Jan Svenungsson

"Fundamental Values Corrected", in: frieze d/e, blog, January 11, 2015

For weeks I had been looking forward to attend the third Kraftwerk concert in the series of eight at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the one dedicated to “Trans-Europe Express”, an album released in March 1977.

To be looking forward to attend a Kraftwerk concert, a position I have found myself in several times since 1991, is a curious experience. On the one hand you are fully aware that the “live” event you are going to attend will include only the tiniest spectrum of live action and real time human playing. Practically all aspects of what you are going to see and hear and experience will have been carefully programmed in advance and calibrated to the second. On the other hand there is excitement building within you precisely because of this knowledge. You know that you are going to be privy to the latest stage of a glacially paced creative programming and calibration effort which has been going on for several decades, and which has striven to be the state of the art in high tech electronic music production since its beginning. Now you will able to see the utterly secretive and ageing originator(s) validating the work with his (their) live presence. You know the songs, you know the visuals, yet you are utterly curious to see the spectacle again. Since last time (in my case ten years, which in Kraftwerk universe is not such a long time ago), production values will have reached even higher perfection, thanks to new technology having become available. Song structures and details will have been tirelessly worked over and tweaked – although no new songs will have appeared. The integrated visuals will have been re-edited (now in 3D as well) and re-calibrated and some may even have been made new. Ralf Hütter and his colleagues will have become ten years older. This year Hütter will be 69 years old.

Attending a Kraftwerk performance is a unique experience of partaking in an ever new and on-going re-creation of one body of work. When songs like “Trans Europe Express” first appeared, they generated contradictory emotions of nostalgia and futurism. More than a third of a century later, we can easily see how ideas first presented here have held their promise and have become the future (creating the foundation for techno and electro, and by extension all modern pop music), which is now our present and our past. Yet in 2015 the emotionally touching elements of nostalgia, which all Kraftwerk songs share, resonate as strongly as they ever did, and the futuristic element is still there, as well, and this is what makes the art of Kraftwerk such a timeless proposition. In 2015 “Trans Europe Express” still sound new and fresh.

The day before the concert, two murderers broke into the office of a French satirical weekly magazine and killed ten of its creators, including four of France’s most important cartoonists, as well as two policemen outside. At the time of writing the killers are still at large, but it appears clear that their awful action was an act of terror motivated by religious fundamentalism. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonist artists and their colleagues paid with their lives for satirical drawings ridiculing aspects of dogma, which for some, cannot be allowed to be questioned. In a thoughtful comment in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Björn Wiman writes (in my translation):

“There’s a disturbing logic in that it was a humor magazine which is at the centre of this extreme event. Already the Fatwa crisis around Salman Rushdie could well be described as a conflict between those who have humor and those who do not. As a matter of fact, fundamentalism is always distinguished by a lack of humor.”

What happened in Paris on January 7 risks having far-reaching consequences for worsening political and cultural conflicts already going on in all parts of Europe. I don’t want to go further into this speculation now. It felt necessary to mention this event, however, as this was what I, probably many of us were thinking about while walking towards Neue Nationalgalerie on France’s day of national mourning, Thursday, January 8, 2015.

I was thinking about values. I was thinking about violence. I was thinking about humor. I was thinking about the meaning of it all. About meaning’s importance and potential cost.

What are the values that Kraftwerk proffer? What is the belief that empowers Ralf Hütter to spend his life tweaking and retweaking short pieces of music he and his then colleagues originally conceived more than three decades ago? Why not just leave it as it is? Why this obsessive need for continuous self-curation and absolute control over all aspects of the work?

I have been reading intermittent interviews with the thoroughly private Hütter since the early 1980s. No other members are ever allowed to talk in public. Hütter has one script for his answers, which he tugs and twists just a little bit, but basically sticks to with incredible determination. He believes a good statement made, say, 30 years ago, will have a similar relevancy today (if perhaps not the same). Obviously, I don’t need to repeat them here. The journalists have no choice but to take his word as it is (and in order to get the interview they have to contractually oblige themselves to submit their text for final control, I learned yesterday).  Hütter is always polite and courteous, which is duly noted by the awed journalist. The self control and media discipline of Hütter, combined with his fanatical need to control all aspects of his art, is at the core of Kraftwerk’s aura. In one way Hütter is utterly old-fashioned, just try to imagine him on Twitter. On the other hand Hütter’s dogmatic reticence has proven incredibly successful in building and maintaining a following in pre- as well as post-internet days. What values can be attached to his project?

