“We didn't document things – we simply did them”

A conversation from festival publication “Bildet Nischen! Feedback from the Zodiak Free Arts Lab”

What was happening at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab? How did the different scenes inspire each other? What influence did the Zodiak have on the generations to follow? To answer these questions, we sat down at the virtual Zoom table with players from different eras: painter Elke Lixfeld, who co-founded the Zodiak; musician Alfred 23 Harth, who took a saw to the Zodiak's stage in 1968; musician Alexander Hacke, who helped shape post-punk in Berlin a decade later; and musician Andrea Neumann, who saw Berlin become the capital of improvised music in the nineties. A conversation about experiments, freedom and solidarity – as well as the vital underground.

The Zodiak Free Arts Lab only existed for about a year and a half, from late 1967 to mid-1969, but it is considered legendary. Few visual and audio recordings from the Zodiak exist. Elke, what was the space like anyway?

Elke Lixfeld (EL): The Zodiak had two rooms. The front one was all white, a brightly lit room. There were armchairs and canapés everywhere where people would sit and smoke. To get to the back room, you had to go through a small tunnel. Then you came into a huge black room. That was where the action was. Music, but other kinds of action, too. We performed there every day with our group Human Being, which consisted of Norbert Eisbrenner, Broderick Price, Beatrix Rief, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Boris Schaak, Verena Schirz, Christoph Sievernich and me. The Zodiak was a place where you could really live freely. A hub of the scene that attracted everyone creative, including filmmakers. Music was made day and night. Films like “Chelsea Girls” [Andy Warhol, 1966] were also shown, to expand consciousness.

Who was it that ran the Zodiak?

EL: Conrad Schnitzler found the space and set up the project. But fairly quickly, he handed it over to our group Human Being. From then on, we ran the Zodiak as a collective. Boris Schaak, who sadly passed away in 2012, was a bit of a mastermind. There was also a landlord, but I never really noticed him. [The landlord was the photographer Paul Glaser. Glaser was the official operator of the Zodiak, but after a while he left the programming to Conrad Schnitzler, who in turn left it in the hands of Human Being.]

Alfred Harth (ALH): Conrad Schnitzler was a key figure of the time. He was originally a visual artist and studied with Beuys. He then broke away from the visual arts, perhaps also from Beuys. Schnitzler played the cello, although he could not “do” it in the conventional sense. He used it as a sound object, played it like a punk musician of later times would do. Or, he would put on his loudspeaker helmet and strapped on a cassette recorder. That was all very original.

“Upstairs, the Schaubühne was where the rich, smartly dressed people went. And during the intermission, they saw these young smokers and stoners lying in this open white room, which was like a shop window.” (Elke Lixfeld)

Back then, the Schaubühne was in the same building as the Zodiak, both in the building of HAU2 today. Peter Stein first put on plays at the Schaubühne in 1969. What was the relationship with the theatre like?

EL: It was more of a split scene: upstairs, the Schaubühne was where the rich, smartly dressed people went. And during the intermission, they saw these young smokers and stoners lying in this open white room, which was like a shop window.

Alfred, you also played in the Zodiak. How do you remember the place?

ALH: I performed at Zodiak in 1968 with Sven-Åke Johansson, Rüdiger Carl and Werner Götz. The main action took place in the black room. Our performance was orgiastic and wild. We not only played instrumental music – I also had a big saw that I used to saw the stage or the podium, as a happening, in the sense of Fluxus. Fluxus had become big through the exhibition in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt am Main, where I lived in 1962.

What other noteworthy influences were there?

EL: The Living Theatre! We were almost shaking with joy at what this group offered us in terms of theatre, performance art and sounds. The theatre visionary Frank Burckner [note: real name Helmut Kraut] brought the Living Theatre to Berlin. Burckner was like our mentor, introducing us younger people to art we weren't familiar with. We performed the play “Connection” together with the Living Theatre at the Forum Theatre on Kurfürstendamm. Human Being and the Zodiak later emerged from this group. In my opinion, the influence of the Living Theatre cannot be overstated. An artist like Pina Bausch, for example, would not have existed without the Living Theatre.

