The Eighties Subculture Breaking All Conventions

Metaphors incarnate – no matter what for: Die Tödliche Doris at the Festival Genialer Dilletanten
Metaphors incarnate – no matter what for: Die Tödliche Doris at the Festival Genialer Dilletanten | Photo: Die Tödliche Doris archives

On 4 September 1981, things got loud in Berlin when bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Die Tödliche Doris played and experimented at the Festival Genialer Dilletanten. Now, an exhibition is recalling that thunderous era of new departures. By Mathilde Weh

Geniale Dilletanten (Brilliant Dilletantes), was the deliberately misspelled title of the concert held in Berlin’s Tempodrom on 4 September 1981. The title has become synonymous with a brief era of artistic upheaval in West and East Germany. During this period in the early and mid-1980s, conventions were broken and new forms of expression sought in all of the arts. Rather than devoting themselves to the global revolution, artists lived alternative lifestyles amidst anti-American demonstrations and urban warfare, feminism and homosexuality, drugs, punk and new wave.

The rejection of normalcy was expressed by deliberately abandoning technical skill, in crossing the boundaries of genres and resisting aesthetic conventions, in the desire to provoke, unbridled expressiveness and a shocking aesthetic. This epoch is now being remembered by a Goethe-Institut exhibition entitled Geniale Dilletanten: Subculture in Germany in the 1980s starting today at the Haus der Kunst. The Haus der Kunst touring exhibition was enhanced with original art works for the presentation in Munich. It shows protagonists and meeting places of the scenes in various parts of Germany and offers insights into the diverse networks and simultaneous trends in music, art, film, fashion and design in that era.

Zum Fotoalbum Zum Fotoalbum auf Facebook | For the first time, new techniques made independent and cost-effective production of music, videos and films possible. A cross-genre approach was characteristic of the times: musicians shot Super-8 films, painters played in bands or established clubs that served as incubators for the scene that was exploding not only in Berlin, but also in Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Hanover, Limburg and Erlangen.

Clips could be produced using the first portable and affordable video cameras and for the first time the German language held its own against the dominance of English in pop music. Die Tödliche Doris (The Deadly Doris) from Berlin or Der Plan (The Plan) from Dusseldorf experimented with different artistic forms such as music, film, object art and painting and performed wearing surreal costumes and spouting ironic, sarcastic lyrics. In Munich editorial members of the underground magazine Mode & Verzweiflung, who were mainly interested in cultural disruptions, founded the band the band Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle (F. S. K.) (Voluntary Self-Regulation). Its best-known slogan was, “Today the disco, tomorrow the coup, the day after tomorrow a country outing. We call this voluntary self-regulation.”

The Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) from Berlin explored the boundaries between music, sound and noise with instruments compiled from scrap and everyday objects. In their songs like Tanz den Mussolini and Der Räuber und der Prinz, the Düsseldorf-based duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (D. A. F.) (German-American Friendship) combined hard drumbeats with minimalist synthesizer effects and provocative lyrics. The music by Palais Schaumburg from Hamburg was given its special character by a mixture of synthesizers, samplers, trumpet and bizarrely atonal singing. Despite difficult circumstances in East Berlin, artists and musicians were also involved in avant-garde band projects like Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime), which was influenced by jazz, industrial and electronic music.

Seven examples of “brilliant dilletantes”

