“A science of misunderstanding”: Wolfgang Müller on Die Tödliche Doris

The 032c Workshop moved from Berlin’s Kreuzberg area to the Schöneberg neighborhood – the city’s creative center before the Wall fell, the heart of the gay scene since the Weimar Republic, home to Bowie, Bargeld, Isherwood, Kinski, etc. –  in July 2019. Our formal conversation with artist and author Wolfgang Müller began sometime later that year, but his work had been on the radar for a while: Müller co-founded Die Tödliche Doris (“The Deadly Doris”), a chaotic, cross-disciplinary (and cross-dressing) arts collective active in West Berlin in the 1980s, and a historical point of reference for both our fashion design and editorial teams. We’d been thinking of incorporating an homage to the group into our upcoming apparel collection when we learned that their archive, maintained by Müller, was located around the corner from our new office, housed in a shed in a courtyard on Lützowstraße behind the legendary art bar Kumpelnest 3000. 032c Ready-To-Wear creative director Maria Koch reached out and invited Müller to our headquarters, and within a few visits Die Tödliche Doris had become far more than a citation, lending its name, archive, and spirit to our AW20/21 collection – the first we’ve ever designed in collaboration with an artist. I spent time at the Die Tödliche Doris house, getting my head around their absurdist German wordplay and getting to know the faction’s history, its subversive ethos, its radical – and radically playful – amateurism, its defiance of authority and hierarchy, its fluidity and intellectual promiscuity. Die Tödliche Doris circumvents the paradox of the avant-garde: the option to “institutionalize or perish,” in which anti-establishment movements and “-isms” eventually calcify into the commercial or elitist forms they set out to combat, or die. Unlike its post-punk contemporaries, Die Tödliche Doris neither institutionalized nor vanished: a spectral inhabitant of contradiction and between-ness, a figure wholly independent of its individual creators, she is somehow immortal.

Text: Victoria Camblin

Starting with the canon, Die Tödliche Doris is explicitly anti-institutional, but we do see parallels to well-known movements in 20th century avant-garde – to the surrealists, to Dada, to Duchamp. Did you then – or do you now – have a sense of fitting into a kind of art history?

When Nikolaus Utermöhlen and I founded Die Tödliche Doris in 1980, we were of course aware of these movements. We loved modern classics – Alfred Jarry, Kurt Schwitters, Meret Oppenheim, Valeska Gert, Erik Satie, Hannah Höch. But it was because we knew them that we wanted to connect our art with something else – with immediate reality. We found it way too easy to come up with reference to an avant-garde that was long established and still very present. So we were not thrilled when a project like “Fischlabor”, for example, referred explicitly to Dada, or when a festival called itself “Atonal” in 1982, using a long-established term from music history. Like everything else, art always has references, but for me it’s always much more exciting when it emerges from the present and doesn’t carry the baggage of references and role models from the past around like a monstrance.

You created your own vocabulary instead. For example, I am very drawn to the “Siebenköpfige Informator” (“Seven-Headed Informator”), depicted in artwork by Die Tödliche Doris and featured on some of our garments as well. Can you tell me how you got to this character? We’ve described it as an amoeba, which is something that can alter its shape, and that is in the cellular lineage of every animal and every plant. Is that ability to change and that essential nature part of Doris’ character as well?

In all mythologies, seven is found as a “special” number. This starts with Babylonian culture, followed by ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and it continues today. Sometimes seven is a lucky number, sometimes it is unlucky. There are the seven virtues, the seven vices, and the seventh heaven. The number seven is also common in fairy tales. And sometimes there was cheating, so that the number seven would have to come out – with the idea the Seven Seas, for example. This limited infinity seemed to me to be a nice fixed point to allow a pop music personality – Die Tödliche Doris to emerge out of nowhere. And so I was able to grant Doris a life of her own at the same time, one on which I have only limited or no influence.

Can you say more about this idea of “limited infinity”? Some people find restrictions to be very liberating creatively – a structure within which to explore “infinite” possibilities which might not have been arrived at without set limits.

You cannot live without breathing, but if you simply continued to inhale you would die. There is a limit on breathing. So, limitations are always there anyway, even if most boundaries go unnoticed.

I like to think of the “Informator” as a kind of way out of binary thinking – of left and right, right and wrong, true and false – by encouraging a kind of multiplicity.

Meanings and concepts are not static – they are constantly changing. Big, fast changes are currently taking place due to digitization. Concepts are devalued and revalued as their opposite. People cross borders and people set limits. The Informator creates positive things when diversity inspires him and keeps him alive.

Alongside the character of the “Informator” there are also many lyrics in Die Tödliche Doris’ music that deal with information, such as “Stop der Information!” I relate this not just to how we consume information but to a critique of surveillance, as practiced in the GDR and today in the digital realm. In Germany, laws are relatively tight around Internet privacy, but it became apparent with Covid-19 tracking for example that people are still very concerned with who has access to their data. How was Doris responding to this sentiment?

