Lower animals living under simple, constant and favorable conditions adapt themselves to immediate circumstances through their innate reflexes. This usually suffices to maintain individual and species for a suitable period.
Ernst Mach, Knowledge and Error
Goose-soup or: there’s got to be some fun
Rudolf Polanszky und Benedikt Ledebur in Conversation
Recorded on November 20, 2002
L. Your idea was that our conversation should take place at dinner. What are we having for starters?
P. Well, dinner includes the complete range of components. You start out with great expectations which are raised even further by your perceptions of what is served. Hors d'oeuvre, a soup, a main course, desert...
L. Every element is arranged carefully to take you one step further. So what are we going to start off with? I thought maybe we could serve the film first...
P. Sure. I was very young at the time, as you know. I was about 22. The impressions I had of the Viennese actionist movement seemed to call for this gesture. I wanted to convey an idea of mine, namely my disbelief as to the final outcome. I always doubted the – what shall I say, I don't want to call it destructive – the undermining effects of their projection of reality.
L. You didn't think the actionists were serious about their attacks. They were not actually undermining what they were running up against?
P. In my mind, their subversiveness served only to take a stand, I felt they were truly socially-minded people, trying to tackle societal problems...
L. Of course.
P. ...somehow I was heading in a different direction, tough. I had this notion of individualistic perceptions of the world around me through my very own sensory system. I wanted the performance to spark an experience.
L. From the actionist movement, who made the strongest impression on you at the time?
P. I couldn't say. I knew a number of people to a different degree. My closest relationship was with Nitsch, as you know.
L. Did you know Schwarzkogler?
P. I didn't know him personally. Let's turn it off. Give me a break; we can't go on like this...
L. Come on, you don't have to say anything and then...
P. Hold on. I would sure like to know why this thing is not activated automatically.
L. It is working, look, it has already started. Everything's fine, let's get going. We can just take out whatever we want later on.
P. I feel cornered somehow. We're pressing it too hard, right to the core.
L. Why not? We're just outlining the historical situation. Let's keep that in mind. You were somehow impressed by the actionist movement.
P. That's true, I guess. They delivered a presentation of something that was new to me. I felt there was something going on, something had touched me deep down inside. There were people who had taken great risk. I always wondered how they looked at themselves and how they related to their environment. I knew from the start that they wanted to hold a special position and were trying to have a destructive effect on parts of what constituted the perception of their surroundings. They were stealing out of this by taking action. That is why I always thought it was an individualistic move, not a social one. To some extent it was a conformist uprising, the art market appealed strongly to them...
L. You didn't go along with their criticism of society?
P. I knew this was their fundamental cause and the central focus of interest. They broke taboos; they did things which were not acceptable to anyone in his right mind – that is, in an ordinary frame of mind. They opened up areas of deconstruction in terms of moral and aesthetic values. I kind of liked the idea. By this, they were seen on a different level, simply because it all suddenly existed. That was that, right? Otto Mühl claimed that all he ever wanted to do was to create a mess, an obscene mess. It was a cynical statement, of course. He had set out for something quite different but in the end they all agreed somehow on this particular representation of their work. Nitsch had a sense of mission. But what I'm saying right now are just quick statements which cannot do justice to a complex subject.
L. Did I hear someone knocking?
P. I heard something, too. Let's take a look.
A woman from a nearby farm brings in three paper bags of white beans. P. offers her a glass of nut schnapps. For the next half hour, the three of them engage in conversations about distilling schnapps, nut trees, spraying, good and bad neighbors, the woman's failed marriage, the seasonal position of the sun, collecting Colorado beetles, and so on. P. finally orders a bag of potatoes....
P. Whatever. We can finish this off quickly. We have recorded 65 minutes, there are 5 minutes left on the tape. But we have to start over. I want to make this perfectly clear; we'll have to figure out a different way to do this. Let's say this is an experiment.
L. Let's just wait and see what the outcome will be. It's an ad hoc synthesis, as you would call it.
P. Oh, this is interesting, you're digging deep again, but...
L. We can beat around the bush all day!
P. OK, if there's a bush that we can ... if you think we can find a good bush around here. This is almost...
L. Don't get me wrong.
P. ...a hypothesis.
L. There's no conclusion in sight, just the bush, and so far the beating is not really efficient. But it's been interesting. The bush results from your experiment. Beer, is that beer you're drinking in the film?
P. It's easy to say what the film is all about, Benedikt, you know it was just a kind of ... it was an experimental setting, that's true. I wanted to find a way to come up with a self-reflective performance that would convey a notion that had been ever present in my mind. It was present inside my head, the same way everybody else experiences the world through a constellation of inner images. But how do they get there? How is the outside world transformed into images on the inside? I'm told neurons are fired all over the place, translating the outside to the inside, converting it to a pattern, an inside image. There must be some hidden reserves and these are reproduced, as we all know. There is an image there which is imagined, as it were, and this is the world or some part of it. But obviously it has been preformed, preformatted. Your sense organs won't show you what is really going on outside right now. It's not really true.
L. With all this drinking, what were you trying to prove or provoke?
P. I called it semiology of the senses, somehow that was clear from the start, but I hadn't realized how keen the concept was. I picked the title to make it look, well not ludicrous, but I wanted to give it a somewhat comic edge. Semiology is a scientific concept that was introduced by Saussure. There was no question as to where I was headed. I wanted to create a description of a system of signs, a system of something. I was not sure what would turn out to be a sign, I figured there would be some repetitive behavior such as lifting a cigarette or glass, looking out the window, and the like. For example, each instance of a sign was later marked by colors and dots.
L. You, the drunkard, as a system of signs?
P. Yes, sure. Under normal circumstances I can never observe and track the states I'm in. I can only see them from outside myself. I have the impression that this is the way it should be, that I can portray them, and they themselves will give me a sign.
L. You, gradually decaying...
P. My slow decay and the changes connected to it. One can see that quite clearly.
L. Your hair look more and more disheveled...
P. Even my face. The tension of the muscles changes, it is loosened, and swollen spots appear rather quickly. The gestures and my facial play are interesting. I didn't know my insecurity made me look to my left every time I realized I had become unable to lift the glass. It was extremely exhausting to drink all the time and to consume such a large amount of alcohol in such a short time. I wanted to quit right away.
L. For how long did you keep on drinking?
P. I drank as hard as I could, all in all I kept going for about an hour and twenty minutes, that's an estimate.
L. Are there any outtakes? There are always pauses.
P. The original tape still exists, it may be interesting to dig it up for analysis, but I didn't care then, I simply wanted to reduce it...
L. ...to the changes?
P. ...to the essential moments. I took out long passages where nothing was happening. They could have provided interesting images, I know, but I discarded them in favor of giving the system a chance to surface. Subsequently, specific gestures were marked with colors and dots and frames of the film were painted yellow to create a rhythm throughout the film. All this becomes visible on a separate level which viewers may be scanning for content. I wanted to portray a system and this scene lent itself well to the project because it is a rather static situation and also because drinking is an everyday ritual with its commonplace, insipid signs which are usually not taken into consideration. When people get drunk together they do not pay attention to the mutual shifting of realities. More often than not, they get drunk at the same pace and rhythm, except if a person would drink much faster or less.
L. Let's look at the film now, can you put it on?
P. Why? Puts the DVD into the player.