Attending a performance lecture by Erik Bünger feels a little like going back to university. Except that this young lecturer strays far from the beaten track; he talks about the scores on his father’s piano, about exorcism and occultism, the history of the phonograph, Orson Welles and Céline Dion. Somehow – by some sort of magic trick – as the lecture progresses, he manages to shut his mouth while his voice goes on explaining physical and acoustic phenomena with the utmost seriousness.
Bünger’s works always exist in two forms: as an autonomous film, assembled from archival material, and as a screening performance during which the artist takes to the stage to add ‘live’ commentary and to interact with the projected images. The cultural critic Greil Marcus’s book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) proved that avant-garde authors, pop music and the history of religion can be mixed without compunction. Bünger, who studied composition and philosophy, follows this path of a ‘gay science’ (although without referring to Nietzsche’s 1882 tract) instead of following the path of a ‘false science’ (practiced by critics who quote too much philosophy they don’t fully understand). In his films and comments on them, Bünger combines Hollywood cinema with the history of science and pop music, making hitherto unheard-of connections. In short, he produces ‘artistic knowledge’ free from the constraints of academia.
Bünger’s aesthetic and approach are especially clear in Gospels (2006). The material for this video was taken from what are essentially boring interviews used to fill the bonus discs for the DVD releases of big movies. In this found footage, the artists isolates the moments where the featured stars are speaking with passion and admiration about other people. But because the names of the admired are edited out, we imagine something absent, even supernatural. By contrast, A Lecture on Schizophonia (2007–9) traces the way the human voice has literally ‘stepped outside’ of the body in the course of the 20th century to be recorded and played back by machines – a process that has opened the door to a belief in miracles. While this lecture is free of autobiographical references, Bünger’s last work The Third Man (2010) includes his childhood memories of Sweden: from discovering a musical box to watching The Sound of Music (1965) on television with his family on Christmas Eve.
Bünger’s works tend to feature 20th-century ritornellos: brief snatches of music from Fritz Lang’s M (1931) or Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter (1955), melodies that cling to us and that we only need hear once to be pursued by them forever. With his editing techniques and commentaries on the material, Bünger seems to suggest that entertainment and technology are run by secret societies that control the world and our memories with songs and images we can’t get out of our heads.
After winning the 2011 Ars Viva Prize, Bünger is currently working on an exhibition for the prize at Bremen’s Weserburg Museum and on a new lecture which will complete his trilogy on voice, words and song. Invited by the composer Heiner Goebbels, Bünger has also been commissioned by Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern to write a composition due to premiere in early 2013 – a return to his musical studies, although this time involving artistic techniques and research into language.
Another discrete yet essential dimension to Bünger’s work is his sense of humour. The links he makes between Kylie Minogue and zombies – between popular melodies and the Pied Piper of Hamelin – are not only novel but also witty in a subtle way. His performance lectures might recall the art critic Jean-Yves Jouannais, who for some years now has been performing his Encyclopédie des Guerres (The War Encyclopaedia) in a series of lectures at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. At these events, Jouannais presents entries in an encyclopaedia which he is writing but will never be published. Bünger adopts a similar position. He also renews the aesthetic of performance by playing with the academic canon: more spectacularly than a PowerPoint presentation and less tediously than the average university lecturer.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell