On January 3rd, 1984, members of the German industrial band EinstÃÂ¼rzende Neubauten joined forces with musicians such as Genesis P. Orridge and Frank ‘Fad Gadget’ Tovey to perform a one-off piece entitled ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ at the ICA. The gig, involving pneumatic drills and chainsaws, was chaotic even by Neubauten standards, culminating when someone threw bottles into a cement mixer, which sent broken glass flying all around the room. As the ICA tried to put a stop to the pandemonium a riot broke out in the audience. Accounts of subsequent events are rather muddled but it would appear that power tools were used to drill through the stage, possibly in an attempt to get to the underground tunnels that allegedly run underneath it, connecting Whitehall to Buckingham Palace.
On February 20th, the artist Jo Mitchell will stage a re-enactment of ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ at the ICA. A group of artists playing the band members will attempt to reconstruct the events as they unfolded twenty-three years ago.
Now, the idea of deliberately planning to recreate in exact detail what was originally spontaneous mayhem sounds to us at Electric Sheep like a rather intriguing proposition. Can the artists really conjure up the same dangerously exciting atmosphere or will it just be a sterile, sanitized retread of the events? Will the crowd be mainly chin-stroking art types taking in the infernal racket with blasé detachment or will the performers stir up another riotous reaction in the audience? While waiting to see what happens on the night, Virginie Sélavy talks to Neubauten’s charismatic frontman Blixa Bargeld.
Virginie Sélavy: As one of your gigs is about to be recreated as a piece of art, do you feel that you have a stronger connection to the art world than you have to music?
Blixa Bargeld: When I started I would have called myself an artist but the discipline I chose in art was music and text. When I started I didn’t know anything about music. I came from an absolutely non-musical, non-artistic background. But after making music for twenty-six years I can’t pretend I don’t know anything about it anymore. So I’d have to call myself a musician now. But I’d still rather consider myself an artist because I work first of all with concepts. I make up concepts and I design ideas that are meant to be performed, and that’s usually connected with the creation of music.
VS: What do you think of Jo Mitchell’s plan to re-enact the ICA gig?
BB: I talked to her for the first time today but we were in email contact before. The first time she contacted me about it, my answer was: ‘Charming!’ And I think I’ll stick with that. It’s a charming little idea to reproduce the concert. After the performance it will be impossible to distinguish between fact and legend. It is already legendary because there are no videos and very few photos of the event, so the only thing you have is the accounts of people who were there that night. Once she’s done the re-enactment it will be completely in the realm of fiction. It won’t be connected to anything that really ever happened. That’s fine with me. In fact, I like that.
VS: It seems like a rather bizarre idea.
BB: It is a very bizarre idea, that’s what makes it charming! It’s funny that somebody is now cast to play me! That’s very funny.
VS: But surely the power of the original performance came from the fact that everything that happened that night was entirely spontaneous and unpredictable. To try and reproduce that seems very contrived.
BB: I don’t know what will happen on that evening. I’m not going to be there. I can’t really go there because it would upset the whole thing. I could only go if I could watch through a small hole from another room. But I can’t appear at the venue itself. It would be wrong.
VS: Do you feel that this re-enactment might turn the original gig, which was very much alive, into some kind of lifeless museum piece?
BB: It’s already a legend, so it’s already a museum piece. It was already a museum piece the next day when it made the headlines of all the English tabloids because what they wrote didn’t have much to do with the actual performance. The majority of all the myths that surround this have nothing to do with what really happened. It was blown out of proportion, compared to what the evening was really like.
VS: All right, so what happened when you destroyed the stage?
BB: We didn’t! The audience did. That’s my account.
VS: Many commentators have focused on the destructiveness of you performances and what has been seen as the nihilism of the band. This re-enactment is probably not going to help change that perception.
BB: Well, playing children destroy many things and you wouldn’t say they’re nihilistic. There is a passage by Walter Benjamin that I’ve quoted again and again in interviews right from the time when Neubauten started because there were always so many questions about destructiveness and negativity. So the best I can say to that is to quote it again: ‘The destructive character’s only watchword is: Make room… The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears out of the way the traces of our own age.’ At the moment Goth music is very popular in Germany but I don’t think that Neubauten has ever belonged to that type of music. There’s too much life in what we do.
The other thing is that, if you count all the shows that we played between 1980 and 1984, which ended with the famous destruction of the ICA, serious damage occurred in less than 5% of the shows. What usually gets damaged is the performers. You hurt yourself a lot handling these materials. Sometimes Andrew’s and F.M. Einheit’s hands and arms were covered in horrible cuts and bruises. I remember an American show in Kansas City where F.M. Einheit was handling a piece of corrugated iron which landed under him as he knelt down. He cut both his legs open and had to be taken off stage, which nobody from the band noticed at the time. We were all totally fixated on what we were doing and at some point I turned around and he wasn’t there anymore. The next day Henry Rollins, who was a big admirer of the band, came to visit us in the hotel in Los Angeles. It was the first time we met him and when he comes into the room there are all kinds of medication lying around and one band member has to have his bandage changed every half hour! It was so obviously existential, it just had nothing to do with show business. It was about getting completely immersed into a performance and if you or somebody else got hurt, well, that’s what happened. But hardly ever anybody in the audience actually got hurt, even when we were doing really dangerous things like throwing Molotov cocktails at the crowd. Nobody in the audience ever got hurt but we did. And we did it for years but after a while your body just refuses to carry on. F.M., who is not in the band anymore, severely damaged his right arm because of the way he was drumming and in the end he just couldn’t do it anymore.
VS: It must be difficult because that’s what your audience expects from you.
BB: A display of physicality, yeah.
VS: What’s your relation to your audience? Do you feel there is pressure on you to do certain things and to perform a certain way?
BB: Well, we had to be careful not to repeat certain things because after a while they just become part of a show. So it’s better to stop them. Having said that, we like having an audience. We always perform better with an audience. I do need the audience as some kind of witness. We suck out the attention that we get from this witness and use it in our performance. The audience is the source of the energy that I project back to them. It may look like the performer on stage has some kind of magical force but the magical force is really the ability to suck out the attention of other people and project it back, that’s all.
VS: Neubauten have never done things the conventional way and you have now dispensed with a record label altogether to start an Internet-based project funded by your supporters.
BB: Well, record companies are not doing very well at the moment. The budget that we get from an independent company nowadays is more or less identical to what our budget was fifteen years ago just to make the record cover. So we had to find another way of doing things. Compared to other bands who work on the periphery of mainstream music we have very high standards and we usually take two years to make a record, so that’s a lot of studio time and a lot of costs. We didn’t want to have to compromise on that so that’s why we started this Internet project. We are now in Phase III. We’ll be finished in spring but we still need another 2000 supporters to get through what we have planned. I think it’s a fantastic deal. By subscribing you can take part in the whole process of making the record, and once the record is finished you get it through the post. This way we cut out any middle-men and with enough people we can realise something much more ambitious and much better than with the kind of budget that we’d get from an independent record company.
VS: How many phases are there in the project?
BB: We were thinking four.
VS: Why four?
BB: There’s a seventies movie called Phase IV. It’s about entomologists who study a colony of intelligent ants in the desert and at the end they actually turn into ants and become part of the colony. It’s a very unusual movie so when we started calling our project Phase I we thought maybe we should go all the way to Phase IV as a kind of reference. I hope that by Phase IV we can turn our project into a platform so that it’s no longer simply about producing Neubauten music but it can become a wider model that can be applied to many other people.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy