From squat synthesizers to a gyrating cube, a new exhibition dedicated to dance music culture poignantly brings the spirit of communal celebration to a museum
Contrary to its subtitle From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers, Electronic’s timeline begins in 1901 with the first ever synthesizer, the Telharmonium, and whizzes through decades of innovation, from maverick boffins fussing over wires and dials to the pop breakthroughs of Brian Eno, Giorgio Moroder and Jean-Michel Jarre, who has curated his ideal studio set-up inside a glass case. Yet all of this is really just a preamble to the invention of house music in 1980s Chicago, the point at which electronic music became synonymous with club culture. The entire exhibition pulses to the beat of themed mixes by French DJ Laurent Garnier, giving it a noisy, bustling energy. Even Kraftwerk are represented here by a 3D video of their 2017 tour, which shows the 1970s pioneers themselves influenced by the technology and stagecraft of their dancefloor disciples.
Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk are celebrated in a 3D video of their 2017 tour. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
What does electronic music look like? Devices, of course, tracking the long journey from the lab to the club. A 1930s Croix Sonore, glowing like the sceptre of an intergalactic priest; a stately Ondes Martenot; a grubby Roland TB-303; a tripedal synthesiser, custom-made for Detroit DJ Jeff Mills by Yuri Suzuki, which resembles a Wellsian war machine. Then there is the imagery evoked by these strange new sounds, from the sci-fi psychedelia of the 1960s to the stark typography and geometry of 1990s techno artwork. The abstract data streams of Weirdcore’s visuals for Aphex Twin’s live shows contrast with the overflowing shelves of vinyl records in photographer Christopher Woodcock’s Bedroom Rockers series. Galleries of club fliers chart club culture’s evolution from community-hall amateurism to billion-pound industry. There are high-profile contributions from visual artists Jeremy Deller and Christian Marclay, fashion designer Raf Simons, film-maker Chris Cunningham, graphic designers Peter Saville and Designers Republic, and architects 1024, whose dancing metal cube clanks alarmingly to life like a junkyard robot.
There’s a possible version of this history that focuses on the faceless, borderless qualities of electronic music, but this exhibition prefers the communal and corporeal. Spaces are themed around cities – Chicago, Detroit, New York, Berlin – and the national phenomenon of Britain’s Second Summer of Love, thus illuminating different nightlife rituals. You’re drawn to bodies and faces: a video of Detroit street dancers, a collage of clubbers preparing for the weekend in Mark Farrow’s playful advertising campaign for the 90s superclub Cream, Parisian dancers frozen in awe in Jean-Christian Meyer’s grainy black-and-white portraits. The section called Utopian Dreams and Ideals presents clubs such as Berlin’s Berghain as safe spaces for LGBTQ people, while a wall chart of Britain’s unlicensed raves recounts another kind of liberation through dance music alongside government efforts to constrain it. Electronic music is often associated with robots, aliens and, less flatteringly, drug-frazzled zombies, but it has allowed many marginalised people to be more fully human. Such are the new possibilities for self-expression and communal celebration that sprang from those squat silver boxes.
Some aficionados of electronic music might quarrel with the choice to elevate DJs and dancers over inventors and therefore to concertina the pre-1980s narrative – trailblazers such as Wendy Carlos and Daphne Oram are gone in a blink – but that decision is what makes Electronic so warm, humane and surprisingly moving. The exhibition culminates in an installation by Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, which reconfigures their stage visuals for the Chemical Brothers’ Got to Keep On in a small room full of noise, smoke and lights. It feels like electronic music’s proof of concept, pulling together music, film, fashion and modern dance into one dizzying sensory experience. Even more than 1024’s room of serried rods that light up in response to Garnier’s music, it offers a pungent taste of what is otherwise only depicted.
Illegal raves have been springing up around Britain in recent weeks, but it is strange to think that the closest one can get to a legal approximation of the dancefloor, for now, is a few precious minutes in a museum. Even with social distancing, the curators have ensured that visitors have permission to dance. If you take the opportunity, make sure to watch your fellow revellers’ faces.
Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers is at the Design Museum, London, from 31 July–14 February 2021.
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