The world according to acclaimed German director, novelist and producer Alexander Kluge is full of veils, masks, and hidden agendas. And not always in a bad way. From facial expressions to DNA, life is illusory and coded. But masks aren’t just forms of self-preservation through misrepresentation; they also provide freedom through anonymity — or protection from radioactive exposure. In Munich, the auteur explains to Max Dax why masks are beyond good and evil and how novels are instruction manuals for deception.
Mr. Kluge, why do people wear masks?
That’s like asking why people don’t run around naked. Why do we wear clothes? Why do we have skin? Why is there external protection even at the cellular level? The answer is that life itself isn’t naked, and it’s for the same reason that you can’t transport water in the desert just by cupping your hands: you need a proper container. All forms of life need a house, a shield, a casing. It’s a basic human need to have a cave or an acre of land that belongs to you and you alone. In the end, there are only two kinds of human beings: cave-dwellers and prairie people. If the prairie person is denied mobility or the cave-dweller is denied protection, they’re badly able to survive. It’s a natural human tendency to light candles in the cave for comfort in winter, and let the sky to be your roof in summer. All poetry is about these two states of being.
You once said that the reality that human communities construct is like a second skin that makes life bearable.
And I stand by it. Our first skin serves us to hold us together physically; if our organs were exposed, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Skin is a casing that, first and foremost, protects us. But in order to survive socially, our physical skin is not enough–and that’s why people construct a second skin called “reality”, something that’s constantly changing. My grandparents had an entirely differently constructed reality than my children. We build our realities according to our personal, social and political circumstances … and we do it in order to survive. Human beings are simply unable to deal with an unadorned reality.
Is the second skin you call reality a kind of mask?
I would say the face itself is a mask. It has over two hundred different muscles that we can manipulate in order to form the most varied and illusory expressions. We’ve been able to use our facial muscles like this since our evolutionary forefathers and early man discovered language and the ability to deceive. That’s why every human being is a walking, talking mask. With the advent of language, deception and disguise became part of the game of survival. It reminds me of an interesting scene in Heinrich von Kleist’s Cathy of Heilbronn, where the princess visits a fountain at night, disrobes under the moonlight, and is revealed as a skeleton. She stands in stark contrast to the protagonist, Cathy, who is vital, rosy-cheeked, and made of flesh and blood. In theatre terms, the princess’s skeletal frame implies that she’s incapable of love–an aspect of her true identity she wants to conceal at all costs. Her clothes ad jewellery–conventional symbols of dignity and splendor–are nothing but masks for death. In Kleist’s attempt to distinguish between truth and deception, masked death becomes a woman’s false beauty.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
That’s Oscar Wilde–and what a fitting aphorism. Ancient Greek actors and actresses were called “Personae” or “Masks that can be heard through” because they said things through the openings of their masks that they would otherwise never be allowed to say offstage. Even the oracle at Delphi spoke through a mask. Historically, people are better able to sort out their egotisms from behind masks. When free of the burden of their own conceits, they can speak certain truths. Man is undoubtedly a creature of illusion.
How would you say the practice of confession fits into that scheme? Is the partition in the Catholic confessional also a type of mask?
Of course! Without a partition that provides a certain degree of anonymity, there’s no way to confess so freely. As soon as people look each other in the eyes, they start measuring their words carefully, and that’s entirely natural. Whoever says that people should be totally open and honest with each other is operating under a false understanding of what it means to be human. Nietzsche said that man is a manufacturer of illusions–an illusion-making machine, so to speak. That’s why our basic human desires aren’t geared towards the discovery of truth per se. Sincerity and openness are byproducts of other more basic human needs.
But isn’t the mask-wearer potentially motivated by truth? Isn’t the mask a tool for producing knowledge?
