BY Nick Currie in Features | 02 JUN 16
Featured in
Issue 24

Too Cool for School

A look back at Hamburg's Akademie Isotrop with Hans-Christian Dany, Abel Auer interviewed by Nick Currie and Birgit Megerle

BY Nick Currie in Features | 02 JUN 16

In 1996, Hamburg’s Akademie Isotrop was formed out of a loose grouping of art students, kids kicked out of art school, and people from the city’s theatre, theory and music scenes. The ‘academy’ conducted seminars in members’ homes, formed bands that only lasted one night, and ordained ‘professors’ like Hannah Höch and Marcel Duchamp. Around the year 2000, after a flurry of collective art-making, many within the group moved to Berlin, and the Akademie dissolved. Several of its members, like André Butzer and Jonathan Meese, would go on to have successful solo careers. On the occasion of the group’s 20th anniversary, and a retrospective exhibition at Hamburg’s 8. Salon (curated by member Roberto Ohrt), we asked Hans-Christian Dany, and founding members Birgit Megerle and Abel Auer, here interviewed by Nick Currie, to tell us about the Akademie Isotrop. 

André Butzer, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, 1997. Courtesy: Akademie Isotrop, Photograph: Heinz Peter Knes

Hans-Christian Dany looks back at his experiences with Hamburg’s Akademie Isotrop in the 1990s

In 1996, on one of the last days of winter, I lay in the bath and decided to kill myself. There was no reason for it; I didn’t feel particularly gloomy. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Then something clicked and dragged my body off to a party. Whatever switched in my head was, in turn, a harbinger of what the rest of that year would feel like: everything could change at any moment. I was not alone in experiencing instability that allowed me to emerge from slow-flowing waters and dive into life’s ignored possibilities. Akademie Isotrop swam particularly far out to sea. Perhaps this was because its members had decided to claim these possibilities, take this liberty and explore it together. All this goes through my head in 2016 as I visit the retrospective of the group of artists and musicians at 8. Salon in Hamburg.

I was not part of the Akademie at the time, but Hamburg is not a large city and we moved through similar spaces and streets. The vitality with which Isotrop presented itself made a neutral response impossible. Older than them, it was my first experience of being overtaken by the rush of a new generation. I sympathized, was fascinated, but I also came to envy the ease with which others manoeuvred their way out of past, now irrelevant, dead ends. But letting go of something you believed in just a moment ago is not easy.

Akademie Isotrop leapfrogged the old dichotomies blithely and at great speed. Instead of criticizing institutions, they just stopped showing up. Instead of theorizing, they scribbled pictures or staged plays. Instead of twiddling the knobs on digital equipment, they founded bands with names like Bullenterror, Bierfahne or Gegen Gegen (‘Cop Terror’, ‘Beer Breath’, ‘Against Against’). And they made gestural paintings without fearing their own clumsiness, like dancing ghosts. A non-theoretical brand of physicality became their focus. In all this, rather than making a total cut, Akademie Isotrop developed a mobile structure, prizing mobility and spontaneity above all else. And there seemed to be no plan for these changes of direction. They were the result of a process.

On Mondays, the art historian Roberto Ohrt worked behind a bar, the Golden Pudel Club, where a group of people began to regularly meet. Out of this group grew a vague organization, Akademie Isotrop, that saw itself, according to the first issue of its magazine Isotrop in 1997, as an ‘antipode to the revolting situation at the existing seats of learning’. The Akademie wanted to be not an alternative, but a negation of the status quo: a clear ‘no’ to the ‘wrong life’. Because Ohrt was interested in the legacy of the Situationists through his book Phantom Avantgarde (1997), Isotrop was soon rumoured to be a neo-Situationist circle. But although the spirit of Asger Jorn in the colours of Walt Disney was present in some of the briskly painted pictures, and although the exalted tone of the Situationist International echoed through the Isotr˜op manifestoes, the Akademie could not be reduced to this common denominator. Instead, it was driven by many and varied forces.

