If one had to be brief, one might say that Electro: from Kraftwerk to Daft Punkis an exhibition tracing 30 years of electronic music and experimentalism at the Philharmonie de Paris until the 11th of August 2019. A standard review would then follow, highlighting the uniqueness and singularity of some of the objects on display and drawing readers’ attention to the artists involved in the project and to the work of the sound designer and of the scenographer. None of this would be wrong, for sure. However, this exhibition, Electro, is, at least in museological terms, much more than this: in short, it is an event that has much to offer on how to effectively build experiential exhibitions, based on the landmark assumption of museum studies that an exhibition should facilitate dialogic rather than linear communication. In fact, several aspects are particularly worth mentioning as they closely align with a contemporary museum framework, as I would like to demonstrate:
First of all, a few words should be said about the choice of the subject. Of course, Paris is a reference point in the history of electronic music, from musique concreteby Pierre Schaeffer to Jean-Michel Jarre and Daft Punk (whose members are Luso-French). But I also think that Electronic musicis a timely subject for an agentive museum to present in a multicultural city like Paris, which has been increasingly witnessing protests and tensions due to social and economic inequalities. In fact, just as the introductory panel of the exhibition mentions: Electro music ‘has become an important vector for bringing people together, building community both on the dancefloor and through social media and the activism of numerous collectives. Now, more than ever, Electro is defining a new relation to alterity and to the world, notable in the visibility it brings to queer culture and in the expression of feminist resistance.’ This clearly aligns with the growing eagerness for contemporary museum practice to be influential in building peace in regions of political conflict, an eagerness that has been steadily rising up the museum agenda. In this sense, Electro as an exhibition comes to fulfil the social and political purposes that its subject fulfils in the actual world, which is very interesting and opportune from a strategic point of view.
At the same time, it is worth noting the critical stance with which the subject is depicted throughout the exhibition. After a rather conventional historical introduction underpinning a remarkable collection of technological devices such as ancient synthesisers and other research instruments, the narrative goes on to portray Electro music as a set of practices deeply grounded in cultural dynamics. The narrative develops through four major thematic sections1, each given a small introductory text that critically foregrounds features of Electro practices. The language is clear and accessible and the texts are not too long. These thematic sections develop amidst a striking scenography that conjures up — by means of visual and musical experiences, photographs, sculptures, videos and installations — the environments and sensory experiences in which Electro is produced and experienced. In other words, there is a captivating imbalance of texts and other exhibitive strategies; texts seem like little notes that are there to drive the visitor among the overwhelming audio-visual installations, prompting gatherings of people in a way similar to what happens at Electro venues and performances. This interesting combination makes Electro an engaging exhibition that takes advantage of such exhibitive techniques resulting in a narrative that is experientially driven.
Music is here clearly considered as an artifact; not only because music excerpts are exhibited like another objects of material culture, but also in the sense that, in setting Electro music within its cultural dynamics, the narrative endows music with cultural significance. Alongside this, from the technical point of view, the ways music is displayed and the ambiances created are remarkable, not only in terms of sound design but also in terms of the way in which sound is distributed in the gallery space. To be specific, music is displayed by means of one of two possibilities: by means of public loudspeakers, and by means of personal headphones that visitors plug into a specific apparatus containing openings for four devices. Musical objects displayed by loudspeakers can be heard from different places in the gallery, which means that there is a certain level of mixing; nonetheless, the distribution of sound and the resulting mix effects are effectively set at levels that cause no annoyance (sound experience by Sonos). The use of personal headphones, on the other hand, which allow access both to music and to the sound element of videos, brings about the very interesting effect of getting people to interact with each other in a friendly and humorous way. As each socket-set has space for four headphone jacks, the wires of the headphones of different visitors end up interweaving with each other as a result of visitors moving while listening. Even the queues formed as a result of people seeking to plug their headphones into a certain socket-set result in friendly gestures of visitors offering their place in the queue to one another.
In conclusion, I would like to stress that exhibitions about music like Electro, and many others, are actually paving the way for new museum practices and professionals. A sign of this is the exhibition’s credits, which mention the authors of both the sound design (Laurent Garnier) and the scenography (1024 Architecture), while in the past sound design was never recognised and scenography lay within the scope of the ‘architectural project’. What is more, such practices are increasingly being imported into all kinds of exhibitions.
1. The four sections:
(1) Man & Woman Machineexpanding on the idea of a harmonious fusion of man and machine which underlies Electro practices; (2) Dance Floor‘evoking escape from reality’; (3) Mix and Remixfocusing on Electro composition techniques such as mixing and remixing, sampling and re-appropriation and how these have been adopted by practitioners; and (4) Imaginaries & Utopias, for me the most interesting section, in that it expands on how Electro arose from the will to offer a visual counterpart to the abstract and instrumental nature of music, by working with principles such as geometric abstraction and landscape depiction. The section furthermore highlights how the Electro practices are embedded in the cultivation of forms of anonymity and, more interestingly, how it ends up being highly political even without wanting to.
2. Cover image by Jacob Krist