analysis. We sat outside. I designed 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 light-headed. Finally staggering, knocking over the chairs and getting down on all fours. Brus became slighly faint. He breathed too much and got an oxygen rush. We had a great success.
AG: Through the 1970’s and 80’s, 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?
OM: 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. We were quartered in a school in Czechoslovakia when I heard an exceptional report over the radio: der Führer had fallen in battle while spearheading his troops against the Bolshevik menace. Then Wagner’s music was played. What is most astonishing about this is that everyone who heard this believed the lie. This announcement shows that we are dealing with 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 inscription. 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 the door on all fours. The cameraman said he wouldn’t go along with it any more, that it all made no sense, and that the SS were certainly not such queers, nor so 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.
AG: In his edition of your and other Actionists’ writings, Malcolm Green 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 post-war Germany and Austria limit these associative meanings?
OM: 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.
AG: 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, 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.
OM: You must mean the film "Scheiβkerl" ("Shitguy").
AG: Yes, that’s the one. Did you intend to aestheticize or romanticize the action through slow-motion?
OM: I wanted longer scenes because the film is so 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.
AG: Let’s turn to the film O Sensibility, one of your most taboo-breaking works. The killing of the swan -and its subsequent use as a sexual tool -in this film is not merely shocking, however, but somehow transcendant, 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?
OM: 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 given up freely for slaughter - it would have been eaten anyway. It was shortly before St. Martini. During the Martini festival, more than 2000 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. One time 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, Madams. 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 spectator rejected the slaughter of the goose. I had to 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 sentimentality and deceit. With tears in their eyes they devour their goose! 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.
AG: Are there any contemporary filmmakers–including those who may cite you and the other Actionists as "inspirations"–who 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?
OM: 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 exhibit what ought to be. I do have a flaw, a weakness. I have 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.
AG: Today, has the very possibility of "shock" been forever lost to commercialism?
OM: The artist clears away taboos. What really shocks is beeing 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. Now it is 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 profess that all murderers are innocent. No child is born a murderer. If a murderer appears, one must remove him. The murderer would have to live in luxury. Every one of his wishes must 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 has the critique of our educational system gone? Since when is that product of cultural education, the child, so deformed that murderers, thieves, muggers, armed police, priests, deceivers, proletarians, swindler and normal idiots are produced? I saw 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. Bordellos are necessary to the State for the maintenance of order. They 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 abreact 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.
One would have to find an organization in which the sexuality of the group is socially bound. Then no one will need to go to a bordell 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.
AG: Getting back to your work in the 1960’s, 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 1960’s.
OM: Zock is a comedy. The new humor. It made many things look ridiculous. I also make fun of myself. Everything´s exaggerated, but underneath lies 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 doing very well 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 falsely. 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 do not wish to go up to this heaven. There it is pretty boring. I want a heaven on earth.
AG: what prompted you to stop making films in the early 1970’s?
OM: I won’t give that away. "That is my secret which I will take to the grave." This quote can be found in 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.
AG: Did you continue to make films, then, once you started the commune?
OM: 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 (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" actions  are actions that are made for single photographs.
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. Art is not the photography but the staging of the scene . Art is 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 the 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.
AG: Your Blood Organ Manifesto of 1962 openly admits your "craving for recognition." By the 1970’s, would say that perhaps you received too much recognition?
OM: The "Blood Organ Manifesto" is naturally humor and provocation. All of Austria was up in arms that we elevated ourselves to the status of doctors. I don`t care about any doctor titels. I don’t need that. The Beatles, every pubescent child, even you and I 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 is also to be exploited. But they are already gnawed-up bodies. 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.
AG: 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 action-analytical commune tantamount to renouncing public life?
OM: The "creation" of the action-analytic commune was not a renunciation of public life. I hate public life. I am no politician–I don’t know at all what it is. I no longer worry about painting or art. I make a higher art, the art of life. The praxis is to create life as it would be worthy for the 21st Century. That’s what it is about, its about the future.
AG: 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.
OM: 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 piteous 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 that the production of pictures. The pictures plunge out of the artist, like a woman giving birth. Actionism overlaps into life. 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.
