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Kraftwerk-Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

by Dan Fox

Kraftwerk performing at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (PHOTO + WORLDWIDE 2012 © by Peter Boettcher)

It had seemed that nobody, no matter how hard they prayed to the Gods of Krautrock, had been able to score a ticket to see Kraftwerk’s eight-night ‘retrospective’ at MoMA, a residency during which they would play – as is now the custom on the retromania circuit – a different release from their extensive catalogue, in its entirety, along with a selection of other tracks from their back pages. Tickets sold out within an hour of going on sale. Desperate pleas were posted on Craigslist and scalpers offered the prized vouchers for astronomical sums as if they were golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Clouds of disappointment hung over New York City as all the Wonka Bars swiftly disappeared.

Even before tickets went on sale for this album-by-album canonization of Kraftwerk’s music as capital-A Art, it looked unlikely that many would get to see them play. When plans to bring the pioneering group to New York’s Acropolis of modernity were being hatched, it must have been much more fun to compute the curatorial kudos they’d bring than crunch the audience numbers. For starters, what space in the museum would be big enough to hold the kind of audience size they command? Certainly not the 450-person capacity Marron Atrium, where the concerts were to be staged; a square, multi-storey hall with all the architectural charm of a multinational bank lobby. Then there was the mess of help provided by ticket sales website ShowClix, whose mis-calibrated servers buckled under the weight of demand when the tickets were released for sale. ShowClix’ technical snafu resulted in the company’s CEO, Joshua Dziabiak, having to issue an embarrassed letter of apology. The letter, however, quite correctly pointed out that ‘of the tens and tens of thousands of die-hard Kraftwerk fans from around the world that logged on at exactly noon EST yesterday to get these tickets, the venue capacity restrictions would only ever allow approximately 1.20% of them to actually be reserved.’

The question on most people’s lips in New York was not ‘What are Kraftwerk going to be like?’ but ‘Who got the tickets?’ And if the audience was to be so small, then for whose benefit was this series of events actually for? (The point being: if you’re going to invite electronic music’s equivalent of The Beatles to do a few shows in town, you don’t book them to play a venue the size of the upstairs room of your local pub.) There were indeed a lucky few whose mouse-clicks managed to ping a server request to ShowClix precious nano-seconds faster than others did. A pair in the queue behind me for Tuesday night’s opening show had won their passes in a competition run by the concert’s sponsors Volkswagen. Then there were jammy buggers like me who work for the press – that must’ve knocked a few spaces off the available tickets for sale. But even the terms on which the press was allowed to attend were tightly controlled. The art press being at the lowest rung on the media ladder, I was instructed by the MoMA press office that I had to guarantee coverage of the retrospective (voila!) but that I could only have one ticket, for one night. I was allowed to pick whichever date I liked, so long as that evening – for some unexplained reason – wasn’t the one at which they would play Computer World. (Rolling Stone, by contrast, were allowed access to give a night-by-night account)

In the grand scheme of things, I have nothing to complain about. I got to see Kraftwerk play. I am lucky. But I’m going to grouse anyway because, also in the grand scheme of things, there’s a broader point to be made. If art museums want to include popular music history in their narratives of art – which they need to if they’re going to represent postwar culture in any meaningful way, given its confluences with art – then they need to square this with the physical and also philosophical limits of their venues; not just audience capacity and acoustic suitability, but how they contextualize the work without killing it with the cold, dead hand of institutionalization. Given the pains to which MoMA had gone to frame the group’s week-long residency in the language of exhibitions – the souvenir brochure, or catalogue, depending on which side of the tracks you’re from, put it as ‘a chronological retrospective of Kraftwerk’s sonic, performative, and visual experiments’, including ‘compositions from its catalogue, all adapted specifically for this exhibition’, presenting ‘complex layers of live music, sound, video, installation, and performance as one total work of art’ [all my italics] – then the idea that it was only going to be possible to see one-eighth of the ‘retrospective’ seemed absurd. (‘Yes, we’d like you to review the Cindy Sherman retrospective, but you’re only allowed to see the “Untitled Film Stills” and I’m afraid we can’t allow you access to the other galleries.’) If you’re going to use the language of curating as greasepaint for staging music gigs in art museums (to which I would argue that music is quite capable of standing on its own two feet without needing to plead for its cultural validity in the argot of the visual arts), at least follow through on all the conventions of exhibition making and allow the opportunity for as many people as possible to see the entirety of whatever complex-layered-performative-retrospective-exhibition-video-installation-event-conference-bar-mitzvah-Renaissance-Fayre-knees-up it is you’re putting on. In other words, if it’s not an exhibition, don’t call it one.

