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The thing and the place

Kraftwerk, half-men, half-machine, return to New York.

There’s nothing New York likes more than a thing. Or a place. Or a place that’s a thing. Or a thing that happens to be a place. This is the city of the impossible restaurant table, the speak­easy bar, the VIP private view hosted by a famous actor who’s not present because he’s at another VIP private view, which is identical to the one you’re at except secret and on Mars. Of course, the same stuff goes on in London or São Paulo or Mumbai but there’s something hard-wired about this behaviour in New Yorkers. Say there are three identical-looking pizza joints on a street. Two of those will always be empty. The third will have a line of people patiently waiting, checking their phones. There’s always one place that’s the place. That’s how it works.

One morning the internet told New York that Kraftwerk would play an eight-night retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art – a presentation of eight of their albums, one a night, to an audience of 450 people. Kraftwerk usually play stadiums, and are generally reckoned to be the most influential pop musicians of the past 30 years, having given birth to the electronic dance music that now soundtracks the lives of millions. Instantly there was a sort of gut recognition (at least in what is laughably called the “creative community” but really consists of a fiendish Google-alert-enhanced hipster mob who will stop at nothing to get another hit on the cultural crack pipe) that this would be the biggest MoMA thing since Marina Abramovic sat silently at a table and people cried and camped out overnight and had spiritual experiences.

Faced with such thingitude a few fans inevitably lost their minds. New York being almost improbably full of rich people, when threatened with denial of gratification, a small subset of the denied will always try to throw cash at the problem, a process that sometimes seems to be the main driver of the city’s absurd top-end service economy. Hence the appearance on the net of a scalped ticket for the Trans-Europe Express show priced at $45,000. Plus a $6,750 service fee.

Given all this, I was curious about the 449 other people in the room with me on the night of Sunday 15 April. The ones who didn’t have a commission from an august British weekly either had to be ridiculously rich, ridiculously connected or in possession of some clever sniper software. We filed into the museum past four Kraftwerk automata in coffin-like boxes.

I was surprised to be handed 3D glasses, since the band was supposed to be “live”, in the sense of present in reality, as opposed to on a screen.
With Kraftwerk, the issue of what’s living and what’s not is far from trivial. The band’s huge influence has come from their exploration of certain kinds of affectlessness, particularly the imagery of the cyborg. Formed by Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter in Dusseldorf in 1970, they started as an instrumental group influenced by minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. In their early phase, they made driving, trance-like music using Schneider’s flute over preset organ loops and a primitive drum machine. They became famous when they removed every trace of the analogue from their sound and began to sing through vocoders about radioactivity and computers and other phenomena of modernity.

Kraftwerk’s rigorous aesthetic modernism is probably what has brought them to MoMA, when other acts such as Silver Apples or Underground Resistance or Suicide or Devo or Afrika Bambaataa could lay claim to some of the same territory. Kraftwerk (German for “power station”) have an intellectual and visual agenda that complements their music. As they play, slogans and lyrics flash behind them, including a couplet from the song “Technopop”: “It will go on and on/music as the carrier of ideas.” The “ideas” carried on the sine wave of Kraftwerk’s music concern the boundaries between organic and inorganic and the Janus face of modernity, which offers the utopian promise of a rationally organised society, and the spectre of dehumanisation and totalitarianism. The band present themselves as showroom dummies, robots, cyborgs – half-men and half-objects. They sometimes wear uniforms and are photographed in heroic poses that nod to the terrifying consequences of Germany’s experiments with modernism.

hey have made themselves the poets of what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls “nonplaces” – bland, transient locations (the Autobahn, the control room) – managing to find a weird incantatory beauty in them. They seem to celebrate post-war Europe as perhaps the ultimate “nonplace”, banal but somehow perfected, and sing out its banality as a kind of transcendent pop joy.

At MoMA, we watch four middle-aged men dressed in rubber suits, painted with a wire-frame grid that seems to suggest they are waiting for software to skin them according to the preferences of the user. They stand at evenly spaced consoles that hide whatever keyboards and other interfaces they are using. With our 3D glasses on, the audience is as depersonalised as the band, enhanced in order to see the visuals but stripped of our individuality.

At first we are reserved, a little uncertain of how to behave but despite the band’s showmanly impassivity we are eventually applauding and yelling our approval at every song. Gradually we begin to dance. It is impossible (not to mention irrelevant) to work out what aspect of this performance is “live” in any traditional sense – what is atoms and what is bits. We are experiencing the aural equivalent of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, a towering symbol of the New. And we are finding the New quite funky, thank you. The auditorium is soon filled with 450 very lucky New Yorkers succumbing to the sexual discipline of the disco, bodies jerking masochistically to relentless, synthetic, industrial beats.

Hari Kunzru’s latest novel is “Gods Without Men” (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial