Klaus Biesenbach on Kraftwerk

Honestly, I don’t really know anything about the music world—I just know a lot of musicians.

So when I first contacted Kraftwerk in 1998 for the Berlin Biennale, while I was working with Christoph Schlingensief, I had no idea what to expect. I think at the time, Kraftwerk were at a point in their career when they had yet to decide if they really wanted to commit to the art world. The thing is, 1998 was also the height of the Love Parade in Berlin, and the organizers also asked them to take part, which they didn’t do. But I think maybe they were scared off because we both asked at the same time. It took a while, but they answered our call in 2007. That’s when we first started putting this in the works.

What we’ve done in the MoMA atrium is pretty much recreate Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf-based Kling Klang studio, down to very minute details. Attending every show and being so caught up in the process, I’ve experienced the retrospective in a very specific way: The first night I was completely exhilarated; the second night I was irritated by the rhythm and duration; the third night I was completely addicted. It was like being on a bicycle, cruising along, eventually having to go uphill, and then coasting back down again and hitting your rhythm. Then it’s in your body. When I did the interview with Jon Pareles for The New York Times together with Ralf [Hütter] the word “tangible” kept coming up. Ralf said that when he speaks during concerts, he does so from inside the music. For the Trans-Europe Express show, they performed ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ which is all about Echo and Narcissus. These are the audio and visual reflections that are both sent and received, like a radio station transmitting and receiving, an artist looking and being looked at. It’s an excellent metaphor of what’s been done here at the MoMA, which has cost a considerable amount of money to produce and involved an incredible amount of building and restructuring. My colleague from the Whitney thought that the exhibition space had already existed. No, this was created to bring people into the image, into the cube. And within the cube, people are inside the cone of 3-D projection, which extends from the screen onstage to the projector in the back. Both the band and the viewers are literally inside the art. You can’t stand on the side. I told people when they watch, they have to be in the cone.

During the first dress rehearsal, when the sub-bass came on during ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, several light fixtures started rattling. We took the frequency out, because I thought the building would collapse—I thought the paintings would fall off the walls. We ended up solving the problem of course, but it gave us a scare. The fact of the matter is that when you’re curating, especially doing a retrospective, you give up your own personality. It’s the strangest thing. When I was doing Marina Abramovic, I had to completely dive into her world and live her speed and velocity. Or better: stillness and duration. It’s an intimate experience with a work of art. It means you have to be completely available. So I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk straight for the past four months. You know, with every artist, there’s a first work where the nucleus of all future ideas is contained. And that’s extremely important to know when creating a retrospective. Here it’s Autobahn, for me. That’s subjective, of course.

I think Kraftwerk have been artists from the very beginning, but they were kidnapped by their mainstream success. Of course, everybody is happy to be kidnapped by success, but it makes it more difficult to recognize who and what they are. Still, in the sixties and seventies their studio was right next door to Gerhard Richter’s. They could have drilled a hole in the wall and been right there. But honestly, not a lot of people have understood the extent to which Kraftwerk are and were artists, in Germany especially. Of course, I assume that people like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke got it. Joseph Beuys got it. Werner Herzog and Fassbinder got it. Katharina Sieverding got it. But not many others.

For me, Kraftwerk are very much children of the BRD, the Federal Republic of Germany. I am like a grandchild of the country, and Kraftwerk are father figures. The BRD, like the GDR, dissolved—it doesn’t exist anymore, but artistically speaking, it was all about Kraftwerk, Heinrich Böll and Joseph Beuys. It used to be that Germany had the first truly active Green Party, and culturally—in art and music—this played an important role. Beuys sang ‘Sonne statt Reagan’, and there were massive anti-nuclear protests, especially against the stationing of Pershing missiles. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz featured Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, of course. I see all this in a very specific historical context, but also in an artistic one. The incredible thing is how Kraftwerk have been capable of not just updating but upgrading their material over the course of their careers.

