“Electronic” shows a dancefloor culture on indefinite pause

LIKE SO MUCH else in 2020, “Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers”, an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, was overtaken by events. It was due to open in early April and, after a four-month delay, it has begun admitting visitors with social-distancing measures in place. With almost any other subject, such precautions might simply mean more room to view the exhibits. But when it comes to dance music, the emptiness highlights just how ruinous the present pandemic is to this subject’s essence.

Anyone who has been part of the electronic dance scene knows that its heart lies in communality and physical closeness. This is underlined by the photographs the visitor sees on the way in: great blow-ups of huge, happy crowds pressed together in delirium at sweaty raves. That is now, and for an indefinite future, an unthinkable idea.

This does not make the “Electronic” exhibition redundant; nor does the fact that it follows on the heels of last year’s similarly themed “Sweet Harmony” show at the Saatchi Gallery. “Electronic” complements as much as overlaps with “Sweet Harmony”. Where the earlier exhibition looked at the broad cultural sweep of electronic music and the dance scene, the Design Museum accentuates the mechanics and the visual elements of these forms. “Electronic” delves deep into the sound’s prehistory, then examines the processes both of its creators and of the graphic artists who make crucial contributions to the idiom.

It is fascinating, for instance, to encounter the Telharmonium of Thaddeus Cahill, a kind of electrical organ created in 1901 that weighed around 200 tonnes and, like a supercomputer, required its own room. It is also a joy to see a reconstruction of religious mystic Nicolai Obukhov’s Croix Sonore, an instrument which was similar in function to the Theremin, but whose form was a golden cross on top of an orb. The “imaginary studio” of Jean-Michel Jarre is filled with equipment that the pioneering composer and recording artist has used over seven decades, summing up a journey from analogue to digital to virtual reality.


Through record sleeves, posters, fliers, merchandise and insignia, “Electronic” also explores the visual identity of both record labels and dance scenes. Because dance-music artists have tended to be pseudonymous and to avoid publicising their appearance, these forms of branding are especially important. They are not just a facet of the music’s wider identity, but sit right at the heart of it. On display are the extraordinary silver abstractions on the sleeves of Prospective 21e Siècle, an electronic/experimental label active in the 1960s, as well the collages of distorted fax pages made by Tomato, an arts collective, for the band Underworld. (The band were themselves members of that collective; there is a great deal of crossover between music-makers and designers in this DIY-oriented field.)

Kraftwerk (pictured top) offer a prime example of the connection between music and artwork, as well as of the dance act as spectacle. “Electronic” shows how both they and The Chemical Brothers (pictured above) have been at the forefront of turning what could be unprepossessing performances, with static figures manipulating electronic devices, into extraordinary live shows that can fill arenas or festival stages with dazzling imagery and light. This, too, seems at present a relic from a bygone world. Another theme of the exhibition—that of the masks, both literal and metaphorical, behind which such dance musicians as Deadmau5 or Aphex Twin present themselves—has an obvious if inadvertent echo in this new world.

The unknown distance from here to the next dancefloor is emphasised, again in a way the curators could not have guessed, by the final space, a darkened club-like room where the visitor can dance along with projected images of the Chemical Brothers’ stage avatars. With the exception of those youngsters who are taking after their predecessors 30 years ago, and holding illegal events in the countryside, that’s as close as anyone is going to get to a rave for a while.

But this engrossing exhibition does offer some encouragement. At every turn, “Electronic” reminds visitors how both electronic music and dance culture have responded to technological, political and social developments, innovating as necessary. Like water, they always find a way through, or around, obstacles. They will surely do so again.

“Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers” continues at the Design Museum, London, until February 14th 2021

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/08/14/electronic-shows-a-dancefloor-culture-on-indefinite-pause
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