Memories of the Exposition of Music

First published in: Nam June Paik – Exposition of Music Electronic Television, Revisited, Susanne Neuburger (ed./eds.), Wien: mumok, 2009, pp. 89–96. / pp. 97–104.), with permission of the mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Any kind of further reproduction and processing of the text requires the prior consent of the mumok.

Manfred Montwé in conversation with Susanne Neuburger

Stählisbronn November 20, 2008

Manfred Montwé was born in 1940 and studied graphic design and photography at the Werkkunstschule Wuppertal from 1958–1963, where his teachers included Wolf Vostell. He participated in happenings and Fluxus events and from 1963–1967 he was a photographer at Décollage, a magazine published by Vostell. Montwé was active as an art director for international advertising agencies before becoming a freelance graphic designer. He lives in Upper Swabia.

Susanne Neuburger: According to the poster four people collaborated on Exposition of Music. Electronic Television, Tomas Schmit, Frank Trowbridge, Günther Schmitz, and M. Zenzen. It seems that there were some changes during the course of the preparations. It’s possible to see amendments to the poster that confirm these changes on one of your photos. What really happened?

Manfred Montwé: It took two weeks to set up the exhibition, and the poster was printed in advance. Tomas Schmit, Peter Brötzmann, and I set it all up. Brötzmann and I were named in handwriting as “artistic collaborators” on one version of the poster, which also appeared in the 1980 catalogue, Treffpunkt Parnass. I suspect that was initiated by Paik, who made extremely positive remarks about our collaboration in a number of letters to Jährling and myself. He even used this version of the poster in later publications about Exposition of Music. Electronic Television. When I met Rolf Jährling in September 1962 following my return from Italy, he was full of enthusiasm about the Fluxus concert with Maciunas, Benjamin Patterson, and others that had taken place during the summer festival in June. He also told me about meeting Paik and his intention of organizing an exhibition in early 1963 which would place rooms throughout Villa Parnass at the artist’s disposal. The exhibition had to be postponed for several weeks because Rolf and Anneliese Jährling, Gudrun Edel, and I were injured in a car accident. I imagine that Trowbridge, Günther Schmitz, and Zenzen, all of whom had possibly been recommended by Vostell, couldn’t participate because the dates had been altered. I had known Jährling for some years; I had carried out some architectural photography for him, and I was occasionally invited over to his place. He asked me in early 1963 if I could help set up the exhibition. There were two weeks to prepare and set up pianos, tape recorders, and radios according to Paik’s specifications, and to construct and install many other items. I recommended Peter Brötzmann as a further assistant; he was a friend from college who later became a jazz musician. I was there virtually every day, sorting out organizational matters with the others, sourcing materials, and getting hold of the pianos. I also assisted with the considerable amount of work involved in setting up the exhibition, and with assembling the pianos. That’s why I was so interested in your piano in Vienna …

SN: But our piano is only one of the four pianos; two of them are in the Sammlung Block, and one was destroyed by Beuys, but it hadn’t been prepared …

MM: Jährling had bought three pianos very cheaply from the Ibach manufacturers in Wuppertal-Barmen. It was certainly no problem to adapt and refit these pianos in the manner Paik had imagined. But Paik wanted four pianos. So Jährling renegotiated with Ibach and managed to get a fourth piano on loan. It was an antique piano, for display purposes only. Paik said that if we were not permitted to use the instrument, we should place it at the entrance. The visitors who entered the exhibition space through the front doors were forced to clamber past the piano on either side. That made it really easy for Beuys. As I said before, the piano was a completely intact exhibit. I do know that Jährling negotiated with Ibach afterwards. He didn’t talk about it in any detail, but he did go there and pay compensation. He was pretty discreet about it.

