The exhibition “Electro” in Düsseldorf is an unlikely tribute to a joyful and uninhibited club culture, with curators forced to contend with limits of a museum setting ... and another COVID lockdown.
DÜSSELDORF — The last party at the Berghain nightclub in Berlin lasted from Saturday evening until Monday morning. On the first weekend of December, some clubbers lined up for nine hours outside the former power plant – and still didn’t make it past the doormen. A friend said that dancing in the most famous techno club in the world on its last evening was like landing a spot in the last lifeboat to leave the sinking Titanic on 14 April 1912.
It is surely a coincidence that the first comprehensive exhibition charting the 100-year history of electronic music in Germany opened in the same week that nightclubs across the country were forced to close. It wasn’t planned that way, but it’s like opening an exhibition about the cultural history of alcohol the day after the introduction of prohibition.
Since the start of the pandemic, wild parties have been a rarity, drinking has been done behind closed doors and spontaneity has been consigned to the history books. It has become more and more difficult, and less satisfying, to experience electronic music in its natural habitat. Where before it could be a spur-of-the-moment decision, now it requires careful planning. In order to avoid closures, Berlin’s nightclubs offered to make it a requirement for all partygoers to show negative PCR tests – but the city authorities turned them down.
No more anonymity
Maybe it’s better that way. The anonymity of nightlife has already been destroyed. In October 120 clubbers who had attended the Berghain’s gay sex club Lab.oratory received a message from the Kreuzberg Health Office notifying them that they were close contacts of a COVID-positive person who had also been present. Due to an error by a staff member, the men’s (women are not allowed to attend the Lab) email addresses were all visible to the other recipients. A night of partying in supposed anonymity landed them in a data protection nightmare.
Are we witnessing the end of uninhibited nightlife? How long can clubs survive under such extreme pressure? Was everything better in the past? And what exactly do we mean by “everything?" The exhibition “Electro — from Kraftwerk to Techno” at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf traces the history of a cultural phenomenon that has had a significant impact on our society.
If you can remember it clearly, you probably weren’t doing it right
It looks back to the 1920s, to the invention of the electronic Croix Sonore, the ethereophone and the theremin, which is played through hand movements without any physical contact with the instrument, and through the 1930s and the invention of the Trautonium, an early version of a synthesizer.
The bulky, newly installed ventilation ducts and railings and the high-vis jackets worn by workers in the museum courtyard give off the right vibes. People waiting to get into Berlin’s clubs queued alongside these kinds of railings and high-vis was a popular outfit choice at raves in the ’90s. But of course that is pure coincidence.
Visitors stand in a queue in front of the Berghain in the evening, Berlin
A multi-sensory experience
The curators have installed scaffolding inside the museum’s blocky architecture. Within the square spaces created, 500 exhibits are presented against a black background with low lighting, synthesizers, photographs, record sleeves, illustrations, artworks, videos and interactive installations. And then there is the constant background noise. Star DJ Laurent Garnier has put together multiple playlists that allow visitors to travel through the major techno cities of the world.
Sometimes this music is distracting, for example when you have to put on headphones to watch videos with soundtracks. It is telling that the curators didn’t dare put on a techno exhibit in a silent museum space. Of course they could bring together all available artifacts, but the experience itself is much more difficult to recreate. If you can remember it clearly, you probably weren’t doing it right.
But still, they have made a brave effort. The show was created at the Musée de la Musique in Paris then moved to London. The exhibition has been expanded again, and Düsseldorf is a good place for it to finish its run. In the late 1970s, the city was a breeding ground for German punk and New Wave: How could we talk about techno without mentioning D.A.F. (the influential German electropunk band)? As visitors to the exhibition will learn, the first studio in the world dedicated to electronic music was established in Cologne in 1951. In the 1960s, Nam June Paik and Karlheinz Stockhausen made experimental music in the WDR studio.
Perhaps more importantly, in 1970, Kraftwerk (Germany’s answer to the Beatles) set up the Kling-Klang-Studio in Düsseldorf. Their signature lifelike android faces stare down at visitors, now and then moving ever so slightly. Then you pass into a sterile-looking room and put on a pair of 3D glasses to watch a video of a VW Beetle and a Mercedes driving on the spotless German motorway: “Drive, drive, drive.”
A low angle view of the Berghain, one of the world's most famous clubs, sometimes called "world capital of techno"
Simon Tartarotti/ Unsplash
Tech is man's best friend
Ralf Hütter, the only remaining founding member of Kraftwerk, was involved in putting the show together. The band’s work embodies what “Electro” seeks to prove: that technology is humankind’s best friend. As co-curator Alain Bieber writes in the exhibition catalog, “Out of the rubble of the Second World War, a new science fiction was born, a utopian idea and a futuristic aesthetic, which brought with it the hope of an entirely new culture, a harmonious fusion of man and machine.”
It should come as no surprise that this phenomenon was mainly centered on the highly industrialized, innovative Rhineland area of Germany. Lab and club went hand in hand. Kraftwerk used computers to create sounds; they remained cool and distanced – and still managed to work crowds up into a frenzy.
It’s easy to preserve a temple, but to live like an ancient Roman? That takes courage.
On the one hand, “Electro” is concerned with the historical and material aspects of electronic music, while on the other it attempts to recreate magical social spaces such as the Paradise Garage or the Hacienda, using flyers, photos, grainy videos and artifacts. Daft Punk’s helmets looked more striking in action than they do as relics laid out for inspection. While techno has been described as soulless, it’s clear from this exhibition that it has the potential to create highly individual experiences. It is made up of repeated sounds, and yet the unrepeatable performances transform it into something utterly unique.But without the performance, without the bodies, it doesn’t work. While techno clubs were and still are often safe spaces, where people of color and LGBTQI+ people can feel welcome, that doesn’t mean they stood for abstention and strictness: in fact, quite the opposite. The artist Philip Topolovac understood that. His enigmatic work “Vedute (Berghain)” shows the exterior of the Kraftwerk building. At the time it was created, the club was still active, but he depicts it as an 18th-century artist would paint an ancient ruin, as a relic of the past. It’s easy to preserve a temple, but to live like an ancient Roman? That takes courage.