So there we were, the 1.20 per cent; just a few hundred honest ticket-buying Kraftwerk fans, lucky draw winners, and some cheap, ink-slinging hacks like me. At least there was no special guest list. At least nobody got VIP treatment. No ‘I’m on Ralf’s list, plus five, what do you mean my name’s not down?’ Right? Well, here’s a curious thing. The day that tickets went on sale, MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large and Director of PS1 Klaus Biesenbach sent out an email emphatically stating that: ‘We have, as curators and the museum, no tickets to give away. Tickets can be obtained strictly through ticket sales. All are treated equal – $25 each, two tickets per person.’ That’s reassuringly fair, I thought – just like the post-war social democratic Europe of Kraftwerk’s imaginings! No elitism here, no sir! And then I reached the entrance to MoMA on Tuesday evening, and there was the sign, policed by clipboard-armed museum staff, clearly marked ‘Kraftwerk Retrospective: Guests’. The museum’s operators of its pocket calculators had, of course, factored in the all-important VIPs. All Kraftwerk fans are ‘treated equal’ but some are more equal than others.

But enough about Kraftwerk-Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8-Thousand Complaints About Tickets. What of the one-eighth of Kraftwerk-Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 I saw?

Kraftwerk performing at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (PHOTO + WORLDWIDE 2012 © by Peter Boettcher)

My older brother saw Kraftwerk play at the grotty Oxford Apollo Theatre back in 1981, around the time of Computer World. His descriptions of that show – which, amongst many other elements that grew to monumental proportions in my imagination over the years, included inviting audience members to play the stylophone parts on ‘Pocket Calculator’ – have always made it sound like one I would love to have seen. Turns out he was right that Kraftwerk know how to put on a show. Stationed in a row behind illuminated lecterns, dressed in geometrically patterned Tron-style jumpsuits, the quartet – which today includes only one original member, Ralf Hütter – opened their set with ‘The Robots’ (1978). Behind them throughout the show were projected films and visuals, which the audience watched through 3D glasses. A mixture of period footage from films the group made, along with new and old computer graphics, the visuals included robots looming out towards us from the stage, musical notes flying over our heads, and – the Tuesday night I attended being the night they played Autobahn (1974) – a journey down a German motorway, serenely traffic-free save for a VW Beetle and the odd passing Mercedes Benz.

In some ways Kraftwerk are the consummate band doing what bands do: As the final track from Autobahn, ‘Morgenspaziergang’, came to a close, it became clear that the audience were going to be treated to a career-long greatest hits set rather than be subject to the curatorial parameters of just playing one album per night. The cold and stately opening notes of ‘Radioactivity’ – which was, I have to admit, a moment that sent chills through me – signalled the start of a hugely enjoyable tour de Kraftwerk, which took in landmark sights such as ‘Trans-Europe Express’, ‘The Model’, ‘Computer World’, ‘Numbers’, ‘Computer Love’, ‘The Man-Machine’ and ‘Tour de France’.

Kraftwerk, ‘Autobahn’ (1974)

Like many a retrospective (if we’re going to use that term), Kraftwerk’s show was an exercise in revisionism. The gentle tracks of Autobahn comprise the group’s fourth album, not it’s first. It’s also an LP on which can still be heard the flutes, guitars and violins of their first three kosmische musik style albums, records made when Kraftwerk’s visual and sonic aesthetic was more in keeping with that of a long-haired counterculture than the square technocratic society whose look they became famous for appropriating. No organic instruments could be seen or heard during their MoMA set, and some tracks were even given a slight makeover.

