One hour of 120 bpm

Diana Omigie experiences the virtual tour or 'Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers' from the Design Museum.

Sign up for an in-person tour of a blockbuster exhibition and you’re unlikely to be welcomed by the museum’s chief executive and then provided with special one-to-one treatment from the exhibition’s curators. In doing just that, the virtual tour of Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers, which has received rave reviews since its July 2020 opening in the Design Museum, certainly makes you feel both like a VIP and in safe hands. This, in turn, is some consolation for not being able to attend in person. However, does it… can it… live up to the hype of the main exhibition? 

Only those who manage to catch both will be able to say. However, I can assure you that it endeavours to suck viewers in with the most powerful trick it has under its belt: a mostly high-tempo pulsating beat that is a reliable companion over the hour-long tour.

In a little bit of self-promotion, the tour begins by repeating praise from the Evening Standard (“Dizzying dance music trip… something to rave about”) that may seem challenging to re-createHowever, with structural features waxing and waning in intensity so that new segments are brought into relief, the use of music in the virtual tour is pretty excellent too. Even if it doesn’t get you on your feet, or “induce a state of physical ecstasy”,  the opening few seconds of music make you just a little bit excited about what is to come. 

In the first half of the tour, our guide tells us about what made some of the giants of Electronic music’s history so special. Before hearing about how Kraftwerk’s legacy is producing “whole artworks” (Gesamtkunstwerk), that incorporate visuals, stage-design and art with music, we are introduced to Daphne Oram, a British composer central to the emergence of electronic music and whose unique musical scores we’re able to see thanks to Goldsmiths archives. Other stars and their works featured include the Mancunian duo The Chemical Brothers (of course, see title) and Aphex Twin, famous for his intelligent dance music. Notably, interspersing this Who’s who in electronic music, is an account of the iconic synthesisers and samplers, and the more unique musical instruments (Obukhov’s Croix Sonore and Jean Michel Jarre’s Laser Harp) that were fashioned to create this genre’s unique sounds.

A good exhibition informs with well-written text, and by showcasing those artefacts that bear witness to our history books. However, a good exhibition often also moves us with impressive installations and images that capture the essence of what it explores. One clear highlight of the exhibition is Core, a 2019 light installation from 1024 Architecture that somehow manages to simulate the bouncy, jerky, graceful imperfection of dancers’ movements on an electronic music dancefloor. Another for me was Andreas Gurkys’s Union Rave (1995) and May Day IV (2000), both showing hundreds of ravers packed into giant nightclubs. It would seem that the German photographer, famous for his large-format colour photographs, is just as good when he’s working with humans as when he is working with everyday man-made spaces. 

Of course, no comprehensive exploration of Electronic music is complete without visiting a few legendary nightclubs. It was satisfying to hear mention of at least a couple of old haunts: White-heat of London to Berghain of Berlin listed alongside other infamous nightclubs that serve as playgrounds to locals and meccas to out-of towners. However,  just as interesting was a mini-history of what we now describe as the nightclub. Believed to emerge as the Discotheque in Paris in the 50s, before reaching adolescence in Italy in the 60s, it is held to have  reached maturity in New York in the 70s. Due credit is given to Chicago and Detroit, where House and Techno music originated in the 1980s and 1990s.

The exhibition is most powerful when it reminds us that within these cities are communities, and that clubs around the world not only emerged from, but also served many a marginalised group (e.g. LGBTQ and ethnic minorities) by “providing a safe space for expression and visibility”, in addition to providing a global culture for all to share in.

The exhibition is also successful in somehow never seeming repetitive. This is perhaps because of the wide variety of characters we get to hear from: household name DJs and the curator of the original Paris exhibition are joined by “experimental sound designers”, “turntablists” and artists with huge spheres for a head (Weirdcore). Some of us will never catch the show in person but those of us who catch the virtual tour will hear about “Reboot”, an audiovisual trick whereby all video screens and light objects in the physical exhibition literally appear to glitch for a short period every hour or so. The virtual tour’s mention of this fun fact about the physical tour makes it a little clearer why a similar audiovisual film trick is used all through the virtual tour. One trick that was missed from the virtual tour, though, is making it easier to rewind so that viewers can revisit the last couple of sentences in those moments when they were distracted. Using the progress bar to rewind with any precision proved all but impossible in my experience.

The tour ends after we are delivered to a room that is perfectly conducive for a dance party. A running video shows the Chemical Brother’s “Got to keep on” which features huge bright pink figures variously shimmying, pirouetting, and strutting ('vogueing' in other words) to the music as though on a catwalk. We mostly have the perspective of someone who has sat down on a museum bench after an hour or so of taking the exhibition in, and what we see is exhibition visitors (or actors) of all ages succumbing to that intrinsic human desire to move to 120bpm. We are reminded that we cannot help but be mesmerised by the sight of joyful dancing, whether the dancers are human and like us or huge, bright-pink vogueing avatars .

- Dr Diana Omigie is Lecturer, Department of Psychology, and Director of the MSc in Music Mind and the Brain, Goldsmiths, University of London

- Until 14 February, you can 'enjoy a specially-curated tour of the five-star exhibition from the comfort of your home featuring exclusive interviews from legendary musicians and designers'. Find out more.

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