Emil Schult at the Reading Fringe (2017)

This year the Reading Fringe festival ‘celebrates 10 years of friendship’ with it’s twin city Düsseldorf; having invited several high profile artists to come over, perform and talk about their work. Düsseldorf is located within the German Rhineland; an area that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw rapid industrialisation and occupation, totalitarian tyranny and devastating bombardment. Images like these however do tend to obscure the fact that in the Postwar period, Düsseldorf was one of the settings for a creative reimagining of a Germany still reeling from defeat in the Second World War. This was something that those who grew up in the ruins of that most terrible conflict sought to build upon. Many were young, talented and filled with a conviction that placed great faith in the future by learning from the lessons of the past.

Emil Schult had originally come to Düsseldorf from Dessau, via Münster, where his studies had been interrupted amid the student politics of the late sixties. This actually put him in the epicentre of a flourishing cultural climate and in contact with arguably some of the most significant figures of the century.

Schult’s stellar career spans over five decades as an artist working in many areas of sound and vision. He has collaborated with a host of different individuals, including Kraftwerk, who lived and worked in the city at the same time. Schult contributed to the group in many ways, creating the iconic sleeve artwork and graphics that established their signature style, as well contributing to their music early on. He co wrote lyrics for some of their finest tracks, including ‘Autobahn’, ‘Radioactivity’ and the huge hit ‘The Model’. One particularly memorable anecdote from his Friday evening conversation with Fiona Talkington at Reading Waterstone’s recalled the fascination a Japanese audience exhibited when seeing for the first time the portable little box used to make the bleeps on ‘Pocket Calculator’ (another of his co-written lyrics). Another memory he shared was of his meeting, whilst working in America, with Steve Jobs (and presumably Steve Wozniak) as they worked in their garage to produce an early Apple Computer. Schult was a great raconteur that night, demonstrating an easy charm as well as plenty of that aforementioned conviction and faith in the future, when talking about a broad range of subjects. He connected the long term progress of the human species to artistic evolution, hand in hand with responsible technological development and ecology. Much of his thinking seemed to touch on aspects of Transhumanism and I for one could have listened to him for far longer. Schult was patient with his audience as well, staying around to talk with fans after the show.

The artist’s wide ranging interests and musical knowledge were also in evidence during Saturday evenings’ performance at South Street Arts Centre. At one point, he said with a smile ‘Electronic music can be difficult’, to which the assembled crowd laughed. All the same, I found the compositions played that night to be pretty accessible. I suppose it depends on what you’re used to.

Each piece of music was introduced and explained, after which Schult disappeared behind a screen in the foreground that presented both himself and his musical collaborator Emma Nilsson, sat down on either side of her Theremin. They were then to be seen in silhouette against a constantly changing digital collage of fragmentary imagery, recalling psychedelia or 90s dance music, but composed of what I assumed to be pictures selected from the internet that touch on appropriate themes. The larger background screen showed similar imagery. Together each screen worked relation to the other and with the music, so as to create a richly layered multimedia experience. Both musicians appeared in sharp profile. Schult looked pensive and still over his laptop, with Nilsson elegant and occasionally animated playing her instrument. To my eyes, a scene that resembled the graphical nature of Schult’s early Kraftwerk cover art.

‘Going to Reading’ was the first piece performed. It was created by Schult as a tribute to the driving force behind Rhinebuzz, a cultural platform for the international community in Düsseldorf. Caroline West, who hailed from nearby Bracknell, had originally intended to bring acts from her adopted city for the Reading Fringe herself, but sadly passed away earlier this year in March. The dense electronic music was richly varied and related to the visual projections, with several of the sounds evocative of earlier eras. Giving the piece a retro dimension I thought.

The performance included two works that were dedicated to American composer Charles Ives. Amid the first beautiful version of ‘The Unanswered Question’, there were images that rapidly flashed across the screen, and questions beginning with ”Who am I?’ and ending as ‘Are We One?’. The other piece was called ‘Universe’ and was played last. Both were presented as multimedia assaults on the senses recalling the Gesamtkunstwerk and seemed to be designed to encourage the viewer to question the nature of their relationship to the world.

Emil Shult was at the forefront of the radical student protests at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf in the late 60s. Here, one of his teachers was that mischievous artistic visionary Joseph Beuys, who had established the Free International University and famously proclaimed ‘Everyone’s an artist’. Beuy’s fascinating work and legacy may continue to divide opinion 30 years after his death. Yet his influence on modern Germany, although not directly apparent, is hard to overestimate in ecological and cultural terms. Simply put, one of Beuy’s aims was to try to heal the wounds of postwar Germany through artworks, installations, lectures and so called ‘Actions’. These symbolically explored the themes of German history and myth, using a range of unorthodox methods and materials. Most famously felt and fat. He was also a founder member of the German Green Party and in a similar way, Schult shares Beuy’s passionate concern for the condition and fate of our planet.

Schult showed us his home movies of Beuys, seen on his bike or with a hamster scampering about on his famous hat; whilst organising an artistic happening outside the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he was a teacher and much else besides. Beuys was never a man to take himself too seriously and when I asked about him, Schult fondly recalls that he wasn’t exactly the ‘Shaman’ character of popular myth. But a much more human figure. Also in this film could be seen performance artist James Lee Byars.

Schult and Nilsson also performed Dutch composer Henk Bading’s piece ‘Evolutions’. It’s complex but engaging soundscape was something I hadn’t heard before and the obvious source of many great 1970s SciFi film scores. It seemed to possess its own humour amid the varied electronic sounds, which resembled machines in conversation or in some way succumbing to a state of entropy. Herbert Eimert’s work too was something else the duo performed and introduced me to for the first time. More muted than the previous composition, it’s almost random progression (at least to my uninitiated ears) was something I kept wanting to hear long after the performance was over.

The penultimate performance of the evening was a rather playful if menacing composition, especially written by fellow occupant of the Rhineland Karlheinz Stockhousen. Together projected with images of a meditational retreat that Shult had worked on in Düsseldorf. He was particularly keen to impress upon the audience the significance of the gold in the design (there was quite a lot of it)l in fact on both nights he made reference to the substance; something earlier used by Beuys in a context of symbolic purification.

In conclusion, Emma Nilsson’s Theremin (a notoriously difficult instrument to master) was a real pleasure to listen to. Also, I think it fair to say the supporting team that allowed for Schult and Nilsson’s performances must take some credit for its success. On a different point, during both evenings, Emil Schult presented his vivid coloured reverse glass paintings, depicting figures of significance in his worldview. Although he occasionally referred to these, I would have personally liked to hear more about them.

Finally, I felt many of the concerns voiced by the artist on both nights recalled the statement at the beginning of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’: ‘The Meditator between head and the hands must be the heart’. Schult was a participant in the art school protests of the late 60s, who thankfully appears to retain a healthy disrespect of authority. I suspect that by carrying on performing and talking about his belief in the potential of other human beings, Emil Schult will continue to challenge his audience to think a little differently.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017