Atlas of Media-Thinking and Media-Acting in Berlin

Mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Prof. Dr. Siegfried Zielinski

Siegfried Zielinski


From the late 1960s onwards, the Technical University of Berlin was a peculiar construct within the walled­in urban area of West Berlin. Established in the middle of the city, it’s branches grew out into the district between Tiergarten and Charlottenburg. Almost strategically located on the long axis that stretches straight from Alexanderplatz in the East to Theodor­Heuss­Platz in the West. Also located here was the dffb, the German Film and Television Academy, which formed the westernmost point of the media scene at that time. In the early 1990s the Academy, and with it the avant­garde cinema of the West, was relocated into the equally dead straight Heerstraße.

The central building complex of the TU on the Straße des 17. Juni, which with its garden adjoins the rear studios of the University of the Arts, also provided the space for the foundation of an institute out of which the first media studies department at a German university would emerge.
Between, on the one hand, the programme in literary studies (a part of the marginal Faculty of Arts that the TU needed so that its claim to university status could be taken seriously) and, on the other, about twenty faculties for engineering and the natural sciences, the Institute for Language in the Age of Technology was created – an interface with energetic potential.

In both teaching and research Friedrich Knilli had moved ever further away from his roots in literary studies and towards the mass media. His courses and those of his assistant Erwin Reiss were housed in the wing furthest to the left next to the gigantic auditorium of the TU. The Institute’s rooms, an office and several working spaces, were on the first floor, extending out into the territory of the biologists and chemists. They included, for instance, the windowless camera obscura, which held a particular appeal for us, mainly because of the Steenbeck, the editing table for the mechanical processing of opto­chemical film stock, which took our senses on adventurous journeys. The early semi­professional video recorders, like the one inch format Philips EL­3400 from 1962 and the first slant­track recorders in three­quarter inch format shared the narrow space with heavy tape recorders from AEG­Telefunken. These had been designed for several recording speeds; the slowest ones were used for the numerous recordings of poetry readings and interviews with authors that were done in the sixties, for example at the Literary Colloquium at Wannsee; the recordings filled entire closets.

Like the media studies department as a whole in its relation to the TU, for us students the seminar room embodied all the qualities of a creative insurgency. Here you could hear sounds and see images that were taboo in any other academic context. We analyzed political TV programmes, the round table discussions broadcast on Sundays or commercials for fish fingers, no less than spaghetti westerns, film noir thrillers, commercial pornographic films or Nazi propaganda. Heinz Werner Höber, the author of pulp serials about the superhero Jerry Cotton, was as welcome there as the working­class writer Max von der Grün, the dramatist Heiner Müller with his special GDR passport, or the Polish theatre scholar Andrzej Wirths.

In the think tank on the street of the Street 17th of June advanced hermeneutics for media utterances and their significations were developed in a way never before seen in the academic field. The first Introduction to Film and Television Analysis (1971) by Knilli and Reiss emerged in close proximity with the linguistic and machine­oriented communication studies of Manfred Krause, who was also responsible for the electro­acoustic studio. All of it was housed in the strange building with the new Plattenbau facade and the old 19th century core. Engineering and philologically­oriented analyses of technological artefacts clashed methodologically and theoretically, but they shared an experimental space together and had mutual respect for each other.

The Technical University, where just a short time before a lot of research for the war had been carried out, really boomed during the reconstruction period. The number of institutes and students grew so rapidly that the alma mater for mathematical and technological knowledge became one of the most important consumers of real estate around the Ernst­Reuter­Platz. By contrast, some of the big companies that had settled there after the war ran into massive economic problems following the first recession in the late sixties. And in the sense of urban planning, the square was anything but attractive. It was an area where architects and builders had committed just about every crime that a greedy urban player can commit. This included asbestos­infested houses as well as total disregard for the effects on the climate. Between the buildings, normal winds developed into hurricane­like storms so that at certain times of the year you had to downright fight your way against immense pressure.

