Kai Althoff

Hey Manhattan


If you have ever busied yourself with Kai Althoff’s oeuvre, then you now about the great desire for America from the native Rhinelander. No matter how big the role of his socialisation in West Germany in the 80s and around Brück Mauspfad in Cologne might have been for the formation of his artistic canon of subjects, starting from the 1990s the longing for the USA became more and more important for his life.

“Guess what! Summer’s arrived I feel the world’s on my side
The Brooklyn Bridge stretches below me
A billion souls all dying to know me
Well here I am! Loaded with promise
And knee deep in grace
What I want is here on my face and
I feel like I own the whole damn place
Hey Manhattan! Here I am ! Call me star-struck Uncle Sam.”
(“Hey Manhattan” von Prefab Sprout)

It wasn’t a surprise when Kai Althoff swapped the Cologne Cathedral against the Empire State Building and moved on to Manhatten in the early 00s, to berth at the gallery of Barbara Gladstone. A strategy that had a sustainable and lasting effect on his position as a visual artist in the USA, as it’s visible in the upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, that opened at 18 September under the title “and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern)”.

In contrast to his art, which is known globally, his music is being received mostly in Germany – this wasn’t changed by Arizona, his band with Brett Milspaw, whose single Jan Lankisch and I have released on Edition Fieber; although Arizona have performed several times in the gallery-context of New York, but still this facet of his artistic oeuvre is not being lastingly recognised in the American Althoff stream.

This is not only a shame, but also an anti-progressive drawback. As both his coming of age band Workship as well as his still actively pursued project Fanal, with which he has published four records on Mouse on Mars’s label sonig by now, are strongly influenced by himself, and they offer a lot of entry points for a deeper understanding of his artistic oeuvre.

By becoming Fanal Althoff did slip away from the broken house and disco sound of his early bands Subtle Tease (with Justus Köhncke) and Workshop (with Stephan Abry) and opened up spaces for the already resonant krautrock and especially for his very avant-garde and adventuresome understanding of folk. When I asked him about the motivation for Fanal a couple of years a go, he said: “What others and myself could use. That it won’t contaminate, I mean your minds. And you can produce it for your own end. I don’t have any boundaries. Not for as long as I would want myself to have some.”

In 2014 Althoff emphasised this ambition for boundless performance once more time with “Fanal 4”. Nothing has to stay the same. Everything can vanish. The voice that appeared so childlike and playful on “Fanal 3” had lost (most of) its lightheartedness. You could notice upheavals. America does never have no effects.

To understand where this need to negate borders comes from, we should take a glance back into Kai Althoff’s childhood. In the summer of 1997 me and him took a walk along his old way home from school in Cologne (for a shoot for my video magazine at that time Harakiri) to talk about the song with the same name from the back then recent Workshop album “Meiguiweisheng Xiang“ and to understand what all of this meant for the education of the musician and artist Kai Althoff.

Few other artists of his generation have managed to capture the variations of the existence as delicately as Kai Althoff, in his music as much as in his art. With slight gestures he leads us past the momentum of well-being. Be it through the psychedelic complex soundscapes of his music or with the sound rotations (created with a very unconventional kind to manipulate his guitar) that are imminent to it, or through his sketches and installations, in which you can omnipresently feel Althoff’s active desire for places of social togetherness (from café and supermarket up to church and youth center) and for (bodily) exchange. He allows us to stumble into disorientation. At first you want to resist, and you cling in same parts to the voice as narrative for amount and way as well as to the objects of his artistic work. But if you negate this basic need of your own body successfully in the end and pluck up the courage to give in to the pull and follow Kai Althoff on his walk of open ears and minds, a wonderful Oz will await you, a place that isn’t known anymore, where it doesn’t matter if you are online or offline at the moment.

The following interview is the script of questions answered in handwriting, after they had been discussed over coffee and cake. This all took place in the winter of 2007/2008.


The last time I did interview you was for the Workshop record “Brück Mauspfad” on even that, the old way home from school of you and your co-musician Stephan Abry. That was in the summer 1997, five years after your first solo exhibition, initiated back then by Nicolaus Schaffhausen, among others, who in 1995 invited you (and Cosima von Bonin) to the Stuttgarter Künstlerhaus und who later, after the scandalous demolition of the Josef-Haubrich-Forum, co-initiated the Europäische Kunsthalle (European hall of art). What I want to say: A lot has happened since then, in Cologne as well as in your life, you got famous as a visual artist. How did your relationship to Cologne change?
I never had a relationship to Cologne – but I’m born here. I could also say: “unfortunately”, or “there you go”. Cologne is certainly very repulsive to me, with its “Roman” Cologne. Here it is: liberal!!

