When Klaus Biesenbach became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in 2004, he had two projects he was determined to see through: The first was a retrospective devoted to the performance work of Marina Abramovic, with the artist herself very much present throughout the proceedings. (That show proved a blockbuster for the museum.) The second was another live-performance retrospective, this one of Kraftwerk, the pioneering German techno pop band whose music served as a kind of soundtrack to Biesenbach’s coming of age in Germany.
It took Biesenbach nearly eight years, but beginning tonight and for eight consecutive evenings, the robotic foursome will perform the group’s seminal albums live—one per night—beginning with its breakthrough hit, Autobahn (1974) and continuing through Radio-Activity (1975), Trans Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981), Electric Café/Techno Pop (1986), The Mix (1991) and finally, Tour de France (2003).
With its pulsating synthesizer lines, robotic, electronically-altered voices, and preoccupation with man and machine, Kraftwerk may look and sound precisely of-the-moment, though it was founded as a two-man conceptual art project in Düsseldorf in 1970. Best known for its defining album Trans Europe Express, Kraftwerk (meaning “power station”) pushed music made on computer into new worlds and helped usher in both the techno and hip hop eras. Of course, the visual was as much a part of its act as was the sonic. In fact, the staging inside MoMA’s atrium will include elements of animation and design, some of it in 3D. At times, the real live players will appear to be interacting with the 3D animation. W tried to interview members of Kraftwerk—the quartet is led by its lone original member Ralf Hütter—but the band is famously mum on the subject of its work—and from its earliest days, not only dressed as cyborgs but sometimes replaced themselves altogether with actual robots.
So on the eve of the opening of “Kraftwerk—Retrospective 12345678,” W caught up instead with Biesenbach, the program’s curator, as he was rushing to rehearsals of this latest performance work. We wish we could tell you where to get tickets, but the performances are sold out. However, an exhibition of the band's past audio and visual materials and concerts will be featured in an installation at the new PS 1 Performance Dome through May 14.
Why is this a good moment to give Kraftwerk a retrospective?
Two years ago nobody would have done a Kraftwerk show as a live exhibition. Five years ago when I first approached Ralf about it, I suggested a video show. Doing something that is more crossover, that includes different disciplines and is more like a synthesis and more like an opera, needed more time. Only in the wake of Marina, [the Abramovic retrospective in May 2010] in understanding what performance is as a live experience was it possible to make a Kraftwerk show live. Kraftwerk takes a full loop to where we are right now as a civilization in looking at You Tube, listening to music and acknowledging that artists are the images that surround us. That it’s not necessarily a painting or a sculpture that we are influenced by.
When did you first listen to Kraftwerk?
I grew up in Germany in the 70s and then Germany was a completely orthodox,conservative, oppressive country. It needed a new generation. And then Joseph Beuys became one of the founding members of the Green Party and along with Kraftwerk and others invented a lightness in conceptual art and I was like “Wow! The whole country might be opening up to something.” They were incredibly important for us. Kraftwerk started as conceptual artists but were kidnapped by pop culture through their international success.
What do you see as their innovations?
They were artists who didn’t use canvas. They used these machines to invent themselves. In the late 60s and early 70s, they were looking at how human beings are influenced, developed and endangered by technology. So their world is all about the Autobahn, the car radio, radioactivity, the computer world—but 30 years before the iPhone. It’s all about mobility and mobility starts with the Autobahn and ends with the Tour de France. The machine is the body.
I understand they don’t give interviews and are very secretive.
They do but they follow incredibly strict rules so that nothing can be printed without authorization. There can’t be any photographs. There can’t be any direct quotes. And so what they did is invent the robots to be their public persona. So I’m doing TV interviews with Kraftwerk, but I’m interviewing the robots and then I’ll get some voice-over from the band. They’ve totally avoided any personal publicity. They can walk across the street and no one knows them. And that’s something they protect. I can’t tell you how precise they are with everything in this exhibition. Everything has to be super controlled. Everything—the music, the ambient sound, the stage sets, live performance, the performance by robots, their videos and imagery—is a complete work of art. They are so precise! Wow! I haven’t had an artist like this in awhile.
What will we see once we arrive at the show?
We’re building a replica of their famous Kling Klang Studio in Dusseldorf. It’s this legendary place nobody ever goes. What we’re creating is a studio visit. You’ll experience art in the making. It will be a live performance in front of an interactive 3D presentation. It’s the first time ever that we’re presenting a time-based repertoire from A to Z—40 years of work. So they had to rehearse for months to do that. And we have to guarantee the perfect sound, the perfect image. So we’re working day and night.
What’s it like to hang out with Ralf and the other members of the band?
You mean you can’t give any information or you don’t have any?
I’m hanging out with them all the time, but I’m not giving you any information.
You mean, that’s all part of it? What we see on stage is all we get?
Yes, I would say so.
What’s your favorite Kraftwerk album?
Autobahn. At the moment I listen to it every morning. It’s my wake-up music. I recently drove from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree to see [artist] Andrea Zittel and I played Autobahn seven times. So my life is really measured by it.
Exhibition images courtesy of Sprueth Magers, Berlin and London. © Kraftwerk