In the mid­seventies the media academics and their equipment were transferred into the high­rise building on which the vertically spelled logo of Telefunken was emblazoned in blue neon letters, easily legible to the naked eye even from afar, say from the top floors of the Europa­Center. Now we were at a spatial distance from the literature scholars, too. At the same time we had the use, along with several other of the humanities, of a good library. It had a distinctive focus on the history of science and technology and like the historians, the Latinists, the Romanicists and the philosophers, had also moved into the Telefunken building.

Although the Technical University now owned the high­rise building on Ernst­Reuter­Platz, it retained its former name, a reminder of the communication group that had been involved in all the major media developments of the Nazis, from television to tape. ‒ It was already a commonplace of Knilli’s introductory seminar on media history that the civilian radio of the Weimar Republic had had its origins, among other places, in the trenches of World War I. ‒ The abbreviation TEL was soon familiar to everyone at the TU. It is where the remainder of the humanists worked together with the peculiar Mickey­Mouse academics, those who took things that others could only laugh or cry about and in all seriousness made them into the exclusive objects of their analyses and experimental research ‒ the media and their production of signs and affects.

On the fifth floor of the Telefunken building, we exchanged our curiosity about the outside world with the most exclusive club of the natural sciences, the astrophysicists. Every morning, in the long hallway that linked our workrooms, they spread out their perforated computer printouts, meters and meters long and densely covered with data from the night before by equipment monitoring the macro­world and computers hooked up to dot matrix printers. Sometimes we would lean over rows of what initially appeared to us as cryptic data, learning to read them, at least superficially, as descriptive patterns. From such close proximity with natural scientists and engineers on the one hand, and with historians of knowledge and technology who had settled in a few floors above the media studies on the other hand, there emerged an important subject for the development of applied media studies which we, after the Anglo­Saxon model, branded as media consulting. In a similar way as historians had dug into the structure of the natural sciences, in order to be able to describe and interpret their history, we strived to become the vanguard of a new expanded hermeneutics, that would include artefacts, technological knowledge systems and scientific concepts as their object.

Relatively high above Berlin, where the leaders of Telefunken and other companies once came together for their meetings, the most attractive areas of the simple, functional, extremely cheap and quickly built high­rise were located. On the 20th floor there was a cafeteria and the only large assembly room. Here, in the mid­seventies, Umberto Eco occasionally gave talks about semiology and dazzled us with his tremendous skills of speech and articulation. There, in the lead­up to its German broadcast in the late 1970s, we also held a screening of the American miniseries “Holocaust”. That screening has embedded itself deep within my memory. Through important newspapers of the far right, such as the “Nationalzeitung”, we had summoned old and new Nazis to come to the Telefunken building, to attend a preview of the series about the fate of the Jewish Weiss family in the so­called Third Reich and discuss it with us. And they came ‒ former SA and SS people as well as soldiers and young right­wing activists. The discussion was intense. We recorded it illegally ‒ the participants had forbidden video recordings beforehand ‒ and some of the harshest remarks were used in our film Responses to “Holocaust” in Western Germany (1979), which we then took with us to the USA, in order to discuss it in universities and with Jewish communities.

The view from the cafeteria over the Great Star with “Golden Lizzie”, that refined angel, on top of the Victory Column, from which one could then still take the final leap into the abyss if one were to feel an urge for that, was half­panoramic. It was a powerful overview that could be acquired from up there. Appropriately, it was from that perspective that we shot the first emission of our own video channel, which Erwin Reiss and I named BaF, Besser als Fernsehen (Better than TV). One Saturday before the annual military parade of the Western Allies, we got ourselves locked in illegally along with some fellow students, so that we could film the procession of heavy tanks and military equipment of the Americans, the English and the French with the video camera. This apparent attack on our university we then incorporated dramaturgically into our agitprop video against the new and, of course, reactionary Framework Act for Higher Education.