ALH: We also had international role models like The Velvet Underground and Warhol's Factory, where there had been various intermedial actions. In Cologne, Mary Bauermeister had already organised happenings and intermedial evenings in her Atelier Bauermeister in the early 1960s. Later, celebrities such as Nam June Paik performed there. Mary Bauermeister was married to Karlheinz Stockhausen for several years starting in 1967. Stockhausen, of course, also exerted a very great influence, not only in West Germany. The Ferienkurse für Internationale Neue Musik Darmstadt [“Darmstadt Summer Holiday Courses for New Music”] also gave significant input. That's what defined our generation: we didn't document things – we simply did them. We were “doers” – doing came before preserving. That's why we would barely take photographs or archive anything. Nowadays, it's all done at the same time. You organise an event, and the next moment, you put it on Instagram or Facebook.

“We were concerned with blowing up and dissolving all the old attitudes that came from the Third Reich. No leaders whatsoever!” (Alfred Harth)

What role did the student movement and the extra-parliamentary opposition play at the Zodiak?

EL: It was a politically charged situation. The Baader-Meinhof group was often outside the Zodiak. We had a friendly relationship with them. “Sympathiser” was a frequently used derogatory word at the time. Holger Meins, a wonderful person, was a young filmmaker at the time and came to the Zodiak. I knew Ulrike Meinhof very well – we fought to keep Bethanien in Kreuzberg a children's hospital. Astrid Proll gave me children's clothes. At that time, I tried to dissuade many people from their political actions, which I thought were destructive. For example, throwing stones at the IBM building. The slogan “Macht kaputt, was euch kaputt macht” [the title of a song by Ton Steine Scherben, “Break what breaks you”] was justified, but for me, the main thing was to go your own way, to express yourself creatively, to be aware of who and what you actually are and what you can do.

Alfred, you founded the centrum freier cunst in Frankfurt am Main on the 17th of June, 1967. In Frankfurt, too, there was a close connection between the left-wing political and art scenes.

ALH: We understood our music scene as a free-music scene. We were political in the sense that we wanted to communicate without domination in our music, with our music. This set us apart from the free jazz of the Wuppertal scene surrounding Peter Brötzmann, which was more interested in breaking things. But this scene as well had a certain political impetus, because it was an outcry. With Just Music, the music group I played in at the time, we wanted to get away from the principle of the leader that was common in jazz. The bands at that time were all named after their leaders, like the Albert Mangelsdorff Quintet or the Manfred Schoof Quintet. All in all, we were concerned with blowing up and dissolving all the old attitudes that came from the Third Reich. No leaders whatsoever! The name “Just Music” had this double meaning that we liked: it's only music, as well as music created just in the moment.

There was also a lot of theory in the air. In “Versuch über die Befreiung” [“Essay on Liberation”, 1969], Herbert Marcuse wrote about a revolution of the senses and perception. There was the literature of the New Sensibility. And the word “free” was everywhere, from the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, to Free Agitation to the centrum freier cunst and Free Music Production.

EL: The word “Befreiung” referred to the generation of fathers. It was against these fathers, who largely came from the Nazis and had participated diligently. When we grew up – I was born in 1942 – there was still a sense of authoritarianism. We rebelled against it.

ALH: The word “free” really was everywhere. In music, too, for example in free jazz – an idiom that originated in the USA. In this respect, it cannot only be explained politically as a rebellion against the fathers. We deliberately chose an arrogant-sounding name for our centrum freier cunst. We used it as an ironic term – again, against the superiority of the Mangelsdorff clique in jazz, which dominated the territory in Frankfurt and turned the city into the jazz capital of West Germany. There was no room for the new generation, which is what I belonged to. So we had to do our thing DIY-style.