Looking back, I get the feeling that you did always play records or hang out somewhere, whenever I visited Cologne in the 90s. You have been very active in the night life, surrounded by a clique consisting of other artists like Cosima von Bonin, Andreas Dorau, Justus Köhncke. When I moved to Cologne in 2000 this wasn’t the case anymore. Was this a consequence of the step outwards, what was the reason?
I’m quite ashamed. I’m ashamed of my interest for some stupid kind of music and this life. I can’t say anything else. No one told me what has to be done. I didn’t think and my feelings were too dull. I think that I was often acting as the executor of an interest that is actually kind of dumb. And limited in this, I partly hate it. But it’s over.

I heard that there isn’t supposed to be another Workshop release. Is that true? Why?
Yes, that’s true. I think that Workshop is fulfilled. You can’t fill it any more, otherwise it suffocates.

Where do you personally see a difference between Workshop and Fanal, your other project, that is about to release a new album on Sonig in the next days?
The big difference is that Fanal derives from a neo-nationalist consciousness. And that alone is also a big difference. I can textually defend that to myself as well.

Your musical oeuvre, the whole range of the three projects Fanal, Subtle Tease and Workshop, is very heterogeneous, from krautrock, house music, to electronic experiments and to very traditional folk song writing. A variety in methods that is also visible in your works in the visual arts context: drawings, paintings, installations (like your work for the last Berlin Biennale with Lutz Braun), film, performance, but also, how can I say it: applied art, like vases or shoes. Do you have any boundaries? What are the criteria for your orientation?
Things others and I might require. Something that doesn’t contaminate it, I mean the heads, and that you can produce for a purpose. I don’t have any boundaries. Not as long as I don’t want to have some.

You are also singing for your music, but never with just one voice;  but, to be exact, you are constantly singing against the fixation. Always differently. Can you say that?
I like best how I sing if I can feel at the same time. My feelings are changing, I got others than I had before and they come out differently.

You manage to cultivate your own language in general. You got that talent, and you know it. It’s a lot of times very hard, to follow it – not only for me or other critics or fans, this is also to be stated for your friends and acquaintances who are writing in catalogues et al. about you. It comes across as very exclusive.
I actually wanted to not exclude. The squad of art critics excludes me, in my opinion, so often that I never wanted to assume their language, or I maybe just never did understand it. If it now confronts me, because of its omnipresence, I get angry to extremes. To me it seems to be for a restricted group with, by now, unconsciously limited with academical content, charged words to pass on relations and thoughts, just so the dirty informations would never stop. Outsiders are asked to learn the meaning of these words so that it can be explained to them in these words furthermore. This chain has lost on the inside, and so deflated does this certain society speak to one another.
But if you tell me that it comes off as excluding with me, so I have to see what I’m doing wrong.

There are a lot of visual artists who are also active musicians. Without wanting to adulate you too much, I can’t think of anyone else with whom I got the feeling that the music is equally good, and would feel like it’s got the same position. Is there anyone else whom you would attest that to?
I can think of two: Thomas Schroeren und Lutz Braun.

Two of your videos, which I sadly haven’t been able to see, “Wer nicht, wenn du” (Who Not, if You) and “Aus lauter Hand” (From Sheer Hand) are about bands. The American artists Mike Kelley made similar films. Do you know them?
I don’t know those films.

The workshop – also the title of your first exhibition in Cologne – carries within itself the image of the artist who is attached to the collective, which is consequently also represented in exhibition projects/work with other artists (like Cosima von Bonin, Abel Auer, Armin Krämer), mainly as a duo. Where does this capability to collaborate come from for you?
It’s not because of work. I don’t work anyway. It’s because I’m looking for friends because I’m alone.

Why do you create further alter egos?
They are friends that I used to worship and who were close to me.

How did the collaboration with Armin Krämer for the “Sie suchen uns” (They Are Looking for Us) book take place? He did make up a story to accompany your pictures. Did all of the pictures exist beforehand, and did he align them? How did you feel about the story?
I did paint the pictures, they are watercolor pictures, for the exhibition “Hau ab, du Scheusal” (“Bugger off, You Monster”) at Galerie Neu in Berlin, a couple of years ago. Then I told Armin that he could align them as he wanted to, I trust him completely. He wrote a story that I like a lot, but it maybe is timid, and delicate. I ask myself why? He is such a great artist, maybe I shouldn’t have asked him.

