Energy galore: encountering Howard Katz

It always goes by so quickly: it feels as if the third round just started, of the art vending machine in the Jewish Museum Berlin’s permanent exhibition. But in fact it’s almost finished and sold out – 2,600 items since April! That’s certainly enough reason to pop by to visit Howard Katz and ask him some questions, especially considering that he was the first of the now 22 artists we’ve featured to use music…

Portrait of a man with guitar

Howard Katz © Yoann Trillu

Dagmar Ganßloser: Howard, you work as an artist in many different genres. You’re a dancer, performer, and choreographer, but you’re also an active visual artist, and on top of that a singer-songwriter. Right now the art vending machine has your “Mix Tape” as well as “4 short films”. How did you choose those?

Howard Katz: It was clear to me from the start that I wanted to present my music in the art vending machine. The 17 songs on “Mix Tape” came into being over the last twenty years plus and – the same as “4 short films” – they’re mainly about experiences I’ve had since I’ve lived in Berlin, so since the mid-1990s. The production was uncomplicated and I made the selection intuitively, from the heart. I made the four videos for my songs completely on my own, with my telephone – it was an opportunity to try out something new.

On “Mix Tape” you talk directly to your potential listeners, asking them for feedback on your youtube channel and you categorize your manner as a “very Jewish way of storytelling”. What do you mean by that?

CD of Howard Katz

“Mix Tape” © Howard Katz

I grew up in New York and as a Jew I belonged to one of many minorities, which was anything but conflict-free. When I came here I became much more conscious of being Jewish. My work was rejected a few times because it’s too personal and too emotional. One woman told me, “It’s a bit embarrassing because it’s so emotional. We need distance.” For me, Jewish means: we’re pretty close to each other, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it sticks, sometimes there’s friction.

How long have you been writing songs?

I wrote my first songs when I was 12 or 13. I still find the music I wrote back then charming and lovely, but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that I really found my voice. I also write songs in German, by the way…

Along with dance and music you also do bodywork. Have you been doing that a long time?

I’ve been interested in people since I was little and I always saw immediately if something in the quality of their movements or emotions was interesting. That’s my talent. So I always wanted to work with people, that was quite clear. When I was eight, I tried to talk my parents into letting me learn dance, but they didn’t allow it. I then waited a long time – another eight years! – but finally I began (he laughs): I moved out when I was 16, started my dance training, worked on the side, and at 17 I already had my own practice in a New York dance studio doing reflexology and other massage techniques.

What really struck me about the amplitude of your work is that there’s a huge range and yet it all reveals your particular ‘handwriting’. That’s not just true of your music but also your choreography. For instance, with “Kata”. And it’s also clear in the movement system that you developed, “5qualities”.

»Kata«, Performance from and with Howard Katz, cello: Mathias Herrmann, 2001

My handwriting is always clearly visible. I can’t say exactly why that’s the case. Other people do exactly the same thing but you don’t see that it’s them, whereas in my work you always see it’s mine. My artistic and my therapeutic work are really one entity for me.

What is “5qualities” actually about? Are you trying to communicate a style of movement or is it something more?

It began with my search for a system of movement that everyone could learn. Of course I started with many more qualities, with 122! But eventually I noticed that there are only five: carry, fall, flow, throw, put – the rest are really a mix of these five basic qualities. I found these five qualities in every style of dance and in every type of martial art as well. “5qualities” as a technique can help people to find their equilibrium and it can thus support the process of self-discovery or personal development. So, I’m not healing, it’s more about encouraging self-help.

Howard Katz shows put, one of the »5qualities«

What are you working on at the moment?

My wife, Liz Williams, and I did our first cabaret show at the end of June, “NOIR, MusicCircusTheater”, with Berlin’s best artistes. They’re really fantastic! We’re doing some genuinely dangerous acts in the air (we’re going to put some clips online). I’ve been learning this in the last few years and have gotten quite good. I made the music for “NOIR” as well, together with my band PostHolocaustPop – here under the name PostTraumaticPop. And we’ve started a company with the artistes so we’re going to keep doing more.

The interview was conducted by Dagmar Ganßloser, who continues to be impressed by the abundance of energy that Howard Katz seems to have at his disposal.

And another tip: At HilbertRaum an artist-run project space in Reuterkiez (Berlin-Neukölln), work by Howard Katz is regularly on show.

And further information about the artwork and the other artists of the art vending machine can be found here.

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