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Wolfgang Tillmans – Groove Podcast 417

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Photo: Mike Wolff/Der Tagesspiegel (Wolfgang Tillmans)

It’s a rainy Spring day in Berlin and on the first floor of a building in Fasanenstraße 30 people are still working on an exhibition that’s due to open on the 26th of April for the upcoming Gallery Weekend. Galerie Buchholz has been representing Wolfgang Tillmans for years, and it is here where he will display new pieces until the 15th of June. The date of the vernissage will be of double importance for the photographer and visual artist: It is also the release day of his second album.

Fragments of lyrics from the 14 songs can be read on some of the pieces that are already exhibited in the room and some photos used for the record’s artwork have been hung on the walls as well. One of them seems a little crooked, elsewhere things are missing and post-it notes with a mysterious mix of numbers and a whole bunch of question marks written on them are stuck between different images, representing on-going discussions about where exactly to place what within the space.

This is what it looks when people are building something, which makes sense in the context of an album that is titled Build From Here. In a backroom of the gallery, Tillmans meets with Kristoffer Cornils to discuss the record, that is primarily his use of sounds and language on it. He also talks about his background in club culture, as whose leading documentarist he made a name for himself in his early years. Oh, and Tillmans also has recorded a rare DJ mix for the Groove Podcast.


Some of your musical key discoveries at an early age were Fehlfarben’s Monarchie und Alltag and the New Romantic movement in the UK. You also witnessed the arrival of acid house on the dancefloor from up close.

I moved to Hamburg in 1987, where Klaus Stockhausen and Boris Dlugosch were the leading DJs at the Front club. Berlin is often considered to be the birthplace of German house culture, but that’s not true!

What kind of place was Front to you?

(after a while) I was in awe of that club, it was almost frightening. That’s exactly what fascinates people about Berghain, right? Front was a club in a very literal sense. Taking into account my very democratic attitude, I should be against any form of exclusivity. But it was simply electrifying to be part of that club. The sense of belonging was also not based on the exclusion of others. You were part of an extreme circle that wanted to push things to their limits. The club didn’t have a darkroom, but it was a physically liberated space. (laughs) And there was a total devotion to the music that I experienced there for the very first time. It was avant-garde.

It was then that the figure of the DJ as a personality really emerged. How did you perceive this paradigm shift away from the live performance on stage to a more curatorial approach?

“Curatorial” is perhaps the wrong term. Klaus showcased his musical skills, manually playing tracks side by side on turntables for several minutes, messing around with high and low pass filters. It was the first time I’d heard that. It was mysterious! The DJ booth was a closed-off box, not as visible as it is today. However, I wonder what value there is in talking about those times. They were very much informed by the moment, by one’s youth and personal feelings. But I can also give you the answer straight away: I was only able to justify photographing these scenes to myself because I wanted to document them. I was always aware that this extreme form of being together … Well, if our parents had known about it, they would have forbidden it! (laughs) That’s why I had the feeling that I wanted to preserve all of this. Just like I wanted to show the people at i-D [British lifestyle magazine, ed.] in London that there was something going on in Hamburg too. If only to lure them to Hamburg for an i-D party! (laughs)

To what extent has capturing these confusing, fleeting scenes shaped your photographic eye?

There are photos like “Love (hands in hair)”, “dancer, OperaHouse” or one of Mike Pickering, where I was interested in depicting people in a state of falling, as I called it back then—dancing, exposed to gravity, vibrations and self-awareness. Melting into others. Capturing that interested me as a sort of genre. I didn’t want to photograph cool women and trendy guys, I was looking for the essence of the whole thing. Each person represented a feeling that I had experienced on other nights or in other people or that I had felt in myself. At the same time, I was interested in the interaction between the presence of the camera and myself on the one hand and the interplay between intention and result on the other. After all, wanting to photograph someone in a state of physical liberation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll succeed! (laughs)

In a recent interview with Alexis Petridis for the Guardian, you said that you were “fundamentally embarrassed to photograph strangers, to interrupt the sort of fluidity of the moment”. What role do you take on in such situations?

In the public privacy of the club, I have to make sure how I call out into the forest of dancing bodies and what comes back. Of course I was one of the clubbers myself! Their level of stimulation intoxicated me as well. (laughs) Back then, it was very unusual for someone to take photographs. But because I did it for magazines like i-D, Prinz or Tango, it was generally accepted.

I’m interested in the moment of detachment in photography: You normally take a documentary approach to the moment. However, when you DJ or take centre stage as a musician at concerts, you create the moment yourself. What is it like to become the centre of attention?

I had dreams of becoming a musician in the late eighties and early nineties and was perhaps too shy to realise them. Today I’m glad that I didn’t express myself completely as a musician at the age of 23 and that I didn’t have to live with the enormous challenges of maintaining a career for 30 years ...

... or a healthy lifestyle.

