On 19 May 1969, at 06:54, the Düsseldorf-Oberkassel telegraph office received a concerned inquiry from New York: ‘Anxious about what is going on at the Düsseldorf Academy. We’d like to express our support of Beuys. Andre. Warhol. Castelli. DeMaria. Bellany. Weber. Ruta. Byars.’ Today the thin strips of paper glued to a standard form on view in a display case at the exhibition ‘Behind the Facts, Interfunktionen, 1968–1975’ look like relics from some archaic past. No fax, no Internet, just paper and phone. But these documents, selected and arranged by Friedrich W. Heubach, who published the magazine Interfunktionen between 1968 and 1974, bear witness to dramatic times.
What was at stake, as the art theorist Birgit Pelzer writes in the catalogue, was the ‘elaboration of an open society, in which not only economic and social structures, but life as a whole, would change: family, sexuality, the imagination, art, language’. Everything was being called into question: education, language, love, social relations. There was revolt in the air, the will to turn the world on its head, not least in the art world. In 1968 the Venice Biennale and, especially, the Milan Architecture Triennial were subject to fierce, sometimes violent, attacks. And then it was Kassel’s turn, with Wolf Vostell, Jörg Immendorff, Chris Reinecke and others hijacking the official Documenta 4 press conference and turning it into a happening against the cultural establishment. That year’s Documenta still bore the imprint of Arnold Bode, the event’s founder, and these politicized young artists found it too shallow, too polished, too non-committal. Later Immendorff took his anti-bourgeois position to its logical conclusion and founded the ‘Lidl-Akademie’ in Düsseldorf, an anarchic anti-college. Beuys supported these activities, providing his opponents at the Düsseldorf academy with a welcome opportunity to intensify their campaign. The academy was closed by the police. There was talk of a witch-hunt against Beuys. Hence the worried transatlantic telegram.
More by intuition and chance than through any planned strategy Interfunktionen became a focus for the latest developments in art. The scale of the exhibition does justice to this fact. The curator, Gloria Moure, designed the show around Heubach’s art magazine, ‘to encompass the spirit of a period via a historic document’. Moure’s aim was to underline the far-reaching impact of artists such as Lothar Baumgarten, Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer, Steve Reich and Dieter Roth – not in a documentary show padded out with archive material but by letting works by these artists speak for themselves.
Seen together like this, the works of artists such as Vito Acconci, Keith Arnatt, Günter Brus, Daniel Buren, Walter DeMaria, William Wegman and Lawrence Weiner strongly evoke the knowledge-thirsty open-mindedness and playful spontaneity of the period. At the same time, many pieces also possess continued relevance. Berlin Horse (1970) was Malcolm Le Grice’s first full-length experiment with the manipulation of film images, for which he combined a 16mm black-and-white film of his own footage showing nothing but a horse being lunged with fragments of The Burning Barn (1900), by the important British film pioneer Cecil Milton Hepworth. The continuous movements of the horse’s long leash correspond to the repetitive sound-track by Brian Eno, who in the early ’70s was experimenting with loops. Eno’s sound structures support the inner consistency of the piece, whose steady pace slowly increases once the pictures from the little village of Berlin, near Hamburg, gradually give way to Hepworth’s images of a burning barn. In spite of the dramatic scene shown in the historic film sequences, Le Grice, a decided opponent of the narrative and illusionist practices of Hollywood, foregoes any final showdown that overpowers the viewer by presenting a fait accompli: like the lunging of the horse before it, the saving of animals threatened by the flames is repeated over and over again.
The works chosen by Gloria Moure take us back to a moment when breaking out of linear narrative patterns was still motivated by radical critical impulses, before it came to be taken for granted as part of advanced digitization and media networking. This applies just as well to LeGrice as it does to someone like David Lamelas, whose installation Film Script (Manipulation of Meaning) (1972) duplicates a single banal everyday story, telling it in two opposing ways and at two different speeds – as rapid-fire stills (in the form of slides) and as a (continuous) film. Works like these, or others by K.P. Brehmer, George Brecht, Sigmar Polke and Bruce Nauman, document the awakening and the long-term impact of the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s –not least in the way that much of what then figured as hope or a model for the future has remained in the realm of Utopia.