Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers guides visitors through one hundred years of electronic music and club culture
Hundreds of sweaty bodies pressed to each other, dancing to the beats like there’s no tomorrow. Upon arrival at London’s Design Museum, visitors to Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers are instantly transported to another world by the XXL Andreas Gursky photograph of German ravers in the Mid-Nineties. The joyful image, an almost surreal reminder of what life was pre-pandemic, sets the tone for a 90-minute journey through the electronic subculture, a club-like experience accompanied by the beats of French DJ Laurent Garnier.
While the techno and house scene is typically associated with the 1980s and 1990s, Electronic sets the record straight and takes music fans back to the very start of it all, to 1901 when the first-ever synthesizer, the Telharmonium, marked the beginning of a whole new musical era. Showing how technical innovations went hand in hand with never heard sounds, the first part of the exhibition whizzes through the beginnings of electronic music, then goes on to show how the likes of Brian Eno, Vangelis, and Kraftwerk paved the road to the mainstream from the late 1960s, leading to the golden age of the house and rave culture some 15 years later. French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, one of the founding fathers of the past 50 years’ electronic scene, designed and set up the recording studio of his dreams for the exhibition.
Moving forward, visitors walk through a handful of spaces dedicated to specific eras and cities associated with the dance movement. The journey starts in industrial Detroit, widely considered the birthplace of techno music, where bits of funk and European synth-pop fused and combined into a new sound in warehouses in the middle of the 1980s, all of it happening in the wake of the crash of the automobile industry. Videos of electronic fans dancing in and around abandoned buildings are followed by peaks into New York City clubs where – thanks to labels such as Strictly Rhythm and Nu Groove – house music conquered the club scene a decade later. Then there’s Chicago, where DJs added electronic sounds created with drum machines and synthesizers to the tracks they spun on the turntables, creating the new house sound that was quickly spread around the globe with the help of stars of the scene such as Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy.
The UK is represented by the so-called ‘Second Summer of Love’ in the Mid-1980s when the beat culture from the other side of the Atlantic took the country by storm, free parties and raves saw tens of thousands of youngsters dance the nights away. At the same time, the tabloids warned parents against the so-called drug orgies. The smiley face became the symbol of the movement. And finally, there’s Berlin, featured in a room called Utopian Dreams & Ideals. The German capital became the unofficial center of house music after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The annual Love Parade in the 1990s attracted millions from around the world and nightclubs big dogs such as Berghain, Tresor, and Watergate standing testimony to the musical era. The exhibition also shows the dance culture’s close link with the LGBTQ community, thriving and growing in the underground scene’s safety.
While electronic fans get glimpses into each of the decades, countries, and cultures with the help of pictures and memorabilia, including flyers, posters, tickets, and vinyl, music is what really brings it all back to life. Walking through the exhibition, there are dozens of listening stations featuring songs of Björk, the Chemical Brothers, or Kraftwerk (visitors have to bring their own earphones due to Covid-19 regulations), videos showing sweaty rave parties in some of the most iconic clubs from Paris to New York, of street dancers showing off their moves and artists such as the before mentioned Jean-Michel Jarre talking about their passion and works. There’s also a 3D show featuring German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk on their The Catalogue tour and a light installation by architects 1024 resembling the club vibe with banging sounds, flashing bulbs constantly changing colors.
The last room, however, comes closest to everything we experienced pre-pandemic and everything dance fans long for the most in times of lockdowns and social-distancing: a dark room full of strobes, smoke, noise, and lights with a massive video wall showing visuals to the Chemical Brothers’ Got to Keep On (created by design duo Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall), allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the music for the length of the track. While only a little over a dozen visitors are allowed in at the same time, this dance in the dark is probably the closest you get to a rave for the foreseeable future – even if it’s with sanitizers and face masks.
Design Museum London
224-238 Kensington High St