Exactly! It’s an absolute exception when that works out. Visual art is a more rewarding instrument for that. Installation pieces also create a reference to me as a person as public performances without my presence. Self-portraits or stagings of other people as projections of myself have always played a role in my work. But for the first 20 or 25 years, I preferred not to put an emphasis on this. It wasn’t until 2014 that I began to feel that my performative side was more active than I had previously allowed it to be. In the early 2010s, I used to give talks to 500 or 600 people. I enjoyed speaking in different rhythms or saying nothing while showing two or three slides. I was talking for 80 minutes without a text, completely improvised, and yet nobody left the room. (laughs) That’s not that different from a concert. Then I made my video “Instrument” [in 2015, ed.]. I’m just in my pants, hopping from one leg to the other and playing with my shadow. With my steps I create sounds that I somehow wanted to warp, so I brought them to the Trixx Studio. The other key experience was a dinner after an exhibition by Isa Genzken, where Neil and Chris from the Pet Shop Boys were also present. Chris showed me Garage Band instruments on his iPhone, which he thought were great. I said that I would also like to make music again. He then said: You really should! Just get yourself a little keyboard to plug into your computer! That was the encouragement I followed up on.

You’ve DJ’d from time to time before. What drew you to that?

It started in London in 1999, when a new wave of electro with a strong appreciation for Italo emerged. I was there as an artist, photographer and scene guy. It’s not like you have to DJ then … (laughs) But I had the knowledge and wanted to present this type of music to others. Princess Julia gave me a few lessons on the Technics. It was important to me that my transitions were at least okay, I knew that the music I played was good. I have huge respect for DJs who do this every week and have no ambition to compete with them. I can offer something different because I have a taste in music and a record collection that is quite eclectic. And I have an ear of my own, which gives me the freedom to do unusual things. I played Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” at the “wrong” speed back in 1999, put on “Hey Hey Guy” by Ken Laszlo together with “Losing My Religion” by REM at Panorama Bar and played “Paperhouse” by CAN or “Jenseits von Eden” by Ton, Steine, Scherben on the Berghain floor. (laughs)

This allows you to create moments of surprise, which also play a role in your music and your new album. The opening track is called Where Does the Tune Hide?. Why start with it?

So, when an artist finds his own work “touching”, he is always treading on thin ice … (laughs) But I find the piece very, very touching! It’s a sonic cosmos that opens up briefly. In it, I play with the sound of my voice in a stairwell. I’ve been doing that for years. Then there are the words that just came to menone of what I’m singing was written down beforehand. That happened last summer on Fire Island and perhaps gave me a new confidence. That’s why I wanted to put “Where Does the Tune Hide?” first.

The title reads like a poetological statement. Do we have to imagine your process as a songwriter like this—as one of finding form?

The piece doesn’t formulate an answer because there was no question at the beginning. These staircase melodies somehow came to me, and the completely unscripted lyrics were also written during a jam. I sent both to Tim Knapp and Bruno Beitzke [co-producers of the album, ed.] and the finished piece came back the next day. We never touched it again. That’s an example of a songwriting process that always includes the possibility of something happening that can’t be repeated. That’s why I record all the jams, always have a recording device with me. It has to do with my background as a photographer. In music, it’s always like, “Let’s do another take!” But as a photographer, I know that if I were to photograph you now, I wouldn’t be able to recreate the same image tomorrow. However, I don’t have just one way of taking photos, which is rather unusual, and it’s the same with the music. With Moon in Earthlight [Tillmans’ first album, ed.] I pursued several approaches: Spoken word, field recordings, polished studio productions, jams, live performances … There’s no affected attitude behind it, it’s just that I want to do justice to the state of things. Sometimes a melody is literally created in the shower. Just as there are moments when we make fixed appointments.

Deadline pressure.

It works! It’s not like the lyrics always just jump into my head. (laughs) Although of course they often do. For example, I recorded Device Control on my iPhone the morning after an Isa Genzken opening at the Gropiusbau. I gave it to Tim and told him what musical references I had in mind. “Please, can you drag that into the grid?” (laughs) We didn’t record a second take. What you’re hearing is the original recording.

What kind of relationship do you have to these more or less unconsciously written lyrics? In the song “Language” you sing the lines “Language is what it is / We mean what we say.” That’s a strong statement.

Yes … (after a while) … Elaborate!

(laughs) I’ve got a degree in literature, being sceptical of language comes with the territory. When someone says: We mean what we say, I’m thinking: No, we can’t just say that! What do you mean by that?”

Well, we generally assume that everything is thought three times round the corner and that we never really say what we mean. But I think a closer listen reveals a different picture. Take politics: in this context, language is not just a vehicle for pretending—it’s what politicians do. When they say something, they mean it. This cannot simply be excused by saying that they only say certain things and then don’t do them. It’s important to me that we hold politicians accountable for not lying. I always observe language, advertising and pretension—not always in a moralistic way, but with fascination for the language of advertising, as in the case of “Device Control.” My bold assertion in photography is also that the nature of a thing can very well be read on its surface.

So you can judge a book by its cover?

Yes, one example is the increasingly aggressive car lights of the last ten, 15 years. That in itself is superficial and, you could say, circumstantial. But it also serves as an expression of a dog-eat-dog society; a testosteroneladen attitude that the car industry senses in its customers or wants to sell to them. You can of course extrapolate certain social contents and atmospheres from the mere surface. In this sense, language is also a real form and not just a vehicle for saying something.

