by Sam Rees
In the beginning there was Jack, and Jack had a groove, and from this groove came the grooves of all grooves. And while one day viciously throwing down on his box, Jack boldly declared: “let there be house!”
And house music was born.Rhythm Control, My House
Kensington High Street can put one in something of a bad mood. One of the most affluent areas of the capital, it seems to represent some of London’s more endemic transgressions: it is vulgar in its displays of wealth, pretentious in its energy and altogether removed from what makes the city throb and delight-it’s too damn clean for one thing and everyone is far too pretty. People don’t live there; they simply stride through with great importance. There comes, then, a certain pleasure in the Design Museum (just off the high street itself) choosing to curate, of all things, an exhibition called ‘Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers’, because, and let’s not mince words here: this is an exhibition of dirt and sweat and drugs. In our current climate (a phrase which manages to both be a cowardly euphemism and a lazy cliché, but more on coronavirus later), it serves as something of a respite for those missing a little misbehaviour themselves, but as such contains multitudinous layers of pain and poignancy. It is ultimately a huge success, and after attending a few weeks ago, I find it hard still to marshal my thoughts, such is the panoply of colour and noise. Some hastily taken photos on my phone, alas, are not an ample resource for an article, and so I have broken my reactions down under four headings: ‘Power, ‘Sex’, ‘Noise’ and ‘Joy, all of which are more or less self-explanatory. What follows is unlikely to be a close analysis of the progression of music technology, or a deep appraisal of the continuum of electronic artists, and I fear it will all probably be more about me than, say, Aphex Twin, but these four ‘mini articles’ are a genuine account of a human being moving through the space of an exhibition, and the thoughts and feelings that come to him as he does so.
One of the major triumphs of the exhibition is for me the reaffirming of electronica’s place in the story of anti-oppression. It takes great pains to point out the importance of space and place for LGBTQ people, as well as to demonstrate the rich relationship black people enjoy with the genre, especially with reference to self-definition and culture-creation. Alongside these more explicit social lines, there are other shades of power which make themselves known. These are not necessarily parallel to or distinct from the currents of identity politics, but rather perhaps offer an illumination as to why this story became one of liberation in the first place.
A note on novelty. Chuck Roberts tells us:
‘but I am not so selfish, because once you enter my house, it then becomes our house and our house music’.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the innate progressive capacity of such a statement, and the politics of this lyric require little explanation. But it does serve as a useful jumping-off point. 1024 Architecture’s ‘Walking Cube’ is on display here, and at first the reason for its presence is not entirely clear. A feat of engineering, the half-puppet, half-robot springs to life seemingly randomly and ‘dances’ to a specific tempo. On the one hand, we could argue it is a symbol of an almost spiritual level of inclusivity-house music imbues the non-sentient universe with animism, brings life and movement to all things. But it’s also very weird, and very funny. It changes shape and dimensions seemingly at ‘will’, suggestive of a subversion of conservative notions of the immutability of people: in the same way that quantum theory is increasingly being employed to enrich our understanding of the gender spectrum, the cube’s ‘flexibility’ points us towards more fluid notions of self. Likewise, electronica’s power comes from its irreverence, its capacity for the uncanny. It is a powerful tool because it is undeniably fun.
It is obviously not original to point out that the carnal played a large part in the progression of electronica. But it is also not original to point out that sex exists on a myriad of levels, a point brought home by what is on display here. In order to hear examples of the music being discussed, the exhibit invites you at many points to plug your headphone jacks into various ports, which can’t be seen as a metaphor for anything whatsoever and I condemn you for even contemplating it. An early sample offered is of Isao Tomita’s 1974 track ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’-somewhat austere, somewhat spacey, one begins to instantly question how such cerebral avant-garde work leads twenty years later to the jubilant displays of erotic liberation celebrated elsewhere in the building. Of course, there’s no reason to think that they do-curation is naturally an act of narrative-building; there’s no reason to buy in if it proves unconvincing. Close to the entrance is Andreas Gursky’s 1995 photo of ravers in Dusseldorf. It is a stunning monument to a time and place. Furious blotches of light canter across the scene, smokes of silver and blue rise around the heads of the subjects. Each individual face displays a rapture, a confusion, an exhaustion, one can see the organism as a whole; a great floating mass of simple one-cell phytoplankton on a pitch-black ocean. But fundamentally, the scene is an orgy with no sex. It is energy, rhapsody, heat, communality. It is mindlessness, and it is primordial. One can, to an extent, read an infinite stream of interpretations in the image-its religiosity should in particular be noted. But fundamentally, it is the deep, profound erotica of it that most endures.