“We Berliners were considered particularly decadent, morbid and arrogant.” (Alexander Hacke)

At that time, there was so much coming together from different directions, from rock and pop, free jazz, the performance field, new music. Was that such an important moment in cultural history because everything culminated?

ALH: Culmination would mean accumulation – I think it was more like the blossoming of different buds. On the one hand, we had entered the Space Age, there was the space race, the Cold War, technological developments, the moon landing in 1969. Then there was the student movement with very many different facets, Woodstock, the emergence of alternative movements, attempts to expand consciousness through drugs. In Frankfurt, Claus Peymann had started the Experimenta with Handke's “Offending the Audience” at the Theater am Turm in 1966. John Cage had been at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse. In so many different places, there were these experiments happening in the spirit of upheaval and disruption. We wanted to change the world.

Alexander, the do-it-yourself attitude and intermedial performances were also present in the early eighties – and you probably wouldn't be phased by someonegoing on stage with a saw, either. To what extent was the Zodiak circle a conscious influence on the Berlin music scene of the early eighties?

Alexander Hacke (AH): As starry-eyed and naive as I was back then, I saw our performances and music as a unique development that had never existed before. Only in the course of time did I realise that this principle of misappropriation existed before, as well as this certain form of humour and irony. That's when I first became aware of the history that had preceded us. West Berlin, this closed enclave in which its own rules seemed to apply, was important in terms of artistic development. It has to be said that back then, there was a form of local chauvinism that was much stronger than today. We Berliners were considered particularly decadent, morbid and arrogant. That all flowed beneficially into what would emerge.

What was it that shaped you first and foremost?

AHC: My musical and artistic socialisation took place in the Zensor record shop run by Burkhardt Seiler on Belziger Straße in Schöneberg. There were punk records there, and I also discovered groups like The Plastic People of the Universe from Czechoslovakia or The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada, who had formed in 1965 and made music with everyday objects. Very important for me was the exhibition “For Eyes and Ears” at the Academy of Arts in 1980, which I must have visited four or five times as a 14-year-old. They exhibited self-made instruments by Harry Partch, the “Box with the Sound of its Own Making” by Robert Morris and objects by Laurie Anderson. And I always point out one fact: Back then, there were five television programmes in Berlin and three elsewhere in West Germany that stopped at midnight. After that, you had to find something to enjoy.

EL: In our time, there was Radio Luxembourg, where we first heard Bill Haley, Bob Dylan and Donovan. The radio presenter Walter Bachauer from RIAS was also an important figure. He made music understandable to us. And he put on great concerts at the Academy of Arts.

AHC: In West Berlin, there has always been a fusion between the different art forms. There has never been a separation between musicians, filmmakers and visual artists. The genres have always intermingled. The political scene also had its place in this mixture. For the underground, the friction that arises is essential. Friction generates heat generates energy. It is important to work on the issues from different points of view.

ALH: This sort of mixing happened in Frankfurt, too. It wasn't exclusive to West Berlin.

“For the underground, the friction that arises is essential. Friction generates heat generates energy.” (Alexander Hacke)

In the time between the Zodiak and the early days of Berlin venue SO36, punk had emerged. If you look at a performance of yours, Alexander, at the Atonal festival in 1982, you realise: there's a different style, a different energy. What did punk bring about?

AHC: Punk was important as an idea and an attitude. In terms of attitude, it was a revelation for me as a teenager. But musically, it was even more important for me to go beyond punk. You quickly realised that punk is also rock 'n' roll. Sure, played a bit faster and louder, but the structures are the same: verse-chorus-verse-chorus. We got bored with that. In the circles I moved in, people were actually very proud of the fact that we in Germany had this history of krautrock that didn't simply take up Anglo-American music. Bands like Neu! from Düsseldorf, who played the 1/1 rhythm and never changed the chord within a number. But [rock band] Ton Steine Scherben were important to me, too. I loved them.

