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Life at a Crossroads: An Interview with Danielle de Picciotto

Having founded Love Parade and Einstürzende Neubauten respectively, Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke have been rightfully dubbed legends of Berlin’s post-punk scene. For several decades, the pair has collaborated on countless projects across most art forms including music, film and literature. In 2018, the duo is in Australia to kick off the Goethe-Institut series KinoKonzert, presenting their own silent movie Crossroads. We caught up with Danielle during this year's Dark Mofo to learn more about the project and the unbounded paths that led to its creation.

Can you tell me what your early life was like? I know you’re from Tacoma, Washington, originally. My father was in the army, so I only spent about three months there. I wrote my solo album Tacoma after going back for the first time in almost 50 years; I thought it would be good for me to go back to where I was born and see how much it influenced me, even if I don’t remember being there. The fact that my father was in the army and we moved around a lot really influenced everything about me. You’ve been on a nomadic journey from the very beginning, in a sense. Exactly, and it’s really funny because I’d completely forgotten about that. The first place I’d really stayed for a long time was Berlin. I moved there when I was 24, but before that I had moved around all my life. My father was transferred almost every year, then I moved around a lot while studying. Years later when Alex and I became nomads, I remember thinking ‘this seems really familiar’ - then I realised that’s the way I was living before Berlin. How did you land in Berlin at 24? I actually ended up there by chance. I wanted to visit a friend and she was living in this huge factory space, as everyone was during the 80’s, and it was an amazing space. The keyboard player of Nick Cave (Roland Wolf) was living there, along with an archaeologist and a film assistant. They said I could come and stay so I did, and I never went back to New York. I’d moved there a week after the movie Wings Of Desire was released, so everyone would come in and out all the time - it was like being in the movie. It was really weird! I can only imagine what the music scene in Berlin would have been like during that period... Well David Bowie had just left, but I caught him just before he did. I saw him going in and out of a club called The Jungle a couple of times too. Neubauten would perform and, of course, Nick Cave was there all the time, as well as Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Crime & The City Solution. Basically just name a band and they were there. Do you remember the first band you ever saw perform? Queen. Wow, where was that? That was in Germany. My mother was originally from Germany, so we’d visit often. It was the Radio Gaga tour. I loved their videos so much!

How did you first get involved in visual arts?

I started doing everything I do now - the interdisciplinary thing - very early on. I was always the odd kid out because we moved around so much and, being German, my mother would dress me in dirndls that she would make herself. I was a weird kid, really weird. Did you keep any of the outfits she made for you? No, I hated them (laughs). I was always dressed strangely, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, I had this difficult last name and I was changing schools constantly. It was kind of a nightmare, so I began reading all the time, writing lyrics and painting. I also started playing piano when I was 5, violin when I was 8, and I was in a lot of choirs – so those were the things I spent my whole childhood doing. I just carried on from there, combining everything.

Who were your inspirations in the art world? The first artist I really liked was Toulouse-Lautrec. He was an outsider who had a tough time growing up, but he painted all these really amazing bordello paintings. I think I identified with him because I had a phase like that when I was in Berlin; at the beginning I’d go to the clubs and the burlesque shows and I really enjoyed painting those. I loved the expressionist works too. How did you get into making videos? Well, I was asked to do a music video for a friend, but I had never done one before. I had done a lot of Super 8 work in the 80’s though. I had one project where I’d film dancing women and loop them and hang them up in clubs. When you’d loop them you could make them dance to any music because the eye is faster than the ear, so I’d fill clubs with all these different transparent fabrics and project these dancing women. People would ask me, “How do you do it? They dance to anything that we play!”. You could play hip hop or metal and it would still be perfect. One of the dancing women is actually in the Crossroads film, right at the very end.

Speaking of Crossroads, can you tell our readers who weren’t able to get to Dark Mofo what the project is about? Well it’s made up of the drawings, paintings, films and photos I made during our 7 years of nomadic life. It’s a kind of recapitulation of everything and it's only about 1/8th of the drawings and films I did. I was pretty amazed at how much it inspired me, when I went through all my archives and saw how much I had done whilst traveling non-stop. It's interesting how my art and specifically its themes changed as the trip continued. I think this can be felt while watching the movie.

What initially compelled you to start documenting your travels on film? It started when I was on tour with Neubauten in 2004. Blixa asked me if I could film every show, and I said I might as well film everything as they were doing the supporters’ project at the time. They were the first band to do that kind of Kickstarter thing, so I made a documentary movie about it. The tour went for three or four months non-stop. By the time it finished I had an insane number of MiniDV cassettes, but in the end I just gave them all to Neubauten. I was like “You take it, I’m not gonna edit all that!” (laughs).

How did things progress from there?

I was getting asked to create all sorts of videos for different people and I was drawing and painting all the time while working on music, then out of the blue the German government sent me an email asking if I would do a movie for them to celebrate 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. They said they liked my drawings, and I was thinking 'Where do they know my drawings from?' (laughs). They asked me two years in a row to animate my drawings and I could basically do whatever I wanted, it was great.

At one point between 1995 and 2000, I was doing a lot of work with the Goethe Institute who would bring me to all these different places to organise club and art events - mostly in countries that were having difficulties with their youth culture being kind of stuck. We went to Hong Kong a couple of times, for example, because they had a high rate of suicide. The kids there were under such pressure to earn money and they didn't have an art underground or anything like that as a way to express themselves.

We also went to Italy, where the problem was that a lot of the artists had this mindset of ‘Why should I do art when there’s Michelangelo and so many amazing art pieces already?'. We were asked to go there and show them how to destroy that awe. Neubauten say “Destroy what you admire so you can create something new”, so that’s what they asked me to do - to teach them how to do that. So for five years I was just travelling a lot and putting on club art events. And so we return to the theme of travel! We do! You know, my first memory is actually of an air stewardess bending down to me and asking if I wanted a Barbie or crayons. I took the crayons.

KinoKonzert 01: Crossroads: 11 July 2018: Melbourne, ACMI | Tickets available here. 14 July 2018: Sydney, Event Cinemas George Street | Tickets available here.

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