AG: 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?
OM: 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 outside in society who could not succeed in inspiring a woman to love them would have 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 is calms down; then the pain returns if possible. Action-analysis was also like that. They made analyses. They were in the best mood. Maybe it lasted a week up until the next disappointment, when a female commune member was suddenly not so thrilled with her partner. He experienced a defeat. 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.
AG: 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?
OM: 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 accomodation 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.
Human beings are exogamous. Marriage contradicts this exogamy. People search for variety and go beyond the borders. Marriage is therefore no solution for sexuality.
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 the shortest 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.
AG: 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.
OM: 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 action-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.
AG: When did you begin to study Reich’s work?
OM: 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 American Quakers after the war. It was under the psychoanalytic leadership of Frau Rosenfeld, a friend of Anna Freud. I came there infected with psychoanalysis. Frau Rosenfeld held lectures, carried out dream interpretations, and conducted a kind of group therapy. A friend who wished 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 are completely conformed with the State. Freud fought against this, as one gleans from Freud’s so-called Wednesday evening psychoanalytic sessions.
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.
AG: 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?
OM: No, not at all. The film is downright kitch. 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.
AG: Was there anything you were not able to show in the film? Was anything cut from the film because of censorship problems?
OM: Nothing was cut out of the film on account of censorship problems.
AG: Naturally, people tend to focus on the literally and figuratively "sensational" aspects of your commune. But can you tell me something about your communal life?
OM: 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 was later seen, 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 1980` s, 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.
AG: 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?
OM: 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.
AG: In achieving a communal sexual life, did you go about destroying the conventional distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual relationships?
OM: 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 share a very good understanding. The artist has a great proportion of femininity. He feels just as strong as 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–similar to our western culture.
AG: In the 1960’s, 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?
OM: 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, cheering them on and driving them to a frenzy. 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 cooly and formally translate perception, ecstasy and trance.
AG: In the early 1990’s you were subject to another trial, this time on charges of child abuse. How did this trial of the 90’s differ from the morality trials you endured in the 1960’s?
OM: 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 like as a snowman. The public laughed, even applauded. That was the end of him with his potatoes. Some days later there was a large 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 had been formed for the salvation of human dignity, which registered a complaint against us. The case of Mühl was reviewed in the German Parliament. I was acquitted that time by the state prosecution, who said it was a matter of art. But because I was naked, and on account of my derisiveness, violation of religious symbols, and indignity to animals, I surely would have been locked up for some months had I been in Austria.
AG: Did the Austrian and German arts communities support you in your 1990’s legal battle more now than they did in the 1960’s?
OM: My trial of 1991 was an old reckoning up with Actionism. "Art and revolution" 1968 in the auditorium of the university Vienna was the greatest art scandal of the 3. Republic. The press used terms such as the " University pigs". Günter Brus, Oswald Wiener and I were in jail for two months pending trial. Every one knows that the judicial system in Austria is reactionary, so it is easy to imagine the satisfaction of the judges by 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 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.
AG: I have read a number of conflicting accounts of your arrest and 7-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 those cliques in the commune. Is there any truth to this?
OM: 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 world picture 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, 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 was 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 conversative 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 again.
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 standard for artistic quality, served later as an organizational structure and finally solidified into formalistic affectations of a social ranking, which no longer had nothing to do with reality and impeded natural contact between the 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 living 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 2001, I have been living in the Algarve in Portugal for the last four years. 15 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 the personal relationship is 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.
AG: I have read that you currently live in Portugal. Do you have any desire to return to Austria?
OM: 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.
AG: Will you ever make any more films?
OM: I have never stopped making films.
Now I make photo actions. I revived the "grimuid" theme from Actionism. 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, set them upside-down into 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 substitutes 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 every one 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 "Rumpelstilzchen". I lament, scream, frolic, and smile stupidly and with senility to all those before me.
The feeling of happiness that these grimacing "jaw actions" produces in me is overwhelming. In my earliest photoactions, 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 dance-like, with gesture. What we do, the way we look at each other, requires no words. It reminds one of a silent film.