Taking The Camera Out For A Walk
By April Rapier
Kuri Kren is clearly a man enamored with his computer. He telecommunicates with it, he makes art, he learns things. Sometimes it puzzles him, for the computer is not logical, nor is it mathematical in the way his films are. In fact, the computer makes no sense. Kren likes that.
With regard to Kren and his films, no straightforward clear-cut portrait is forthcoming: he is kind, unintentionally evasive, real smart, insulated, careful. He seems always ready with a contradiction, for the world is an unruly place. (Filmographies painfully illustrate the disparities.) His sense of humor is very subtle, heightened by the necessity of being an intent listener (his English is heavily accented), the stories are great, especially later on - one saves them, goes over them, gleaning truths from his riddles. During our conversations, I made the mistake of calling him an artist; to my honor he was insulted. His language is precise, often unfathomable, coded. Entry is restricted.
His passage into the world of film (art) seems to have occurred around a pivotal event, and has the feel of an incidental decision. After being told by a professor, in Holland, where he spent a portion of his childhood, that modern art was shit, he returned to Vienna (at age 17), deciding to see for himself, first by investigating the galleries and museums, then by gaining entry to an artists’ club (the vehicle was a poem; the year was around 1950). Soon after, he bought an eight millimeter camera and promptly broke it, something he has continued to do with alarming regularity—some people are mechanophobic - Kren is enthusiastically techno-reckless. About this expensive problem, he says "If I wreck it, I stay with it."
This was not his first experience with film, however. In Holland, he would boil film stock free of its emulsion, then draw on it, a technique that he has expanded upon through his career. The artists’ club concept holds great fascination, considering it a starting point for many European artists of the time; its core was a group of amateurs, students, and practicing artists learning technique from each other, the evolution of an aesthetic intentional, as though it were something one could arrange for, organize. His first film, Das Walk (a German-English fusion that sounded peculiar to him), was about a woman who walked in graveyards. When I asked him what, if anything, he'd change about it, he said that he'd rather the title be gender-specific or plural. He still likes graveyards. His films operate on a purely visual level, then as now, otherwise he “would write a book instead.” Sometimes it seems that to be designated artist constitutes a naive calling.
The idea of an implied communication in each film points to an essential human necessity, the most fundamental communication of all - human to human. Kren is a shy man, who, one feels, would rather steer clear of the absurd, topical transactions that characterize (percentage-wise) most daily interactions. He is as no-nonsense as seems possible for a human to be, and very detached. One reason that a return to Austria seems unlikely is that there are "too many friends." To resume filmmaking, the necessary and missing element being a "click" of inspiration, might also hinge on emotional involvement; his computer seems a far more unconditional friend. This implicitly suggests, however, an openness to possibility, especially in the realm of future films.
In the early 1960’s the most progressive gallery in Vienna was run by the Catholic Church — Galerie St. Stephan — and some pretty wild films (in good company with other art) were getting around. Kren had a job in a bank (non-committally), where he was to work for several years; his films debuted at St. Stephan, with the help of Kubelka, and then later with the Austrian Film Museum. The steady but oddly clustered output of films that transpired over the next twenty-odd years established him as one of the world’s great avant-garde. Movement is an aspect of Kren and his work — he doesn't seem to settle anywhere, regardless of the amount of time spent in one place. In fact, he sees his time in Houston as monastic, a retreat. When pressed for details regarding life in any particular place, he mumbles something about “missing the train.” So much for intentionality or burning desire: "My life is not made of plans — it just happens,” just as he feels, sometimes, like “taking the camera out for a walk." It so happened, around 1967, that his film 16-67/20 September, a political/revolutionary piece about “eating, drinking, pissing and shitting” — a demonstrable, unvarying progression — cost him his bank iob; although he forfeited his pension, he was granted a freedom that he still holds dear. He said of this film, in an at once gleeful and resigned apology of sorts, "It is very dirty.Many friends will hate me after having seen that film. Sorry. It had to be done," This ongoing chain of events —always situational —that has led him over the planet, never hinges on volition. Although Kren projects a resolutely obstinate image. Nowhere is this more evident than in the political animal that is resurrected when Reagan (among others) is mentioned. (An interestingly skewed perceptual notion about the U.S. emerges in a story he recalls, of a Viennese dog who dies of shock when hearing American police and ambulance sirens.) Perhaps when seen in tandem with the possibilities of computers, the following best defines his attitude regarding the conceptual genre: by the time something (words, images) gets printed, it’s gone Mail art, a genre he's been involved in since its inception, embodies the present in a most useful form. I am certain that he will find my speculative notions amusing and useless.
