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
April 13, 2012
“The country I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore”, remembers Klaus Biesenbach, curator at large at the MoMA in New York City. “The Bundesrepublik Deutschland vanished with the fall of the mauer. The FRG was the country of Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Kraftwerk. When I listen to Kraftwerk today, a part of me always travels through time, back into the disappeared Bundesrepublik. The other part of me understands that Kraftwerk are a present day enterprise. They are not only part of our present time, they also foresee the future.”
V2 Schneider had taken the M train to Queens, where he was warmly received by Klaus Biesenbach at the PS1 exhibition site for an in-depth interview and a cup of excellent Italian coffee with foamed milk. As it turned out, the coffee machine that produced the coffee was of the same brand as his own, a shiny, shiny Faema E-61.
The PS1 is the Queens outlet of the MoMA with a focus on communal integration. In the spirit of this idea, the PS1 performance dome, a circular white tent of immense dimensions, offers the experience of listening to Kraftwerk’s music in a crisp, clear surround sound while watching the stunning visuals laying on a huge black mattress. Immediately, he understood that this multimedia presentation and the eight shows for the chosen few were like two sides of a coin. He felt the urge to say this because on the international scale, everybody seemed to stress the fact that Kraftwerk were giving a series of hyper-exclusive shows, but forgot to mention the impressive PS1 set-up.
At a small Queens fish market, Schneider bought a plastic bag full of fresh tiger king prawns and a similar bag filled with clam shells for tonight’s aftershow dinner at Grand Street. To cool the seafood he asked for a third bag filled with dry ice. Thus equipped, he took the 7 train back to Manhattan and arrived just in time for the start of the fourth consecutive night of Kraftwerk shows at the MoMA—leaving the seafood in good hands at the reception desk.
He obeyed Biesenbach’s advice to see the show from right in front of the mixing desk—only here, at the very back of the atrium, the 3D visuals would unfold their effect in full. This was good counsel because the graphic narrative of the Man-Machine visuals was nothing less than state of the art. The track ‘Spacelab’ was a stellar experience in the true sense of the word: The camera perspective was out the window of an imagined space station onto the surface of the earth. In one sequence of the 3D installation, you could clearly recognize the northern part of the Italian peninsular—the Po delta, Milan, Bologna and Venice. The audience applauded when a satellite literally flew into the crowd. But the other sights were impressive as well.
To the sounds and words of ‘Neon Lights’, 3D animated films of noir-drenched, nostalgic neon advertisements slowly hovered through the transfixed audience. The motion of the neon lights kept floating slowly through the people even when there was a major break within the music. This is wonderfully anti-cyclic, Schneider thought, as Hütter sang the famous words with caring tenderness, for once leaving behind his robot alter ego: “Shimmering neon lights / And at the fall of night / This city’s made of light.” For a moment, Schneider felt that he was standing at the very center of the world—in New York City. When he stepped out of the museum he saw himself surrounded by the huge midtown high-rises, listening to the city’s constant bass drone in his ears.
Dinner around midnight at Grand Street. Pasta with clams and king prawns and chili.