That depends on your understanding of what constitutes knowledge. I think that lovers put on masks when they want to reassure each other of their love–something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do in light of the reality of an unknowable future. I suppose this holds not only for lovers, but also in assuming any given role and the responsibilities that come along with it. By being “in character”, people can assess the reality they’re engaged with. But to know what these roles are, we need various forms of fictional narrative–specifically the novel, because, historically, that’s where these roles were made most explicit and played out. I don’t think there would be love without certain kinds of explorative fiction or literature, regardless of genre. Or should I say: there would be no love without roleplaying and no roleplaying without masks.
You believe that fictional narratives have such a strong effect on our behaviour?
Not our behavior, but rather our communication. Fiction allows us to communicate about our behavior. It’s similar to when people used to speak from behind fans: you could speak your mind and not be caught in the act. If you blushed, nobody would be able to tell, because, as a mask the fan is opaque. In contrast, the blush is a revealing mask. One is worn over the other.
You’ve mentioned the novel as a source of information on various roles we play. Opera is considered one of the most coded and artificial forms of the performing arts. What can it tell us about communication and disguise?
Opera has a stronger, more emotional thrust that the novel; or, for that matter, most literature. Take for example The Pretend Garden Girl, which Mozart wrote when he was still very young. It tells the story of a Count who stabs his lover, Violante, in a fit of jealous rage. Violante survives and realizes she still loves the Count. To heal her broken heart, she disguises herself as a simple gardener’s girl in an attempt to win him back. She succeeds, but only by masking her true identity. The story demonstrates the importance of masks and disguises in communicating love in circuitous fashion. Contrary to popular opinion, love doesn’t always function magnetically or on terms of a direct attraction. The masks in literature and opera tell you exactly that. In fictional narratives, the mask is a medium of communicating emotion. It’s not for nothing that the novel was popularized as an art form at the same time as garden labyrinths. In a proper labyrinth, nothing is really grown; lovers get lost only to find each other again. And this is why they epitomize love: because they have no express purpose! Love that only serves reproduction or upward social mobility is sad and lonely. Love that allows for detours and impracticalities also allows for a certain luxury we call freedom. Its artistic expression can be found in music and opera. And let’s not forget techno–an art form dominated by the power of bass and the movement of dancing masses. Techno is also a type of opera, in my opinion.
Would you say that the club is the new opera stage–a modern masked ball?
Indeed. I remember being in the old Tresor in Berlin during the nineties and thinking to myself: what’s happening here in the old basement safe of the Wertheim department store is nothing other than twenty-first century opera… all night long.
What would the opera be like without masks?
It wouldn’t exist. Don Giovanni is one long masquerade, Cosi fan tutte even more so. You see, the important thing is that the audience knows more than the actors on stage. If that’s not the case, opera becomes incredibly boring. The characters have to be ignorant of their own demise; that’s one of the main appeals in opera. It’s a labyrinthine art.
In Aristotle’s writings on the etymology of tragedy, he traces the word back to ancient springtime festivals involving goat sacrifices. “Tragos” is actually the Greek word for “goat song”. During the celebrations, men wore masks and sang songs about social issues that would otherwise result in conflict. The participants all assumed prototypical social and political roles. These festivals were a way for people to vent: instead of mass brawls, conflicts were resolved on stage. This is the original form of theater and, therefore, of opera as well.
A sort of war by proxy set on stage?
Yes, just like in the Old Testament: Isaac was supposed to sacrifice his own child, but in the end, an animal did the trick.
What about the functional masks that people use for protection? The images form Japan’s recent nuclear catastrophe are ingrained in our collective consciousness–especially people wearing white surgical masks.
First and foremost, people wear those kinds of masks to protect themselves form radiation. But I also think they wear them to mask their own fear. Fear often takes control of facial expressions; fear exposes.
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl figures prominently in a number of your books. How have you been affected by the images form Japan?
