As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Filmmaker Valie Export speaks to Gary Indiana about the trials and tribulations of making cinema in Austria, describing past moments of backlash and her fascination with the “dead” city of Vienna.
Vienna/Budapest/Vienna, August 1981
Gary Indiana Why don’t you tell me first about actionissmus, who was involved in it, and what everyone who was in it is doing now?
Valie Export It started after the Viennese literary group, the Wiener Gruppe, settled down a little. The first generation included Nitsch, and Frohner (he’s a normal painter now). They made plastics, or sculptures with material lying on the street, empty bottles, chairs. Like Happenings in America in the same period. Used objects, things that had been thrown away. After that came Otto Mühl who was coming from painting; later on Günter Brus.
GI During this time you were making short films?
VE No, I started later. I wasn’t in Vienna at the beginning of Actionism. When I came to Vienna I became friends with all these people, but I wasn’t doing things with them—I began with expanded Cinema. I was very influenced, not so much by Actionism itself, but by the whole movement in the city. It was a really great movement. We had big scandals, sometimes against the politique; it helped me to bring out my ideas. The content of Viennese Actionism was not so important. I did my actions in another way, with video. The Actionism artists never worked with media. They made films, yes, but to document their work. Later on I made 16mm films, but the Actionists didn’t work in Austria any longer. Brus was in Berlin, and Nitsch was outside Vienna, and so was Mühl.
GI One thing you all had in common was the big scandal you made in Vienna.
VE Sure. For example I won a prize for a small political film, Ping Pong. The evening I got my prize I showed the Tap und Tast Cinema. “Is that a film? No!” the newspaper wrote the next day, “We don’t have witches now, we live in a modern time, but if we want witches, we must take Valie Export and burn her! She lets people touch her breasts, and she says, celluloid you can burn but Valie Export you can’t.” There was a great campaign against me in Austria.
GI People also reacted badly to Invisible Adversaries.
VE Yes, because of this strange shot where they believed I was cutting up a bird, and a mouse. We have this organization you can go to if you think that something false has been written about you; I went there and said, “Let’s take a look at the film, and you’ll see that I haven’t actually done it.” They said they would take a look. I didn’t hear from them for maybe two or three months. I asked again and they said they did take a look, and that I had done it. For two months, something terrible was written about me every few days in the paper by this man Schtabel, who has a column. Finally I brought a lawsuit against him and he was forced to print the letter I sent him. After this, everybody said Invisible Adversaries ran so long because of this. But this wasn’t true. The box office figures were much higher before.
GI We were talking the other day about how films are financed in Austria. There’s been a change—
VE In the financial situation, yes. We now have the Film Forderung, it’s the same now as in Germany, and we also have the subvention (subsidy), but this is for low-budget films. With the Forderung you can have more, but the whole budget is about 25 million schillings, which isn’t very much. If you make a film, you must raise 20 percent yourself. We have no distribution system in Austria, no private financing to produce a film. It’s really very hard for the kinds of film I make, artistic films. So what can I do now in my situation? The subvention, which I can get, is a small budget, and I want to make larger films. The TFB are people from the Financial Ministry, the Culture Ministry, the Trade Union, also from the television. We know these people. They have no feeling for art films. So it looks really had for filmmakers like me in Austria.
GI You got money from ZDF (German Second Television Channel) for Menschenfrauen?
VE A little less than half. The other half from the subvention, but that was half a year later.
GI Have you offers to make films outside Austria?
VE Yes, the next one has Berlin in it. Because I like Berlin, I feel it’s close to Vienna, but Berlin is bigger, more beautiful—it’s also a dead town. Years ago the culture was the same way as in Vienna, the people were moving between the two cities. I want to get money from Berlin. But they’ve changed mayors, it’s now Weizsäcker. And he’s on the right. Anyway, I want to make films about Vienna and in Vienna—not Austria, just Vienna. I’m not interested in the countryside, the mountains and all this. Just the culture of Vienna—it would be interesting to bring together two towns with a broken-down history. Or New York, with its young history, with a place like that.
GI At the turn of the century, Vienna was, along with Berlin, the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe, it isn’t any more. You live inside the skeleton of all this; but clearly something about it fascinates you.
VE Yes. This really is a dead place. First, Austria doesn’t have a lot of money; second, if you live in a socialistic system, they give a small amount of money for culture, and although they give it everywhere, most goes to the tourist centers like Salzburg, and the opera, and the rest is divided equally, promoting mediocrity. Nothing new is given enough of an opportunity togrow up in this climate.
GI In cities where at one time there was a great deal of vitality, like Boston, there’s a lot of evidence of the past. The money the city puts into the arts always goes for preserving this glorious history, they’re afraid to take any real step toward something if they don’t know how it’s going to come out.
VE But in Austria that’s not even true, they put all the money into the opera, into the Festspiele. We also had great schools in Austria like the Bauhaus, and schools about Otto Wagner, but they don’t give money to continue them. And it was a history, a great history, the people here don’t even know about.
