The Wire's Deputy Editor talks to the artist about freedom, fragility and his new EP Heute Will Ich Frei Sein
Anyone who visited the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern last year would have been struck by how much of his work was inspired by music and club culture: from early photographic dispatches of European raves for I-D magazine to a room of the exhibition turned into a high-end listening room, where visitors could appreciate the work of 4AD band Colourbox, a Tillmans favourite from the 1980s, with as much concentration as they would give to any other work of art.
But before his photographic career took off, a teenage Tillmans recorded spare, sinewy electronic tracks under the name Fragile. In 2016, he revisited these 1986 recordings, releasing some of them with two newer tracks on the 2016/1986 EP, released under his own name on the Fragile label, named in homage to his teenage persona. This was followed with another EP, Device Control, later that year. He has performed live, on occasion – most notably at Berlin’s Atonal festival in 2017, with Powell. His new EP, Heute Will Ich Frei Sein sees him collaborating with Wreck & Reference and Tim Knapp, Jay Pluck and Kyle Combs on new tracks, and Bryan Mette and Justin Strauss of Whatever/Whatever on a remix of Tillmans’s gleeful 1986 joyride into the abyss track, “Fast Lane”. For all its minimalism, Tillmans’s music sparkles with a sense of play and unlikely hope – seen in the new EP’s final track, “Tired Car Alarm”. Based on a field recording, its title is self explanatory – but evokes pity for the dying machine, rather than annoyance.
He talked to The Wire’s Deputy Editor Emily Bick via Skype.
Emily Bick: I’d like to talk about your new EP: its title translates as “Today I Want To Be Free”. I’d like to know what you mean by freedom, and what your understanding of that is.
Wolfgang Tillmans: The title came after five weeks, six weeks two years ago in the summer, where I took time out to actually be somewhere else and not be occupying myself with the daily grind of working the way I used to work for many years, uninterrupted basically. And I noticed that I was starting to get free, to want to feel my body, to leave some sort of anxiety behind. So even if the track is a full on dance track, it actually doesn’t project that idea of freedom into the club, at least it doesn’t come from there: It comes from a realisation that this freedom can only be achieved when you’re in the here and now, and no longer always thinking about planning for the future or organising the past. Or managing the present.
I am, of course, always planning things ahead, and I am managing an archive of 25 years, and communicating in the now with dozens of contacts, but the fortunate thing that I feel I’ve retained is an ability to get in touch with this moment of being in the here and now, and seeing, or hearing, or allowing words or melodies to pop into my head in such moments.
When you’re talking about the moment, and experiences of things, they seem to be examples of things that happen once, and then don’t happen again. Is that something that threads through much of your work, artistic and musical? There seems to be a sense that you’re capturing these things that are very fleeting – you have a lot of images of often young and beautiful people juxtaposed with still lives, and plants and things that are also beautiful, but you know that they’re going to die –
Just like us!
Yes! And exquisite as these moments are, you know they’re fleeting. Is this something you were conscious of when you chose to work under the name Fragile in the 1980s?
I think the realisation that you have to have the courage to take the moment seriously – or not having the courage to take the moment seriously – is maybe the single biggest incapacitator for artists of any kind. That you always want to be sure, people always want to be sure, that [something] is a good idea before they do it. And of course you can’t be sure of an artistic idea to be good until you’ve somehow done it – again, in the now, without a safety net, and then think about it --and then the moment is not the moment—it’s the time spent editing.
And that somehow is the other part of creation, the editing, and selecting and deleting and amplifying. What I found interesting is that in my still photography, even when things have been staged or I have been working on a picture deliberately, it is still a particular moment, some minutes where some things come together in a particular way that cannot be repeated. And of course in documentary situations, they clearly cannot be repeated. Where in music, working with musicians, I found there is a sense of, “Oh, we’ll do another take”. I like to record everything, and not rely on, “Oh, we can do it again.” And of course I don’t say this as a rule, we can never try a better take, because that would be lazy, but I look at sound and music as a kind of photography of sounds, and just as photographs cannot be reconstructed exactly, I believe that recordings have something that just cannot be redone.
This word – fragile, came to me in my teens, and I kind of bonded with it, in a way of not celebrating it, but just acknowledging my own fragility. And maybe a sense of observation that those people who are overly certain of themselves and overly sure, or try to always be strong, bore me, or in the worst case scare me, and that people I felt drawn to had a sense of their own fragility and weakness and I found beauty in that.
So as a teenager it was my nom d’artiste – but then it rested for 25 years and then when I started releasing music two years ago, again, I called the label, the platform Fragile, and a band project in 2016, the EP that came out, the project name was also Fragile. But I now have released again under my own name.
How did you start making music when you were younger? You were only 18 when you started, is that right?
17, yeah. There was – I guess – a lack of training and a lack of confidence. As opposed to my brother and sister, I didn’t learn an instrument, I didn’t show any particular musical skills or talents, but I had a huge passion for music, which ranged from Neil Young to the choral chants of the French ecumenical community of Taizé, to electronic music like “Blue Monday”, New Order, Soft Cell and Bronski Beat and this possibility of expression. And through electronic music in particular, even though I had always had Neil Young and certain Neue Deutsche Welle favourites, this possibility of expression through mechanically produced music, so to speak, had a deep resonance with my teenage self. And I guess – I’m not telling this like I own this story, I guess this story is owned by millions of people who felt represented in their small towns by utopian visions realised through music –
Yeah, of course.
