Generations are myths used to place a grid on the world as it regenerates. The countermyth, of course, is that the world, like the brain, is constantly regenerating, so that lines of generational physiognomy, like the world’s parallels and meridians, are just useful fictions. Since I was born in 1988, I can claim to belong to the last year to have dodged the generational guillotine of ‘innovators born in or after 1989’, labeled as 89+ by the likes of Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets. It doesn’t help me out very much, though, to be a near ‘digital native’. Last May I went to my fifth-year college reunion – generational reckoning par excellence – in Providence, Rhode Island, a city that is both countercultural and ivory-towered. At a warehouse party, my roommate at Brown, Emily Segal, co-founder of the group K-Hole and one of the inventors of the term ‘normcore’, came up to me in utter shock at how ‘normy’ the current undergrads were, playing Katy Perry and not Throbbing Gristle. The shock of the new meets the shock of the normal – yet how normal is normy, and how now is new?
I think of such things when I watch the durational, montage-heavy films of the German-born, Düsseldorf and Cologne-based duo Henning Fehr and Philipp Rühr, who are roughly my age. Their films cop from structural cinema to present a contemporary capitalist anthropology; a pretentious way of saying that they film the people in the world around them – whether entering storefronts on Düsseldorf’s high street (The Disinfecting Sun, 2013), showing art and selling at an art fair, in an earnest class discussion or – for their ‘techno’ trilogy Polyrhythm Technoir (with Danji Buck-Moore, 2014–ongoing) – at a club or rave. It’s not entirely fair to gridlock Fehr and Rühr’s films within a generational continuum, but their works do invoke such myths, just like the girl interviewed in the second of their techno films (An Endless Cigarette, 2015) talks about a ’90s she never experienced, while the camera films multi-coloured strobes in a contemporary Berlin club.
Unlike Mark Leckey’s northern soul panegyric Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), which is a clear reference point for their works, Fehr and Rühr’s films are not elegiac homages. But they are not ironic subversions either. This ambivalence allows the duo to circumvent betraying, or exposing, the cultures documented. It is also why I feel a certain affinity for the works; for their formal approach and for how, in an attitude that spans mockery and embrace, they sum up the quandaries faced by people my age: the (im)possibility of ‘authentic’ youth culture; the near dissolution of cultural and sartorial markers of identity; a simultaneous immersion and distrust of the market and organized political activity alike; and a befuddled competence with digital things. In The Disinfecting Sun (2013), following otherwise silent, black-and-white footage of people shopping on a spring day, a man begins to talk about his decision to quit smoking after reading countercultural guru Carlos Castaneda and learning that the ‘real’, shamanistic meaning of smoking has been lost amid modern capitalist disenchantment. Disenchantment, then, becomes its own myth, and thus betrays itself.
Fehr and Rühr’s film Galerie der BRD / El Niño (2015) is a document of German commerce scandals (such as the bankruptcy of the retail giant Karstadt) amid the 2008 credit crisis, backed by found newsreel footage, their treatment of which recalls the cool aesthetics of Becher-school typologies – and the stylistic pretensions of which are discussed in a voiceover. The work points to a disjunction between the claims of sober austerity and objectivity of German aesthetic traditions (the Bechers, Andreas Gursky) and business practices alike (German ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’), and the realities beneath: the Camp Bahia in Brazil, for instance, a multi-million dollar resort that hosted the German national football team after being built in 2014 by a German real estate developer. Art for the Campo Bahia (Gursky et al) was advised upon by Düsseldorf art consultant Helge Achenbach who, in the film, describes his attempt to ‘bring culture’ to the region. Achenbach was subsequently convicted on numerous charges of fraud in 2015. Why the World Cup, that display of Weltmeister competitiveness? For one, Fehr and Rühr were among the Germans coming of age around the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when it was deemed acceptable to raise the German flag, a pivo-tal obviation of historical guilt, followed however in recent years by a stretch of national corporate scandals – VW, Germanwings – that have damaged the German ‘brand’.
The artistic strategy of their films testifies how neither detached irony nor branded sincerity corresponds to a certain generation’s stance toward the world, partly because to assert one is to require the other. This dialectic finds a form in their works, which combine intense self-shot, interactional or immersive footage (in Berghain’s Panorama Bar, say) with reenacted interviews, even samples of works of Hito Steyerl or of their teacher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Christopher Williams, the title of whose MoMA retrospective The Production Line of Happiness (2014) they repurposed for one of their videos.
But – back to techno – how do clubs relate to capitalist realism? When the Berghain bouncer puts a sticker on the front and back of your iPhone, he is not just rejecting the condition of spectacle; he is simultaneously producing a new myth of pure, unmediated experience. Cinema and the club – both black boxes – share an oscillation between distraction and attention, amnesia and experience, fantasy and grime. In 1926, Siegfried Kracauer called the cinemas of Berlin – in ways we might now refer to clubs – ‘shrines to the cultivation of pleasure’ and ‘palaces of distraction’. And just as techno depends on the condition of novelty generated by the loop – by the paradoxically new use of the old – Rühr and Fehr make this a condition of film; and, by extension, a fitting cross-sample of a generation for whom nothing was new.