I wondered if the greatest hits approach was to be the format for each night – an album, and then the popular cuts, so that nobody would be disappointed, no matter which night they came – and if so, what that meant in relation to the institutional framework of the event. To a certain extent, Kraftwerk can do what they like as far as I’m concerned; their musical achievement and the breadth of influence their music and aesthetic has had speaks for itself. It far outstrips any historical sanctification a museum can give them; any attempt to couch the work in an exhibition format is left sitting in the loose-chippings on the side of the autobahn, unless, of course, one believes only ‘serious’ art should hold the license to canonize.
And yet, seeing them play at MoMA – not just any old MoMA, but New York’s MoMA, the Ur- MoMA – activated a number of circuits of thought. On the one hand, Kraftwerk make perfect sense in the context of this museum. The affectless vocals and clean lines of their sound immediately speak to a stereotypical sense of the modern, one perfectly at home in MoMA. (And there’s a certain irony too of a group in an art museum singing songs with lyrics featuring the names of banks who today sponsor certain major contemporary art events.) Yet they also embody a far more romantic modernist fantasy of Europe after the war, of a continent trying to forge itself anew in the white heat of technology. As the tension in their music between melancholy melody and crystalline, computerized texture attests, this fantasy is bittersweet; that of doomed lovers split by the Berlin Wall, nations troubled by the pain of history and the threat of nuclear annihilation, a kind of introverted and scarred new dawn hope which was of a different character to the confident, forward-looking idealism expressed by American modernity in the 1950s and ‘60s.

However, we have to remember that the American fallout from Kraftwerk’s isotopes falls far beyond the predominantly white, uptown art establishment. Writer Kodwo Eshun once said that ‘Kraftwerk are to Techno what Muddy Waters is to the Rolling Stones: the authentic, the origin, the real.’ Their machine pulse was a huge influence on disco and dance music – a music so stiff it was funky, as producer Carl Craig once put it. They produced the kind of sounds that journalist Nelson George described as ‘music with a metronome-like beat – perfect for folks with no sense of rhythm – almost inflectionless vocals, and metallic sexuality that matched the high-tech, high-sex, and low-passion atmosphere of the glamorous discos that appeared in every major American city.’ Kraftwerk playing for rich folk and high-cultural-net-worth-celebs at MoMA signifies something very different to what the band meant for those who grew up in US inner cities; their influence over hip-hop – famously sampled in 1982 by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force for ‘Planet Rock’ – and techno is almost immeasurable. For a generation of musicians such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Mike Banks and Carl Craig – all working in Detroit, the crucible of techno – Kraftwerk provided a creative influence and also an alternative to dominant ideas of black musical identity and ‘authenticity’. (Just listen to this bootleg of Kraftwerk playing live at the Detroit State Theater in 1998 – forwarded to me by a friend who was at that show – to get a sense of the warmth with which they were greeted by their fans from the Motor City). As Peter Shapiro argues in his history of disco, Turn the Beat Around (2006): ‘That Kraftwerk was so important to many African-American musicians speaks not only of the profound disclocation that postindustrialization and the fetishization of communication technologies wrought on the black community but also of the fact that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Kraftwerk touched on something deep in the roots of all music.’

Kraftwerk, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977)

To watch Kraftwerk today is to watch a group whose work is more about the past than the future – a bit of what Peter York might call ‘antique modern fun’. The Tron-style jumpsuits speak of the 1980s not the 2010s. For me, the band’s image was always at its most powerful and strange in the Trans-Europe Express period of around 1977; the suits and trenchcoats that suggested young intellectuals on their way to attend a political think-tank in Brussels or scientific conference in Geneva – young men who might imaginably, and perhaps terrifyingly, be shaping society, rather than the more unfeasible, but fun, pretend-robot image of other albums. The vision of Europe that the music and visuals presents – the factory on the distant horizon and the empty roads in the computer graphics accompanying the track ‘Autobahn’ – now seems heartbroken rather than hopeful. (What would the picture of Europe evoked on their albums be like if Kraftwerk started today: rioting, civil war, economic collapse, the rise of the political right and plutocratic rule, privatized service industry and dysfunctional infrastructure?) Even musically speaking, in tracks from later albums such as The Mix (1991) and Tour de France (2003), Kraftwerk sound, paradoxically, like followers of the music they influenced rather than its leaders; drum patterns and synth sounds that sound less like signature Kraftwerk and more like the music of those who inspired by them in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

But whether Kraftwerk make the music of yesterday, today or tomorrow is perhaps no longer the point – we don’t, after all, value Andy Warhol any less because the celebrities in his paintings are long dead icons of mid-20th century America. Kraftwerk’s musical influence has been big, and it stretches far beyond a MoMA guestlist.

About the author

  • Dan Fox's photo

    Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York.

    His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK in February 2016, and by Coffee House Books in the US in April 2016. In 2015 he appeared on the album ‘Cave Moderne’ by The God in Hackney and the debut LP by Big Legs, both on Junior Aspirin Records