Four months later than originally planned, the Design Museum in London hosted ‘Electronic: From Kraftwerk To The Chemical Brothers’, a remarkable retrospective of electronic music

Like so many events in 2020, ‘Electronic: From Kraftwerk To The Chemical Brothers’ very nearly didn’t happen.

“It was due to open in April, so we’d done the bulk of the build,” explains Gemma Curtin, curator at the Design Museum in London, sitting at the opposite end of a table within the impressively commodious concrete and glass edifice. “We had the objects and we were about to assemble everything when the lockdown happened. It was all still in the crates. We had the feeling that the exhibition might never take place. The crates could have just been sent off again.”

Such an eventuality would have been a big comedown for the Design Museum so soon after winning European Museum of the Year in 2018, but glimmers of hope began to emerge as the UK government started easing the measures it had put in place to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Suddenly we felt there was a chance we could extend our loans and there was a real sense of optimism,” continues Curtin.

Four months later, the Design Museum has reopened its doors and the public is finally able to see this immersive exploration of electronic music. Admittance is staggered and those entering need to be aware of certain safety precautions but, to all intents and purposes, it’s the same exhibition that was planned before the world changed.

CORE by 1024 architecture

‘Electronic: From Kraftwerk To The Chemical Brothers’ is a modified version of the ‘Electro: From Kraftwerk To Daft Punk’ expo that took place at the Philharmonie de Paris last year. The soundtrack, expertly curated and mixed by Laurent Garnier, is the same, but lots of pertinent design dimensions have been added, in keeping with its new space. There’s also a stronger narrative about what dance music and rave culture means to the UK, as well as what it might mean in the future. 

The exhibition looks back in celebration and forwards with some trepidation at the uncertainty that lies ahead with the advent of Covid-19. Many of the UK’s nightspots were already living on borrowed time, with venues being boarded up and redeveloped, a proliferation of bijou flats benefiting from the reputations of the vanquished superclubs they now occupy. Surveying the wreckage of this once proud demi-monde we call club culture, a tacit question hangs in the air. Is this where it all ends up, on a wall in a museum? And that question has become more pertinent since the start of the pandemic. 

The carefree experience enjoyed by last year’s Parisian spectators has been swapped for something more profound and existential. Everything is sanitised and systematised, with visitors wearing masks like some of their EDM heroes, who had themselves been blurring the lines between reality and dystopia.

So perhaps the biggest surprise is that it’s a strikingly spiritual trip, culminating in some defiant dancefloor theatrics at the exit, where there’s a room full of smoke, strobes and pink creatures sashaying to the sound of The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Got To Keep On’. Although it was all planned before anybody knew what was coming, it feels like an empowering denouement to an enlightening retrospective. This is a show that is serious about fun and one that treats rave culture with the respect and historical reverence it deserves.

“It’s not necessarily seen as high art, like opera or ballet, but it has a huge significance for a lot of people,” says Marcus Lyall, one half of Smith & Lyall, the long-standing team behind The Chemical Brothers’ live AVs and the pair responsible for the ‘Got To Keep On’ installation. “It’s not just people messing about, there are a lot of life experiences bound up in it.”

Got To Keep On (2019), installation by The Chemical Brothers and Smith & Lyall

As if things weren’t turned on their heads enough, the Design Museum now appears to be the only place in Britain you’re allowed to have a little dance. It’s the closest you’re likely to get to a nightclub for a while, even if you are there at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.

“What’s missing is a load of minicab drivers outside,” jokes Adam Smith, Marcus Lyall’s partner. “I think people are finding it quite emotional going through the exhibition, then ending up in that room and remembering how much they miss going out.”

“We were only putting this together last year, but it already feels like ancient history,” adds Lyall. “If Covid-19 isn’t a full stop, it’s certainly a big comma in the history of clubbing. It’s definitely going to change things. There will be a before and an after, so this show feels like it encapsulates a certain period in the electronic music story.”

James Cauty, Riot Shield

Jean-Yves Leloup, curator of the original Paris event, was approached by the Philharmonie de Paris about the possibility of an expo back in 2014. After one failed proposal and with a number of discussions and ideas floating around, it finally took place five years later, with the new Philharmonie conservatrice Marie-Pauline Martin at the helm.

“Electronic music is perfect for something like this because it has so many links with the visual arts,” says Leloup.

It was quite an achievement to have secured the participation of artists like Kraftwerk and Daft Punk, who hide behind a veil of anonymity and are not the easiest characters to pin down. Were they difficult to convince?

“No, absolutely not,” he says emphatically. “Firstly, I knew Daft Punk a little bit from the early days. We all started together.”

Leloup first met Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo on his Radio Nova programme in the early 1990s.

“They were musicians and we were journalists from the same generation,” he continues. “All of the DJs and the musicians came to Paris to play at parties, so I met everyone – Aphex Twin, Underground Resistance, Richie Hawtin and, of course, Laurent Garnier.”

