A Conversation between Henning Fehr, Philipp Rühr and András Szántó


A Conversation between Henning Fehr, Philipp Rühr and András Szántó

Let’s start at the beginning. What is a “cultural loop” and how did you become interested in the subject?

Initially, we became interested in the loop through Dub-Music. The loop is a defining characteristic of this music, which is produced with a mixer—unlike Reggae music, which is still an instrumental form of music. Another difference between these two kinds of music is a structural one: while Reggae songs consist of verses and a chorus, Dub music puts less emphasis on the vocals and works much more with disappearing and reappearing soundscapes and reverberating vocals.

Some historians say that Dub music broke up the linear form of Reggae music by using loops and other effects. This is exactly the aspect about which we did our first interview for the film, with the ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal. His theory is that Dub music helped people in Jamaica write a different, non-linear history for themselves. This idea was new and radical at the time, as older forms of music, like Rock-Steady, still told the history of the African diaspora in a linear form.

Of course these developments in Jamaican music were hugely influential to international popular music. So if you ask about cultural loops one could maybe answer your question by saying: if someone writes a book about something, there will probably be people reading it in ten years, and they will still be working with the ideas expressed in that book.

Some people like every-day routine and to meet the same people again and again—they like to revisit places. Others wake up in the morning and feel very different each day. A loop can be interpreted as something good or bad. If you look at works by Bruce Nauman, he probably saw a darker side. But a loop, according to one basic definition, means to experience the same thing over and over again, yet after a while to experience it differently. So, one could wonder, for example, what people think about when they take the train or their bicycle to work every morning.

You have decided to engage with two instances of cultural loops—two very different ones, which could not be any further in distance and form from each other. How does Rem Koolhaas’ iconic Beijing tower connect to Dub music?

One could joke that there are recording and studio devices in both “buildings.” But more seriously, Rem Koolhaas’ and his colleagues have a patent on the shape and structure of the CCTV building. They call it the “Looped Skyscraper.” It actually has the shape of a loop.

We intuitively made this connection and thought of a story that Rem once told a group of his students. After the building was finished, he flew to Beijing and visited every single room himself. This brings us back to the topic of cultural memory and the way it can be passed on orally. And this again loops back to Dub music, because it is a music that is part of an oral culture.

If I understand you, you are interested in culture’s potential to assert control over or at least somehow rebalance history. And it’s fair to say, this aspiration is true of much art.

Of course, if you seriously look into Dub music and all the different kinds of music that came out of it, you will at several points have to face the fact that Dancehall culture in Jamaica is largely a homophobic culture, however interesting and radical the dance-floor performances may be. In a few places, like Vancouver and New York, some people have begun to change this.

Take for example TYGAPAW, a musician from New York who has been organizing queer dancehall parties in New York for some years. By featuring her in the film, we want to show how Dancehall, which comes out of Dub Music and other, younger kinds of music, is able to change as long as people are willing to work on it. Of course there is a utopian side to this. By showing this utopian side as a hard fact in the film, we try to show what could actually be possible in terms of keeping a lineage of music politically valid today.

Film, your preferred medium, has a particularly strong power to shape people’s perceptions of the past. Many people have a mental image of history based on films they have seen. Is this something you think about?

There is broad cultural phalanx which influences our mental images of the history and the past and it’s not only films. But yes, there a many people coming from a time when film, television, and the movies were the most influential media producing the narrative. It’s always interesting to see if one sticks with the early influences—which are mainly gained in our youth—or if we are willing to add a second, third, and fourth layer to influence ourselves and to put those earlier influences into context.

Were there other examples of similar “loop” phenomena that came to your mind before you settled on these two cases?

We can’t really remember exactly right now, but we used to have lengthy discussions about what exactly a loop may be and what makes it different from a ring. We came to the conclusion that rings have the ability to drive people crazy.

If you really want to name an example of a ring—one which appears to have once been a ring and has now actuallly turned into loop—take a look at the new headquarters of Apple. Or, of course, there is the Pentagon. Another, more engaging example is that of Hakka-Architecture in China. These are round buildings that housed several families. Some of the Hakka people immigrated to Jamaica, but to our knowledge there are no examples of this Chinese kind of architecture in Jamaica.

When you first started thinking of this journey, how did you conceive of it? What did you set out to do? How did the idea even come to you?

We have been working on films about music for two or three years now. Over the course of this time, we became in interested in Dub music, which historically is immensely important for any kind of electronic music. And also we became interested in how music relates to architecture. Slowly, this came together in the project, which requires travels to China and Jamaica.

What do you think is going to be the most challenging thing about these trips?

Some of the topics we are interested in are very much connected to a history of imperialism and post-colonialism. We hope to be as sensitive and specific in our inquiries as these topics deserve. It is tempting to point one’s camera at interesting situations, and mistakes can be made very easily.

Can you describe your process of gathering information and filming? My sense of the work is that you shoot tons of material, then carefully edit until you arrive at a place that seems right. Is this true?

In many situations, there is only time for limited filming, because the musicians are not performing for a second time. The additional time we gain from that is usually spent on gathering some other material. In a way, it is a distanced process, because we collect a lot of footage—sometimes hundreds of hours—without actually knowing what we’re aiming for.

After that we spend days or weeks of just going through the material, reflecting on it and sorting it out, little by little. Ideally, we end up with something that seems representational of the depicted situations and that fits the bigger picture of the film. So it’s kind of a distanced, reductive process that involves a lot of time.

The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu famously said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” I believe your films similarly have this quality of being open to experience, of not wanting to bend reality to a preexisting narrative. How much can you plan such an experience. How much room do you leave for the unexpected?

The philosopher Lao-Tzu was a wise man, but we truly think having more than one mantra increases the possibility to have a full-blown trip. Here is another one, by Tennessee Williams: “All my life I have depended on the kindness of strangers.”

What do you see emerging from these encounters and how will the research Inform a new body of work? What forms will that take?

We are very much looking forward to meeting some of the musicians who were featured on the records of the German project Rhythm and Sound. They spent a lot of time making music during their life, and even though the Rhythm and Sound records are well known internationally, some of these musicians are not particularly recognized in Germany. We became very curious about finding out about them. We hope to share some of what they are going to tell us with whoever is interested.