SN: That brings us to Beuys’s spectacular act, which was documented in photographs …

MM: Nobody actually photographed the original Beuys action, because it was so spontaneous and quick that no one was able to react in time. Besides, everything was in turmoil there, and the room was packed full of people. Beuys followed up his action by attacking the piano with a clapper and pieces of wood⎯as a demonstration. The photographers asked him to repeat the action, so he recreated it and demonstrated it again. I remember that Beuys turned up about an hour after the opening, because I immediately noticed that he was carrying a kind of sledgehammer. I didn’t know Joseph Beuys at that point. Peter Brötzmann, Tomas Schmit, and I were looking after the exhibition space and the exhibits on that first evening, because the visitors were allowed to use everything, and occasional repairs were necessary if all the objects were to remain playable. We were there to ensure that everything went off more or less without a hitch. Beuys had a big hammer in his hand; it was a chopper, with one sharp edge and the other blunt. He came into the hall, stood right in front of the piano, swung the ax, and struck it really hard. He had this incredible commitment and intensity, just as I witnessed him during the twenty-four-hour happening in 1965. He attacked it with all his might! It was like an explosion, and the whole room suddenly fell silent. Completely silent. It was so quick; in a few minutes it was all over. Anneliese Jährling came over to me during the action and said, “We have to do something.” So someone brought me a pail of water, and I emptied it out onto Beuys’s head from the upper floor gallery. That really did bring it all to an end. It was as if the spell had been broken. Beuys didn’t really find the water annoying; it was all part of the whole action for him. Incidentally, I had the impression that Rolf Jährling didn’t know Joseph Beuys well at that point, and apparently Paik hadn’t known him long either. When the action started I thought, “Why didn’t Paik announce it beforehand?” It was obviously a spontaneous action by Beuys. The piano was totally destroyed. It was just left lying there. My photo of the room showing the destroyed piano along with the other pianos was taken a day later. The photographs showing Beuys setting about the piano with those pieces of wood can’t be from the original action, because wood couldn’t cause the deep grooves that can be clearly seen on the photos. Beuys recreated the scene at the photographers’ request. Later, when I read Tomas Schmit’s account of Exposition of Music. Electronic Television at the Paik exhibition in the Kölnischer Kunstverein, I was extremely surprised that he mentioned the action so casually. I remember that Beuys concentrated on the pianos pretty intensively during a subsequent visit to the exhibition.

SN: Can you describe the pianos?

MM: The surprise was that the traditional function of the pianos had been broadened, transforming them into comprehensive sound objects. Perception was expanded beyond sounds and noises by using lighting effects, objects to touch, barbed wire, sirens, heaters, ventilators, tape recorders, and much more besides. Visitors were able to play all these devices, which were connected to a keyboard via electrical contacts. One key switched off the lighting in the room and another switched it back on. A further key randomly activated the siren, ventilator, and so on. The visitors to the exhibition were able to discover astounding new ways of using these objects. There was so much confusion! That’s why I was so disappointed by your piano in the museum. It doesn’t have the vitality that the pianos in the exhibition had when people explored them with their fingers. When you said that the piano could possibly be played again, I found the idea to be incredibly appealing. That’s the only possible way to imagine how it was in the exhibition. The pianos really were very special, really unique. They embodied so much of Paik’s personality and the way he worked and evolved. Let’s put it this way, it would have been possible to set them up much more professionally, technically speaking, but for Paik it was very important not to do that. He wanted the set-up to be crude and simple. I saw him work like that many times, for instance in <k>Roboter<k>, which he exhibited in Galerie Parnass in 1965. I remember that he went around in oversized slippers while the exhibition was being set up. He sometimes tied a scarf around his waist, walked around the room, ate some bread, and directed the proceedings in a very refined, polite manner. He achieved precisely what he had been looking for, often by taking a somewhat roundabout route. He didn’t know the meaning of compromise. He didn’t do the pianos all alone, though. Paik had all the material, and then Peter Brötzmann, Tomas Schmit, and I screwed and fitted it all together. Once the exhibition was over we took the pianos apart with Paik and gave away many of the objects that were attached to them in all those different ways. The three pianos then stood in the courtyard of the gallery for a long time, exposed to the elements, because nobody wanted them. I looked for somewhere to put them myself, but unfortunately pianos take up so much space. Of course, the situation is completely different now. Then, most people with an interest in art had never heard of Nam June Paik or Joseph Beuys.