It became easier to understand his method of approaching film when he illustrated his matter-of-factness with a story: he was asked to shoot and deliver a film, for a festival, given four day’s notice, which he did (Foot-Age Shoot-Out).He normally takes a long time with a film: this one he terms a “rape.” He removed his name and copyright from the piece. "Probably (his) last film,” I asked whether he'd ever seen a print. "Yes, it’s great,” he replied. Yet the film screened before he ever saw it. He simply isn't dictated by awe, nor is he star struck over past acclaim. The computer is a language, not unlike any of the others he speaks. Its most clear-cut reference to his films is in the methodical, precise designing capacity. His preparatory materials were the same — mathematical, orderly (it has been said that almost all his work raises philosophical questions about the relationship between experience and structure). Drawings, silkscreens, collages, prints from scores, and photographs accompany the films; in a brilliant marketing idea, he sold super-eight millimeter films in a portfolio box with the attendant artwork. Chronological prefixes (order and date) accompany the titles; the films are from three seconds to twelve minutes in length. The work can be divided into three periods: formal-individual, other-artist collaborative (often performance-based), and formal-expressive. Formalist tendencies, down to his very systemic structures (he edits as he shoots), are shared, on a founding level with Brakhage, Warhol and Kubelka; therein do all comparisons end, except with Brakhage, a kindred spirit. Any reference to Austrian film doesn't apply to him, excepting, of course, the influences, collaborations, associations and the like — he is the Kren film scene. Some of the films based on other artists’ work (Muehl, Brus) occur around violent, sexual "happenings,” nihilistic statements recycled further into absurdity. But to lift elements, for display, from alife's continuum of film is ridiculous and misrepresentational. The films must be seen.
When Kren was a child, he would play with a new toy intently for an hour or so, then give it away. Now, "other than the films and computer, all other things are soon forgotten." The statements, "Kren usually" and "Kren always are interchangeable; he laughs wholeheartedly at the bugs in a particular computer program. Later in the day, the solution will come to him, easily. In answer to my questions he tries not to make a “statement,” because "it will change” - almost as a result of uttering the words. Stylistically, his rubber stamp meaninglessence, with which he marks bills and personal correspondence alike, is loosely akin to his lifestyle, and constitutes the only philosophical statement he'll claim. Death, to Kren, is "quitea bad joke,” not because of what comes afterward, but because he can't go on forever. He claims that screening his films for personal viewing is logistically difficult; perhaps it is a connection to the past that need not be reviewed. Kren seems of indeterminate age, shaved head, casual dress and rootlessness reinforcing this; his life, even his job as a guard at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, illustrate the fleetingness of his present. He is never without a camera (Disc) in his pocket; at first glance, the Safeway-printed snaps he keeps in an album seem random, disjointed. They are, in fact, obsessive persistent examinations (via the alarming banality of his haunts), in surgical search of "what catches the eye." When asked what the pictures mean, he responded, “its just what it is" — a physical recording transcendent when he introduces himself (literally) into the frame (fist gesturing at security monitors, close-up with a friend, self-portrait featuring jawline and trademark jacket). He demonstrates a concerned ethnocentric chauvinism, saying that Americans are more "fucked up;" one suspects that he pulls the same stuff on European counterparts. HCP is planning a retrospective of Kren’s films in the near future. Do not miss it.