Mark Stewart, one of Britain’s most innovative artists, brought the revolutionary Bristol punk to the masses 30 years ago and thereby sowed the seeds for a music scene that over the years has developed continually and gone on to produce bands such as Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead.?? We had a chat with Berlin-based director, publisher and artist Tøni Schifer about his documentary-project “ON/OFF” which portrays Mark Stewart’s musical flirt with a long list of genres from Pop Group’s danceable punk aesthetic via New Step and industrial Hip Hop to The Maffia’s dub massacre.
So how did you start this project?
The whole thing started in 2005. I contacted Mark Stewart because I was interested in producing a Pop Group DVD-compilation. So we had a chat about this idea, but in Mark’s opinion, there wasn’t enough material for a whole DVD. But we decided to stay in touch and when he came to Berlin, we developed the idea to make a documentary. In 2005 we accompanied Mark’s tour and Max Dax made some interviews.
Ah, Max Dax was part of the team?
Yes, but he was busy with other projects. From the beginning I knew this would be a long-term project and I have to mix up our team. In the end I was lucky, because Mark spent some years living here in Berlin. I was also traveling a lot in England to do interviews with Nick Cave, Gareth Sager from The Pop Group and Daniel Miller from Mute Records for example. Up until 2009 we gleaned a lot of material.
Did you know Mark and The Pop Group before this project?
Well, no, Mark and me, we got to know each other initially in 2005, but of course I recognized his music a lot earlier. I listened to the first Pop Group album just during its release time. A friend of my mother was a big record collector and he played it for us. For me as a teenager this was a heavy culture shock. I’ve never heard something like this before. In 1978/79, despite the beginning of punk, especially in Germany, the boundaries melt. In my view AC/DC and The Sex Pistols did pretty much the same thing or came from the same roots, which was rock music. The Pop Group was something completely different. On the one hand you could clearly see the influences of jazz, on the other hand it also involves a lot of experimental elements. This album chaperoned me for many years. It was a very unusual mix and for its time, it created a whole new sound. Afterwards I followed the career of Mark Stewart, the first single releases, like ‘Hypnotized’, ‘Hysteria’ or ‘Stranger than love’.
If I understood you correctly, the film got finished on your own in 2009. Then the film was shown at various film festivals. Can you tell us something about the feedback?
As a teaser I cut a small trailer and uploaded it onto YouTube, and surprisingly for me I got a lot inquiries from different film festivals. Another one, the London East End Film Festival badly wanted to do the premiere in 2009. With this pressure it was possible to cut the material into an 80 minute film out of more than 100 hours raw material. It was shown in Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Milan, Barcelona, Melbourne and many other places, must have been around about 15 or 16 festivals.
As a film maker, how do you see the option to present the film for free on platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, so everybody has the possibility to see the film?
Of course I will try the classical way first, which is to make back the money. In the end the biggest part of the costs is my time, the months I invested to do the recordings and cut the film. Of course I would be interested to make money. For the idea “I just put it online and see what happens” I have ambivalent feelings, because there’s no difference if the content is a huge Hollywood production or a small project which is financed with private money. I do have problems with the idea that everything is free for everybody regarding music and film, and anything else what can be consumed digitally. I know a lot of musicians, labels, distributors and artists who need to work under horrible conditions just because nobody is paying for their work as long as you get most of the content free from the internet.
What about crowd-sourcing? This already happened within the genre of documentaries, and still gets pushed.
I think, in the end, this will be the way of the future, especially regarding the film industry and the funding policy. In most cases only Til Schweiger and Doris Dörrie, the usual suspects, get the money to pre-finance the movie. Often the quality is bad, and therefore we need those new models. I am very excited and have a positive opinion about it. Last year I co-produced a film by Rainer Kirberg, “The Sleeping Girl (Das schlafende Mädchen)”. We made the whole film without any funding – of course we tried, but without any success. So we refinanced the production partly with an art edition. We invited three artists, Günther Brus, one of the Vienna Actionists, Mark Brandenburg and Wolfgang Müller, two wellknown artists from Berlin. Every one of them made an etching and we made 50 copies of each. And now people can buy one of those for 250€. Usually an etching from Günther Brus in this size costs about 800 or 900€, but in the end we financed parts of the film with this money.
What’s next? A new documentary?
Yes, for sure. There is also a new idea already which involves Frieder Butzmann. He’s a true Berlin original, an artist who makes music on sewing machines. too early to talk about details, but I do need to finance this via funding since I can’t do it alone. These days it’s harder for niche products to get a reasonable number of copies into trade. Right now I’m releasing art editions on my website Edition Kröthenhayn, I’m publishing limited editions of Martin Kippenberger, Günter Brus or „Die Tödliche Doris“. For the moment that seems like the best possibility to finance myself.
Published August 11, 2011.