SN: Maybe you could say something about the televisions and the photos of screens that you and Peter Brötzmann took …

MM: Paik frequently spent hours at a time on the TV sets; he had already worked on some of them before he brought them along, while he continued to develop others in the TV room until they were in a state that he wanted to exhibit. He always worked alone on the TV sets and he never let anybody else touch them. I often watched him, fascinated by the pictures that resulted-constantly changing impressions as the TV programs were manipulated, causing swiftly shifting pictures that had never been seen before, abstract structures, and combinations of processes. Paik tried many things out and also rejected a lot of them. Photographing a CRT monitor was a technical challenge in those days. I experimented with assorted shutter speeds and apertures, because the right moment had to be captured but the images were changing constantly. Often they weren’t even in very stable condition, or Paik tried out something different, and then there was no progress for hours on end. It was only possible to assess the results once the negatives had been developed. Peter Brötzmann and I took the photographs over a number of sessions and I developed the negatives. Unfortunately there was very little we could use. Nevertheless, the few photographs that did result were sufficient to give an impression of the manipulated TV sets.

SN: We managed to discover Urmusik on one of your pictures …

MM: Yes, you can recognize the crate. It was on the upper floor during the exhibition. My photographs date from the setting up phase and while the exhibition was running. I didn’t take any photos at the opening. I digitalized the negatives in 2004, a process that made underexposed shots accessible for the first time-shots of Paik working on the TV sets, for instance. There was a staircase leading up from the entrance hall where the pianos were situated. It gave visitors access to a circular gallery from which they could observe what was going on in the foyer. On the upper floor to the left was the library with its mirrored foils and the bathroom with the doll. This crate, Urmusik, was on the gallery as well, just to the left of the steps. It sticks out in my memory because it really surprised me-that crate was just so different from what Paik usually did.

SN: The room with the mirrors was called To Be Naked and Look at Yourself …

MM: Paik wanted people to stand naked in front of the sections of mirrored foils, and then the room would be closed off. Of course people didn’t do that. During a meditative moment I took photos there of Paik, Tomas Schmit, and several visitors.

SN: Paik posed for several photos, for instance with the record player …

MM: Yes, he posed very deliberately. I was extremely interested in creating a photographic record of what was so special about Paik’s work. For instance, I took lots of photos of the pianos both during and following the setting up phase, and as a consequence it’s possible to trace the different stages of development. There were portraits such as Zen for Head, demonstrations of Random Access and Record Shashlik, or Zen for Walking, where Paik pulls a violin, a spoon, or the spool or axle of a child’s toy behind him. These photos were all posed. Demonstrations such as Random Access and Record Shashlik were staged by myself, Schmit, and Brötzmann. On one occasion Paik took me aside and explained that he wanted a few photos on a certain theme; we arranged to meet early the next morning, because he didn’t want to have an audience. That’s how the gramophone photos came about. I took a series of shots from various angles of Listening to Music through the Mouth. When Paik saw the contact prints he told me to put the photos away for a later date. I sent Paik prints in New York, and Jährling also received a series. The negatives landed in my photographic archive, where they remained until 1976, when Wulf Herzogenrath put the photos on show at the Paik exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein.

SN: Perhaps a quick question about the balloon-it doesn’t appear on any photos …

MM: We blew the balloon up with a pump. It burst very quickly. It was a weather balloon that virtually filled the foyer. The visitors could hardly get in because the balloon almost completely blocked the entrance into the exhibition space. The first visitors really had to crawl past the balloon to get into the gallery. We were really very disappointed when a visitor burst it. It happened within the first half hour. The line of people waiting to get in stretched as far as the street. They weren’t just typical gallery visitors; they were a very mixed group, including students. The atmosphere was great! Some people might have had the cow’s head at the back of their minds.

SN: The cow’s head had gone by then …

MM: I have no memory of the cow’s head still hanging there by the evening. It was delivered at midday and mounted at the front entrance, and there are photos to prove it. Soon after that there were a few problems with the local public order office. For that reason I’m pretty sure that the head had been removed by the start of the opening.

