Interview: Peter Kubelka
In the beginning there was energy, matter, and light. But the most important element in human evolution could have been the kiss of fire that propelled human evolution forward and set the stage for the mother of all arts: cooking. Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka talks to Asad Raza about a life in film and how the art of cooking isn’t hard to master.
Peter Kubelka: So, shall we talk about something?
Asad Raza: [Laughs] Let’s talk about something. What was it that attracted you to cinema? Because it’s clear that you made a profound connection to it at a young age.
PK That is very simple, though it took me a while, in my later years to understand: it was not really films, it was the event of seeing a film in a completely dark room, a white screen with movement and sound coming from it, and many people in this room sharing this event. When I first encountered cinema, it was love at first sight. I grew up in a little village in Austria, and these were the years where there was no international connection – I was born in ’34, and it was the beginning of the Nazi times – and I was playing on the street and with other boys and suddenly someone came and said that in the Gasthaus Mayer, the village inn, there was a film being shown, right then, and I had never seen a film, so I ran there, and I came late and the huge doors to the common room were closed. I opened them, it was dark inside, and in front of me were the behinds, the voluminous behinds, of these peasant women, and they were all silent. You could feel the tension, and I did not see the screen at first. I slowly made my way towards it, and then what I saw, was, as I later found out, a publicity film for Dr. Oetker’s vanilla pudding. And you saw people preparing this pudding, and in a northern German accent, which for me was absolutely foreign. They would tell you how this pudding was made, and this event profoundly impressed me. I think it is typical for what I did later because I wanted to explore cinema as an event, to get towards its essence, and this is what I did.
AR It’s as if you were entranced by the format itself, rather than the content of a particular film.
PK Yes, because in my youth I only saw bad films, commercial films, but I had an education in music – my father was a musician, and he was almost never there because he was travelling with his music. It was a strange marriage because my mother was more connected to the region and my grandmother lived in the countryside and my aunt was a teacher there. So my world was, from the beginning, a split one: I was between the peasant boys, the peasant milieu with whom I played, and the milieu of the educated household of my aunt, who also spoke French and English. I also started to read early on, and so my thoughts on cinema were guided by my formation as a musician and as a literary, interested young person.
AR So your father was a musician and your mother had a literary background?
PK No, the literary background was my aunt who was the teacher. My mother was interested too, she would read poetry, but she worked as a physician’s assistant, because her dream was to become a doctor and she was not able to because of the nancial situation; so she did that, and later she became a kind of social helper. She was a very intelligent and very wonderful person and I owe most of my inner security to her, because she always supported me. She didn’t have the money, but she supported me with her belief in what I did, although she didn’t understand it.
AR It takes courage to do such radical experimentation on a format as you were doing early in your cinema career.
PK Yeah, absolutely. Because what is today a university discipline, namely independent cinema and free creation in this medium, did not even exist in name, and in concept not at all. And that made me in a way a guerrilla, because I was forced to steal my films out of commissions, which I then didn’t do as the clients wanted me to, but I gave them something better, which they did not want.
AR I guess that’s how it goes when you do something actually new! Another topic that I am fascinated by, and that you are a pioneer of, is the idea of despecialisation, the idea that maybe, to be a human being in a fuller sense means not necessarily specialising in only one very specific form of labour.
PK Yes, absolutely. In fact, I was always despecialised in the sense that, in the first place, I was brazenly curious. I would follow my curiosities no matter what others said. And when I started with cinema, after secondary school, I dedicated myself day and night to cinema for approximately fifteen years, and I made my first films, carrying the strips in my pockets, working with scissors and glue, bare hands and bare eyes. I had no money and my poverty, in fact, was a very important factor in shaping the essence of my work. There were no technical means, like an editing table, projection facilities etc., which already suggest the “usual” solutions. I worked frame by frame, considering every twenty-fourth of a second. In those years I really thought of myself as film, and in fact, film shaped my way of thinking. I understood from film what metaphor was, metaphor in the Greek sense, metaphorá, to bring something somewhere, which means: you bring two thoughts together, or two concepts together, and the receiver contemplates them side by side, and there you speak. This principle governs all media. In music, it’s the interval: two tones is music – one is not enough. In language, it’s the space between the words. In painting it’s the relationship of forms to each other. In cooking, and this I found out later, it’s when you combine two ingredients in your mouth, two tastes, two consistencies, two elements of different provenance, etc. You read food with your mouth, not with your eyes. You eat in bites, like the projector feeds you frame by frame. Articulation happens between sensations.
