An insightful eye-opener for history as something more than linear progress

Alexander Carnera

Carnera is an author and essayist living in Copenhagen.

On 5 October 2015, the German newspaper Die Welt published their daily edition as usual, but everything looked different. More calm. Gone were the latest news, forgotten as soon as they are read, replaced by a remarkable calm brought out with care for the chaos of contemporary times. This calm was created by the painter Gerhard Richter, who had been given a free leash on this one day to fill the paper with his personal statement: Dispatches from moments of calm during restless times. The pictures privileged the personal and specific impression that moves from the intimate to abandoned houses and desolate landscapes. The pictures were like short pauses, small exercises in attention, and spaces that smashed holes into a different kind of reality. Even in his most personal work, Richter had attained something crucial and therefore general and common. With this printed newspaper on this one day, he created a piece of mass art.

Blowing up the present.One of those who hailed the work, was the German film director and author Alexander Kluge, who started writing small stories accompanied by Richter’s pictures. This book brings Kluge’s 89 small stories together with Richter’s 64 pictures. The result is a strange, beautiful and meditative book – but it is more than just that: It is also a suggestion of what it means to understand history, something that has always concerned Kluge. History is not only the linear news story, which often coincides with the history of elites and rulers. Dispatches from Moments of Calm pulls the emergency brake at an uneasy time, in the linear time of progress, and brings out a present that is torn between a lived and a non-lived experience. Richter’s pictures made Kluge pause, think and wonder. None of Richter’s pictures are sensations or recognizable, but they are also not abstract. But rather invitations to wonder, to be amazed, to go crazy, as if this was the most enlightening thing. Like the eye watching a blue tit spending 23 attempts trying to salvage a biscuit, which really looks as if it’s thinking about every little detail. Like the dog Leica (from the name of the camera) lying in the morning sun, who is a dog as good as any, but who has nothing in common with the dog astronaut Laika. Laika, too, lay calmly in his space capsule, trained as he was to ignore stress. The dog died from over-heating before the poisonous pill that was supposed to kill it. Kluge writes that «this noble dog could never be said to lie calmly in his basket while circling the Earth at 18,000 miles an hour. The dog lying there in the morning son has nothing in common with the dead space traveller, he shares neither his fate nor his name.»

To «see».In 1946, the Russian astrophysicist Georgiy Gamov was flown around the U.S. and Canada to give lectures – and suddenly, at a noisy café in New York, he sees with his own eyes, during one of his few, calm moments, rotations of atoms and subatomic particles, their spin, the constant revolution of molecules and particles, the rapid spin of galaxies. He experiences this snapshot as one collected movement, like a complex piece of music, like something he had heard in the cathedral in Venice in the 1930s, which he was allowed by Stalin to visit. Rudolf Steiner was once asked how he understood chance, the random event. He avoided the question, but Kluge comes to his aid: In the summer of 2002, a group of children from the Russian city of Ufa, who had been honoured with a trip to Spain because of their good grades, didn’t make their flight, which arrived late to Moscow. They all died in the unauthorized flight used to reach their destination. But immediately before boarding, two representatives from Ufa arrived to take their children off the plane. They refused the children to fly on a plane that hadn’t originally been scheduled for this trip, and took the two disappointed children back to Ufa, where they were met with open arms (the accident had happened in the meantime). Kluge writes that «in anthroposophical science, this is an example of sensing chance […] They know about these (future events), not because they can trace their cause, but because they can «see» the density signalling danger.»

Circus director of chance. In short, this sense for something in the midst of our time, which is also connected to what is random and unexpected, is a recurrent topic. Kluge quotes Walter Benjamin, when he called the members of Bauhaus «circus directors of chance», because they train incessantly to master chance, so that they too, can let go, to be surprised so that something extraordinary can happen. A tension etween discipline and being out of control. The opera singer Leonard Warren, known for always giving all he had, opened Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino at the Metropolitan in New York in 1960. Warren is singing the role of Don Carlos, brother of the unfortunate Leonora, and he seems to be having trouble with his aria. As if for a moment, he draws air a bit too deeply, whereupon he falls forwards, his head hitting the floor. The fall was just too real, as Kluge noted. A murmur went through the audience. The singer in the role of Alvaro cries: «Lennie, Lennie!» Hands reach for the fallen man. Blood is gushing from his broken nose. Great confusion. Mouth-to-mouth is attempted in order to save the lifeless man, but to no use. The instructor of the play climbs onto the stage, and speaks to the audience: This is one of the saddest moments in the history of the theatre. «I am sure you understand that the play cannot go on.» Only then, the great bariton singer is carried off the stage. The critic from the Washington Post wrote that this night at the theatre, which ended at the same time the opera would have, has moved him more than any other opera performance could have. Kluge: «Warrens total dedication – ready to sacrifice his life – had a decisive effect on the person who judged him so unfairly.»

Siezing chance. During the last repetitions for his staging of Europas 1 & 2 in Frankfurt opera house in 1987, John Cage, the man who became famous for his music concerts without music, lived at the Hotel Frankfurter Hof. When he heard the news that a fire had broken out in the opera house where his own music was to be performed, he took his tape recorder and filled his pockets with microphones and hurried along. The firefighters had to wait to put out the fire until the ceiling came down. The acoustic power and sound of the roaring fire, the flames’ sucking of oxygen from the surrounding air and falling ceiling produced a sound Cage hadn’t heard before. For the concert, which was postponed by a few weeks, Cage used his recordings from the fire in the opera house along with recordings of air attacks on Beirut. Cage combined this with a number of other recordings of explosions and included it in the final act of Bernd Alois Zimmermand’s opera The Soliders, but based on his chosen principles of randomness. The final taped version, unmarked and not packaged professionally, was mistaken for trash by a staff member at his hotel and thrown in the garbage.

Shortly before Cage’s death, one of his friends was organizing a performance using one of Cage’s old recordings. Following a long telephone conversation with his partner, who had developed a terrible case of the flu, Cage wrote Short Concerto for Cough – Deep in Bronchials, Sniffling and Selected Notes by Bach, Schönberg and Myself. The recordings consisted of different coughing sounds, and not at least the irritations caused by having a cold. Cage claimed that no place has such a rich variation than air being forced up from the stomach through the vocal chords and into the head, all of it accompanied by bronchitis. To him, these sounds exceed those of an opera singer. They are far more harmonious. After a conversation with his friend Heinz-Klaus Metxger, he gave the piece its German title: Rotz und Wasser – «Snot and water».
While the Titanic sinks.

During an attack during the war in Lebanon, the cinema Eldorado was hit and destroyed by the bombs. The couple that ran the cinema removed the remaining bricks and set up a tent on the bare earthen ground. They set up a projector that they had saved before the cinema collapsed. While people watched films, the film’s soundtrack would mix with the sounds of battle around them, which sometimes came closer, sometimes disappeared. «The cinema guests» were safer under the tent that they would have been in a solid building, as ruins were rarely attacked a second time. «The guests found this ‘emergency cinema’ encouraging. They were surrounded by danger. It was irrelevant which film was on, as long as the projector continued working.»

Postcards of history. Richter and Kluge’s cooperation shows life as something that moves in several directions at once. Kluge’s text are not printed below or next to Richter’s pictures, but are placed seemingly at random. The reader is left with the impression that other stories could also have been told. The undecided character of the pictures keeps our imagination open. Today’s news piles up information, but makes us more ignorant of history. The slow postcards in the book expand the space of the present and brings it into touch with multiple tenses, making more pasts present.


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