(The Never Ending) Operetta




When sometime in the eighties, Jack Smith, the legendary artist and filmmaker, shortly before his death heard Kantor sing in the New York, Tompkins Square Park predicted that: “Your fate is to become an operetta singer.” Maybe operetta singing was not Kantor’s greatest wish; nonetheless, music has always been an integral part of his artistic oeuvre. Besides the fact that from the eighties on he produced four major albums, in his video works he is constantly experimenting with distinct musical forms. The video performance from 1987 entitled Bagdata, performed at the Documenta 8 in Kassel employed several song inserts and dialogs, his Black Flag video from 1998 is based on a (hit)song, and in the same vein, his feature video from 2006, The Blood of Many Filmmakers, and his retrospect video exhibition, Song and Sex are mostly based on musical elements.

(The Never Ending) Operetta is Istvan Kantor’s semi fictive biography narrated through a series of songs, and plundered, or abstracted imagery. What we encounter here is an ironic, neo Brechtian musical comedy that introduces us to a noisy, dusty and foul smelling industrial environment where conflict instantly arises, as soon as the real-estate investors appear on the scene. There is no overarching, unified story, the loosely connected scene series do not culminate into a dramatic denouement, instead different situations, are evoked and rendered beside each other through seemingly complete, self-contained scenes. The outcome is a montage of episodes of different moods [1].

A local activist is trying to preserve the industrial neighbourhood from gentrification [2], a group of flag bearers is trying to propagate the idea that the penetrating stench and the health hazardous dust keeps the growing number of developers away. A dog walking man, a prostitute, a cyclist, a homeless, a lesbian couple, a young girl chasing after hippie dreams is marching alongside the protesters.

In the vein of the Brechtian tradition, Kantor is not aspiring to deploy different psychologically developed, individualised characters, the different personae are mostly defined by their social positioning, and they only change along with their circumstances. The performers do not identify with their prescribed roles, the emphasis clearly shifts from character development to the relationships of the personae with each other and with their environment.

Kantor plays the principal role, we see him with his family, in his flat, in the nightclub, a in the city, and in the last segment on his daughter’s birthday the Rentagon agents post an evacuation notice on his garage door. Despite the complexity and fragmentary structure of the Operetta, it is narrated in a personal tone, but compared to other features that are meant to evoke the illusion of reality in this case, the viewer is constantly reminded of the fact that he/she is watching a film [3].

Just like in the Brechtian theatre, the locations and the music do not serve as decorative elements in order to accentuate the plot, but are rather autonomous tools that determine the action itself. The mood created through the music of Soviet marches is clearly juxtaposed with the actual meaning of the words, the textual inserts and addresses synchronized with the songs are meant to ironically contradict the merry propaganda music. The language used is mostly colloquial, parodying the bureaucratic jargon with ironic neologisms [4]. The piece is an anti-metaphoric epitome of concrete pictures, colours and forms. All of this is the sole opposite of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Instead of aiming at creating a complete sense of illusion, the Operetta aims to induce distanciation and a critical mode of perception, presenting a series of surprising relationalities.

When Dziga Vertov, a member of the Kinoki movement, riding on agit-trains from city to city under the name of Kinopravda made a twenty three episode news sequel one of his contemporary admirers, Sokolov remarked that with the active use of montage he overthrew the chronological time sequence, altered reality itself, and with the reversal of details, he changed their meaning. Although, the organisation of the montage imbues the piece with rhythm, direction and coherence, but according to Sokolov, the technique of montage itself is responsible for the fact that the camera is made to depict a consciously manipulated idealised reality [5].

Sklovskij on the other hand, reproaches Vertov for the fact that in the news one can clearly trace the work of the director, the aesthetic deliberation and the ‘invention’ of reality. In this regard, Sklovskij questions the documentary value of Vertov’s films. According to him, the documentary nature of news is essentially annulled without the location and the implementation of actual time [6].

Vertov took this critique to heart, and although in his newer film, Three Songs About Lenin (1934), he still uses he technique of montage in order to depict the true nature of the events, he marks each scene with the location and the exact time. In his writing on film he modified the theory of Kinoki for the sake of Kinoki to Kinoki for the sake of Kintruth [7].

In the same vein, in Kantor’s video, the songs and narrations are completed with written commentaries. But in the spirit of Kantor’s unique aesthetic, these textual signs and the non-linear editing technique manages to eliminate all sense of reality, including the actual location and time. The everyday- and the aesthetically created, filmic reality is ordered side by side and made to appear synchronously. Accumulation [8] and synchronicity [9] are the milestones of Kantor’s musical, filmic, and theoretical oeuvre [10].

With the use of countless, seemingly disjointed movie-images and musical citations, the Operetta (de)constructs the film’s (anti)fabric. Not the documentary through-line or a unified story, but the rhythm of the music, the images and the verbal signs accentuates the film sequences comprised of hallucinatory plundered commercial film clips, images of hyper realistic city sites, action, poetic narration, and songs.

