The Museum of Modern Art has never shied from the avant-garde, or artfully oddball. But there's still something surprising about a gallery atrium jammed with 450 art nerds in 3-D glasses dancing to kraut-rock. For starters, is there any actual art here?
That question is part of the point to MoMA's eight-day retrospective on electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk – who are performing their entire catalogue, one album per night, accompanied by visual compositions tailored to the performance space (that's where the 3-D glasses come in). Sure, these guys were the Skrillex of another era. But the band also meditated on emerging digital culture: Their beats were inspired by the intersections between technology and aesthetics – and created a genre that laid a foundation for house music, trance, dubstep and Deadmau5.
"I think they are seminal artists," says Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1 and the curator of the Kraftwerk retrospective. "They started out in the arts scene in the late sixties and then I think international success kidnapped them… [now]people really understand what they're doing."
Formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by classical music students Florian Schneider (who left in 2008) and Ralf Hütter, the band experimented with drum machines, analogue oscillators and vocoders to produce a new form of electronica – a minimalist, repetitive, atmospheric sound that borrowed its process from conceptual art, building from found words and symbols up.
Take the word autobahn, says Biesenbach. "When you're German, you know the signs, the street signs, that signify autobahn. So you have a word, and you have already a sign. And there's also a certain noise. So you have a found word, a found sign" – which appeared on the album cover – "and a found sound. And then they start refining and composing and creating along with that."
Technology was a tool in that refinement and composition. It was also a recurring theme. Autobahn, the title track of their 1974 album, is a 22-minute, high-speed road song focused on the interplay between a radio and the monotony of the trip. Radio-Activity punned on creativity within in the nuclear age. And We Are the Robots introduced the band's defining obsession – the interplay between humanity, machinery and creativity (robot mannequins even stood in for the band during performances).
"They were the forerunners," said Canadian musician Carol Pope at the first of MoMA's shows with Kraftwerk last week.
Then, however, came the lull. Between their album Electric Café (which was critically reviled) in 1986 and Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003, the band virtually disappeared. Their Kling Klang studios in Dusseldorf had no working phone and no receptionist; letters to the band were returned unopened. During the few occasions Mütter and Schneider gave interviews during this period, they refused to speak about anything except cycling.
Regardless, the significance of the band seemed to overcome the band itself: If the musicians insisted on privacy, their themes seemed to anticipate our ongoing, very public discourse on the dominance of the digital and its impact on, as Biesenbach says, "everything."
"I call this number for a data date/I don't know what to do/I need a rendez vous," Kraftwerk cry out in Computer Love – lyrics from 1981, long before the anomie of online dating (and while Steve Jobs was still working on the Macintosh).
Today, the members of Kraftwerk – who still don't give interviews. and were rumoured to send robots to perform in their place – seem eager to play and to engage with the world.
After the MoMA show, the band's new member Stefan Pfaffe hung around outside the museum, asking for suggestions of places to go out on Friday night. A number of bars and restaurants were suggested.
"No, no," Paffe said, politely. And, then, grinning, threw out a more specific ask: "House music."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Note to readers This story has been modified to reflect the following correction: Kraftwerk's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is taking place over eight consecutive nights. Incorrect information appeared on Saturday.