Spring Arts Preview

The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA

A one-week extravaganza in the atrium is a curator’s dream come true
 The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA

'The Robots' by Kraftwerk. (Courtesy the artist and Museum of Modern Art)

MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach has seen the German electronic music group Kraftwerk play live many times, but when asked to name his favorite performance he didn’t hesitate. “In the [2009] Manchester International Festival, they played Tour de France in the velodrome,” he said, referring to the band’s most recent album, its eighth, released in 2003. The crowd watched the performance through 3D glasses as the national cycling team of Britain raced around the stadium. “They were so fast,” he recalled. “I think this was just the most delirious performance.”

This spring, Mr. Biesenbach, who also serves as chief curator-at-large at MoMA, will bring that delirium to the museum. For eight straight nights, April 10-17, its soaring atrium will play host to concerts by the famously reclusive group in what the museum is terming a “time-based retrospective,” titled Kraftwerk–Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.  Each night the quartet will perform one of its albums, moving in chronological order from the laid-back jams of Autobahn (1974) to the taut, precise Tour de France, accompanied by elaborate sets and visuals designed by the group.

To say the event proved popular would be a gross understatement. When tickets went on sale last month, the series sold out in less than two hours, and the online ticketing site crashed. But those who failed to snag tickets are in luck. Kraftwerk is designing a special eight-screen surround-sound video installation for MoMA PS1’s performance dome, the Epcot-style structure that Mr. Biesenbach recently established at his Queens museum. “You can just go there, lie down, and totally dive into Kraftwerk,” he said. “It’s open for everybody.” In addition, during the day, listening stations will be available at MoMA for visitors.

When he spoke with The Observer, Mr. Biesenbach was preparing to visit the group’s Kling Klang studio outside Düsseldorf, Germany, to see the work, which is being made specifically for the New York shows. From around 1970 to 2009, Kling Klang was in Düsseldorf, though its exact location was a closely guarded secret. In 2003, a Guardian writer visited the city in search of the studio. He questioned a local record-store owner and found the bicycle shop frequented by Kraftwerk cofounder Florian Schneider, but he never found Kling Klang.

Mr. Schneider left the group to pursue solo projects in 2009, ending a 40-year collaboration with Ralf Hütter that began when the two were students at a music college in Düsseldorf, which was the center of Germany’s contemporary art world at the time. Just as Messrs. Hütter and Schneider were experimenting with early electronic instruments, the dealer Konrad Fischer was showing pioneering Conceptual and Minimal art, and Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys were teaching at the city’s art academy.

homecomputer web The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA

'Home Computer' by Kraftwerk. (Courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art)

After three early albums of jams and experiments, Kraftwerk’s cofounders quickly found their distinctive sound on Autobahn: precise, pop-inflected electronic dance music paired with simple, ambiguous lyrics processed through a vocorder. The songs celebrate technology while also highlighting its alienating effects. “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn” (“We are driving, driving, driving on the Autobahn”) they sing on the 22-plus-minute “Autobahn,” mimicking the chorus of their heroes, the Beach Boys, on their 1964 hit “Fun Fun Fun.”

Like the Beach Boys, Kraftwerk’s members expertly crafted their images. By their next album, Radio-Activity (1975), they had all adopted the same signature close-cropped haircuts and identical outfits. “After the war, German entertainment was destroyed,” Mr. Hütter told the music critic Lester Bangs in Creem in 1975, “The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off.”