It seems to me that Ralf Hütter’s deepest commitment is to his belief that it is possible to achieve fundamental values in artistic creation. His project is a Gesamtkunstwerk, in which the music is one part, but were other parts have an almost equal importance. For a period of time, ending in 1981, creation seems to have come easy for him, then for whatever reason, it became more difficult.  Instead of offering new compositions, with some notable exceptions (1986, 1999, 2003), all effort has since been channeled into updating and refining and editing the existing catalogue of work. This has included, in the last ten years, changing the concert visuals to 3D, which requires the spectator to wear funny glasses and which stops him (her) from moving around. As for determination and consistency this effort of self-curation, simply has no comparison in the realm of popular music, which until very recently has been where Kraftwerk is anchored.

The concert I attended took place in a world famous museum, built by Mies van der Rohe as a monument of high modernism. What is new in the Kraftwerk project, is that since late 2011, when a videoinstallation was exhibited in Munich’s Lenbachhaus, Kraftwerk seems to have decided to change its moorings. There has been more exhibition installations since – and Kraftwerk has started to take residency at famous museums such as MoMa or Tate Modern or architectural gems such as Sydney Opera House or Frank Gehry’s new Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. During such a residency, they play eight concerts, where each one begins with (a new arrangement of) one of the eight albums of their official “canon” (earlier work than 1974’s “Autobahn” have been excluded by fiat). By organizing these residencies and by letting themselves be represented by the powerful art gallery Sprüth Magers, it seems Kraftwerk has decided to museumalize its Gesamtkunstwerk.

I have seen two of the exhibition installations (of 3D videos with music): in Sprüth Magers’ gallery in Berlin and at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Without the concert situation: without the focus on a performance which is taking place at a certain time and place, the videos and the music were not sufficiently anchored in the here and now. Being at ease to come and go as I please in the gallery space, I had no reason to reflect on the absurdity and ultimate beauty of the ageing Ralf Hütter and his colleagues standing very still at their consoles for two hours (mostly) pretending to play this utterly well known music. In performance, it may still hold a surprise or two, either because they actually change a level or an echo here or there – or because this is the night when the latest update to a song’s structure or visuals is revealed.

The installations which I saw, lack two qualities which define a Kraftwerk performance. First, the technical standard of the installation, especially the sound, is in no way comparable to what is produced at a concert.  At the Neue Nationalgalerie the sound was not only extremely clear, with a wonderful dynamic range, it was also mapped in space through the use of loudspeakers surrounding the audience. The sound becomes a tactile object in itself. In the galleries, the quality has been nowhere near – and it has not been loud enough to be immersive (for obvious reasons). The result is that the installation comes across as an approximation: close but not the real thing. Kraftwerk in concert is the Gesamtkunstwerk. The presence of the human performers has a decisive importance as a reference point to the perfection of the machinery. People may try to behave like robots, but they will never fully succeed. And that is the point.

Kraftwerk’s second initiative towards the art institution and the museum, has been way more successful than the installations I just discussed. When the whole Gesamtkunstwerk is moved into the museum space, for a series of performances, the prospective audience is motivated to make huge efforts in order to come by a very limited number of tickets. The museum experiences an attention boost from associating itself with a music phenomenon. Kraftwerk is able to access a new stage in the canonization of its work. The fundamentality of its value is proven by a new body: the Fine Art establishment.

I write this on Friday afternoon in Berlin while in France the hunt for Wednesday’s killers continues with more victims and increasing chaos. It’s difficult to feel optimistic about the current moment. Yet, tonight Kraftwerk will go on stage again in Neue Nationalgalerie and play their Man-Machine concert. Ralf Hütter and his three colleagues will stand behind their consoles in their tight-fitting bodysuits, focusing all their attention on their minimal hand movements. Ralf will sing a few words, pregnant with ambiguous meaning. His minimal melodies are beautiful,  but his most important role on stage is probably to stand there and be the guarantor for his unremitting belief in his own creation. Every tiny detail of it.

For the song “The Robots” the four human operators will be replaced by robots, which will move their hands and arms in the air in a primitive pattern while the music plays by itself. The audience will adore it: adore the the nostalgic primitivism of the robots’ dance while admiring the fact that the music still seems to address the future. A future which then and there still seems full of awe and wonder.

The two situations in Berlin and in Paris which I have addressed in this text both happened in Europe, yet are worlds apart. Still I believe it is meaningful to stress, that what differentiates between Ralf Hütter’s belief in the fundamental value of his singular creation and any form of artistic fundamentalism, is a subtle sense of humour. If it wasn’t for it, Kraftwerk would be unbearable. As it is, they achieve a constantly developing, deeply emotional fusion between nostalgia for a past that never was and a future that never will be. Their creation is timeless but they are not. They are anchored in the now. Like all of us.

Jan Svenungsson, Berlin, 10. January 2015