Gursky’s work made me rather sad. I don’t think it would have had the same impact on me in January.
I miss other people.
The American industrial designer Raymond Loewy once remarked that ‘noise is a parasite. Anything noisy is poorly designed’. While he meant this in a broadly practical way, I can’t help but see how conceptually rich this idea is. The very last item in the exhibit is an entire room devoted to delivering a blistering experience of noise. The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Got To Keep On’ detonates around the room like an atom bomb, as the maniacal video projected on the wall burns itself on to one’s retina. This is not parasitic. It is extremity, for sure. But the visual and auditory noisiness here is entirely central. I would go as far as to argue one can find themselves in the brutality of this experience. Why else did everyone leave the room appearing distinctly refreshed? Noise is above all an acceptance of the fallibility of the universe, this high BPM distillation of that fact utilises all that is extraneous and celebrates it. In many senses, this is what we see in Gursky’s photo; the addled faces of those expunged of something, purified in some way by the assault on their senses. It’s no secret that EDM has driven itself to greater and greater extremes sonically and aesthetically in order to deliver this feeling, and many modern experiences are more pulverising than the pioneers of Detroit or Paris could have possibly imagined. But the fundamentals haven’t changed, and the desire is rooted in the same feelings. In the increasingly bland, consensus-based system most individuals are required to operate in in order to survive, the yearning to feel something, an intense, overwhelming feeling that subsumes the individual and all neurosis with it, is entirely understandable. Noise isn’t a parasite, contemporary society is the parasite, noise is the cure.
On one wall of the exhibit, a quote has been printed from a 1991 staple of house music by Rozalla: ‘everybody’s free to feel good’. Most of the music I listen to on a daily basis could well be accused of taking itself too seriously. One of the ‘joys’ of what seemed to blossom in the Nineties rave culture was a way of coupling conviction with humour. The music was ambitious, and at times incredibly conceptual (this quality being intrinsic to the roots of the genre, with particular regard to Kraftwerk), but managed to be fun without being irritating. This owes something to the egalitarianism of rave culture, as well as its appeal to working class people. On display towards the end is a video of Bicep’s 2017 track Glue, a melancholy, stripped-back affair which uses the recollections of ravers a quarter-of-a-century later, reliving the comedowns and the connections, the cheap cars pushed down ditches and the admittedly grim-looking industrial estates where these exploits took place. These are ‘real’ people from across the country, and their recollections bring forth perhaps the most important point when thinking about joy: this is only a mirror held up to how happiness functions in the western neoliberal hegemony in which we live. Rather than some exotic curio to be examined years later, the rave culture of the time was more or less how we all experience our lives; a mist of forgettable drudgery, broken by intense pinpricks of light and colour. This is why, as far as this writer is concerned, this period can cut so deep-it is in many ways a modern myth for our times, a shadow-play of our common existential experiences.
To go back to our friend ‘Walking Cube’ for a moment, for me, its fundamental value is its sense of humour. A utilitarian shape and construction has been repurposed in a randomised, chaotic way. This is the principle of electronic music and should not be viewed flippantly; when we convert the objects of industrial creation to these ends, we either commence or ratify a process of emancipation. We repurpose anti-humanistic forces of technology: we disrupt formulas, create novelty in code, introduce anarchy to electronic systems, and fill every gap with texture, softness, warmth.
We make those little sparks of joy in the mist for ourselves.
A FEW MORE WORDS…
What exists currently in The Design Museum is a reminder of a time and a place that celebrated connection, experimentation, unity, wonder, and hope. It, in many ways, may as well be an alien world to the one we are currently living in. Once the coronavirus has abated it seems to me that the dual antagonists of climate change and right-wing nationalism will be in a race to see which one can obliterate our culture first. Division and suspicion seem now the unavoidable markers of this age. But it is worth remembering that we weren’t always like this. There was a time, as the Berlin Wall fell, and The Second Summer of Love sent the vibrations of its sound systems across the world, that a few people felt that maybe, just maybe, things might be okay.
As I stepped back out in to the overly clean, overly pretty Kensington High Street evening, back into the ‘real’ world, I heard a fellow exhibition-goer behind remark to their friend:
‘There you go, that’ll see us through for a few more months’
To those two: I hope it does see you through. I hope you find soon what you’ve been looking for.