I had a mentor friend in the neighbourhood where I grew up called Ute, and she was ten years older than me –still is ten years older than me! And somehow took a liking of me and helped me and took me seriously, and at the time a friend of hers, Bert, Bert Lessmann lived with her, and he was interested in music and my mad passion for music was all around, and I had been writing lyrics for music for a couple of years, like a hundred lyrics, from that time, and one day, he got some money together and bought a Korg synth which was like a cheaper version of the famous Yamaha DX7, and a cheap drum machine, and we decided, “let’s make music together in the basement!”
There is an amazing continuity between the two sides on the 2016/1986 EP, and also on the 1986 track, “Fast Lane, on the new release, and the new material. You have also had a lot of work recently, like your retrospective, and your exhibition that was looking at 30 year periods, from 1943 and 1973, and 1973 and 2003, last autumn in Hamburg. And this musical project covers a 30 year period between 1986 and 2016. How much changes in a chunk of time like that, and how much doesn’t change?
We never know when we talk about ourselves 30 years ago what is the real self, but one thing I really found curious, was to realise that in 86, we did sense a feeling of it’s going too far, it’s going too fast, it’s in danger, everything is like, dance on the volcano. Like “Fast Lane”: “we take the fast lane though it leads into dark”, that sense was really dominant, and I this was the year of Chernobyl, there was a real sense of disaster around us.
It’s a little bit heartening or encouraging when you think that in 2001, or 2003, or 1986, everyone already thought that this was as bad as it could get, and then of course we could say things got worse, but of course you could say things didn’t all get worse, like a lot of things got better. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, and the Aids crisis is at a different stage of management. So even though there is an apocalyptic air around us right now again, I also realise that 30 years ago there was also a sense of ‘OK, all this could collapse tomorrow’, and it hasn’t for 30 years.
You’re also really passionate about the European project and you worked on the campaign for the UK to remain, and there’s a sense of shared cosmopolitanism and democracy that’s under threat right now. And in your track “Completely Changed”, on the new EP, there’s almost an echo of Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless”. It has a feeling of that utopian drive to it that’s very positive seeming, and I was wondering if that’s what you were intending, because the track seems hopeful, even though it doesn’t feel like a really hopeful time.
Even though I look at the full gravity of what is happening now in the spectre of history, I’m always aware that all social achievements and progress that we’re enjoying today can be reversed. Whatever came into being can also be reversed. But that doesn’t make me pessimistic, but makes me hopeful, because we got here, also. It’s been a long process of justice and rights for more people, and we haven’t arrived at rights for all people, but I’m always aware that what we are experiencing now is the result of 50 years of continuous progress. And those who are opposed to it, just now feel a moment when they can push back. But I wouldn’t be doing what I do in my photographs, you know, paying attention to detail, to careful observation, to care – if I felt all of it would come to nothing and would end in doom anyway.
When you’re talking about care and attention to detail, in another interview you were talking about how when you switched over to digital photography you were overwhelmed with the amount of detail you could capture in just one image, the amount of information you could capture and manipulate. Does the kind of onslaught of available information, this cascade of images and music online, affect the way that people are able to pay attention and observe and care about music, or art, in any kind of detail?
That is a tricky point. Even five, six years ago when I formulated my thoughts about this shift from analogue to the digital world, of almost infinite depth of information and layers of information, since I did that maybe most eloquently in the interview for my book for Taschen, Neue Welt, in an interview with Beatrix Ruf which was called “Life Is Astronomical”, since then, you know that I may have lost some faith that that can be emotionally managed. Because in it, I was talking about the task to bear the depth of information. Even though we cannot stop it flowing in, we need to find ways to let go of it at the same time and make sense of it and bear the fact that we cannot make sense of a lot of it.
And now of course we realise that maybe all this has some deeper physiological impact on our brains, and that maybe the whole addiction to electronics is maybe becoming our downfall. Not necessarily because it’s so efficient [but] so powerful that we cannot overcome the atomisation that it has created. Not automisation, atomisation. This constant promise of individuality and individual expression and self optimisation has maybe pitted everyone against each other and created an atomisation that stops people from joining forces and fighting back in the way that they would maybe naturally fight back at this point. But there are of course a lot of positive results – the way that some of the recent elections in Europe didn’t go far right.
But this emotional emptiness and loss that people feel in this promise of supposed self expression and self optimisation, which actually results in a deep sadness and lack of cohesion is being exploited by populists and nationalism. And liberal people and the left have not found a way to show themselves as possibly having the answers.
Do you think there is any way for people in communities of art, or music can combat some of this? Or on the dancefloor, places where people can come together in physical space?
For me, techno and acid and whole dance culture from the late 1980s and through the 90s was always a political project. It was derided by some as hedonistic, and inherently non-political, and I thought the love parade, which had hundreds of thousands of people, often from a non-intellectual background, who would party together in a cross- polysexual way, that was in itself a political statement, and that – the power of the club and nightlife to experience your body differently – I have and still believe deeply.
It speaks to an irrational side of us, which is not irresponsible. You know? I think clubbing, enjoying yourself, experimenting with your body, exploring sexuality, exploring audio adventures – there is no harm in that. But as capitalism has progressed as the only alternative, the only model in the past 20 years, it has pushed against this, not because of a manifesto, but because people enjoying themselves for free, in non-commercial spaces or even less commercial spaces in cities, are just not following the logic of capitalism. And people not coming into work on Monday definitely does not follow the rules of capitalism.
So this constant push for efficiency and optimisation has pushed out nightlife and music from cosmopolitan life. I hope that people have a sense of what is lost and push back. I have a feeling that young people have a strong sense of what the 90s might have been, and they certainly were not all golden and fabulous, but they are longing for that sense of community. And purpose. And I can only hope that music risks more to defend that.