Such activities were understood as belonging to a tradition which has remained relatively unknown in German media history. It belongs to the anonymous history. In the Weimar Republic, the worker’s movement had developed a lively culture around the new medium of the radio, and was even able, with the help of exhibitions and its own newspapers, to create an audience for the activities of the radio amateurs and program agitators. One of their formats, which fascinated us the most, were the listening­in evenings. The clubs and associations of the Workers’ Radio Movement (ARB) invited people to public events where, with the help of a powerful receiving unit, one could listen to and discuss certain programs of radio stations like Radio Moscow or Radio London. We adapted this idea when, in the beginning of the 1980s, we sought to engage in the debate around new telematic and digital media. We invited pirate broadcasters who were being monitored by the police, such as “Radio Kebab” from Kreuzberg, or edited videos in which we presented the communication innovations of the future, such as on­screen text, the open channel for the so­called citizens’ television, the first computers that came to use in semi­professional life. These listeners’ and spectators’ evenings were also useful for empirical research. It was here that we carried out numerous experiments with selected social and political groups about their expectations and uses of old and new media.

For a short while, in 1994, the New York­based artist Ingo Günther, who had studied in Düsseldorf with Nam June Paik, succeeded in lending heterotopic qualities to the otherwise utterly cold Ernst­Reuter­Platz. As part of his project on the proclamation of a Refugee Republic, he flew the flag in the middle of the roundabout with the abbreviation of his imaginary republic: for a few days, it was the RR logo of a British manufacturer of luxury cars which fluttered instead of the European flags which normally adorn the square.

* SPRITZ (Footnote on a Diagram)

1961 was not only a disastrous year in politics. The construction of the Wall in Berlin split the city between the world powers and started a phase of the Cold War that would last for a quarter of a century. Art, literature, poetry, theatre, film and music were generated as energy fields within a system of coordinates that essentially served ideological and politico­economic purposes. At the same time experimental countercultural sites evolved and established themselves in many of the divided city’s protected areas, announcing the dawn of a new era and having enormous significance for the future of thinking and acting with and through media. That these countercultural sites had such deep material and political implications was due to the violence of the historical context. But this was something for which media studies, once it had developed after the reunification in the 1990s, no longer had any sense. The discipline emerged after the paradigm shift from critique to facilitation had already occurred.

At the energetic centre of the formation of a theory and practice to be developed both with and through media stood the founding of both the Institute for Language in a Technical Age [Institut für Sprache im technischen Zeitalter – SPRITZ.] at the Technical University of Berlin and the Literary Colloquium of Berlin (LCB), an experimental laboratory and meeting place peripherally located at Wannsee. It was here that, with the aid of tape recorders and other artefacts, a literature with neither author nor master narrative was elaborated. The institute, founded in 1961 by literature professor and poet Walter Höllerer, became the nucleus of the first media studies department at a German university, gradually established from 1962 onwards by the mechanical engineer, psychologist and radio theorist Friedrich Knilli ‒ initially as Höllerer’s assistant. Ten years later I was already able to study media studies there as my main subject within German philology.

Set down among twenty faculties that were essentially working on designing and running a future society that would be based on mathematics and technology, this heterotopian place was not without forerunners. It emerged within a matrix whose essential coordinates were at least fourfold: electro­acoustics/music, (computer) linguistics/semiotics, experimental poetry/literature and various technical visual and performance­related media.

What generated the strongest innovative thrust immediately after the Second World War was experimental sound and music research, which had left a lasting mark on Berlin since the 1920s (Scherchen, Trautwein, Bode, and Sala, among others). Parallel to the Studio for Electronic Music at (N)WDR in Cologne – essentially initiated by Werner Meyer­Eppler, the inventor of electronic sound synthesis – there evolved a studio and laboratory practice for electronic music at the TU Berlin with connections to both the various performance practices of the city as well as to academic programs (the cooperative sound engineering program at the Berlin University of the Arts has existed since 1953/54). Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt began delivering his lectures on music as part of a technologically­based art history in 1949. From 1954 onwards, Fritz Winckel organized lecture series about the interrelation between music and technology. In 1961 the Studio for Electro­Acoustics and Electronic Music began assembling its own archive, which the subsequent studio head Folkmar Hein has looked after to this day, turning it into one of the most exciting databases in this experimental ground.
(SZ, Jan 2016)