GI Well, selling Wittgenstein’s house to the Bulgarians—
VE This is a very good example. Wittgenstein is a very important part of our history, and they give the money for Mozart—but for one evening of Mozart. Stupid thinking.
GI Yes, you go to this unprecedented example of architecture, and the Bulgarians have started to redecorate it and change it. They even own the head that Wittgenstein sculpted, the one piece of sculpture that he made, and it’s sitting on the charge d’affaire’s desk next to the Betamax.
VE Oh, they also wash the opera house, they wash the theaters, this costs a lot of money.
GI I want to ask you about directing actors and what the problems involved are for you.
VE It’s hard first of all to find the right actors in Austria because we have no film scene, so we also don’t have cinema actors, and only a small group of cameramen. And it’s difficult to explain what I want; I don’t like to collaborate with the actor, I want the actor to do what I want. I already know what I want on the screen.
GI Let’s talk about some of the techniques in Invisible Adversaries.
VE In Menschenfrauen video was used whenever there’s a scene in the past tense. Video for me is another medium, it’s also another way of thinking about cinematography. In Invisible Adversaries I used a lot of superimposition of film on video. In Menschenfrauen I always used it to show a dead message, you can switch it on and off, it’s used to show past time.
GI And the story of Menschenfrauen—
VE In the beginning I show the relationship between a man and four women. One is a girlfriend who he wants to start seeing again but she doesn’t want this. Another girlfriend is pregnant and he doesn’t want the child, so she decides to have it alone. One is his wife and the last one is another girlfriend. This means I have a model to show different characters of women living in our time—really just normal, simple women, who want to have a friend, or a man; and the film begins at a point when all these women want to change something in their own life. For example to have a child and not always have an abortion; to have this man around or to leave him. It’s not really normal for every man to have three or four girlfriends, it costs a lot of time and money and energy, but I think it’s a wish, to have this. I show all this from the man’s viewpoint and also from the women’s. These four women are not really that emancipated, but looking for the truth, at an age in which they know that if they don’t change things now it will be too late.
GI They make very different decisions. For instance one of them kills herself.
VE She was the girlfriend he had before, the other two girlfriends focus their fight against the man but this woman left this situation to start a social fight, in her profession, but she recognized that the social fight was also dominated by men. It’s very hard for her. She didn’t really want to kill herself, she wanted to leave all these things. This is why I chose this strange way. She doesn’t do it like women do with pills and so on, but with energy, and fighting with electricity. Also, electricity is a material which I had in my performances, the last years. So I brought it up in the film. I made a performance with electric wires—this was not a symbol, but more like the gesellschaft, the gesellschaft will always hurt, more than hurt—
GI What’s the difference for you between the first and the second film, and what do you want to do differently in your next film?
VE I want to work in a more commercial way, to try for it; for the next film, I want to bring out an art film in a commercial way—it’s really very difficult, to figure out the language of cinema, its semantic and pragmatic structure, and to bring it into a commercial use; it depends also on the story, the dialogues any picture, if you have the fantasies and know how to use media like photography and video and film you can bring a good story together with the things.
GI Are you writing the screenplay by yourself?
VE Yes, l’m working on it now. A woman with two men.
GI You seem to have a very odd relationship with Austria, or with Vienna. Because on the one hand they make it hard for you to make movies, and on the other hand they choose you to represent Austria at the Venice Biennale.
VE Yes, it’s really crazy. The Commissaire wanted feminism to be represented at the Biennale. He thought that it would be a success. And it was.
GI I think feminism must be more submerged in Austria than in other countries like the US, because you don’t really see the roles changing, of women, even feminist women act like the housewife—this role is still the dominant role for women.
VE I don’t know about America, but the strange thing in Austria, in Europe, is that feminism is a group of intellectuals and students, those kind of women. They’re working for the workers, and the housewives, but these two groups are not so much involved in feminism.
GI Are you going to keep making performances?
VE Not as often, because, before when I made them, I was always speaking about, “How is a woman standing in this society.” How she must fight against society. And basically it was from my own experience, but you see, I no longer have this experience, because my life has changed over the last few years; and I can’t perform a lie. I had it really very hard and I felt all these things on my skin. Now that my thinking is changing, my life is changing, I cannot make performances with the same content. This doesn’t mean I will never make performances again.
GI You said that a certain kind of performance work that you did before wasn’t really possible for you right now. But would you describe some of your performances?
VE The last one I did was in Munich. I was on the stage, in a kind of bird cage, and I had a dog on the stage in a cage, a bird that was in a birdcage, and a mouse that was in a birdcage, and there was a child in a crib who could stand up. The performance began with the dog eating. I was eating too, exactly the same way, not quite the same giving it some individual expressions. To eat something is normal in society, but if you touch your nose or put a finger in your ear, while eating then this is not normal anymore. After that I had monitors, and the video, and I tried to make the same movement as the dog or the bird, or the mouse, or the child. I was in the cage and I was barking, like the dog, and the dog, hearing me, did it more; then I ran very quickly like the mouse back and forth, or crying like the child for maybe half an hour. And then I went into an ecstatic state.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.