It’s not far from there to the world of presentation of your works, these habitats mostly designed by you, or at least rooms that exude a lived atmosphere. One might say that they thereby are part of the art work. Would you agree? Or is it rather that certain elements of the setting (which can seem very chaotic, for example the room installation at Berlin Biennale 2006) are the main elements, but that they are not able to have an effect without everything around them, at least not as intended?
This also reminds me of one of your songs, one of my favorites from you, called “Am Rande Liegt das Glück” (Happiness Is on the Edge). In this effigy happiness emerges only in interaction with the surroundings and is characterized by what’s not immediately in focus.
Everything can easily be for itself. But there are just always several things, and you will always want more, and invent more, and buy, or collect or receive as a gift. The people are living with it and connect it to their brains, and subjugate them, or try at least to organize them, according to their thoughts. In the end, their feelings tell them: This belongs together, but that’s just in the eye of the human, who enlivens it. It actually lives for itself, but that’s something I have to find out for myself as well. That’s the power of a human, that he gives life to a thing in his fortune. Due to god and his opponents, if it were him.

The room in itself can elude the social, insofar as it is a closed private one. If you get closer to your works, you realize that they clearly are influenced by an interest in the other, the social together. Which brings us back to Workshop and the openness. So there is also the social together that isn’t chosen, the societally imposed one: Family, school, religious groups – and all of their societal norms. There is this song by Die Sterne called “Von allen Gedanken schätze ich am meisten die interessanten“ (Of all the Thoughts I Mostly Appreciate the Interesting Ones). Of all the social places, which one do you appreciate the most?
Department stores, cafés, jail, a church…? Places where communities come together, all kinds of.

Are you an optimist concerning the social together, despite all negative connotation?
I don’t know if I’m optimistic. If it is optimistic that I realize that people almost always want contact to other people.

In the catalogue to your exhibition in Boston, Olaf Karnik has written about the 90s in Cologne, that you knew each other by sight but that you have never talked back then, because your peer group didn’t talk with everyone. Looking at your art, this seems kind of wrong. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, I understand. I would have loved to have talked to him.

Looking at your work you can observe that it’s very entangled with you as a person. You are representing themes and characters from your work. Or to phrase it the other way around: Does your work absorb you?
My “work”? I don’t control myself.

Now that we’ve reached this point the next question needs to be: Which role does corporeality have for you in the social together? The album before your last one as Workshop was titled “Es liebt dich und deine Körperlichkeit ein Ausgeflippter“ (It Loves You and Your Corporeality a Freak-Out). Does a great meaning result from this?
Corporeality has one of the greatest roles, because I’m constantly seeing bodies and I often enough want to touch them in all conditions. I have seen your hands, and now I want to touch them and look at them until I’m maybe bored by them. That would be what often crosses my mind. And otherwise my own body that it’s constantly carrying me around. How he makes me have feeling. I’m amazed that you actually just need it, a couple of things to wear, and a bit of money, and be done with it

Next to the state the church famously presents the second, historically often even more intense bastion of normalization – an thus can also be found in your work. Is the focus on religion just a means to an end, another bastion of challenge, just like it happens with right-wing totalitarianism, or are your personally susceptible for aspects of faith?
I’m not challenging the catholic church. If, as you say, there is a focus on it, it wouldn’t be because of such a lame and dumb reason as challenging it. I think about it, and some things I will never be able to accept, from a point of view that is mine, no matter how hard I try. But that is my affair.
Furthermore concerning the called by you right-wing totalitarianism, I would never be so disgraceful as challenging it in my invented thing. The only exception would be if this appearance, which you recognize as right-wing totalitarianism, would come from a group wich I wouldn’t grant it, whose position would seem dishonest, who therefore would not be entitled to, in my eyes, to be addressed by someone with this words: right-wing totalitarianism. But this description in itself is already bad. It is also very universal. And the term, is it objective or critical? Certainly insightful. 

I really liked the exhibition title “Vom Monte Scherbelino sehen” (To See from Monte Scherbelino). This heaped up mountain of rubbish is close to the place where I grew up.
Abel Auer did show that mountain to me and explained it, and I was happy to stand up there with him.