In the deluge of accumulated film sequences a complex image of the ‘break’ appears as a thematic counterpoint. After the defeat of the global uprising against the Rentagon, in the realm of the sign, in the constant information flow, in the age of broadcasting and total control, the only place of refuge for the individual is the decadent cabaret joint under the name of Break where the spirits of the past, present and future revolutionaries are concurrently haunting [11]], and the clientele becomes the embodiment and user-interface of these ghosts.

Kantor inserts the footage of his and the MSAG’s live performances into the landscape of technological society; an urban environment alienated by gradual gentrification, while drawing an analogy between today’s technology, sexuality, the alienating machinery and the body’s organic construction [12].

The process of accumulation does not differentiate between image and reality, history and mythology, or the current events. The Rentagon’s totalitarianism, the defeat of the 1956 revolution, the revolutionary march in Toronto are equally parts of a critically interpolated life course/biography, just like the MSAG’s performances based on Wilhelm Reich’s theory of orgasm [13] or Kantor’s blood action at the Canadian National Gallery and at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin [14].

Last but not least, the Operetta presents us with a powerful critique of today’s most prominent social end economic phenomenon namely, the real-estate boom. Also, by applying the tools of the trade, with a unique editing technique, and a masterly fusion of image, sound and text Kantor succeeds in counterpoising the incessant message flow of commercial media.


Translated by Eszter Jagica

[1] Brecht’s epic theatre was similar to this: while the Aristotelian drama can only be comprehended in its entirety, the separate scenes of epic theatre are enjoyable in themselves, just as we are able to read a chapter of some novels in themselves, or one could perform a separate part from a long classical Chinese play. Brecht, Bertold: Schriften zum Theater, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1999.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentrification

[3] This could be likened to the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.

[4] Istvan Kantor was the inventor of numerous English and Hungarian neologisms. The Hungarian language adopted the colloquial greeting “Cso” (untranslatable), another known expression would be the “robotariat” , or the “Rentagon” both readily used in the feature video.

[5] Kino-Front 2, 1927. Youngblood, Denise J.: Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, University of Austin Press, Austin, 1991, pp. 140-141.

[6] Shklovsky, Viktor: Kinoki i nadpisi, in Kino 30, 1926. october, p. 3. Angolul Taylor, Richard – Ian Christie (eds.): The Film Factory. Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939, Routledge – Kegan Paul, London, 1988, pp.153-154.

[7] Vertov, Dziga: Kinoki, pererovot, in, S Drobaschenko, ed. Dziga Vertov. Stat i, dnevniki, zamysli, Moszkva 1955. Vertov, Dziga, Aufsätze, Tagebücher, Skizzen, edited by Sergej Drobaschenko, Berlin, 1967.

[8] Accumulation is equally applied for the understanding of excess in terms of objects, ideas and events in the information era. It is traceable in megaphony, office furniture music, and in the collage technique of feature films. Monty Canstin: Made in Italy, Parise Adriano editore, Verona, 2002, pp. 17-27.

[9] “It’s always 6’o clock”, is one of the most prominent neoist slogans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoism, according to the anti-neoist notion it is always 1’o clock: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Neoism.

[10] In 1976, Istvan Kantor established the neoist movement, and following David Zack’s advice, he instigated the Monty Cantsin multiple name project, which played an integral part, not only in the artistic milieu of the 80’s, but also through its variations (Karen Eliot and Luther Blisset) in the information- guerrilla movement in the 90’s. In: Home Stewart: The Assault On Culture: Utopian currents from lettrisme to class war, Aporia Press, London, 1988; Home, Stewart: Neoist Manifestos. Art Strike Papers, AK Press, Edinburgh 1991, see also The Seven by Nine Squares web site and István Kantor’s webpage: The Poetical Plunderground of Neoism?!.

[11] The ghost of revolution is a recurring motive in Kantor’s videos (referring to Marx and Engles’ words), he made a feature video named, Übergespenst/Superspectre (2004). The first sentence of the Communist Manifesto is: “A spectre is haunting Europe…”

[12] Since 1998, he MSAG (Machine Sex Action Group) is Kantor’s constant performance group. In their performances, the body is invaded by technology, thus the sensory systems become intensified, the bodily dimensions change and the body becomes a robotic-entity. The electronic prosthesis invades the machine bodies so that they are integrated into the operation system of a communication network.

[13] Wilhelm Reich considered sexuality to be the centre of every aspect of human life. He divided the male orgasm into four different phases: mechanical tension-electric charge-electric discharge-relaxation. These are the structural elements of the MSAG performances. See: Sharaf, Myron: Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1983.

[14] Kantor’s preferred blood campaign (practiced for 30 years) venue is the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum: in 2004 he placed a blood painting beside McCarthy’s statue named, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, a part of the infamous Flick collection. In 2008, he tried to put up a complementary sign beside a Joseph Beuys exhibition title “Die Revolution sind wir” saying “und wir auch.” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RGEvv8e4uQ. Because of his blood action in 1991 he was banned permanently from the Canadian National Gallery, but they made an exception when they presented him the Governor General award in 2003.