Somehow it seems like people haven’t understood that the retrospective is an exhibition and not just a concert. People just don’t get that, and it’s been very hard to get people into a different mindset. It’s like with movies—film was the leading art form of the twentieth century, and it still hasn’t really made it into art museums. Museums can be so slow. With a time delay, art arrives with cinema, which is something I’m trying to push. I did Doug Aitken at MoMA which was big, cinematic images with no sound, then I did Pipilotti Rist, which was cinematic images with sound, then came Marina Abramovic, which was cinematic image with sound and live performance. And now it’s gone one step further. Kraftwerk is the fourth step. But there’s a fifth step, and I’m not sure what it is yet. A few months ago I went to the Cologne Cathedral to check out Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass works. And all I could think is what it must have been like a few hundred years ago to come from some mud-hut, some tiny town with no electricity, no heating, and see this incredible thing with image and sound. That’s what I imagined seeing and listening to Kraftwerk to be.~

Earlier this year we where reporting from the Kraftwer Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at New York’s MoMa, where we collected a lot of interesting takes on the legendary techno innovators from the likes of Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Klaus Biesenbach and more – Read them here.

Photo: Luci Lux

 

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A week in the life: 168 hrs Kraftwerk, NYC part 1

Photo: Max Dax

Few bands cast a shadow as long (or wide) as electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The influence of the band’s trail-blazing retro-futurism, conceptual precision and electronic minimalism is difficult to overestimate, extending beyond numerous genres of electronic music into the broader realm of art and popular culture. And the art world seems to have caught on. This past April, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art presented Kraftwerk Retrospective 12345678, a series of eight sold-out 3-D concerts, one for each Kraftwerk album, beginning with 1974’s Autobahn and ending with 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks. The result was an audiovisual tour de force that put the “werk” into Gesamtkunstwerk— with peerless kraft.

TUESDAY

Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA Ps1 & Chief Curator At Large at the Museum of Modern Art

Photo: Luci Lux

Honestly, I don’t really know anything about the music world—I just know a lot of musicians. So when I first contacted Kraftwerk in 1998 for the Berlin Biennale, while I was working with Christoph Schlingensief, I had no idea what to expect. I think at the time, Kraftwerk were at a point in their career when they had yet to decide if they really wanted to commit to the art world. The thing is, 1998 was also the height of the Love Parade in Berlin, and the organizers also asked them to take part, which they didn’t do. But I think maybe they were scared off because we both asked at the same time. It took a while, but they answered our call in 2007. That’s when we first started putting this in the works.

What we’ve done in the MoMA atrium is pretty much recreate Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf-based Kling Klang studio, down to very minute details. Attending every show and being so caught up in the process, I’ve experienced the retrospective in a very specific way: The first night I was completely exhilarated; the second night I was irritated by the rhythm and duration; the third night I was completely addicted. It was like being on a bicycle, cruising along, eventually having to go uphill, and then coasting back down again and hitting your rhythm. Then it’s in your body. When I did the interview with Jon Pareles for The New York Times together with Ralf [Hütter] the word “tangible” kept coming up. Ralf said that when he speaks during concerts, he does so from inside the music. For the Trans-Europe Express show, they performed ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ which is all about Echo and Narcissus. These are the audio and visual reflections that are both sent and received, like a radio station transmitting and receiving, an artist looking and being looked at. It’s an excellent metaphor of what’s been done here at the MoMA, which has cost a considerable amount of money to produce and involved an incredible amount of building and restructuring. My colleague from the Whitney thought that the exhibition space had already existed. No, this was created to bring people into the image, into the cube. And within the cube, people are inside the cone of 3-D projection, which extends from the screen onstage to the projector in the back. Both the band and the viewers are literally inside the art. You can’t stand on the side. I told people when they watch, they have to be in the cone.

During the first dress rehearsal, when the sub-bass came on during ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, several light fixtures started rattling. We took the frequency out, because I thought the building would collapse—I thought the paintings would fall off the walls. We ended up solving the problem of course, but it gave us a scare. The fact of the matter is that when you’re curating, especially doing a retrospective, you give up your own personality. It’s the strangest thing. When I was doing Marina Abramovic, I had to completely dive into her world and live her speed and velocity. Or better: stillness and duration. It’s an intimate experience with a work of art. It means you have to be completely available. So I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk straight for the past four months. You know, with every artist, there’s a first work where the nucleus of all future ideas is contained. And that’s extremely important to know when creating a retrospective. Here it’s Autobahn, for me. That’s subjective, of course.

I think Kraftwerk have been artists from the very beginning, but they were kidnapped by their mainstream success. Of course, everybody is happy to be kidnapped by success, but it makes it more difficult to recognize who and what they are. Still, in the sixties and seventies their studio was right next door to Gerhard Richter’s. They could have drilled a hole in the wall and been right there. But honestly, not a lot of people have understood the extent to which Kraftwerk are and were artists, in Germany especially. Of course, I assume that people like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke got it. Joseph Beuys got it. Werner Herzog and Fassbinder got it. Katharina Sieverding got it. But not many others.