AR Despecialisation also comes through in your interest in cooking and in your use of cooking as almost an artistic practice.
PK Yeah. Please, there’s one important point, you must omit the word “almost”.
AR Okay, yes, we can omit the word “almost”.
PK Because cooking is an absolute artistic medium. It is a form of art, and not only that, it is the oldest form of art. It is the mother of all arts, so to speak. It is the mother of all intelligent thinking. It is the mother of philosophy. It’s the mother of physics. It’s the mother of chemistry. It is the mother of communica- tion. You start communicating by feeding oth- ers. Cooking goes back to the primeval process of having to nourish yourself in order not to die, and to prepare what you ingest before you take it in. And this is a constant process, this preparing of our food is not something that the human species invented – every species, from the first amoeba on, tried to influence the universe in their favour. This is what we also do. The cows cook. I mean the word cook, of course, not in the sense of heating something up. Cooking is preparing, adapting in our favour. So, the cow does not eat all the time like a lawnmower, the cow eats only under certain conditions, when the weather is right. It would not eat in screaming rain because then things are too wet. And so there is absolutely the process of choosing when and what to eat, the capacity of planning ahead. One example comes from Jane Goodall's research on chimpanzees, which proves that chimpanzees cook. It goes like this: a chimpanzee finds an egg, but he does not immediately eat it but transports it in his underlip (this is their pouch to transport things), until he finds a place where a certain grass is growing. He takes out the eggs and he takes some grass and chews it. Then he takes the egg, sucks up the egg and swallows the mixture of grass juice and egg. Then he spits out the emptied grass and throuws away the egg shell! This act is the absolutely perfect definition of cooking, of preparing a recipe. You have to have imagination, you have to have a plan of action and you have to have the power to get what you plan to cook. Cooking testifies to your situation in the universe.
AR I often think about how very simple meals we prepare for ourselves reflect a whole order of life – the way that if you have, let’s say a fried egg and toast, you’re really doing something that relates directly to the land, to farming. It’s a grammar that relates to the whole history of human civilisation.
PK Of course, everything you do is linked to the big bang, the beginning, as one of the pre-Socratic philosophers says. Their messages were of great importance for me. I love especially the “cinematographer” Heraclitus, who said that everything flows and everything changes constantly. Another one of them said nature hides things and you have to uncover them to read what they are to you.
Philosophy still hopes in the power of language to discover new things. That’s not the case.
AR Absolutely. These days I’m spending time with apes, with primates, in Leipzig at the Max Planck Institute. It brought to mind yet another topic that’s strong in your work, which is ethnography, or observation of culture.
PK Of course. I mean, ethnography, ethnology, archaeology, and since you follow ethnology you will be aware of the ridiculous quarrels that the ethnologists and the archaeologists have, instead of working together because they need each other. But anyway, these two occupations are very, very important but what is less important is philosophy, because philosophy still hopes in the power of language to discover new things. That’s not the case. Most of the recent philosophers perpetuate an anthropocentric position, like for example Heidegger, who muses about subtle meanings of das Sein. [The zoologist] Konrad Lorenz is much more important. Everybody should read On Aggression (1963).
AR That reminds me of something that I wanted to ask about: I was intrigued that you have this judo practice. I believe at one point you were the champion of New York State in judo?
PK Not the overall champion, YMCA champion. But I was quite good, and judo already fascinated me in my youth as a concept I heard of very briefly when I was maybe six or seven years old, and there was no possibility at all to practice. I had heard that you do not try to overpower your opponent but you use the power of your opponent to make him fall by, let’s say, putting an obstacle in a movement which he wants to make. If he has already displaced his weight and cannot set down his foot, he will fall. So, this is what I had heard, and then doing judo became my wish, but it was many years before I could start, in fact I was eighteen before I really started, very late, when I came to Vienna. And, I mean, from my youth I was interested in my body, I was very much at home in water, I was at home climbing trees, only later I found out about my primate past. I loved to move in trees, and I developed a technique of running in trees, especially linden trees. I was very fast and I slept in the crown of the tree. I used to lie on these tiny branches and sleep. Of course you can do this only when you are about ten years old or so. And there I became friends with the wasps. Wasps are one of my animal friends. Not so much the bees, they are too efficiency minded, they only work and kill, but the wasps, they are vagabonds. When I slept in these crowns of trees in the summer, many wasps came, hundreds of them, they were swarming around and none of them ever hurt me. I used to hold out my hand and they’d sit on it. I compared myself to St. Francis. And then I found out later that when they come and steal something from your plate in autumn, they act like they are drunk, and in fact they are drunkards, and here we have another case of animals cooking: they make alcohol themselves. They find single grapes and open them up, and the grapes start to ferment inside, and their skin acts like a barrel. It protects the inside, and so inside these grapes you have alcohol, and the wasps know the grapes they have treated and come back and get royally drunk. So, this is another example of how we are nothing but one animal species among the others, and everybody who makes this religious border between animal and human cannot really think about the world. These people have to live with a handicap.