Now that I have addressed right-wing totalitarianism. You have also devoted yourself, for example in “Reflux Lux” and “Ein noch zu weiches Gewese der Urian-Bündner” (A Still too Soft Fuss of the Urian-Bündner), with the great field of subject of homoeroticism and the discourse of power. How much of a role do other artists like Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Kenneth Anger actually play, how it’s imagined by Anke Kempke in her article for the publication accompanying your exhibition “Gebärden und Ausdruck” (Gestures and Expressions)?
Your work is generally characterized by a form of presentation of subject, that doesn’t precisely state everything: good and bad, right and wrong are somehow there, but you have to recognize that on your own. Does a great faith into humankind shimmer through? And none the less: Are you sometimes afraid it could be read the wrong way?
Why did I have to employ myself with “discourse of power” and “homoeroticism”? I never knew these things as employment. Words like these belong to those people who determine their meaning, and there is no room for them in my life.
I, at least, believe that you if look at things for what they are than you will get it, no matter if you believe the meaning that its statements have for the particular observer or not. They are not in themselves put under difficult thoughts, but only thinking about them might lead to great misunderstandings. Anyhow, it’s a misunderstanding where you ended up. In case of a doubt the meaning is often the one that came rather unexpectedly.

You were born in 1966 – and it still seems as if the 70s are central to your work, next to references to the Middle Ages. How did that happen? It should rather be the 80s, if you consider when your defining socialization had to have happened. Or does the 70s point of view feed on the feeling you experienced in the 80s that a free era ended, artistically as socially, that will never, or at least for a long time, be able to be brought back? In a certain way the current ban of smoking can also be interpreted into it.
The years 1970-79 were the years of my childhood, ok. Everything after that is equally important, everything is over by now. The 90s were partly bad years. What I like, is that there are things about you that will probably never change. An example: I often feel, without a reason, on the streets out of place, and insecure, and I’m sweating and hating myself as a person. Also: Birth is like a curse. There is a song about this on the new Fanal record. And I’m very happy that it is there.

Something that attracted my attention in your work: It comes loud and quiet. Is there a rhythm about this? Do the phases have to alternate? Do you realize that yourself? A lot of artists only know one thing.
I don’t only know one thing.

You only attended art school for a bit, if I’m right, and are rather sceptical or hostile toward institutionalism.
Yes, you could say so. Wanting to be a teacher at an art school, and feeling like you were rightfully put into this position, that needs quite something. The students already know way more than their teachers. The teachers oftentimes don’t make something good out of their students. Although there are also really good teachers.
The parents say: If you want to make art you have to study it as well: That is so yesterday.

You are active as visual artist and musician. One of these fields is booming, the other is, at least seen from the side of record labels, gradually going under. How do you, as an artist who appreciates both fields, deal with this? And what does it tell us about our society and its handling of art?
I feel really sorry for the record labels. But I’m buying records. The society treats music rather like a consumer item. It’s art that is accessible for many more people than “visual modern” art which after all still seems reserved for an “intellectual class”. No wonder, who really wants that. This class of the educated more easily allows itself to commit to their gut feelings concerning music, like dancing to a good song from 1981.
For me, warm feelings, warm music, I’m put off by it.

There probably are several paintings from you in collections that you personally don’t really appreciate. How do you handle that? For example, I know, that “Dei Handi” is in Saatchi’s collection.
That’s horrible, I donated that painting for an auction for the child psychiatry ward in Cologne. Now it went through everything. I think people are using art like these occupations.
Something unraveled. It’s the financial aristocracy. But they are getting back at them, like the never ending continuation of an art critic. I don’t want to be sad, and I’m not going to be.

How does it feel, if, due to the singularity of the work, you have to leave a lot of things out, concerning the acquisition. Sure, you can buy a catalogue and visit exhibitions, but that’s not how you can collect the haptic quality of an artefact in your living space.
What do you think? And if a lot of them now want something, if I were even happy to be able to give something to them? I don’t know them, and there wishes could also just be related to money. I don’t know the ropes.

How much do the shoes cost that you designed last year? Have they been created in mass circulation?
There are 22 pairs, and they are too expensive, and not because I wanted it that way.

Was your exhibition in Boston, that had outwardly a special effect because of its retrospective character, important to you? Do you feel a boost after something like this?
This exhibition means a lot to me, because I love America, a lot.

You just had a show in Zurich. Do you want to say something about that?
I don’t really like Zurich. Everywhere it smells like money and health, and that isn’t really true, but I saw soulless things on the streets.

You seem chaotic, at least in your e-mails. Are you neat while managing your catalogue. Do you have an exact documentation of all of your works?
If you say so, than I am chaotic. 

Are you someone who sometimes sits at home and makes up the balance, makes himself aware of what he has achieved? While preparing this I realized how incredibly impressive your catalogue is by now. Or are your rather the restless type who immediately has to approach something new?
Understanding yesterday, or wanting to understand it is the most tarty kind of stupidity.

(Translation by Denise Oemcke)

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