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Kraftwerk, “power plant” in German, is the name of an electronic music band that was born in the seventies in Düsseldorf and whose repercussions in the history of contemporary music is widely recognised. This June they will be at Sónar. Up to this point everything makes total sense.
What catches more one’s attention is the repercussion they’ve had in the means traditionally used for exhibiting art: in 2005 they played at the Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art; in 2011 a 3D installation of the group was exhibited in the Lenbachhaus museum in Munich; in 2012 they played over eight days an abridged compilation of their whole recording career at MoMA; in January this year they exhibited at the NRW Forum Wirtschaft und Kultur museum in Dusseldorf, and in February performed in a retrospective for eight days at the Tate Modern. Though it’s true we are increasingly more accustomed to interdisciplinary curatorial proposals, we ought to ask ourselves what criteria have been used in each case. In the case of Kraftwerk, is it a genuine opening up of the institutions to new formats? Or an isolated acceptance of a new format because it isn’t too conceptually out of tune with what is already accepted?
Modern and contemporary art centres don’t have to make a huge effort to justify the inclusion of Kraftwerk in their programmes; it’s clear that their mise en scène and video-clips are ground breaking and not so far removed from Bauhaus or Constructivist aesthetics. But, aren’t there perhaps numerous other groups with equally innovative aesthetics? The first that occur to me are David Bowie (to whom the Victoria and Albert is already dedicating an exhibition) or Pink Floyd—. The way things are going it’s not that rare to see shows exploring the culture of popular music in art centres, such as the retrospective of the history of jazz at the Quay Branly and the CCCB; the work Acid Brass, by Jeremy Deller in the Louvre or Rock’n’roll 39-59 at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain.
However, these are an exploration of a culture outwith contemporary art within it’s own heart, a translation or reinterpretation through the codes of contemporary art institutions. In the case of Kraftwerk, we’re not talking about the exploration of a subculture, but that the group shares directly some codes with contemporary art.
At the beginning of the seventies, Kraftwerk already included in their music sounds recorded in the real world, such as in the song Autobahn, where one can hear the sound of a car being driven along a road. Equally it was one of the first groups to use exclusively electronically processed music, and in the lyrics of their songs they were ahead of their time in reflecting on a present and future dominated by technology. The members of the group attenuated their own presence as musicians and as people, and accentuated the electronic presence. In fact, for years now they haven’t granted interviews as humans, but instead send their robotic alter egos. The greatest sources of inspiration for Kraftwerk —technology, speed and the monotony of travel— are faithfully translated in their sound, equally monotonous and cyclical. Perhaps one of the factors that most attracts the world of contemporary art to this group is their “pseudo-anonymity”, something akin in the music of the seventies-nineties to the current post-photography, generated, as Marina Vives said in her article ‘Post-photography and para-collecting ‘ to a large extent by the reinsertion of pre-existing elements (photographs or sounds) that are given a different meaning. In short, the code that Kraftwerk shares directly with contemporary art is that they don’t produce music guided simply by a particular aesthetic, so much as reflect upon the very process of production, and do so in relation to a particular context.
That the insertion of Kraftwerk be different to that of other groups or musical styles returns us to the quid of the question: in what way are curatorial programmes including the group in their agenda, to achieve an inter-disciplinarity that is already increasingly evident in contemporary art? The fact that we can see our favourite group in a concert hall as much as in a museum can lead to the danger of which Rancière warns: “[the form of the total art work] tends to be more that of some inflated artistic egos or a form of consumerist hyper-activism, when not both at the same time”.
With this, I don’t propose a return to segmented, hieratic disciplines, but yes that we consider what criteria are being used for this class of disciplinary mix in traditional exhibition spaces. These could be equated to nomadic movements, as they deal with travelling through the disciplines, with mobility. This walking, this journey, that is precisely the principal theme of the group, supposes a resistance to institutional stagnation. Perhaps the music of Kraftwerk offers us a few clues about where this inter-disciplinarity is leading us.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)