The disaster in general has affected me strongly. Nature once again has reminded us of the scope of her power. The last eathquake and tsunami of that magnitude in Japan occurred some fourteen hundred years ago. It sometimes seems that this is how nature confers and communicates with man. But because nature resists being “understood”, we sometimes speak of “nature’s mask”–which comes off when Vesuvius blows or a huge earthquake shows its destructive power. Of course, “nature’s mask” is just an illusory invention of man. There are plenty of nuclear power plants in areas we know are potential sites for natural disasters. Clearly, planet earth doesn’t wear a mask on its own. Rather, we mask the planet because we haven’t been able to solve nature’s puzzles.
We’ve recently seen television images of “masked”uprisings in Egypt and Libya. There, protestors have been veiling themselves to protect their identity.
The circumstances in North Africa are indeed unsettling, because the masked demonstrators make it even more difficult to determine of agent provocateurs are in the mix. Here’s an instance where masks create as much confusion as they do protection. I mean, Libya is in the middle of a civil war and neither the sides nor the fronts can be easily determined. Not even during the Third Reich was there such an intense atmosphere of ignorance and insecurity. It’s extremely eerie. Libya’s former Foreign Minister defected to England and also became a kind of shapeshifter. I’m sure he brought with him dozens of masks he’s created through diplomatic experience.
Would you be surprised if, say, club-goers in London’s Fabric or Berlin’s Berghain were suddenly wearing these functional masks as a fashion statement? Crowds dancing in surgical masks or the veils and turbans North African revolutions?
Not only would that not surprise me, I think it would be a highly sensible reaction to a really disturbing series of event. You can make whatever scares you less threatening by wearing it–it’s a natural way to get over your fears. Every child puts on a ghost costume at some point and, in doing so, makes the ghost harmless.
Historically, people have worn masks to cast out demons…
And they continue to do so! Just look at Carnival, Halloween or Walpurgis Night… But there are also more everyday examples, like COSPLAY, where people dress up like their favorite Manga characters to free themselves from the shackles of the daily grind. They’re developing new, creative rituals. I recently had the chance to film two Manga girls going to a COSPLAY convention. The one girl introduced her friend with the words, “That’s my dog!”–even though the girl wasn’t dressed like a dog, but more like an vil fairy. I appreciate that the Manga movement allows for these kinds of bizarre masquerades and surreal role-playing scenarios, because each individual possesses all sorts of different identities: we’re beings of a thousand characters. The fact that we can express them with masks–by putting on different faces–is a great thing.
Can you give me an example of a “fake”mask?
The “honest” banker in the television advertisement who tells you, ”Come to our bank, your money is in good hands.” That’s the epitome of deception.
To what extent is Facebook a virtual masquerade or even a form of deception?
Playing more than one role in life isn’t something that’s exclusive to Facebook; it’s part of the essence of life itself and has been since man has been able to think. And why shouldn’t we live these roles out? In a metropolis, most people have multiple identities.
Is it a lie when somebody knowingly discloses false information on Facebook?
Not necessarily. Sometimes things become true when you invent them for yourself. What’s truth? Think about the modes of flirting popular in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. There was so much disguise and affectation involved in the communication between partners in order to determine whether one person loved the other. Of course, there was a big difference between the two genders. But even back then, men always promised the world when seducing a woman, just in “Don Giovanni.
How do we look past the seducer’s mask to see what he or she is really like?
Do we really want to? Do we need to know what kind of person he was in the past? How she grew up? Who his parents are? What she loves? How he lives? What she’s afraid of? Today, everything can be accessed on Facebook. Maybe after studying somebody’s profile, you can see behind the masks they wear in the physical world. Walter Benjamin once said that an actor can’t pretend to be truly terrified. If you really want to scare him, you have to fire a shot next to his ear–then you’ll really have him flinching for the close-up.~
Photos: Rick Burger
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com:
Mark Stewart is a formidable thinker. He talks quickly but his brain is almost definitely moving even faster. To engage him in conversation is to become entangled in a dense web of references, names and concepts, the conversational topics ricocheting from one to the other at an intimidating velocity. That’s OK though, we’ve come to expect that of the man that helped bring us Bristol post punk politicos The Pop Group. With their agitprop approach and DIY sensibilities they helped vocalise the anger and apathy that defined 80s Britain hobbled by a Thatcher government. While few would have predicted that they would ever reform, this year saw the band working on an album of new material.
