The parameters of Kick That Habit, originally released in 1989, are set from the get-go: This is a film deconstructing and reconstructing both musical and visual art. Switzerland’s own Peter Liechti has built a career combining the visuals of everyday life with the images and sounds of art’s various forms. And, as judged by the eyes with which Liechti shoots, the mundane is the higher form. What would seem artless to those of us trapped in the daily grind is the fodder for his avant dissection.
Liechti's mash-up Kick That Habit employs the Swiss duo Voice Crack (whose 1986 album lends its name to Liechti’s film) as both muse and subject. As Norbert Moslang and Andy Guhl uncover the unknown noise scene from ’80s Switzerland, Liechti combines performance footage with performance art. Shots of snowy mountains, gondolas, broken televisions, mini-golf, and an electronically enhanced meal are interspersed with Moslang and Guhl’s musical art. The first act shows the group manipulating amps, turntables, and tape recorders into a menagerie of squeals and squawks, with Liechti’s camera as innocent bystander. The second act follows Voice Crack and company as they travel through a mountain pass, eventually settling for the solitude of a lodge. As the pack of eaters and drinkers produce a casual din of stirring spoons, crackling cracker packages, and bored mastication, Liechti slips in more performance footage — this time of Voice Crack manipulating a large, steel string. Using a combination of sticks, files, and violin bows, Voice Crack coaxes a stack of sounds from the wire. The final act flushes out the meal concept, with the group and their friends enjoying a not-so-quiet evening with a table full of drinks, eats, amps, and wire, with one last Voice Crack performance crammed in for posterity.
Kick That Habit isn’t a casual watch — in fact, it requires immense concentration. Liechti is challenging viewers to absorb and process a lot of info. Common art techniques are at play, most obviously the cross-pollination of abrasive noise and everyday serenity. What is troubling about Kick That Habit is how arty it’s trying to be. Everyone could do with a challenge, but Liechti’s creation is hard work with little reward. Kick That Habit is not a metaphysical film with a metaphysical soundtrack but the work of various art forms being crammed into one heap of avantness. We are taught that amidst chaos there is organization, that even the most inane element serves some purpose. The purpose of Kick That Habit is buried, if it exists. What it amounts to is nothing more than a long-form music video for Voice Crack. As long as we take it that way, then Kick That Habit is a worthwhile watch. We begin to reassess the music and the methodology. There’s solace to be found in the obtrusive sounds Moslang and Guhl create, given the otherwise uninspiring musical landscape of 1989.
As a piece of noise history, Kick That Habit preserves the memory of the genre’s European arm in the waning years of the Me Decade; as a piece of art, Kick That Habit is nothing but pomposity disguised in blue-collar trappings. There can be no dispute that the beauty and substance many seek in art is found in our daily lives, but Liechti fails to capture it with his overwrought Art of Noise video. Ignore the ‘art’ and focus on the ‘music.’ That's where you'll find the heart of Kick That Habit.