My taxi was barreling up Sixth Avenue when my cell phone rang. A soft, quizzical voice said, “This is Alexander Kluge.” I was passing a landmark in midtown, a famous shop that sold ribbons in the garment district. I was planning my new film and wanted a male voice—a wizard of Oz—to read my script, which was based on Finite and Infinite Games, a game theory book by James P. Carse. I saw my film as a warning, a cautionary tale that would continue to unfold, and needed a voice to embody that vision.
Film still from Finite and Infinite Games, 2017 © courtesy of Sarah Morris/Parallax
I write now from an island off the North East coast of America during the pandemic of 2020. I am in a building that looks like a ship; it sits perched on a hill like an arc. I spoke to Kluge only a few days ago. We have become friends and developed a shorthand way of speaking in images, always about future projects: an underwater opera, and a series of films we call Mondrian’s Machines. Two subjects were competing as we spoke: on the one hand, capitalism and the twentieth century, and on the other, the twenty-first century and its digital version. I don’t think the gravity of the global situation had truly sunk in. He mentioned that in Medieval times, people would go up the hill to take shelter from the plague below. Magical realism plays a funny role with Kluge; he is like a sprite that seems to be both everywhere and nowhere. He is easy and difficult to define: prolific and intellectually rigorous, yet aesthetically rebellious.
He has collaborated with many artists: Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Thomas Demand, Katharina Grosse, and others. For him art is theatre, an arena to perform in, a playground of history and ideas. Oppositions are fertile ground for discussion: no rules; nothing rules anything out.
So there I was in that hot taxi, stuck to the vinyl seat, cruising through Midtown on my way home. “I am not an actor,” he said. “Precisely,” I said. I would never use one. Even when I used actors in Hollywood in my film Los Angeles (2004), they were there because they were part of an industry; they were both products and vehicles of story-telling but also citizens, players, and sometimes even mini-corporations. I had not chosen them to act, but rather to be themselves as actors in the city of Los Angeles. Reality is always better than fiction (that is clearer than ever right now). So when I asked Kluge to read my script, I asked him to read as Kluge. Kluge with all his roles, all his involvements, all his history.
Back to Munich. Kluge, a lawyer, a poet, a filmmaker, an artist, an entrepreneur, and a public intellectual lives below his office, which has various functions: library, archive, film studio, conference room, and computer base. There was a lush quality to those rooms, even with all the books.
The light was cerulean blue and crepuscular. I asked him why he lived in Munich before we headed out to an opening and dinner. He told me simply that it was because of the Arri Factory. Located a few blocks away, it brought him and numerous others to Munich, and he had never left. He told me he would have slept at the film factory if he could. I found myself at Arri the very next morning filming men with full protective gear and their famous light sensors in a vacuum-sealed room. They couldn’t possibly have let others sublet this guarded property without Kluges help.
I also visited him in his editing suite and alternative office there one Sunday, long after Finite and Infinite Games was shot and screened. It smelled like smoke and men. Several of them were editing there with Kluge. They showed me some of the visual effects they were working on, which seemed like animated versions of my paintings. Compositions that would detonate the imagery. I filmed his films that afternoon, gave him a postcard of a Hilmar af Klint painting that I bought at the Lenbachhaus earlier that day. It’s all on my phone. Then I headed for the airport to fly to the Middle East for an installation and talk with the Guggenheim. This now seems like another world. Restaurants, museums, airports, duty free shopping. Metropolitan cities, meetings, the intensity of conversations had amongst clouds, drinks, and the deep hum of jet engines. The excitement of future plans gets me every time. That in and of itself is a form of travel.
I walked through the airport. Automated glass doors slide open. Nearby, a flicker of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), screening soon behind the New York Public Library. I bought some gold eye shadow, if I remember correctly. I formed a particular admiration for Kluge when we met. His unique voice and historical knowledge have a redemptive, resolutely emotional quality. He is able to create social and philosophical abstractions in a highly intuitive and perceptive manner, all while evading conclusions. Over a drink at the Waldhaus in the Engadine at Christmas, he told me a wonderful story about Theodor W. Adorno. He had read a short story in Essen during his exhibition there, and I asked who the actual narrator of the story was. “I know the story to be true because it was me,” he said with a glimmer in his eye. He stayed in the Adornos’ guestroom. Imagine him as a houseguest. I like the sound of “The Adornos” plural. I asked him many questions about the Frankfurt School and how it ended, how it manifested and transformed through the changes of 1968, how it propelled him forward. The bar we sat in also demanded that he reveal his connection with Switzerland. The story was tragic, but he told it with beauty. Kluge is fundamentally an optimist. He doesn’t see tragedy, he sees the historical building blocks that lead to the denouement, like a table of elements. Narratives or stories are only caught in the web of wider events. After we finished filming—him speaking my words, my camera recording him in his room—he told me that I reminded him of a character in a short story he had written about a Spanish girl during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The girl found herself on a ship taken over by pirates on her way to Turkey, where she and her father were to be sold as slaves. Every night, he said, she would go up to the deck of the ship and play chess under the moonlight with the pirates. In the story, he said, she would converse with them as they played chess. By the end of the journey she had won her and her father’s freedom. He said, smiling, “She made improbable accords.”