The medium is the message. 

Precisely! 

However, when we talk about political rhetoric and therefore trained speakers or an industry that constructs its products in a very conscious way, we are talking about a different form of communication than the everyday interpersonal one. In the song “Cab Ride,” you repeat the words “Weißt du?” (“You know?”) over and over again. Isn’t that an expression of failed communication?

(after a while) But that’s also how you talk with friends.

Sure, and it doesn’t seem desperate at all. Nevertheless, it is a form of reassurance that is also a type of self-assurance: “Do you understand me? Am I being understood?”

The piece is an example of another way in which I write my texts. I try out words and their combination purely as sound shapes. Weißt du? interested me more as something happening in the microphone, it wasn’t an idea that I had written down beforehand. But I thought to myself: “Is that silly?” I mean, a lot of the lyrics you produce are potentially embarrassing! (laughs) Half of my crew are from the USA and have a purely phonetic approach to my German-language lyrics. They found it interesting as a sound. But in combination with the cab ride that gives the song its title, the self-assurance you mentioned is broken up by the silly moment and made possible in the first place. That is always the starting point of my photographic work, the question: “Is that possible?” It’s not really promising to photograph an old overseas container or the exhaust vents of a data farm. (laughs) I know that it’s unlikely that an image will emerge from such a situation on a particular day that will stand the test of time. It’s very, very rare to end up with a really good picture like my iPhone photo [“Lüneburg (self)” from 2020, ed.] The odds are stacked against it! The likelihood of any line becoming something is slim. The silly, the planned, the cringe … How does it become possible? Can you really say: “We are fibres / We are fabric?” I also use texts that I wrote when I was 16 or 17 years old. “Grüne Linien” contains fragments from 1986, 1995 and 2016 or 17. I have collections of notes with sentences that came into my head, like the title of my Tate Britain exhibition in 2003: “If one thing matters, everything matters.” That’s a banal statement at first. But it comes to me and I have to be prepared to take it seriously. That is part of my way of working: I’m prepared to take it all in. Just like I work hard on things.

Now you are faced with the end result of these processes, an album on which all kind of semantic effects happen. Do you see a common thematic thread in Build From Here?

(reaches for a copy of the album on the table before him) Well, what’s on there? (laughs) As a whole, it’s characterised by a sobering, hopeful mood that isn’t tipsy or emphatic.

It is an album full of conflicts that often have to do with communication—interpersonal, social. Nevertheless, there is an optimism there; one of will, to paraphrase Gramsci.

Yes! Do you think of that as naive?

No. It expresses a desire to, well, build something. The title of the album could even be understood as an imperative and therefore as an appeal: We need new ideals for living. I’m just asking myself how you can maintain this optimism.

If you think about the desperate situations humanity has already been through, we‘ve not yet reached the limit of what has been demanded of it during its long history. Democracy is not yet lost! All it needs is for people to vote for a party that does not want to abolish the liberal world order. There is enough medicine in the world, enough energy. In my opinion, the extremely fatalistic, pessimistic mood is not entirely justified. We just need to take a more active approach to the situation. Of course, the will alone is never enough.

What role can art play in all of this?

We assume that something is only worthwhile if it has made a difference. But music or visual art are an encouragement because you recognise yourself in them: “It’s okay, you are alright.” Sometimes that’s the only thing that someone needs in order to continue with their personal struggles. I call it solidarity when you recognise yourself in works of art and sense that others feel the same way you do. A kind of reassurance: “I’m not alone.” If art can make that possible, that’s already a lot as a kind of basic foundation. If something world-changing happens on top of that, even more so. I was recently at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. They trace the history of European art from the feudal era to Mondrian. When people began to look at the world in a naturalistic way in the nineteenth century, to see it as it “really is,” that was radical. In the twentieth century, the world was then completely rethought. If art had not achieved this, society would not have been able to develop in a positive way. Art shows possibilities of how the world could be, or how it could be seen.

Can you think of any contemporary music that does the same?

The musician who has inspired me the most recently is Lucie Antunes—a French percussionist, her album Carnaval is incredible. She has her roots in the music of Steve Reich and doesn’t disguise this, but creates a completely new and free world of sound with vocals, samples and electronics. In February, I travelled to Paris for one of her concerts. We are now also in contact. That’s very inspiring for me.

Stream: Wolfgang Tillmans – Groove Podcast 417

01. Wolfgang Tillmans – Insanely Alive (Total Freedom and Sami Baha’s Spooky Curse / Special Blessing Mix)
02. David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto – Bamboo Houses
03. Men Seni Suyemin – Dark Waves
04. Plaid – New Family
05. Lucie Antunes – Mais
06. Cynthia – Change on Me (Marcelo Mistake’s Remix Extended)
07. Oskid – Disappear (The Saxophone Remix)
08. Wolfgang Tillmans – Regratitude
09. The Field – Over The Ice
10. Indus – Alfa Indi feat. Nelda Piña
11. Wolfgang Tillmans – Give Me A Shadow
12. Nabihah Iqbal – This World Couldn’t See Us
13. Tocotronic – Ich Tauche Auf

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