Not long before, Hamburg punks Rocko Schamoni and Schorsch Kamerun, who were also part of the Akademie, had joined forces with Norbert Karl to open the Golden Pudel in a former smugglers’ prison near the docks, creating the atmosphere of a porous vessel where something could happen without the need for categorization. The Golden Pudel Club was the opposite of the now ubiquitous marketing of each and every act. No one projected targets, no one evaluated output. It was about open-ended experimentation. The Akademie met here and presented its variously masked face in weekly exhibitions at the club’s own Galerie Nomadenoase (‘Nomad’s Oasis’). Cathy Skene, part of Isotrop, had experienced previous attempts at self-organization right through to taboos concerning pictures and physicality; her modified, less ideological language helped to prevent a repetition of past rigidities. A driving force in this self-empowerment was provided by a clique including André Butzer, Birgit Megerle, Abel Auer and Markus Selg, who had all come to Hamburg after leaving their youth club in Stuttgart. Sometimes they came across like a group of drugged up boy scouts. There were also art students like Helena Huneke, Stefan Thater, Michael Hakimi and Bianca Schönig who didn’t feel sufficiently challenged by art school. And there were people on a more variegated quest for intensity, like Deborah Schamoni and Svenja Rossa.

From the outset, Isotrop thrived on a diversity that managed again and again to bring the contradictions between poetic, hedonistic and political desire into productive tensions. The search for radical subjectivity was interwoven with a desire for community. A strategy of strict demarcation seemed necessary: inside and outside were clearly defined. Instead of an open network, there was binding commitment: you were either in Akademie, or you weren’t. There was a list of names, and anyone wanting to join had to apply and accept the possibility of being turned away. Within this exclusivity, private apartments were pooled; their floorplans, cut out of reality, mapped the premises of the Akademie. Philip Guston and Marcel Duchamp, already long deceased, were appointed as professors. The living, who might make trouble, could only be temporary, visiting lecturers, as in the case of Albert Oehlen.

Even in the mid-1990s, the notion of self-determined education was not new. It had already been tried out, for example, by the Berlin Free Class within the framework of the Academy of Fine Arts. But Isotrop succeeded in exploring the principle independent of any institution. And because what was on show looked great, suspicions of careerism arose within the more radically politicized Hamburg art scene. What was this slalom between rejection and affirmation, between cries of ‘Revolution!’ and ‘Evolution!’? Isotrop polarized, but that was the only way it could become what it was. Some found this ambiguity hard to tolerate, not knowing what to make of this untimely behaviour. Back then, ‘gallery artist’ was still seen by many as an insult. And a few astonishing careers really did come out of Akademie Isotrop: Daniel Richter (who didn’t stay long) and Jonathan Meese eventually became proper stars. Such visibility and recognition tends to overshadow others’ career paths. Many former Isotrop members still uncompromisingly pursue their artistic interests to this day; some still work in self-organized contexts while others have moved out of art into other disciplines. Others took their negation of the ‘wrong life’ to the utmost extreme. The story of the angry young squatter who became an artist garishly painting on large-format canvases, as in Richter’s case, was just one of many possible routes outward.

My relationship with Isotrop ended in acrimony after two years, with an article in springerin in which I damned them all too sweepingly as bourgeois and romantic. In a written response, I was accused of having penned ‘the dullest screed in the history of art criticism’ and the maximum penalty was imposed. The executioner came into the bar, aimed his fingers between my eyes and pulled the trigger, before vanishing into the night. A scene worthy of Hollywood. After that, no one spoke to me. I didn’t exist. But it didn’t matter. Around this time, cocaine was becoming normal, confusing the difference between genuine excitement and excitement-on-demand. Things more generally were also getting less interesting as the lights went out one by one and almost everyone moved to Berlin. Officially, however, the Isotrop experiment did not end until 2001.

Twenty years later, viewing the exhibition at the 8. Salon (curated by Roberto Ohrt), the wealth of material richly evokes the atmosphere of the time. It is a sprawling collage composed of countless photographs, issues of the Akademie’s magazine, theatre manuscripts, films of seminar situations, a full-size model of Galerie Nomadenoase, aggressively playful flyers, as well as drawings and paintings. Although it is abundantly clear that all of this took place in another time, much of the original energy is still tangible.