Leloup was also working as an editor at the dance magazine Coda at the time. In the years since, he has curated a number of well-received exhibitions about electro and techno in France.

“I had one foot in the club scene and another in the art scene,” he explains.

As for Kraftwerk, Leloup wrote a letter to Ralf Hütter, who replied in the affirmative almost immediately. He believes the embrace of Gesamtkunstwerk by the German electronic pioneers is key to their involvement, especially given their more recent penchant for playing venues such as the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. 

Kraftwerk’s famous 3D live set has been adapted for this show and is projected onto a single cinema screen in a specially designated room. At the Design Museum, the visitors are issued with 3D glasses, which they deposit in a bin at the end of the tour, along with a cable to connect to various audio stations using their personal headsets.

Although convincing Daft Punk to participate hadn’t been a problem, waiting for them to conceive and then bring their exhibit to fruition caused Leloup a few sleepless nights. The duo teamed up with Hedi Slimane and went to great lengths to create their rouge diabolique installation at the Philharmonie, only to withdraw entirely when the idea of taking the expo to London was mooted. But while their absence looked like it would leave a large, robot-shaped hole, staff at the Design Museum had already started wondering how they could adapt the show for their own purposes.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘Why would we do it here?’ and ‘How could we bring design into the exhibition?’,” says Gemma Curtin. “It was a much more art and photography focused show in Paris, but we wanted to do something different, something that was more relevant to the UK. That conversation happened at exactly the same time Daft Punk said they didn’t want to be involved any more. Jean-Yves Leloup said it was very typical of them.”

So instead of Daft Punk and the likes of French artist Xavier Veilhan, whose wooden sculptures of Brian Eno and Giorgio Moroder added a contemporary art feel to the Paris event, the Design Museum brought in a swathe of material that was far more germane for British electro-heads. These include Aphex Twin’s latex masks from the ‘Come To Daddy’ video, Peter Saville’s Haçienda graphics, Jeremy Deller’s ‘The History Of The World’, NME covers documenting the rave era, and record sleeve designs for artists and labels like Underworld, Autechre, Hyperdub, Warp and Lo Recordings. 

There are also representations of New York and Chicago clubs, which have a capacity of just one person at a time, and machines ranging from the 1932 Croix Sonore to more modern apparatus like the Electro-Faustus EF109 Drone Thing. An imaginary studio created by Jean-Michel Jarre, which includes his famous laser harp, is another of the attractions. 

“I asked Jean-Michel to make a reproduction of a 1970s music studio from the time when he did ‘Oxygène’,” says Leloup. “He didn’t want to do anything too old fashioned and asked if he could imagine his ideal studio, where he would gather his favourite instruments from throughout his career. It was a better idea than the one I’d had. He didn’t want to be seen as being stuck in the 70s, as he’s still very much involved in the development of new machines and software.”

Collapse by Aphex Twin, designed by Weirdcore

At this point, we should address the elephant in the room. Taken on international record sales, replacing Daft Punk with The Chemical Brothers might not seem like a fair swap. But any such fears are soon allayed, with their antecedents left to, ahem, eat dust thanks to the transformative display by the former Dust Brothers.

“We’ve got as many strobe lights in that room as there are on the main stage at Glastonbury,” chuckles Adam Smith. “Which is a bit excessive.”

Smith & Lyall have certainly pulled out the stops for the final dancefloor installation, downscaling an ebullient stage spectacle and attempting to maintain the same visceral punch you’d get at a festival.

“It’s not just a different scale, it’s a different context,” admits Marcus Lyall. “If you go to a concert, there’s a whole lot of things that you come ready to do. At a museum, you’re preloaded with a lot of other expectations.”

As it turns out, most of the visitors have been responding favourably, sometimes longingly, and often with abandon.

“For us and for our friends, people who have been involved in music from the late 80s onwards, this has been amazing,” continues Lyall. “They’re pointing and saying, ‘Been there’, ‘Remember that’, ‘Bloody hell’… It’s nostalgia, but this was also a meaningful period for people of our vintage. This was a massive cultural upheaval that hasn’t really been equalled since.” 

“Some people were moved by the exhibition because they used to be clubbers or ravers in the 90s,” says Jean-Yves Leloup. “Sometimes it’s a reminder to them of their lost youth. And, of course, we have these new circumstances that are bringing more emotion to the proceedings.”

Leloup hasn’t been able to see the London show due to the pandemic, but he’s hoping to attend in the next few weeks and witness the changes that have been made for himself.

“I think we’re discovering a lot about ourselves at the moment, discovering what is important and what we need,” says Gemma Curtin. “When you come into an emergency situation, you feel like all you need is your health and a supply of food. But as a cultured society, we do need more than just those things. That includes music, and the enjoyment of music, and the sharing of music with others. I think this exhibition really does rejoice in that.”

‘Electronic: From Kraftwerk To The Chemical Brothers’ is at the Design Museum, London, and ran until 14 February 2021

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