In 1981 there was a plan to carry out a census in the FRG and in West Berlin. And there was a deep-seated distrust of state data collection due to the Nazi era. The census was postponed to 1983, when every FRG citizen was obliged to fill out questionnaires. It struck me that the questions had little to do with the reality of my life. For example, it asked, “How far is your commute to work? What mode of transport do you use to get there?” So, I could show off: getting to work took me somewhere between zero minutes and eight hours, depending on whether I was working at home or giving a concert in New York. Transportation involved walking, biking, trams, subways, buses, planes, and boats. Everything was correct, but also confusing in its thoroughness. My thought at the time was to give as much information as possible in order for my responses to be illegible. The fact that in the GDR the Stasi wrote down and collected every banality of its citizens did not ultimately save the GDR state – on the contrary. Today, large corporations on the Internet are in the process of collecting as much data as possible from potential consumers, but history suggests that even that will fail in the long term. Revolutions always start with stupid questions and humor.

What kinds of stupid questions? And is celebrating them about leveraging the power of anti-rational, anti-intellectual sentiment in the face of authority?

It was actually Joseph Beuys who said that any mundane question can change something completely. On November 9, 1989, at a press conference on new GDR travel law, journalist Riccardo Ehrmann asked cabinet member Günter Schabowski, “when?” His banal question led to the fall of the Wall that night. So stupid questions can have positive effects. In its negative sense, I would associate stupidity with being frozen. But even solidification can make an individual irrational: he is made of crystal, cold, detached from his understanding of his own cosmos.

“Keiner kann’s verstehen,” as your lyrics go – “Nobody can understand it.“ Doris has a complicated relationship to knowledge, to secrecy and transparency. You have said elsewhere that you were interested in making some things visible while masking others – how were you using this tension between revealing and concealing, knowing and not knowing?

When Die Tödliche Doris performed the “Natural Disaster Concert” in front of the Berlin Wall in 1983, the Wall was hidden behind a hill of sand. Behind it, in the documentation, you can see a roof in East Berlin on the left and the top of the St. Thomas Church in West Berlin to the right. East and West Berlin are together, united in one picture. That was a way of making visible through hiding. And we found that hiding something by making it visible is also possible.

“Keiner kann’s verstehen” came out of a conversation with Gunter Trube, a queer deaf activist in West Berlin, who drew my attention to the fact that there are two signs for the word “understand” in German Sign Language (DGS): one for “understand” in the sense of “get it” and one in the sense of acoustic understanding. It’s not about confusion, but about disentanglement. We weren’t interested in the Protestant, Enlightenment ideal of the instructive gesture, but in the possibility of tracking down the diversity of potential levels of understanding and misunderstanding that can occur – and exploring that in a poetic, sometimes “meta” or ironic manner.

German provides a lot of room for nuance and word-building, but it is also a famously rules-based language. Is your exploration of double meanings and use of strange grammar also about resisting the hierarchy and the order associated with German culture?

In his essay on the German language, Mark Twain wondered why we say das Mädchen but die Karotte – why “girl” has a neutral gender pronoun but “carrot” has a female one. I would call questioning hierarchies not resistance, but rather a science of misunderstanding. The results of this research can be poetic and liberating.

If Doris were active today, what contemporary cultural phenomena would she reject? What would make her laugh? What would make her cry?

Information is immortal, and Doris is constantly reforming herself among the possibilities of interpretation at a given time. That adaptability is how Die Tödliche Doris was able to grow from a single-celled amoeba into a band, and later become a wine, an art object, or a sex toy, like she did in 2018, when she came to life through 31 vibrators – or, more precisely, through their sounds and images. I think Doris would laugh and cry at the same time if she were to see individuals using the openness and fluidity of communication available to them today to draw from that exactly its opposite: mannerism and paralysis.

I sometimes think of Die Tödliche Doris as kind of a saint or demigod or orisha, a shape-shifter or trickster-type. But something tells me the group was fiercely secular. Can you talk about your relationship to ritual, even religion? Is there something of a spiritualism – even if it was a cult of humor – in the figure and practice?

Without faith, one cannot exist at all. Doris’ appearances came in the form of happy, silly questions: she was a questioning medium. Think of the work as a séance, in which Doris is the medium who speaks with the deceased and communicates the questions of the dead to their survivors. This practice could actually lead to a humorous sort of spirituality – but often it leads to misunderstandings for participants instead. Similarly, if someone’s great ambition is grossly disproportionate to their talent, then grotesque or banal constructs tend to arise – and if the unconditional belief in one’s own authenticity leads to paralysis, to premature aging, then you end up with tragedy. So many very different people were involved in the formation of the figure and spirit of Doris – and just as many ideas about what and who she was arose. Someone may believe that he or she became a saint or an orisha through participation and want to be admired for it. It’s not great, but it’s also part of it, like the jumps in Duchamp’s large glass (laughs).

I think that there is a renewed interest in spirituality now, with astrology and wellness, and even how we speak about technological evangelism.