There’s more to Mark Stewart than The Pop Group, however. A fervent online activist and solo artist, his recent album The Politics of Envy (released via Future Noise) affirmed his influence as he drew upon his friends and peers for collaborations – Kenneth Anger, Primal Scream, Richard Hell and Lee “Scratch” Perry all signed up. Still, for all his old guard status, he still resonates with a whole new generation and today sees the release of his collaboration with Nik Void of austere industrialists Factory Floor for new single ‘Stereotype’.
A good a time as any, then, for Electronic Beats editor-in-chief Max Dax to pick the his brains. Hold tight.
Max Dax: I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the role of protest in music, going back to the 1960s when it was a very real entity. I assume that you don’t consider what you are doing as protest music, but there is this very conscious aspect to the music you make – how would you relate to that term?
Mark Stewart: Personally I don’t separate politics from reality. I think every move you make is political – when you pick up the cup and the cup is made from tin from a death belt in Africa, or your trainers are made with slave labour in China. Everything is political. People say my music is political, so is everyone else in the world blind when they look at the obscene inequalities in the way the corporations are raping the world’s resources?
You are referring to this Joseph Beuys idea, that everything you do, everything you say, has a political component?
Yeah, they have a saying in Bali: “We have no art, we do everything well”. The Greek root of the word politics is just “gathering” or “people”. How come that since the Medieval times a small amount of people have convinced the rest that they are not in control of their actions, that it’s up to kings or queens or politicians. That’s rubbish. Why should pensioners in Greece or Spain be blamed for a banking scandal in America when millionaire bankers ripped off each other? It’s all a big confidence trick. I see capitalism as a mirror that is beginning to crack. I mean, Guy Debord, one of the founders of the Situationist International, wrote this book called “Society of the Spectacle” and I think we’ve been under the spell of the spectacle, we’ve been zombie workers for too long. Even in Tunisia with Tunileaks, in different parts of Africa people are realising that what they’ve been told is complete bullshit. The media is owned by the slavemasters.
Do you consider your music and your role as an artist as an opportunity to spread ideas, concepts and doubts?
Doubt is a very important word for me. The concepts of doubt and the fire of nihilism has been driving me since the beginning of punk days. With my last record “The Politics of Envy” I was collaborating with people like The Raincoats, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Keith Levene from Public Image Limited, Killing Joke and the Slits and it really reminded me of the D.I.Y. messthetics – as Simon Reynolds called it – from back in the day with Rough Trade. When we tried to control our means of production and we were just constantly doing protests rallies. I think at the moment all you can share is a sense of community across the world. Friends of mine are fighting on the front line of Burma, and yet other friends are fighting against loggers in South America. Music is like an umbrella which can give you a little solace and make you feel like you’re not the only lunatic or the only outsider in the world. We thought from punk that everybody was equal, the people on the stage were no more important than the people in the audience. I see my role only as important as someone making a carpet or fixing an engine or putting a shoe on a horse, it’s part of the continuous process.
You just mentioned the importance of friendship, of exchanging and formulating thoughts. One of the irritating facets of the 21st century is how the term friends seems like it’s owned by Facebook. How do you see this shift in how we talk about issues like friends and gatherings?
