The Blog From Stockholm: “We play the machines, and the machines play us.”*

Kristiāna Kārkliņa

Through April 27, Stockholm's Moderna Museet is rejuvenating the theme of mechanical aesthetics by featuring the sizable exhibition “Dance Machines – From Léger to Kraftwerk”.

The 20th century's infatuation with machinery, industrialization and artificial intelligence makes up the characteristics of the era that was preceded by the glorification of the futurists' radically industrialized and mechanized society. The creators of the exhibition allow for the viewer to spot the development of the meaning of these elements, as seen in the works of various artists and artistic styles, and all the way up through the close of the century. Leaving Rauschenberg and Klein in the adjacent room, I began my journey through the exhibition with the hour-long Kraftwerk installation titled “The Catalgoue. 12345678”, which is made up of the group's music and visual materials. The installation has been transformed into a 3D projection – which would not be a surprising form of execution were it not for its amazingly high quality. On a Friday, at about lunchtime, the exhibition room is surprisingly full of people from all age groups – from youths live-Tweeting about the experience, to senior citizens – and everyone is swaying or tapping their foot, at times even humming along, as if they are consenting to their robotic origins.

The electronic music phenomenon that is Kraftwerk came onto the scene in the early 70s, when European culture had been hit by the latest wave of obsession with mechanization, technology and outer-space, a fad that had accompanied the achievement of humanity's first explorations of space, and not in small part, the arrival of Gene Roddenberry's legendary “Star Trek” television series.

Mass culture has seen many reiterations of the storyline in which machines overcome their subordinate status. This Kraftwerk installation, which was on view at London's Tate Modern at the beginning of 2013, represents the idea of harmonic compatibility through the melding of “man” and “machine” into one being.


Along with the impressive Kraftwerk piece, the exhibition also features works by Man Ray, Max Ernst and Alexander Calder, among others, including a modest photo-collage by Gustav Klutsis, which had been used as an illustration in V. Gorny's book “PETYASH” (1926). A prominent role has been given to Fernand Léger, maker of the film “Ballet Mécanique” (1923-1924), and author of the famous quote: “The Italian Renaissance is a time of artistic decadence”. In the framework of this exhibition, Léger has been singled out as one of the chief introducers of mechanical aesthetics. For the sake of precision, I'll note that Léger's so-called “mechanical period” in painting started only in the 1920s, whereas the the first publication of a declaration of futurism had taken place already in 1909.

 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, Autobahn, 2013. © Copyright Kraftwerk, 2013 

Futurist artists received “machinery” as if it were a messiah that embodied the terms that were so essential to this artistic style: youth, speed, technology, urbanity, movement, war, etc. According to futurism researcher Sylvia Martin, “dynamics” and “simultaneity” were especially important terms to this movement, and virtually irreplaceable in the context of futurism. In contrast, the futurists' “Nike of Samothrace” – machine and mechanism, meant something completely different to the war-adverse dadaists; they saw it as an utter irrationality, and projected onto it the acts of destruction that came from war, as well as the degradation of society, thereby marking the increasing mechanization of the world as one of their prime antagonists.

The variety seen in the exhibition is rather impressive – it unites works done by many artists from different periods and in various techniques, and displays them quite close to one another. This layout, however, does not hinder the experiencing of any of the works for even a moment; it's quite the opposite, actually – the siting of Calder's clock-like-ticking “White Frame” next to Francis Picabia's “Transformations” helps to bring the latter's rows of photographs into real time, transforming the viewing experience into one akin to the watching of a video montage.

A real attention-grabber was the small, two-person movie theater set up in the middle of the room. Within, one could watch Charlie Chaplin's struggle against the modern and industrialized world in his influential film, “Modern Times” (1936) – a perfect fit for the exhibition's conceptual framework (especially the scene with the “feeding machine”). This charmingly-clumsy little man's attempts at finding a way to survive in this new era of mechanization is a good illustration of the mood of the times in question – “The Great Depression” of the 1930s – as it humorously shows the overall confusion that people were having to face.

The exhibition leads the visitor through the various interpretations of the industrial, the mechanical and the manufactured, and in opposition to the oft-heard negative viewpoints concerning the overly-large influence that technology has on modern-day society, the exhibition makes one consider the opportunities that these forces have given us – not only in terms of successful businesses, but also in terms of self-realization. The examples given illustrated not only the never-ending synthesis of technology and art, but also utopic visions of improving societal functions – such as Jacque Fresco's “The Venus Project”.

*In speaking on the relationships between humans and machines, Ralf Hütter, a member of Kraftwerk, has said: “It feels good to be a part of the machine. It is a liberating feeling. For one thing, because I, as an individual, take a back seat. We play the machines, and the machines play us.”