In 1980, Blixa Bargeld, N. U. Unruh, Gudrun Gut and Beate Bartel came together for a spontaneous performance at Club Moon in West Berlin and then founded Einstürzende Neubauten. At first they played their concerts on conventional instruments, but after having to sell their drum set, their lack of funds led them to develop a range of instruments from a collection of scrap and everyday objects, including steel parts, barrels, hammers, drills and saws, supplemented by an out of tune guitar and Blixa Bargeld’s bloodcurdling screams. His cryptic lyrics revolved primarily around apocalyptic fantasies.
The band was founded in 1978 in the legendary Düsseldorf hot spot Ratinger Hof by Gabriel “Gabi” Delgado-López and Robert Görl. The band’s name is intentionally ironic; D. A. F. deliberately dissociated itself from what they called “American cultural imperialism” with German lyrics and music that went beyond the mainstream. It was not radical enough for singer Delgado, however, and he briefly left the band. Their first album Ein Produkt der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft is therefore purely instrumental. Many of the 22 pieces are only a few seconds long. Following a tour of England they underwent a conceptual change in 1981: Delgado and Görl continued D. A. F. as a duo. The first album in the new formation Alles ist gut was awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis (German Record Award). Through their minimalist use of instruments, combined with monotonous chanting, D. A. F. definitively influenced the German New Wave.
The artists Frank Fenstermacher and Moritz Reichelt AKA Moritz R® initially operated the Art Attack gallery in Wuppertal before founding the group Weltaufstandsplan (World Rebellion Plan) together with Kai Horn. Der Plan emerged from this band in Dusseldorf in 1978. The band commonly designed their own album covers, flyers and posters and the gallery initially served as a concert space. The band produced a number of studio albums and several singles, including Fette Jahre, Es ist eine fremde und seltsame Welt, Normalette Surprise, Gummitwist and Golden Cheapos. Gradually they replaced the tape recorder with new computer technologies like samplers and synthesizers. The group itself later referred to their music as “electronic pop.” The lyrics deal with quite serious issues put forward, however, with plenty of wit and irony.
The art students Wolfgang Müller and Nikolaus Utermöhlen founded Die Tödliche Doris in West Berlin in 1980. Later, Chris Dreier, Dagmar Dimitroff, Elke Kruse AKA Käthe Kruse, and Tabea Blumenschein joined the band. Other artists participated occasionally. In addition to a variety of instruments they experimented with faulty tapes and tape recorders. The line up, costumes and musical style varied from gig to gig, which evolved into art performances. From the very beginning Die Tödliche Doris was a conceptual art project. Alongside the music they produced art objects, installations, texts, films and photographs.
The band was formed in 1980 by four editorial staff of the Munich underground magazine Mode & Verzweiflung, curator Justin Hoffmann, author Thomas Meinecke, artist Michaela Melián and photographer Wilfried Petzi. Later they were joined by musician Carl Oesterhelt. The slogan of the band was “Today the disco, tomorrow the coup, the day after tomorrow a country outing. We call this voluntary self-regulation.” From the mid-1980s, in addition to their concerts in West Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Holland the band increasingly performed in England, where it was regularly a guest of John Peel for BBC sessions, and then also released their records in England. In 1989, on the invitation of the East German Radio youth station DT64 F. S. K. held a concert in East Berlin.
Students Holger Hiller and Thomas Fehlmann founded the band Palais Schaumburg in 1980 during their time together at the art academy in Hamburg. The band is named after the former residence of the Federal Chancellor in Bonn. Frank Martin Strauss AKA FM Einheit, and the American Chris Lunch were also briefly members of the band, but they left it after release of the first single Rote Lichter/ Macht mich glücklich wie nie. Synthesizers, samplers and Fehlmann’s trumpet are the trademark sound of Palais Schaumburg in which post-punk, pop and dubbed elements encounter bizarrely atonal singing in German. Dadaism and the Bauhaus movement also served as inspirations. Wearing Bavarian style jackets, shaven necks and side parts, Palais Schaumburg played on old-fashioned German symbols and meanings not only in their lyrics, but also their appearance.
Ornament und Verbrechen was established in 1983 by the brothers Ronald and Robert Lippok as an artistic platform and open band project. They borrowed the name from the title of an article by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. The band’s music uses different styles such as jazz, industrial and electro. The musicians built some of their instruments themselves, for instance using a garden hose and moped exhaust as wind instruments, a plastic container filled with Lego blocks or a drawer lined with fur as percussion instruments. Electronic devices such as synthesizers, samplers and computers later supplemented the experimental sound machines. In East Germany Ornament und Verbrechen was considered too subversive and non-conformist, not least because of the name, and did not receive official permission to play. The performances were illegal and took place mainly in private homes, in churches, galleries or in the context of poetry readings. They also had “pirate gigs,” even one at the Palace of the Republic.
Before petering out in mid-eighties commercialism as the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave), fresh ground was broken with a previously unknown artistic vehemence in music and visual arts as well as in design, fashion, literature and film. The trend also reached artists outside Germany and many international musicians like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Lou Reed came to Berlin to live and work together with German artists.

Mathilde Weh, consultant from the Visual Arts Division of the Goethe-Institut, curated the Geniale Dilletanten exhibition.

Want something brilliant?

Would you like a copy of the exhibition catalogue along with a CD containing a selection of the music? Then drop your email address in the bucket! We will draw three Geniale Dilletanten packets from all submissions sent in by 1 July. Staff of the Goethe-Institut are excluded from participation.

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