SN: Do you know where the kitchen was, incidentally? I can’t identify where it might have been. In the basement?

MM: There was a laundry room in the basement that was incorporated into the exhibition. But people got together in the kitchen on the upper floor; it was an eat-in kitchen with a table and chairs, and the fridge was restocked every day. The few visitors who were there in the evenings met up there and talked. The exhibition was only open in the evening a few days a week. That’s where I first got to know Beuys, Maciunas, and Køpcke, and others. It’s where I apologized to Beuys for tipping water over him. I visited Beuys at the Akademie in 1964 and discussed photographs for the Fluxus exhibition at RWTH Aachen University. Beuys asked me if I could create a photographic record of his actions. But I had already signed a contract with an advertising agency. The bookseller and gallery owner Willem de Ridder was also present at one of the kitchen discussions. He wanted to show a prepared piano in Amsterdam, and he organized the Fluxus event at the Hypokriterion Theater. Paik discussed a plan with Tomas Schmit, Peter Brötzmann, and myself, for a piano that would be largely silent, but adorned with movie projectors. Paik gave me an 8 mm movie camera, which I used for shooting scenes in a variety of techniques, some of them hand colored. They were to be shown as endless loops, controlled by the piano. Paik also contributed an erotic movie. Cement was to be poured into the piano. We actually carried out part of this idea in Amsterdam’s Galerie 47 in June 1963. At that point Paik was in Japan, and he later traveled on to the USA.

SN: You mentioned Random Access. What music was recorded on the tapes?

MM: While we were setting up the exhibition we stuck sections of audio tape to the wall in the corridor of the basement. They were cut fairly randomly at different lengths. The visitors were able to move the isolated pick-up over the tape and hear real little tunes, although depending on the speed and direction they were played at there was a high level of distortion. Any visitor was free to move the pick-up around, which produced a sound structure reminiscent of the electronic music I had first heard in the Studio for New Music at the WDR broadcasting corporation in Cologne. I can’t remember what the music on the audio tapes was, but they were definitely normal, narrow tapes rather than studio recordings. Paik had brought along a suitcase containing the audio tapes.

SN: And Paik hung all the pictures back to front …

MM: Yes, that was the first thing Paik did. Rolf Jährling told him that we could do anything he wanted, even take the pictures down. Paik insisted that everything was left as he had found it. Then he turned most, but not all, of the pictures around. Paik left the slate reliefs by Raoul Ubac hanging the right way round. Jährling adored those works and had used one of them for the logo for his gallery. Paik just left them hanging there. I think it’s significant that Paik didn’t want to change the atmosphere from how it was when he had discovered it. Besides, the reverse sides of some of those pictures were pretty interesting.

SN: Was the exhibition explicitly seen as part of the Fluxus movement?

MM: No, not as far as I’m concerned, in retrospect. It was something completely independent. I saw Fluxus as the concert in the Akademie in Düsseldorf in 1962, for instance, or in Amsterdam in 1963, or the performance in Aachen in 1964. I can only see it from the perspective of a layperson interested in art, or of someone who witnessed it all. Paik was very independent; his show brought together many different movements in contemporary fine arts and music and he also anticipated a great deal. Paik’s connection to Buddhism and Zen was also something that had interested me from very early on. I was fascinated both by the way he integrated it into his art and by his lifestyle. In that respect he had a completely different background from what I had experienced of Beuys. Several participants in the exhibition thought, “What’s Beuys doing here?” I can imagine that Paik’s approach must have been extremely important for Beuys. Paik didn’t talk to us about Fluxus back then in Wuppertal⎯I found out about it from Maciunas. I remember a lively discussion in the kitchen between Beuys and Maciunas during those evening meetings⎯they had a great chat together.

Note 1 Will Baltzer, Alfons W. Biermann, (eds.), Treffpunkt Parnass Wuppertal 1949–1965, exh. cat., Wuppertal, Cologne, Bonn 1980, p. 209.