Michael Wertmüller | © Francesca Pfeffer

Linear progress doesn’t get a good press these days. Anyone who believes in linear progress only ever looks at one parameter and not the complex network within which advances along that specific parameter – mostly numerical, quantifiable increases (in output, speed, capacity) – can be described. Even a secondary plus enhanced with reflective dimensions – increased complexity, precision etc. – is seen as unidimensional success, seemingly based on forgetting – or, even worse, ignoring – the particular environment of that particular system. However, an often naive faith in linear development was often the starting point for avant-garde thinking, whose focus soon shifted (or increased) from measurable criteria of expansion (faster, louder) to necessarily controversial, socio-cultural ones (more radical, more political, more transgressive). Outdoing is a mode of artistic thinking that is now completely overshadowed by other notions of development, realisation and the production of knowledge, but which, in being repressed, also contains a moment of lack of fulfilment. What actually happens of interest when something (or someone) outdoes and surpasses something else (or someone else)? Apart from measurable competition, patriarchal rivalry and acute aggression? Isn’t the moment in which I am faster and louder in a specific discipline than someone else who practises that discipline also a moment of revelation? Only when someone runs faster than someone else does something become clear about running.

That’s one thing. We’ll come to the other one later. Michael Wertmüller is genuinely an outdoer in a way we’ve not seen for a long time. Whether as a composer, musician (percussionist) or theatremaker: he thinks of accelerations, accumulations and extensions that others don’t come up with. Or do they? In recent years, there has actually been a boom of outdoing in all time-based art forms: productions by Frank Castorf and Vegard Vinge in terms of length; extreme brevity with René Pollesch// the shortest pieces of music in the world in the field of Death Metal, since Napalm Death got the competition started in the late 80s with »You Suffer«, (0:02),// the longest piece of music by Terre Thaemlitz, taking up an entire 30 MB USB stick; plus various longest films of all time from Argentina, Thailand, Malaysia and Hungary). But mostly, this had to do with exploring or critiquing new formats that had emerged under digital conditions and attention economies and rather than the unchained outdoing of historical avant-gardes or the objectives of politicised arts of liberation of the 1960s or with the excesses of over-determination of the cybernetic experimental arts in the 50s and 60s. The last of these comes closest to an approximate connection with Wertmüller’s project.

Wertmüller plans the seven »dimensions« of this music theatre work, based on texts by Rainald Goetz and images by Albert Oehlen (space, time, structure, movement, morphing speed, coordination of holographs/live music and direction), by writing them down as the multiplication of a variable number of parameters by a variable number of elements by 13 sculptures. His term for these multiplications is »coding«. Its derivation indicates its conceptual provenance in a tradition of conceptualism incorporating complexity that comes more from new music than from the visual arts or the theatre, in which serialist and post-serialist music began and included phenomena such as the »cybernetic« music theatre of Nicolas Schöffer and Pierre Henry (Kyldex I, 1974) or multi-dimensional meta-operas featuring numerous orchestras and live electronics (such as Luigi Nono’s Prometeo [1981/1985] and also various versions of/stations within Stockhausen’s Sieben Tagen) to finally emerge at Wertmüller’s project D•I•E, which no longer restricts the diversification of parameters to practices, media, sound sources and abandoning the symbolic dimensions of theatre situations (frontality, the fourth wall, etc.) but now also expands the social and cultural specificity of its musical languages.

What is noticeable here first of all is a paradox: outdoing by increasing the parameters of the work over which control has been released leads away from the linearity that it would at first appear to obey and out into dimensions that reference each other. The notion of increased complexity or other meta-linear descriptions of increase have little traction because – and this is the other thing – increasing complexity and outdoing in the sense described above are not compatible, but they do coincide here. How come?