Retrospectives can be controversial at a time when so many are committed to preserving a supposed legacy and staving off what the future holds, so that everything stays the same. This better past doesn’t exist yet sentimentalists on the left often say how wild and cozy it was in the old St. Pauli. (Which is not to say there are no new outbreaks of excitement in store). The current Hamburg exhibition does not fall into this trap. Rather than peddling sentimentality, it comes across as an animated look into the archive of a concrete attempt at autonomous self-education. And at a time when many art colleges are more concerned with managing and exploiting their workers than with furthering the development of art, this feels topical today. At the time, Akademie Isotrop created a model based not on repairing and stabilizing the status quo with criticism, but on withdrawing into an alternative space, thus creating a freedom of movement. In such a space, no one asks the destructive question of how everything will be paid for. This question is destructive because every act then immediately becomes linked to a budget. And budgeting rarely gave rise to art.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Hans-Christian Dany lives in Hamburg. He recently published the book Schneller als die Sonne. Aus dem rasenden Stillstand in eine unbekannte Zukunft (Edition Nautilus, 2015).

Markus Selg, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, 1997. Courtesy: Akademie Isotrop, Photograph: Heinz Peter Knes

Abel Auer speaks with Nick Currie about the beginnings of Akademie Isotrop

Nick Currie Tell me about how ­Akademie Isotrop began. It started in ­Hamburg in late 1996, right?

Abel Auer Yes. There was a clique of young art students from Southern Germany who’d already studied at Hamburg Art ­Academy - André Butzer, Markus Selg, me, and some others. We were all friends with Roberto Ohrt. The idea was that we’d become a group inside the art school when I got in. At the Hamburg art school they take you for one year and then you either get accepted or kicked out. And André was kicked out because he was too self-confident and already knew more about contemporary art than some of the old Fluxus-era teachers. I applied at the same time. Akademie Isotrop was founded the day I received a letter saying I wasn’t accepted.

NC How did you react?

AA I was quite angry about it. That evening I was at the Golden Pudel Club thinking ‘What am I going to do about this?’ Daniel Richter was there, Albert Oehlen was there, as well as the people who made Park Fiction: Christoph Schäfer and Cathy Skene, who became members of Akademie Isotrop early on. And then I had this idea that I’m really more interested in having these people as teachers: Roberto, Daniel, others from the Pudel scene. I just wanted to start a conversation with Albert Oehlen. I told him that I want to start an academy on my own and asked him if he would be interested in being a teacher. And he said yes. In reality, he wasn’t in Hamburg very often, so he often never showed up or became part of AI. He still had a studio in there, though, where we could look at paintings from his collection: bad Merlin Carpenter and Werner Büttner works. We knew we could do better!

NC It’s almost a Salon des Refusés ­situation!

AA Maybe. I had in mind who was going to be a teacher, who was going to be a student. So I laid out a basic structure, and also chose the people: the directors were Roberto Ohrt, André Butzer, me and Cathy Skene. I had some ideas about the power balance: Roberto and Cathy were older, so they became professors. André and I were younger, so we were the students, but we were also all directors. The name Akademie Isotrop came from Roberto.

NC You were deliberately replicating the structures of the existing academy?

AA No, it was more an ironic play with it. It doesn’t make sense to deny that there are structures of authority. I was a director of this academy, and also a student, but not a professor. When the people from the Institutional Critique scene heard about this they just started bitching: ‘Why do they need those structures, those authorities?’ While they were just criticizing institutions, I had founded my own one! We put Institutional Critique on the scrapheap of art history! We took it further and had honorary professors: Marcel Duchamp, Philip Guston, Asger Jorn, Stephen Prina, Hannah Höch. Did we have her? No, maybe it was just old men, to piss the Institutional Critique people off even more. Roberto met Stephen Prina in New York. Prina agreed to meet us when he came to do a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. We asked him to do something for our magazine, and he refused. But the talk was good. We were learning by doing. 

NC Was there some reaction from the ­official academy?

AA Not really. We were more interested in the reactions of people like curator Nicolaus Schafhausen at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. And he invited us to the Künstlerhaus and gave us 5,000 marks. For me it was a practical thing, it was my academy, my project. Everyone came, showed drawings, and we were sitting there making corrections like in art school. 