For me, Kraftwerk are very much children of the BRD, the Federal Republic of Germany. I am like a grandchild of the country, and Kraftwerk are father figures. The BRD, like the GDR, dissolved—it doesn’t exist anymore, but artistically speaking, it was all about Kraftwerk, Heinrich Böll and Joseph Beuys. It used to be that Germany had the first truly active Green Party, and culturally—in art and music—this played an important role. Beuys sang ‘Sonne statt Reagan’, and there were massive anti-nuclear protests, especially against the stationing of Pershing missiles. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz featured Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, of course. I see all this in a very specific historical context, but also in an artistic one. The incredible thing is how Kraftwerk have been capable of not just updating but upgrading their material over the course of their careers.

Somehow it seems like people haven’t understood that the retrospective is an exhibition and not just a concert. People just don’t get that, and it’s been very hard to get people into a different mindset. It’s like with movies—film was the leading art form of the twentieth century, and it still hasn’t really made it into art museums. Museums can be so slow. With a time delay, art arrives with cinema, which is something I’m trying to push. I did Doug Aitken at MoMA which was big, cinematic images with no sound, then I did Pipilotti Rist, which was cinematic images with sound, then came Marina Abramovic, which was cinematic image with sound and live performance. And now it’s gone one step further. Kraftwerk is the fourth step. But there’s a fifth step, and I’m not sure what it is yet. A few months ago I went to the Cologne Cathedral to check out Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass works. And all I could think is what it must have been like a few hundred years ago to come from some mud-hut, some tiny town with no electricity, no heating, and see this incredible thing with image and sound. That’s what I imagined seeing and listening to Kraftwerk to be.

 

 

WEDNESDAY

Juan Atkins, electronic musician and founding father of Detroit techno

Photo: Luci Lux

The first time I heard Kraftwerk was on The Electrifying Mojo’s radio show in Detroit in the late seventies. This is when FM radio was still young, and there were only, like, three stations. There really was no specific format for FM radio at the time—DJs were allowed to do what they wanted. You heard them play entire albums when they felt like it, which couldn’t be more different from today’s radio format. Mojo used to play ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are The Robots’ pretty regularly, but the first time I heard ‘Robots’ I just froze. My jaw dropped. It just sounded so new and fresh. I mean, I had already been doing electronic music at the time, but the results weren’t so pristine—the sound of computers talking to each other. This sounded like the future, and it was fascinating, because I had just started learning about sequencers and drum programs. In my mind, Kraftwerk were, like, consultants to Roland and Korg and stuff because they had these sounds before any of the machines even appeared on the market.

Needless to say, Kraftwerk definitely influenced my sound, because when I heard their music I automatically knew I had to tighten up what I was doing; I had to make it cleaner and better—though not necessarily more minimal, because what I was doing was pretty minimal for the time. A lot of people think that I was copying Kraftwerk directly, but that’s absolutely not the case. For me, they weren’t any more of an influence than, say, funk—P-Funk especially. I actually had a chance to talk to Florian [Schneider] when we played Tribal Gathering together a few years back. We met up behind the Detroit stage and chatted a bit and I was really surprised to learn that Kraftwerk were hugely influenced by James Brown. Of course, P-Funk was made up of at least half the JB’s first line-up, so somehow Detroit techno was a very natural, even “fated” progression. I mean, there were other funky electronic bands around—Tangerine Dream and Gary Numan and all that—but none were as funky as Kraftwerk­. I mean, you could actually play the stuff on black radio, and that wasn’t a small feat. You could go to an all black club in Detroit and when they put on ‘Pocket Calculator’, everybody just went totally crazy.

Kraftwerk’s minimal lyrics were part of their overall concept, and definitely contributed to their special blend. I can say for sure that they put Germany on the map for me. When I was a kid in school in America, the only thing we learned about Germany was World War II. Also, I always had this impression—independently of the war—that Germany was very logical, very machine-oriented. And without a doubt, when I went to the Man Machine show at the MoMA retrospective, I could definitely hear the way they combined the machine-driven syncopations with a more human take on improvisation. And the visuals were phenomenal. I had only heard after the fact that Ralf Hütter had played an important role in choosing both Francois K and I to do our DJ sets for the Kraftwerk exhibit at the geodesic dome at PS1. I’m proud to have been a part of it.