I feel that across the world people are beginning to see through the lies. There’s a generation of people who’ve been fed by music and radical ideas, from the Occupy movement to Tibet to people on the streets in Thailand. Everywhere I travel people are really beginning to question what we’re being told. Whether they use Twitter to organise a demonstration, whether they organise Occupy protests or hacktivist symposiums, I think the speed of the hypermedia helps. My community now lives online. Back in the day you could say I’m a punk, I’m a goth, I’m into reggae and you’d gather at certain concerts but now there are people like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups and there’s a space where people with shared interests can gather – online. It seems that there are punk secret agents from our generation throughout different levels of our society like The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, to the head of a big Japanese media conglomerate. I’ve got a lyric on the new album: “bankrupt ideologies litter the dealing room floors” – I think we’ve really got to keep open minds and keep our antennaes open and not moan and not judge things by the past and use the new tools to build something new. It’s a time of hyperchange and we can’t keep judging it by morals and ideals from the 1950s.
Another ideal, not from the 50s but the 80s, a result of punk, was the foundation of Rough Trade Records. They considered themselves independent from the market and from the media. Then Rough Trade went bankrupt and now when you talk about indie rock, it seems to have become a genre of music but it’s not filled with political context any more. How do you feel about this word Independency being stolen?
It would be a ten page conversation about so-called independent record stores or record labels. My only feeling is when we were kids we built up the tendrils that stretched across the world from Japan, to Survival Research Laboratories in the States, to Rough Trade America to cool protest groups in South America, bands in Japan. What I’ve found in the last couple of years with my friends, my comrades, they’re Chinese artists, people behind Tunileaks, they’re aboriginal people, it’s a much wider thing than just music. I call these people sympatico, maybe we argue over the specifics and maybe somebody’s got the wrong concept of economics … But music is one small corner of this group. There’s a global underground and I’m finding that people on the electronic frontiers have the most imagination at the moment. The discussions we’re having is reminiscent of the old salons in Vienna where mystics, alchemists, scientists and politicians did gather. People at the bleeding edge of new technologies, new political concepts and experiments in art and music are all gathering together. That’s how I found Kreuzberg in Berlin, with people like Bruce La Bruce. It’s possible for bright minded people to meet like they did in the Cabaret de Voltaire and create new things. My father was a great scientist – so I grew up with mad people coming to the house anyway!
Do you see your new record as a manifesto for this?
A personal manifesto. All I’m doing is that I’m going through notes of what I’m interested in, notes of what I think is wrong and what I think is right, interesting things I see in the world, be they political, mystical, artistic, sexual or politics. And often it’s just questions. For me my new album is like a personal letter from my front line. If I have to be a poet in this situation I should be allowed to deal with any subject in the world. Why should we be censored in music to just sing about cars and girls?
You say it’s a personal letter, but normally you write a letter to a certain person you have in mind – and not an anonymous mass of people.
It’s a jumble of my mind. I remember talking to Allen Ginsberg once about how he wrote, and it’s just the way my mind thinks and it’s the way my mind’s been thinking since I was 14. I’m not saying anything is right or wrong but these are the things I find interesting. Other people obviously find it interesting to sing about bottoms or breasts or Ferraris. But I don’t, sorry.
How have you felt about The Pop Group’s comeback so far?
The strangest thing happened when Matt Groening curated ATP and he asked Iggy to reform the Stooges and me to reform The Pop Group. I thought it was a stupid idea. I thought it would be like necrophilia. Then, suddenly, with my art projects I’ve been flown to Vancouver and been told to collaborate with a fat Korean artist who works with lard and some shadow puppet maker from Thailand. I keep trying to decondition and question why I’m making certain judgements: One side of my brain said why are you negating this thing, why can’t you just treat the reformation as a new commission. So I thought OK I’d walk into this with new eyes and I just said to the other members “let’s see if we can make something new”. Immediately when me and Gareth Sager started working something really bizarre happened. There’s these alchemical beasts called golem, and golem appeared in the room. It’s nothing like anything from The Pop Group, it’s nothing like anything me or the other guys have ever made, they’re like these huge French chansons with string arrangements and these things are running off with a life of their own. I’m shocked. We’ve just control of our back catalogue so next year there’s going to be a classic box set and we’re going to produce a brand new Pop Group album called The Alternate. The thing’s got a life of its own. It’s interesting for me, I can stand back and watch, it’s like a firework. I don’t understand how these things work but from hanging around with Kenneth Anger last year in Portugal I learned that if magic happens you just have to stand back and watch. You don’t try and control it.
