whitehot | Nan Goldin and The Deadly Doris in 1980s West-Berlin
Die Tödliche Doris Performing at The Kitchen, New York 1984. Photograph by Nan Goldin
On August 27, 2011 Nan Goldin was awarded the Reminders Day Award at the AIDS Gala in Berlin. The American photographer is, as the press release announces, one of the first artists who “in her photographic work gave AIDS an individual, non-voyeuristic and human face and contributed to de-stigmatization of the disease.” For the occasion I talked with Berlin artist Wolfgang Müller about his friendship and collaboration with Goldin. In the 1980s Müller's post-punk band Die Tödliche Doris (The Deadly Doris) was photographed by Goldin both in West-Berlin and New York. In 1995, Müller and Goldin worked together on a project called Blue Tit. In this conversation with Müller, we also touched upon the subversive use of photography by The Deadly Doris in 1980s West-Berlin. In 1980 the band had been founded by Müller and Nikolaus Utermöhlen. The two art students had chosen music as a way out of a sterile West-Berlin art scene dominated by wild and colorful neo-expressionist painting, which could not have been further removed from West-Berlin's reality. In a period of seven years The Deadly Doris (augmented alternately by Tabea Blumenschein, Chris Dreier, Dagmar Dimitroff, and Käthe Elke Kruse) created a multilayered oeuvre that explored the characteristics and probed the limits of visual media
An Paenhuysen: In 2010-2011, Goldin's photographic work on West-Berlin was on show at the Berlinische Galerie. The Deadly Doris had a prominent place in the exhibition. You yourself gave a talk and Alena Wiliams curated a screening of the super-8 movies of The Deadly Doris. How did this special connection between The Deadly Doris and Nan Goldin come about? How did you meet Goldin?
Wolfgang Müller: In 1982, Nan came here for the film festival. I think we met at the Arsenal cinema. She was attracted to The Deadly Doris because it was a very gender-centric project with Tabea Blumenschein, Käthe Kruse, Dagmar Dimitroff – people who were also in film, but not mainstream – and Nikolaus Utermöhlen and me. We soon became friends. I mean, there was no photographer like Nan, who took so many photographs of our band and our band members, in West-Berlin and in New York.
Paenhuysen:Can you say something more about this gender aspect of The Deadly Doris?
Müller: Normally, photos were taken of Einstürzende Neubauten, which, from a gender perspective, was very conventional: there were only men and no women in the band. Die Tödliche Doris played with dressing up as a man, as a woman ; we changed clothes on stage, we even performed naked on stage. It was much more about proto gender questions. For one tour we had a woman at the DJ stand. I don't remember any women at all at the mixing table. But Barbara, who later actually died of HIV, was involved in computer stuff, which was quite new in the 1980s. She was very interested in technical things. In just two weeks Barbara learnt how to handle a DJ stand and then she was perfect. She was much better than all the men. A lot of men act so important when they are sitting at the DJ stand. If they don't like you, they turn your voice down.
Paenhuysen: The band name The Deadly Doris is a female name?
Müller: It's a female name, but it's also a word game. When David Bowie lived in West-Berlin between 1976 and 1978, he called the city the metropolis of heroin. A lot of people were on drugs here. It was a quite depressive atmosphere. And if you said The Deadly Doris, people thought they misheard it and then they wrote The Deadly Dosis. The important thing for us was, first, to have an aspect of humor, ambivalence, and irony, but, secondly, also something very concrete, which is not concrete in that way that you create something of the opposite of what a band normally does. A normal band usually tries to create a coherent image: with a band leader, who is the star, mostly the main singer and a special character, and then the band tries to obtain a full character. Yet, we thought the other way around: that the character is made from the outside. You point to a nothing, The Deadly Doris, but she is not there: her body is not there. She is just the opposite. For a band, you need to have a body and a person. But we don't point to ourselves, we point to somebody else. And we point to another body that is present in absence; she is there and not there at the same time; she is always there by not being there.
Paenhuysen: The finding of photographs in subway photo-booths was the origin of The Deadly Doris?
Müller: Yes, it was our first common project. Nicki and I, we discovered that in the underground stations and warehouses people took photos in machines: you sit inside this booth, you put in a coin, then it flashes four times and after a few minutes you get four images you can use for your passport and so on. We discovered that quite a lot of people throw their photographs away. You know, mostly just next to the garbage can or the pictures end up under the machine. Nicki and I, we were like archeologists. We went to subway stations and with sticks and other instruments we fetched these pictures out. Then we fixed them.
Paenhuysen: You even founded a photo archive?