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Empire Me is worth watching

Empire Me is worth watching Austrian director Paul Poet’s new documentary is about so-called Micronations – communities that have declared themselves independent but without being recognized by the United Nations or any government. Maybe you have heard of the pirate radio station on Sealand or Christiania in Copenhagen. There are more than 500 other communities like this across the world and the number is growing.
We sat down with Paul Poet to talk about the film.

First of all: Congratulation to your great movie. I really liked it. But I cannot get rid of one thought. Financing must have been hell right?

Well it ate up eight years of my life all in all. Exposing myself to the then widely unknown phenomenon of counter worlds. Researching and getting closer and more intimate with this ideologically different and vastly paranoid subculture and then scratching the money together. The last one sure ate up most of the time. Far more than filming itself! Now it has developed into a whopper with three production companies from three different European countries plus some TV-stations. And the more the so-called “big ones” are involved, the more hassles you have to wade through to deliver a personal, uncompromising vision on the silver screen. And I think I did!

There are a several hundred so-called micro nations all over the world. Was it hard to select just six?

Yes. There are a vast wave of these subcultures pulling together. I always name it a positive or creative corrosion of the western industrial world order. And these people aren’t dropping out like it was imagined around 1968 with their sovereign enclaves, the islands far beyond civilization. Today there is no “innocent” or “unspoiled” land, that isn’t taken and used by global powers and rules. The interesting thing is to claim it for yourself and secede from the known system. Be it by claiming your own kingdom, principality, eco-village, squat, commune or pirate raft. Whatever! All you need by international rule is to fulfill the convention of Montevideo from the 1930s which defines the state as a clear territory with borders, a clear mass of factual inhabitants which may be one, a set of legal or social rules and the will to exchange with the outer world and other countries. That’s all! Meaning anybody can claim to be his own state, even on his own couch or in his apartment or house with garden.

I didn’t know about that. It must have been hard to have only a limited amount of time to feature such a broad variation of Micronations.

No, the selection of stories for the movie was easy. I had personally met over 40 of these counter-societies. Afterwards the mindset was clear: To show the diversity of this protest movement which very much like Occupy and Company incorporates people from all ideologies and ages. 80 year old grannies to 15 year old hooligans from the extreme left to the extreme right with a whole lot of the disoriented political middle class in-between, I wanted to dive into this whole range of diversity without having a biased view. It turned out to be a very complex baroque mindfuck and at the same time very light-footed, sensual and pop-cultured. I was always interested in the combination of pop and serious political issues.

Are the rumors about your next project true? I heard you are working on Minus-Mann.

True, true! I’ve currently finished two scripts, which are financing; a portrait of the troubles and decompositions that Europa will face this year with a special eye on creative civil disobedience. This baby is called Revolt! And I am producing it with Allegro Film (We feed the World!, Dead in 3 Days) and have written it with famed political journalist Corinna Milborn, known for her books on the fortress Europe and human slave trading. Der Minus-Mann, or Unman as the international version will be called, is supposed to be my feature film debut which is currently financing and settling co-production deals on an international level. It is the cinema version of one of the most bedeviled, infamous and best–sold novels ever to come out of Austria. A merciless autobiography of an alcoholic and deeply troubled pimp, who was known as the most psychopathic and cruelest guy dealing with forced prostitution on Vienna’s red-light-district of the 1960s and 1970s.

This last question is kinda inevitable. How was working with Christoph Schlingensief on his project Foreigners out?

Big guess. It was incredible! Very loose and very free cause things were moving very fast then. You know, the whole idea of opposing the extreme right-wing drift of Austria’s government in 2000 when Haider came into mainstream power by creating a public concentration camp that worked like a Big Brother-Entertainment machine to throw asylum seekers out of the country, was created only few weeks before it happened and kept secret. Christoph who had known me for creating the first online film festival in Europe way back then, had asked me if it was possible to create the event also on the net to have a virtual container as part of the system. And regarding that, I worked quite freely as birds of a feather where I directed the whole live-stream transmission, where six surveillance cameras and two film teams where edited live into one stream, wrote almost all online texts and invented press releases and the daily short movie résumés of the mayhem. It was good!

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