The magic of having 300 different liquid soaps to choose from in the drugstore is fading. Instead, the body itself has become more interesting. And with it, the passage of time toward what is in store for everybody: death. When the so-called Spanish flu killed thousands of people, little was known about how it spread. Thanks to digitization, we know immediately what is happening elsewhere and calculate when the virus could reach us. Unfortunately, a person cannot choose which virus to catch. Viruses find their own host. This is how the virus becomes something magical.

In her name and in the imagery, Doris was surrounded with death. You have personally confronted a lot of loss, of collaborators and community members from that time. As a society we seem to be very good at distancing ourselves from death despite its presence around us, and with each technological advancement it seems we are able to pretend to be further away from it than we truly are. Is it important to talk about death?

It’s very important. I think knowing about the existence of the corona virus has made many people more aware that they will eventually die. And they are reminded that they will die alone, individually, even if all their friends and relatives are around. My father’s suicide in 1975 shocked and stunned me – I was just 18 at the time and never expected it. A sentence by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “Death is a scandal!,” became the title of a song by Die Tödliche Doris in 1981. The more conscious you are about your own mortality, the more generously and more wastefully you can live. And that’s the only way to produce that love gas that set the motor in Duchamp’s pataphysical machines in motion!

I am interested in and have studied “headlessness” in art, which I feel was also a theme for Doris. Is this a symbol of anti-rational or anti-hierarchical sentiment?

Yes, the analysis of the hierarchies was a very important area for Doris. The track “Stümmel mir die Sprache” (“Mute my Language”), for example, examines what happens when a hard drum beat is suddenly and seamlessly replaced by a banal-sounding home organ beat, while emotional screams are heard throughout the track. Such concepts gave the music its shape – not just the sound, the tone, but also its manipulative, suggestive power. There is actually a kind of clarification going on.

Someone I admire is Esther Bejarano, who survived Auschwitz, literally playing for her life in the girls’ orchestra. She said that when the people arriving on the trains heard this orchestra playing, they thought, “Well, it can’t get that bad if there’s music playing.” So the music was used to deceive people. Esther Bejarano is still musically active today and a person who, despite the worst experiences, has retained her open, free thinking – and that includes asking questions and distrusting authority.

We’ve seen a lot of pushback against authority and discussions of “freedom” this past year, with people being suspicious of government restrictions, the need to wear masks, and so on. What is “freedom,” anyway, and how were was Doris exploring or questioning that?

In the 80s it seemed like freedom meant finding who you were as an individual in the present. Today the same individuals are fighting bitterly for their position or their pensions. In the Doris album “Reenactment – The Typical Thing,” from 2018, the music is no longer performed by humans, but by 31 autonomous machines. Today I understand much better what Warhol meant when he said, “I want to be a machine!” Happily, though, band member Tabea Blumenschein was able to take part in the 2018 project.

Speaking of “reenactment,” Nietzsche has been coming up a lot for me lately – the idea of eternal recurrence which seems to have sped up, but also this nihilism that is coming up on both sides of the political spectrum. Nietzsche also said that the greatest threat to freedom is the liberal institution. It there a bit of Nietzsche in Doris?

Gilles Deleuze once put it nicely in his Merve reader: “Anyone who reads Nietzsche without laughing, without laughing a lot, without laughing often and sometimes like crazy, it is as if he was not reading Nietzsche.” So there remains a lot of joy and fun.

And speaking of leisure, you mentioned Duchamp’s Large Glass, which the artist took almost a decade to make. That gestation period can be interpreted as an interrogation of both time and labor. I think it is also relevant today, as our conceptions of time and productivity have been highlighted in the past year, with work feeling somehow circular, not linear. How does Doris relate to time – or perhaps, to wasting it?

The phenomenon of time has always interested me very much. Can you use time as an artistic material? The invisible LP No. 5 from Die Tödliche Doris was such a work of art. It was created from two vinyl records as an invisible, moving sculpture based on simultaneity and a given time structure. The moods and the trends of the time played a role in the release dates of the two different vinyls – trends must be considered, just as they would play into the idea and release of a fashion collection.

In a project from 2008, “Séance Vocibus Avium”– conceived as a séance resurrecting extinct bird species through reconstructing their songs – time is not linear. What has passed enters the present, where it then has a tragicomic effect.

Are you still using time as artistic material?

I use materials such as sound, time, ideas, and movement to create what I think of as ethereal light structures. They can be easily transported anywhere, plus I don’t need an expensive studio. The less dependencies artists have, the greater their freedom.

  • Text
    Victoria Camblin

Related Content

  • In Memoriam: TABEA BLUMENSCHEIN (August 11, 1952 – March 2, 2020)

    This week marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Tabea Blumenschein, maven and muse of the West Berlin artistic underground. In the following obituary, originally published last year in the German daily newspaper taz, Wolfgang Müller – artist, author, chronicler of the West Berlin subculture, and our creative partner for the 032c RTW Spring/Summer 2021 collection – bids farewell to his collaborator in Die Tödliche Doris from 1982 to 1987, and his friend until the end. More
  • Deeper