ALH: The electronic scene in Berlin, what was later called the “Berliner Schule” [“Berlin School”], also had its origins in the Zodiak. I'm thinking of Tangerine Dream or Ash Ra Tempel.

Andrea, in the early nineties, there were places like Anorak in the eastern part of the city, which later became ausland. There are some parallels between the Zodiak and Anorak: Very little has been preserved or archived. Did what you just describe remind you of the scene at Anorak?

Andrea Neumann (ANN): Partly, partly. Anorak was definitely quite wild. There was music that had no place anywhere else. It was a self-organised space in a squatted house on Dunckerstraße in Prenzlauer Berg. Anorak opened after the reunification. The audience there was very mixed, from homeless people to punks with dogs to people with very intense, aesthetically bizarre approaches to music and theatre. It was all mixed up there. Dogs ran across the stage; people in the audience popped their beer bottles when they were bored. It was very colourful, very crass, super broken. The toilet was always frozen in winter, for example. But at the time, it was perfectly clear: on Sundays you went to  Anorak. The place also attracted the international scene. The singer and composer Shelley Hirsch and percussionist and performance artist David Moss performed there. The only thing I've heard about the Zodiak is that people had sex in the middle of the room. I never experienced that at Anorak.

“Berlin is the city of free improvised music with a reduced approach – surely they know that!” (Andrea Neumann)

In terms of attitude and the core idea, are there also parallels to previous generations?

ANN: We were also quite ignorant. We also though we were inventing something completely new. When you came from Berlin, people would often say, “Ah, Berlin, the city of techno.” And I always thought, Berlin is the city of free improvised music with a reduced approach – surely they know that! Or you were asked about Einstürzende Neubauten and to what extent they had influenced you. To be honest, they weren't such an important influence for me. This ignorance is perhaps also important in order to set oneself apart. When a younger generation enters the scene, they often devalue what came before. For us, it was mainly the energetic free jazz, which was all about playing louder, faster and noisier. We rejected that. We went in the opposite direction by making silence the non plus ultra. At some point, that was an aesthetic decision within this scene, which was also called “Berliner Reduktionismus” [“Berliner reductionism”].

ALH: It's essential that this kind of rebellious energy shows up in creatives time and time again. I also think it's evident that you, Andrea, introduced the term “Echtzeitmusik” [“real-time music”] to describe this scene and used it to title a book. In doing so, you almost consolidated a genre. At least the term gives a direction.

Although Echtzeitmusik is probably more of a non-genre, or post-genre, anti-genre.

ANN: I also find the term problematic. The fact that we introduced it also had to do with a counter-movement. Because, at that time, improvised music was dismissed as something that came from the gut. We wanted to counter this – in terms of music theory. too. At the same time, it is still unclear today which music falls under this term and which does not.

What was the relationship between the old improv and jazz scene in the GDR and the Echtzeit musicians of the early post-reunification period?

ANN: The older generation was very present. From my perspective, they had the say. As is probably often the case, it was not easy for a younger generation to be heard, to be taken seriously. At the same time, the new musical approaches were challenging the old ones. There was some degree of curiosity, including joint sessions and concerts.

“The simple fact that a space is made available with the message that anything can happen there. That alone creates a sort of magnetism.” (Alfred Harth)

However, you can't make money with Echtzeitmusik, similar to the earlier avant-garde music, can you?

ANN: Money is an important point. The non-commercial aspect was part of the whole ideology. To this day, it's a precarious scene, able to survive because of cultural funding in the meantime. In the nineties, it was different. There were these independent spaces in the East that didn't cost anything. You could make a living with very little money, similar to West Berlin in the eighties.

AHC: I would like to take this opportunity to speak up for the underground. It should be clear to everyone how important this radical underground is for the development of culture and society. The Zodiak was totally underground, even if there were maybe a few hundred people standing outside the door. It was a counter-movement. I think it's important that the generations to come are also encouraged to go their own radical ways.