Müller: We went to thrift stores and they were so trashy in West-Berlin. You even could find private photobooks. One could see that a lot of people had no relatives anymore, so that these intimate photos ended up in the thrift stores. I was always curious: who could be interested in private photos from an unknown person? I also found some sexual photos which were printed on the first record of The Deadly Doris. A guy had taken photos of his penis – polaroids. It did not look very sexy, not at all, horrible photos. We were interested in how this privacy became public. There are so many photos taken out of this urge to make a copy of so-called reality: like a reflection of what you see. It is very democratic. Everybody can take a photo. We then had the plan to start an archive: the Photo-Documentary-Archive. We bought these photobooks and we searched for thrown-away photos. We tried to bring an order to this chaotic mess. So I created a system and Nicki created a system. I, for instance, created folders like “woman”, “man”, “children”, “dogs”, “house”, “woman with dog”, “woman in front of the house”... Each of us had his own system. And then we used these files to classify them, with a series number. We filled out the file, which created again a new chaos because Nicki used a very different system than I did. One might be able to reconstruct to whom the caption belongs but it would be very difficult. We analyzed what we saw from different viewpoints.
Paenhuysen: Was there a purpose behind the archive?
Müller: It was not to produce something new but to make the concepts of the things visible. There are so many things. Why should we produce more and more and more? Just take your cognition serious. Then we found these old photos. And out of these photos we also made a first film. Each passport photo was shown for one or two seconds. So it was like a reconstruction of what happened when people sit in the photo-booth. This was turned into a film. It's not a photo anymore, it's a film. It is not this fixed object but suddenly movement is a theme: you get this idea of movement as one picture follows the other. Your brain reconstructs the movement. You don't see the movement: what you don't see is now a film.
Paenhuysen: The Deadly Doris can be called a multimedia band, researching the conventions and clichés underlying media – video, super-8, and photography. To promote a concert in Japan a picture was made of you, Kruse and Utermöhlen sitting near a urinal and smiling – although it must have been a most unpleasant place...
Müller: It was a very unpleasant place... The main point of that picture was: can you discover if a smile is false or real? Is somebody really smiling or just acting? One of the clichés about Japanese people in Europe is that people are fake. Here the people think if you are rude and show it, it's real. But in fact it's also false: you have some troubles with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or with your job, and then, two hours later, you take another person down. A culture like the Japanese one is much more about taking a step backward. Here that is thought of as something false. I never thought so, I think it is nice. So maybe I'm Japanese in that way. If there is a problem or an aggression, they take a step backwards and don't get caught in this spiral of negativity.
Paenhuysen: And what about the use of the urinal?
Müller: I thought that maybe Japanese people would understand that very well. Because, on the other hand, they are going much more out of line. You know, with some things ... as soft as they are, as harsh they can be. When you combine smiling ... and this smiling, everybody knows, either they are completely perverted, crazy ... like men who like smell of urine, which could be possible, but it would be very rare that three people have the same obsession. I can speak only for myself, I don't like to go into toilets (laughing) ...
Paenhuysen: The picture was blown up and hung on the facade of a skyscraper in the Tokyo amusement district Shinjuku?
Müller: Yes, they turned it in a gigantic photorealistic painting and put it up. I'm sad that I don't have this painting.
Paenhuysen: What for you is the strength of Goldin's photography? What characterizes the way she photographed The Deadly Doris?
Müller: One thing, a personal thing. The moment you trust somebody, this person can get very close to you. Nan never acted as a photographer, but she was always using her camera ... I would not say spontaneously, but she noticed interesting moments, or she had an interesting perspective on these moments. I think it also has something to do with the time. I mean, in the 1980s, nobody took photos. It was something unusual in these punk bars and it was not laughed at, not at all ... they would say “stop it!” ... also in Jungle, there were no photographs taken because photographs were only taken by tourists and professional photographers who used a tripod and had a studio. This punk underground scene was interested in art, that's true, but our life in Jungle, that was the art, dancing on the dance floor. Like Bridge Markeland ... she was dancing in Jungle and all these people came together. Nobody wanted to be photographed. Nan always was really close to the people she took photos of. Nobody had the feeling that she was sucking their blood. Afterwards, some people have said that she used people showing them in these emotional situations. I think that's stupid. Only the photographer and the model can decide if this is accepted by both. It shows that people think in categories of success ... when somebody who is successful takes pictures of people who are not so successful, or die very early, then this person has to be evil.
Paenhuysen: The subculture Nan Goldin was photographing in West-Berlin, you call it in a recent article in the Courrier Internationale a “parallel society”. What do you mean by that?
Müller: West-Berlin had to serve as a symbol of the free West – à la Kennedy's “Ich bin ein Berliner” and all these Cold War things. Berlin was an outpost, like an island in the middle, and you know, if you always say “this is the lighthouse of freedom” then you can't make so many laws. The funny thing was ... Berlin had laws from the Allies, there was a special passport for the West-Berliner and a lot of people who did not want to go into the army, would go to West-Berlin because there the army could not get at them. Berlin was attracting a lot of outsiders – people who did not fit into society, lesbian, gay, transgender people ... women who were not willing to marry a man just because the parents wanted it but who wanted to sleep around.