It is not initially the fabric of movements and operations that have been initiated that creates the impression of outdoing but what happens within those individual operations. The rapper, singer, band and score are all working independently – something I can only extrapolate for D•I•E from the information available about its as-yet incomplete development, but I am familiar with this from earlier works by the same artist – and will be or are intrinsically or independently louder, more drastic, faster, more complicated, more intense. If, by contrast, they collide and are fenced in by codings, then they tend to lose these obvious qualities and attractions: at least in the audience’s perception, because its attention is now on the broader context. Only this outcome, which is reliably accustomed to occurring in classical so-called Gesamtkunstwerke (Total works of art), does not also occur permanently with Wertmüller, as I have experienced his work hitherto: the choice of participating personnel representing genres, traditions, social forms and media is arranged, that the internal logic of their respective practices is not only familiar with forms of outdoing and radicality that easily acquire a momentum of their own (volume, speed, physical effort) but also the notion of increase in the forms that they represent first of all needs to asocialise itself before eventually being able to socialise itself again. Here, asociality cannot be valued in the same way as dissonance or dissent; it does not differ within a given system of potential agreement in a condition of non-agreement, but instead it considers any such agreement to be impossible.

How do the starting points for these paths behave: Rainald Goetz and Albert Oehlen devised a book together (D.I.E. – Abstract Reality¹) with texts or poems and pictures, i.e. illustrations, drawings, which was published in 2010. Goetz’s poems cannot be pinned down to themes, positions or content of any particular kind; however (or precisely because of this), they do contain numerous concrete details that approximate to proper names (»oil magnate«, »lothario«, »turbo«, »madonna«): the sort of concrete detail that the mass media manufacture by frequently applying a term to a specific person or thing. The texts nevertheless include a larger number of words that are more general (»pile«, »night«, »high«) or evasive (»that guy there«, »her«), so that they constantly seem to be swaying on a tightrope between definition and limiting definition. Oehlen’s drawings can be seen as three types of signs in keeping with Charles Sanders Peirce: as icons (these look similar to a figure that is usually, but not always, abstract), as indices (these refer, tracker-like, to a special physical presence of the artist) and as symbols (these can be understood as signs in dance notation). The connection between texts and images has a similar tension: is it an unfounded gesture into nothingness that is evidence of nothing other than the decision of the two authors and therefore bears the special authority of creatio ex nihilo? Or is this a joint effort to approach a previously stipulated subject, which is known only to the two of them, in the provisional form of a theme, a project, an objective?

This source, presenting itself as notation, which is extremely open and yet bound to words like »madhouse« or »workshop«, to be ignored as a score and yet overprecise as drawings, approaches music theatre not by interpreting it and losing itself in possible semantics, which it then translates back again, but instead lets all the parts – Wertmüller’s preparatory work, his musical-artistic memory, true and intended semantics, reading the script as an act of speaking, appeal, judgement, score – explode in all directions as a result of their highly pre-determined musical and performative dynamics that have been exacerbated by social conditions, routines and traditions of reception and production, leaving it up to the audience, which is deeply torn as to whether it succeeds in establishing a systemic or anti-systemic context – or whether it is also slyly surprised by it in an unexpected moment. At the same, time rap is still rap, jazz is still jazz and »madhouse« and »workshop« are still »madhouse« and »workshop«. How it sings and laughs.


On 21 April 2008, DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN publishes an article about Michael Wertmüller in the Berliner Zeitung. The reader Rainald Goetz writes about this in his blog: »Don’t come out into the open!, shouted the headline on the front page of the culture section, with rather hölderlinesque inspiration but emphatically inverted into the present: throw yourself into an undecipherable process! Every line of the article contained a piece of information I’d never heard anything about before and everything sounded like I would very much want to know something about it immediately.« Diedrich Diederichsen is a companion, critic and friend of Albert Oehlen, Rainald Goetz and Michael Wertmüller. The painter, the author and the composer are involved in his writing and thinking about their work. Since the 80s, he has made a name for himself as a theoretician of pop music, politics and the latest art. He has taught at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna since 2006 and lives in Berlin and Vienna.

¹ Albert Oehlen and Rainald Goetz, D•I•E, Artist book, Berlin 2010.

Translation: David Tushingham