EL: In the beginning, all events in the Zodiak were free of charge. But we also had very few expenses. We didn't spend much on material things, wore second-hand clothes, used old furniture. But I have to say, it was only much later that I was able to pay off all of the equipment there. There were TV sets, appliances and instruments worth 60,000 D-marks [roughly 30,000 euros at the current exchange rate]. I was always putting money into the Zodiak. Without me it might not have existed. As a painter, I had more opportunities to earn money at that time than the musicians. Only in the late days of the Zodiak did Hans-Joachim Roedelius start charging a little entrance fee, so that at least a little money came in through the events.

ANN: I would like to comment on that: When you read about the Zodiak, it's mostly men's names that are mentioned. Music history is often very male. At Anorak, the scene was also male-dominated. The women were usually working at the bar. The men were free to experiment, even if they couldn't play an instrument. They were braver. The women, on the other hand, first had to prove what they were capable of. In this respect, Anorak simply reflected society. A lot has changed in the past 25 years that I've been involved.

ALH: I have been working with the Belgian artist and pianist Nicole Van den Plas since the late sixties. Even then, I noticed that with women, within a free improvising idiom, a completely different sound can emerge. Other parameters come to the fore. We played together at a time when the Feminist Improvising Group with Lindsay Cooper and Irène Schweizer was far from being established. And Wuppertal's jazz culture was a boys' club, often with alcohol as the driving force. As a man, I also had problems with that, because they said that you're a man only if you're a real drinker. Those were such stupid, dumbed-down realities.

Looking back at the Zodiac from the year 2021, what is the defining key idea that has remained?

AHC: The misappropriation. That is, that a space can be used like a theatre, but that something different and possibly less commercially exploitable can also take place there. Places like this are important, allowing radical, unusual, exciting things to happen.

ANN: The value of solidarity. Solidarity in the sense that people want something so badly that they come together and work hard for that goal. I experienced this solidarity in the nineties, and I see it reflected in the Zodiak. The musician and curator Steffi Weismann called one of her collectives “Fernwärme” [“District Heating”]. The term fits well. It's about supporting each other without first thinking about what you get out of it.

EL: I'll answer from a personal perspective: I developed my creativity at the Zodiak because I could do my performances there. And I like to think back to the many influences and the great people and musicians I met. Human Being, as well as Sven-Åke Johansson and Tangerine Dream, who played with us very often.

ALH: The idea of free space. The simple fact that a space is made available with the message that anything can happen there. That alone creates a sort of magnetism. People want to go there. Word gets around. It's very important that something like this is preserved culturally.

Elke Lixfeld, born 1942, is a freelance artist and painter. She curated the programme at Zodiak with the group Human Being. She lives in Berlin and La Palma.

Alfred Harth (aka Alfred 23 Harth), born 1949, is a composer and experimental musician active since the late 1960s. Today he lives in Seoul.

Alexander Hacke, born 1965, is the bassist of Einstürzende Neubauten and works as a solo musician as well as together with his wife Danielle de Picciotto, besides many other projects. He lives in Berlin.

Andrea Neumann, born 1968, is a composer and musician. She studied piano at the Hochschule für Künste and has been making experimental music with the “indoor piano” (an instrument consisting only of soundboard and strings) for many years. She is the co-organiser of the series Labor Sonor. She lives in Berlin.

Freelance writer and journalist Jens Uthoff conducted and edited this conversation on behalf of HAU Hebbel am Ufer. He lives in Berlin and writes for publications such as taz. die tageszeitung, Jungle World, Musikexpress and Literarische Welt.

Translation by Josephinex Ashley Hansis

Photo: Zodiak Free Arts Lab (1967–1969), Hallesches Ufer 32, Berlin (© Detlef Krenz)