But somehow you control it by having different outlets, you have the Pop Group, you have The Maffia [his band which releases material on On-U Records] your internet activity, how do you know what’s going to come next?
I don’t. It’s random procedures that we learnt from oblique strategies and from the beatniks: You can do these strategies of refusal where you deny your past and break a habit. A lot of it is chance procedures, but those chance procedures create sparks. Over the years when I’ve taken a chance and clashed different genres people have said that I invented industrial or trip hop or whatever but that’s because I deliberately negated a normal procedure and something strange happened and I let it happen and I was man enough to stand back and not say no that’s wrong. Some of the best things in science are when people think in a lateral way and in juxtapositions. I think Kenneth Anger’s juxtaposition in Scorpio Rising, of that homoerotic biker footage and that religious imagery he got through his letter box by chance. I would go that far to say that these random juxtapositions are the most important things of our generation. Then there is a chance for something new without our conditioning. Basically we’re all the constructs of our condition.
How far does it go back? You said it was the beatniks were the first to use this random, anti-cyclic process of putting things together – also called cut-up.
I didn’t say they were the first, I’ve got some old Arabic grimoires and I think it goes back to the beginning of time. As a human being you’ve got to realise, Tricky had this project called Product of the Environment. Basically we’ve got to realise that since we’re born, it’s like the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, if we were raised in the forest we’d have different ideas to those we have. Part of my thing is to always keep on questioning why I’m doing something. ~
We here at the EB office are in a kind of comfortable position: writing articles for our great website, scanning the internet for news and fresh content for your reading, listening and viewing pleasures as well as hanging around on Facebook and Twitter – since these are the real news sources of our time, right?! Some of you might not be that lucky. Raise the curtain for ‘Excellbook‘, a new app for desktop computers that sneaks into Facebook-unfriendly office surroundings in Excel-camouflage-mode.
Denim tailor Diesel makes this new app available within its current ‘Be stupid’ campaign – and the result is really impressive. Once downloaded to your Mac or PC and connected to Facebook, ‘Excellbook’ looks and feels like a regular spreadsheet – columns, rows, values and tabs all included (check out the video below for a preview). You can update your timeline, check out your friend’s activity, like and comment on new posts and even chat with all the people that should be being productive at work themselves.
Here’s the legal disclaimer: of course ‘Excellbook’ won’t prevent you from a disciplinary warning letter from your boss in case you’re being caught in the act or your company’s using IP-filters. But it’s a more fun and entertaining way than always peeking over your shoulder, checking if the boss is around when posting how boring work is again today.
There’s a rumor going around that social networks are the future of the internet. This might well be true, and if we all look aT our online habits, we probably spend the most time on updating and checking our Facebook! On the other hand the EB editorial staff believes in the idea of a well edited music platform which is why we offer you ElectronicBeats.net as well as the SlicesDVD and our print magazine.
However you can of course find us on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud and Issuu, and as we know that habits are a-changin’, we’re going to bringing you exclusive news updates, features and a whole lot of new music to your social network of choice.
From today we’re introducing an exclusive new feature for all our followers on Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud: the »EB favourite of the day«. Every day at noon you’ll be notified of the latest musical suggestion from the Electronic Beats editorial staff delivered on the nifty SoundCloud player. As a producer you can also send us your own songs or productions via our SoundCloud Dropbox – and if we like them, we will share them with our fans and readers!
The »EB favourite of the day« won’t be displayed on Electronicbeats.net – so make sure to follow us via Facebook, Twitter or SoundCloud. And let us know what you think of the music that is rocking the EB office soundsystem.