NC Did you have some antecedents in mind?

AA Classical art movements like Dadaism and Surrealism. Roberto had written this book about Situationism; he was historicizing the movement - which Guy Debord never wanted. The style of the first magazine we made was influenced by the Situationist International magazine. We are the appendix of the avant-garde. For me, the group was really like an artwork, in the sense of Beuys’ social sculpture. For instance, we put all our apartments together as a utopian college. We made signs and put them up in real places: the directorium was next to my bed.

NC And the refectory was just someone’s kitchen?

AA Yes. The Pudel storage area became our gallery. The seminarium was Roberto’s apartment. The first semester we had an intern, David Sickinger, who designed the signs. Everybody’s books were going to be the Isotrop library. If you wanted to borrow a book from someone, they had to give it to you. And we had these texts we wrote collectively, sort of manifestos.

NC Were you aware of other pseudo-­institutions being created at the time, like the hobbypopMUSEUM in Düsseldorf?

AA They started a bit later, I think, in 1998, but we thought the name was really bad: ‘hobbypop’. We were more aware of the Honey­suckle Company people in Berlin, with their Galerie berlintokyo. They had connections to Hamburg, and sometimes came to the Pudel. 

NC The other day you described yourself to me as the Syd Barrett of this scene, as if you were expelled from your own creation.

AA Barrett or Bartleby... I wasn’t expelled, I left. They had an offer to do a show in a ­gallery and I ‘preferred not to’. I wasn’t sure if the style of my paintings was based on group pressure or was really my own. I wanted to be alone with my work at that time. I tried to convince the others to do something other than a group show with individual works: theme-based group photos, collective paintings. But they weren’t interested, so I left. Outside Hamburg people saw Isotrop mainly as André’s project, he knew more people, wrote for Texte zur Kunst and had a wider network. So it wasn’t really working for me anymore ... 

NC The cracks began to appear in 1998?

AA I remember we were invited by ­Christoph Keller to Karlsruhe to give a lecture. He totally paid court to André and ignored me. It’s like in a band where you’re the guitar player and everybody only pays attention to the singer. It’s always difficult when you do collaborative work: Who gets attention, and how much can you tolerate ideas that are not yours?

NC You left. And the group continued?

AA To keep up the music world analogy, it’s like Amon Düül and Amon Düül II. For me, there are two phases of Isotrop: the early years and then the time from 1999 on. Later on, Jonathan Meese was more involved, they made a series of exhibitions in Berlin, Vienna and Bremen. Five issues of the ­magazine were produced. And later on they even made group paintings. But apparently schisms appeared, too. When I started it I’d wanted to collaborate with ten people or so, but quickly more and more wanted to ­participate – ­sometimes the group benefited, sometimes not. It expanded to about thirty. What happened in the end I can’t really say: I wasn’t there. The shows they did were ­­­really good. And they have been necessary to break – or end – the then-dominant style in academia and the art world.

NC You continued the collective idea, though, in new contexts?

AA There are some sorts of freedom you can only have in groups. After 2002 Kai Althoff (a huge influence on Isotrop) and I made several exhibitions and other projects together. Now I have a room in Künstlerhaus Stuttgart from which I run Galerie Claire ­Lacroix and Gruppe Staub, an artist’s group for which I’ve recruited young musicians from the Stuttgart underground who happen to study art on the side. The idea is that the avant-garde now exists in the periphery. And because they are predominantly musicians, everything works better on a cooperative level. 

NC Any chance of a reunion?

AA Roberto and Marcel Hüppauf just ­organized an Akademie Isotrop exhibition at the 8te Salon in Hamburg. And around 2005 we gave an Isotrop lecture at the ­Hamburger Kunstverein: Birgit Megerle, André, Roberto and me. We used some of our old techniques to irritate the audience. We still had the power to shock and annoy. It felt like an old band playing together again for the first time after decades. And a sort of harmony emerged – something more than the single parts alone.

Abel Auer is an artist and musician who lives in Stuttgart. 

Birgit Megerle, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, 1997. Courtesy: Akademie Isotrop, photograph: Heinz Peter Knes

Birgit Megerle on the collective artworks of Akademie Isotrop and the group’s dissolution. 