AR They’re trapped in a false metaphysics.
PK Exactly. It’s a barrier they cannot transgress. There are many animals that make alcohol by the way. Elephants shake a mango tree, and then trample on the fruits, and wait until it ferments before they come back and get incredibly drunk. When I made Unsere Afrikareise (Our trip to Africa, 1966) an elephant was supposed to be killed, because he had destroyed a whole village. It’s fantastic, it’s wonderful: he was completely drunk and he trundled through the village and damaged the huts. Fortunately, they didn’t catch him.
AR About your collection, you showed me the spoon but I’m aware you have this collection of many different objects and tools. Where did that start?
PK Well, I know exactly where and when the collection itself started. It was in 1974, and it was in France, and I was there with my wife at the time, Friedl, and we saw a mineral collector selling some of his stones, and he showed us this. It’s two cubes intersecting.
AR Two mirrored cubes.
PK Well, they are so black they mirror. The material is called pyrite, and they are crystals and they grow like this.
AR Oh wow, that’s incredible.
PK By the way, since you’re so interested in cooking, I would like to point out the importance of cooking, with two different examples. One is directed towards the research into evolution: it is clear that the classic forms of artistic articulation such as painting, sculpture, music, and literature lead us into the past of humanity, and we can learn to understand how life was in different periods of the past. Painting leads us back, as we have already said, forty thousand years. Sculpture leads us back several hundred thousand years. But cooking, if we acknowledge cooking as an articulatory discipline, is the missing link, leading us back beyond the beginning of mankind. The first stone tools, which evidently were used to prepare food, are over three million years old. Cooking reaches back to a time of which we have no other testimonials. Therefore it is so important to acknowledge cooking as an articulatory discipline, not just as a nutritional discipline, and this is what the sciences like ethnology and archaeology still completely ignore.
The other example of the value of cooking is its potential for the contemporary individual. The human animal essentially depends on the sensation of being successful, of having done something successful to preserve one’s own life, you see: that you do something which gives you life for the future. Now, today, the professions with which people make their living are so far away from immediate success that it creates severe problems. When you work in a bank, and you just touch sheets of paper, even if you are the director, you go home in the evening and you have no direct feeling of success. When you prepare a good meal, you get the feeling that you have done something for your own survival to the next day. The next day depends on what you eat today, and when you prepare your food yourself, with all your love, you get the archaic sensation of having saved your own life and that of the people you feed.
So, since I am convinced that cooking is an art form, I say also that every household where someone cooks houses an artist. If you have a family where somebody cooks, you have a family with a full-grown artist. And the other thing, another erroneous belief that the modernists have, is that time spent cooking is wasted – they always say you cook for five hours and you eat it in five minutes, and that this is a waste of time. The opposite is the case! The time you spend cooking is the most valuable work time that you can have in your life, it is as good as playing the violin or painting a painting or singing. Cooking encompasses all your capabilities of working with fast time and slow time. When you think of the tensions between brown butter and an air-dried cheese, which you patiently have to care for and live with for two years. But when you brown butter you have to stand by the stove with it and feel it and watch it meet the heat. You have to know how thick your pan is, how strong your fire is, and at the right time, in a split second, you have to lift your butter away – if you hesitate, it will be burnt. But when you do it right, you will create a work that contemplates and cel- ebrates the advantageous meeting of mother’s milk with fire. Incredibly, the poetry of handling the universe is accessed through cooking.
I am convinced that cooking is an art form.
If you have a family where somebody cooks, you have a family with a full-grown artist.
PETER KUBELKA was born in 1934 in Vienna, where he currently lives.
ASAD RAZA is an artist and curator, based in Berlin.