Action Art in Public Space
Action artists working under two different political systems in Berlin shared an interest in bypassing traditional forms of art production and distribution in East and West Germany to seek alternative functions for art in society. Their work de-emphasized the traditional 20th century bourgeois trope of the genius artist working outside society and instead drew on the 20th century avant-garde tradition of bringing art closer to life. These artists breathed the mantra of Berlin’s radical left milieu, “legal, illegal, whatever!” (legal, illegal, schießegal) into their actions. Many inserted art into public space with a brazen nonchalance toward the legality or possible punishment for their action, or found loopholes to secure permission for actions that would otherwise be illegal.
Büro Berlin: New Staging of the Gleisdreieck, 1980
In 1980, West Berlin’s artist group Büro Berlin (Raimund Kummer, Hermann Pitz, and Fritz Rahmann) expanded their work beyond abandoned industrial buildings and into everyday public spaces, where their unwitting audiences were regular West Berliners going about their daily routine. The group sought to bring art into “real space,” and thereby unlock new meanings for art and methods of constituting an audience. On a spring day in 1980, Büro Berlin staged their first public action at the Gleisdreieck subway station, just south of Potsdamer Platz. Each artist contributed their own element to the action: Hermann Pitz rigged a tiny cable car to travel up and down a cable running above the subway platform. A tiny toy man rode inside the car, holding a camera, and acting as observer or spy, invoking the issue of government surveillance weighing on the minds of both East and West Berliners. Raimund Kummer choreographed a scene with three men in red work uniforms moving among the station throughout the day and appeared to be doing maintenance on the station. Finally, Fritz Rahmann rigged a stream of water to flow continuously from the subway entrance down the stairways through the multiple levels of the station. In this action, the Büro Berlin members had attempted the “infiltration of the everyday,” surreptitiously inserting art into this banal scene of daily life.
Richard Kriesche, Eternal Light, 1983
In September, 1983, Austrian artist Richard Kriesche staged his “media sculpture” Eternal Light at the corner of Kurfurstendamm and Ranke Strasse across from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of West Berlin’s tourist and shopping district. Dressed in a white jumpsuit, Kriesche placed a television monitor on one end of a horizontal beam and a can of flaming oil on the other side as counterweight. Kriesche filmed the flaming cans, and transmitted the image to the monitor opposite the flaming oil. Thus, passersby could perceive both the immediate reality of the burning oil and the electronically mediated reality on the monitors. As the oil burned off, the changing weight of the can caused the beam to tip and the monitor to crash against the cement of the sidewalk below. Kriesche then placed a new monitor and flaming can of oil on the beam and begin the action again. Kriesche was most interested in capturing the audience’s response to the scene, and turned his video camera on the passing crowds. Staging this action on a busy intersection in West Berlin’s premiere shopping and tourist district, Eternal Light integrated the spectators into the work of art and interrupted the area's usual activities of consumerism and sight-seeing with the destruction of a modern media device.
Benoit Maubrey's Audio Herd/Audio Gruppe
At the 1985 Federal Garden Show in the far southern West Berlin district of Britz, some visitors likely felt particular confusion when they heard animal and bird calls coming from a “herd” of people moving around the BUGA grounds in cheetah-print suits. This was the Audio-Herd, a sound-art performance from the West Berlin-based Audio-Gruppe. French-American artist and West Berlin resident Benoît Maubrey was the leader of the pack. In their animal print clothing, Maubrey intended the herd to “blend into the environment like multimedia chameleons.” The Audio Herd’s special suits contained speakers sewn to their clothing and strapped across their backs, connected to portable cassette players. Each member’s suit played an animal soundscape created by local artist Hans Peter Kuhn.
West Berlin's flourishing sound-art scene in the early 1980s had inspired Benoit Maubrey’s interest in incorporating sound into visual displays and performance. A casual stroll through a department store had sparked his interest in public address systems. When he began sewing speakers into clothing, he untapped the ability to unite his interest in sound art and speaker systems with art in public space. For a series of performances in West Berlin, Maubrey assembled a group of friends wearing his audio suits as the “Audio Gruppe.” He had them combine different sounds from the suits to create an audio suit orchestra. Maubrey also installed speakers, recording devices, microphones, and cassette players into a variety of other objects. For his Audio-Tuxedo, for example, Maubrey installed a set of speakers into a tuxedo that played back the Berlin marketing slogan: “Berlin is doing well!”