“They are one of the very few bands who created a style,” said Monika Sprüth, the cofounder of the London/Berlin/Cologne gallery Sprüth Magers, noting Kraftwerk’s connection to early 20th-century Russian Constructivism, which informed the sharp geometries and bold colors of their album covers and stage sets. She met Mr. Hütter in the late 1960s, when they were in architecture school together, and now represents the band through the gallery. “We’re not selling anything from Kraftwerk,” she said matter of factly. “I’m the adviser.”

moma kraftwerkretrospective manmachine The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA

'Man Machine' by Kraftwerk. (Courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art)

Many of Ms. Sprüth’s artists are devout Kraftwerk fans. When the German painter Thomas Scheibitz was planning his 2005 Venice Biennale show, Ms. Sprüth asked him if he had any special goals. He wanted to work with Kraftwerk, he said. Though he didn’t know it, it just so happened that his dealer had been friends with them for almost 40 years. The band played the Biennale.

That performance led to more discussions between the group and the dealer. “I was thinking it would be phenomenal if they could get honored in another way,” Ms. Sprüth said, “if they could get recognition at the highest level.” And so it happened that the band is now playing at MoMA.

For American audiences, Kraftwerk seems to embody a quintessentially German aesthetic: precise, cold, rigid. In the “Sprockets” skit on Saturday Night Life that lampooned German avant-garde culture, Mike Myers played a pretentious intellectual named Dieter who dances to Kraftwerk’s 1986 song “Electric Cafe.”

That aside, the band’s aesthetic is not so far from the meticulously constructed photography that emerged from Düsseldorf in the 1980s, in the work of Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and especially Andreas Gursky, another Sprüth Magers artist and Kraftwerk devotee, like Rosemarie Trockel. And “Klaus was always a big fan, too,” Ms. Sprüth said.

Mr. Biesenbach grew up just a short drive outside Düsseldorf in the 1980s. In 1991, he started the Kunst-Werke kunsthalle—a non-collecting museum like MoMA PS1—in Berlin, to which Germany’s contemporary art world had quickly gravitated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “That name was inspired by Kraftwerk,” the curator said. “It’s a dialogue.” Kraftwerk translates to power station, while Kunst-Werk reads as artworks.

For Mr. Biesenbach, Kraftwerk’s art is about “mobility, telecommunications, and more and more functions in our life becoming machine-made”—the group refers to this union of humans and technology on  The Man-Machine (1978), the fourth album in the retrospective series. (The complete lyrics of its title track, in English, are: “Man machine, pseudo human being / Man machine, super human being.”)

Kraftwerk’s focus on technology has proved prescient, Mr. Biesenbach argued. They addressed nuclear energy early, the union of man and machine and, on their fifth album in the series, computer technology. “They had Computer World when nobody had a computer and nobody had a laptop,” the curator laughed. “Just imagine those guys. They were the perfect iPhone people.” (These days, Mr. Biesenbach listens to Kraftwerk on his iPhone.)

moma kraftwerkretrospective tdf The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA

'TDF' by Kraftwerk. (Courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art)

While Kraftwerk’s influence on pop music is undisputed—it’s hard to imagine what electronic music would sound like without the band’s influence—its direct power on younger artists is harder to ascertain. It’s certainly there in the work of the New York music performance group Fischerspooner, who also appeared in the museum’s atrium in 2009 for a project that the curator organized for Performa.

The Kraftwerk extravaganza comes just two months after Mr. Biesenbach’s enormously popular Antony and the Johnson’s show at Radio City Music Hall. Could a shift in focus be on at MoMA—the curator taking on the role of blockbuster concert booker? “It’s actually a coincidence,” he said of the timing. “Kraftwerk should have been happening two years ago, but we really needed a supporter for this. It’s quite a huge effort.” Volkswagen is helping fund the project.

He compared the Kraftwerk show to Pipilotti Rist’s immersive installation in the atrium in 2009, which blanketed its walls in lush, digital videos, and Marina Abramovic’s exhibition-long performance at a table in the atrium the following year, where she stared down all comers from her wooden seat.

Mr. Biesenback is transporting their studio from Düsseldorf to the atrium, essentially letting audience members in on a studio visit.

“You can see them make art,” he added. “It’s about making art live.”


Follow Andrew Russeth on Twitter or via RSS. arusseth@observer.com


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