Friday, April 20, 2012

Kraftwerk at the Museum of Modern Art on 10 April 2012

Originally published by PopMatters on April 20, 2012

In recent years, as Hollywood has been bitten once again by the gimmick of 3-D, legendary critic Roger Ebert has routinely taken to Facebook and other corners of the internet to lambast the film industry for its craven efforts to wring more money out of cinema-goers. I tend to side with Ebert on the topic though. As the parent of a 4th grader, I’ve certainly given in and donned silly glasses for 90 minutes in the pursuit of entertainment. I wonder what Ebert might think of Kraftwerk using a vast 3-D screen as part of their eight-night audio-visual series at the Museum of Modern Art.

The conceit with Kraftwerk is that while they’re undeniably futuristic, there’s a certain level of classic kitsch in the mix. It must have blown people’s minds when they first heard “The Robots” or “The Man-Machine”, for example, though much of the imagery of that time period was based on a Modernist movement which was already 40 years old. It’s within this dichotomy of retro-futurism that Kraftwerk initially found its relevance, and it’s there where they remain relevant today.

As a fad, 3-D film made its biggest initial splash in the early 1950’s, giving audiences “Astounding! Astonishing! Amazing!” experiences with schlocky flicks like The Mad Magician and It Came from Outer Space, in an age of cinema gimmickry where theatergoers found their seats vibrating and 30 different syncopated smells sprayed in their faces. The experience, we’re told, is different today than it was even in recent years past, and I suppose there’s some truth to that because we no longer have to wear glasses with one red lens and one blue (though as another throwback, those old timey glasses are on the cover of a fancy Kraftwerk book sold in the MoMA gift shop).

Perhaps it’s because I’m jaded, but 3-D in the modern age isn’t packing much more of a punch than it ever has. Which brings us back to Kraftwerk.

The MoMA retrospective is billed as a complete run-through of Kraftwerk’s entire back catalogue, providing one ignores their first few albums and begins with 1974’s digital travelogue, Autobahn. Over eight consecutive nights, Kraftwerk is performing an album in its entirety, though each show also contains highlights from other releases. The residency’s opening night (Tuesday, April 10) kicked with “The Robots,” a single from 1978’s The Man-Machine, before Autobahn was tackled in full. It was a shrewd opening salvo, introducing the longstanding half-gimmick of the members of Kraftwerk being robots themselves (a point actually first made in the lobby where robot versions of the four current members of the group slowly moved…well…robotically in glass cases. It was as though Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents had been overrun by the aliens in This Island Earth.

To the credit of Kraftwerk and MoMA, the Marron Atrium could have probably held twice as many people as they let in, but in the spirit of the immersive experience they allowed attendees to have a bit of breathing room. And honestly, if you’re speeding down the vast expanse of the Autobahn wearing cardboard 3-D glasses, the last thing you want upsetting the fantasy is being packed like sardines on the L train during the morning commute. The 3-D was great about half the time, and the other half it wasn’t particularly necessary. Whether 3-D added anything to the experience of seeing the sleek lines of the “Trans-Europe Express” come reasonably to life on the large screen behind the group is hardly the point. The evening included 3-D because 3-D is very Kraftwerk.

There they stood, nearly perfectly still, for just shy of two hours, resplendent in black bodysuits that were equal parts Tron (the original, ‘natch) and Spider-Man’s symbiotic Venom costume. Ralf Hütter is the sole remaining founding member of Kraftwerk, with his longtime co-conspirator Florian Schneider having left the fold in 2008. If it’s possible for a group largely modeled after barely animate robots that hasn’t released new music in nearly a decade to have an essential member, Hütter certainly fills the bill. Most of the lead vocals—often monotone, but with a vulnerable humanity—on the group’s classic tracks came from Hütter, and it remains so on stage in New York; he wears the only headset microphone, and any other voice heard comes via loops or outer space or wherever.

The future-past theme only holds water until the music comes into the conversation; nearly 40 years ago, Kraftwerk must have seemed as though they’d beamed in from another dimension, a window into a clean, emotionless yet oddly sexy future. And they still sound like that today, because for all the shit they influenced, and all the iPad apps that can create music on the fly, we still haven’t caught up to what Kraftwerk were doing as far back as Autobahn in 1974. I thought perhaps it was a trick of the eight-channel video and sound installation developed solely for this series of performances, but listening to the music now on my tiny laptop speakers it still brings me back to the future.

Tickets for the retrospective quickly sold out, adding to the exclusivity of the event, though the entire affair was as civilized as one might expect given the venue. Besides a guy in a wizard hat and sandals playing a harmonica, no one prowled the line outside hoping for a spare ticket. Inside, personal space was respected, and no one rushed the stage or craned their necks in vain to see over the group’s lecterns to find out how they made all those wonderful sounds. The crowd looked like something out of a Kraftwerk song, sharply dressed, all with the same goofy white cardboard 3-D glasses. A few danced, but most were struck with awe at a legendary group bringing their aesthetic to life in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. 

Whether you made any of the performances or not, it’s worth heading across the East River to Queens for a presentation of Kraftwerk’s historical audio and visual material at the MoMA PS1 Performance Dome through May 14. For more information, visit