Monday, 2 February 2015

Kraftwerk: Pop Art & The Wrinkles On The Machine

'Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness.' - Walter Benjamin

Kraftwerk are mannequins, or more appropriately, showroom dummies in the techno-utopia department store (situated in the digital world update of Benjamin's Arcade).  They are not real. Can you prove otherwise?

Perhaps you have seen them? Were you one of the few who were lucky enough to get tickets for the Tate Modern show last year? If so, did you pinch yourself? 'It must be a dream, can that really be Kraftwerk up there on stage?'

Since they took to standing still (aside from the slightest movements to the beat from unruly newer members) whilst performing, the illusion is complete. They wish to appear mannequin-like. Should we not grant them their wish and deny the existence of flesh and blood?

Kraftwerk shun interviews on camera because they would appear human with a cough, smile, mumble, uttering imperfect sentences, pausing etc. It would give the game away, destroy the illusion. But they are not real. They have achieved more than the mere fusion of man-machine by total elevation into the realms of imagination. As befits our age of the social network, Kraftwerk are a name, a digital entity we will never meet. You will not be able to get back stage, ever. There will be no selfies posing alongside Ralf. They do not want people, common people, next to them.

Unfortunately, as I watched BBC4's film Kraftwerk: Pop Art on TV last night, it struck me that Ralf Hütter is human when footage of the Tate performance was shown. He is all too human. But I wanted them to look like showroom dummies. Or robots, of course. Ralf Hütter, stage right, the only original member, has aged! No! That's not right. Robots don't age. Well, they do, but not in golden age sci-fi films, where all equipment looks freshly made that day. Modern directors who think they're being clever by designing futurist sets that show signs of wear and tear may be right in their prediction, in one respect, but considering today's rip-off gadget update culture, perhaps they're wrong. In the future, everything will look shiny and new because corporations will ensure that anything over a year old will not work. So film-makers were right in the 50s after all.

Ralf Hütter is 68 years-old. No close-ups allowed. But he is showing signs of age. Is there a slight paunch hidden behind the console? Are those wrinkles under that make-up? Noting all this, I suggested to LJ that they should all wear masks, perfect robot faces. That would be better, surely. I would go as far as to suggest that they do not appear in the flesh, but send robots instead, although paying punters would, ironically, complain. They shouldn't. What do they want? All four members dancing? Waving? Talking, even? No, it is quite enough to see that the shapes on stage are human.

I realised that it was good not to have seen Kraftwerk 'live'. This way they remain, at most, filmed mannequins. As footage in the programme revealed, once upon a time, at the height of their born-again electronic success, they acted like a normal band, more or less. They walked around on stage, smiling, sort of dancing, inviting audience members to play their pocket calculators. That disappointed me. Before that we know they were longhairs freaking out along with the likes of Can during the great new wave of German electro-Rock. But this is after. After the rebirth, they became part-machines. Sadly, despite the superiority of their music, performance-wise, it put them on a par with, say, Gary Numan.

It occurred to me, whilst watching the programme, that Kraftwerk's best-known music is ambiguous. It's taken for granted that they extol the virtues of technology, but I couldn't help thinking that the opposite may be true. Are those tracks ironic statements on the modern age of machinery? Is it all an Art prank designed to seduce via means which they really detest? If not detest, then have grave suspicion about? The simplicity of their lyrics; do they ape the potential effects technology has on the human imagination and our ability to communicate in anything but the most reduced manner? Textspeak, Twitter, emoticons...have Kraftwerk been warning us about, not celebrating, things that were to come?

Yes, those minimalist lyrics mirror the music, of course. They suit it perfectly. Kraftwerk are totally holistic in that sense. Yet those achingly beautiful melodies, are they the real Kraftwerk, the humans behind the cold, mechanical rhythms? Behind the masks, are Kraftwerk actually pastoral classicists whose hearts belong to the countryside as seen from the saddle of a bicycle?

We are all on the autobahn; speeding, limitless speeding via technology that brings us Tomorrow today. Everything is what will be next more than what is right now. Our eyes are constantly on where we can go, in a second or two. Kraftwerk were The Future and still are. If they really have been warning us, nobody paid attention. We can't help ourselves. The futurist fantasy machine dream is here. To deny is is to be old and off the map.

Yet seeing Ralf Hütter become an old man contradicts the idea that Kraftwerk are timeless. He is the embodiment of what reality does to us. Yes, the music does not age, but the same could be said of all great artists. There is Ralf, ageing before our very eyes. Hair loss...weight it Performance Art? To what end? To prove to us that Kraftwerk are human and despite the wonders of technology, as yet, it has not afforded us the luxury of defeating time?


  1. Ah, Ralf Hutt with wrinkles and a paunch... I guess it happens to us all. I only caught a bit of the programme (due to watch it all through soon) but the part I caught included some footage from a performance in 1981 (Pocket Calculator) and I was in raptures...I'd forgotten just how much they really did look like robots (I was trying to work out how/why and decided that it's because they all had heads that were a little too big for their very slim bodies.)
    I saw them myself in July 1981, Hammersmith Odeon. I was in raptures then too! Ah.

  2. Did I just say Ralf Hutt? Hütter, of course.


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