Paenhuysen: You are publishing a book Subkultur West-Berlin, 1979-1989. Freizeit. Why free time?
Müller: Capitalism had no impact here. There was nothing to earn. Houses looked like ruins. My flat had an outside toilet, upstairs ... incredible. The shower was in the kitchen.
Paenhuysen: You were living in this apartment?
Müller: Yes, there was coal heating and there was no bathroom, but I paid so little money. That way I could create a lot of ideas – I had free time – and when I went to NY, I was shocked. I met people, also artists, friends of Nan, and they had to work so much, just to pay the rent for their flat. And I thought it was horrible.
Paenhuysen: Is nowadays Berlin still an interesting topic for Goldin?
Müller: The problem is that she got very, very famous and people change their habits. It is difficult now to photograph somebody who's peeing in the toilet, because she thinks, of course, of this photo which will be shown in the museum. Each photo shows the relationship between the photographer and the subject. I know that she never published photos that people did not like. I think that is very generous.
Paenhuysen: Is there still free time in Berlin?
Müller: I would say yes, but it gets difficult at the moment. When the parents of Ming Wong (Berlin-based Singaporean artist) came to visit their son, they were shocked. Are they all unemployed? Because you see a lot of people having a picnic in the park and so on. There is still a great quality of life here. Downstairs lives an American woman, who is a writer. People come from all over the world. It is still a cheap city, but only relatively so. In the 1980s I could live very well in Berlin because the city was so grey, so depressive. On the other hand one was totally free, more free than today. You could walk along the street naked. Nobody would care. This would be different now. Everything is much more normal.
Paenhuysen: In the 1990s you worked on a project with Nan Goldin, called Blue Tit. It started in your apartment.
Müller: At that time some people said that Nan used the people she worked with. I found it disgusting to hear this. One day she visited me and she said: “I heard something about a scandal. You made a scandal in the newspaper. You attract little birds to sell them to snobbish Italian restaurants.” And indeed, it was a satire I actually had written myself and published in a newspaper but as a result the police came to the newspaper and I got phone calls. Nan then saw this little birdhouse at my window where that particular little bird was feeding, because I actually did have the bird here. Nan tried to photograph the bird. She was standing here, trying to capture it. But it wouldn't work. Each time she took a photo of the bird, it got so shy and flew away. Her human models were so stiff meanwhile because she was so famous. But this bird did not know her. She was very unknown to it.... (laughing) It didn't know she was famous. So this bird was afraid of this woman snapping with the camera and it always flew away. I said to Nan: let's do an exhibition together. That came about because she asked for the name of the bird. We looked it up in the dictionary and it said “blue tit”. Nan started to laugh. We looked for the origin of the word “tit” and it happened to be from the old icelandic “tittr”, which means little bird. It was so crazy ... tit in english, titr – it means something small. I myself go to Iceland every year and once I saw an advertisement in a magazine that used a photo by Nan. It had been stolen. Her management went after it and Nan got 800 euros ... (laughing) I'm telling this because I want to show that Nan, even if she's sometimes moody, also has a great sense of humor. I think it is very nice that she took photos of stuffed blue tits at the National Museum in Vienna and she photographed stuffed blue tits from this famous German company on plates with cutlery. She is known for taking photos from real life, from the outsiders, but she also had another side.
Paenhuysen: Were these pictures shown at the exhibition?
Müller: For the exhibition Nan collected a blue tit lamp, blue tit objects, together with the series of photos, and I exhibited elf's stones from Iceland with blue tits engraved on them. The exhibition was entitled Nan Goldin Wolfgang Müller Blue Tit.
Wolfgang Müller, Subkultur West-Berlin, 1979-1989. Freizeit. Fundus Band 203 (Berlin 2011). Wolfgang Müller, 'Les 33-tours invisible qui préfigurait la réunification', Le Courrier International, Special issue: Révolutions sonores. Comment la musique change le monde (June 8, 2011) 68-72. A series on the art, cinema and music of The Deadly Doris in both English and German was published by Martin Schmitz Verlag, Berlin: Die Tödliche Doris – Art, ed. Wolfgang Müller and Martin Schmitz, exhibition catalogue Kunstraum Kreuzberg / Bethanien August 28 – October 17, 1999 (Berlin 1999); Thomas Groetz, Doris als Musikerin. Die Tödliche Doris (Berlin 1999) and Die Tödliche Doris – Cinema, eds. Wolfgang Müller and Martin Schmitz (Berlin 2004)