In the mid-1990s, I lived for a short time in Stuttgart and worked at the Künstlerhaus, at the time directed by Nicolaus Schafhausen. There I met several future members of Akademie Isotrop: André Butzer, Abel Auer and Susanne Winterling. I’d come straight from a village and I didn’t know much about contemporary art. I knew Mike Kelley, but more from the cover of Sonic Youth’s Dirty (1992). Then we all applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg. After the probationary year, André was kicked out, along with some others who I actually thought were good artists. The main problem with Hamburg’s Academy was that in the painting department, there were only male professors: no women. That has changed now, thankfully.

There were various reasons that led to the emergence of Akademie Isotrop. Although it was conceived of as an alternative to the art academy, it was less about a counter-model and more about setting up something independent for ourselves, something as yet undefined. The input was diverse: many of us had already graduated or came from other fields including sociology, or from the theatre, such as Angela Richter. Thinking about music was very important to me, for one, and that also played a big part within Isotrop: there were different DJs and bands, some of which only existed for one evening. I often had the impression we were acting out the idea of ‘being a band’ on an artistic level – like a work of conceptual art. We may have slightly imitated (and satirized) an academy, with all the seminars – a film seminar, a seminar on relationships, a writing seminar, etc. – all of which took place in our private apartments. But it was still done earnestly, with conscientiousness and seriousness. The focus was always on the question of art and its production, and we were all constantly engaged in discussions and trying to call existing hierarchies into question.

Relatively early on, we were offered a number of exhibitions, and things quickly changed. In 1997, we had a show at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, then at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne and at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin – always as a group. It was fantastic to be able to present work so quickly, for sure, but it also diverted a great deal of the attention we had originally devoted to the seminars and discussions. At the time, I had just started exploring myself and my work as an artist and I didn’t feel I was ready to show work in a gallery yet. But the exchanges with other artists within Isotr˜op certainly produced a lot of energy.

Interestingly, some within the group had an artistic focus on figuration, be it in film, painting or computer collage, and at the beginning we did aim to translate a kind of group identity into a particular artistic idiom. But we did all work on our own material, mostly at home. Having a studio was frowned upon, almost taboo, as it was associated with a romantic model of ‘subjective autonomy’: the artist working alone, back turned to the world. For the group shows, this meant it was important to prevent the individual works from having a recognizable style. That was also a critique of singular authorship. Pictures would be mounted close together in blocks, or merged into an installation – a ‘stage’ where performances could also take place.

At the time, I experienced all this as very intense, almost intoxicating. I probably wasn’t capable of standing back and asking: What is this actually? What do I think is good and what would I rather not be part of? We met constantly, we were almost always together – in retrospect, it felt like 24/7. Eventually the spark had gone. The structure became worn in places, some of us began to work with galleries, or started looking elsewhere, away frin Akademie Isotrop, and after a while we were doing shows so frequently that people did start entering individual works without conducting an in-depth discussion about it as we had in the past. But it didn’t end in an argument. In the end phase, there was a final meeting where we voted on the Akademie. Most people were in favour of drawing a line under the project and dissolving Isotr˜op. Many of us moved to Berlin. 

From the Akademie I retained the collaborative practice and the insight that my own art is always situated in specific contexts. I then pursued this in different ways with other artists. As one example, I ran the Favoritin space in Berlin with Astrid Sourkova. Several people from Isotrop were later involved with Galerie Maschenmode, but for me it felt too male-dominated. I found new discussion partners, including Lucy McKenzie and Amelie von Wulffen. Things in general became more international, more open – not just this tightknit Hamburg group, parts of which were very self-enclosed. Over the following years, my works underwent a marked change of style. Looking back, it became clearer to me how much my own artistic work was linked to the group and its dynamics, and how exciting this time had been for me.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Birgit Megerle is an artist based in Berlin. 

Nick Currie is a Scottish-born musician and writer based in Osaka, Japan. Recording as Momus, he has released 23 albums and is also the author of The Book of Scotlands (Sternberg Press, 2009) and The Book of Jokes: A Novel by Momus (Dalkey, 2009). He is currently working on a film script.