Got to Keep On is an installation by The Chemical Brothers and Smith & Lyall
Felix Speller for the Design Museum
With many of the world’s dance floors currently empty, the latest exhibition at the Design Museum, London, which evokes some of the same experiences, is very welcome. Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers is a trip through electronic music in all its guises and offers hope that things will be alright in the future.
The exhibition feels like a club. A pulsating playlist from DJ Laurent Garnier flows from 1970s New York disco via 1980s acid house to the techno of the 2010s. A huge Andreas Gursky image of partygoers at the Union Rave in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1995 hangs on one wall. Flyers, tickets and record sleeves from the New York disco scene and posters from the Hacienda, Cream, Balearica and London’s Fabric add to the sense of nostalgia.
“Whether it’s the illegal raves of the 1980s or those that we are seeing again today post-covid, there is actually a need to dance, there’s a need to get together and experience music as a group”, says Design Museum curator Gemma Curtin.
The history of electronic music goes back to the 19th century, when electricity was transforming the home and the workplace. The early timeline shows innovators generally working in their own studios, experimenting with the sounds of electricity, says Curtin.
One of the earliest objects on show is the La Croix Sonore. It is a strange cross-like object with a similar tone to the more well-known theremin – the first mass-produced electronic instrument. From there, the exhibition covers some of the iconic technology that helped shape modern electronic music, from the first programmable electronic synthesiser, the RCA Mark II, and Roland’s drum machines right up to the vinyl, CDs and, now, USB sticks that have transformed DJ culture.
A sense of futurism is inherent in much of the exhibition, and this may be one of the genre’s common elements. “It was always futuristic, with a utopian, dream-like feel to it, but it was technologically concrete, realised and realisable,” says Design Museum director Tim Marlow.
The highlight of the show arrives in the last room, where visual designers Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall of Smith & Lyall recreate part of their audiovisual show for the Chemical Brothers’ performance at the 2019 Glastonbury Festival, scaling it down for a more personal, socially distanced audience.
Huge video screens portray human-like figures catwalking to Got to Keep On, while strobes flash in time with the beat and the darkened room fills with haze. “We’re trying to make a show that moves people and expresses the music,” says Smith.
For a brief moment, I’m lost in the experience. The technology and the music have overloaded my senses, transporting me back to that club room, that festival, that dance floor.
“It shows really what we are missing,” says Curtin. “That sense of communion with others in an environment where we can have a visceral experience and I don’t think that’s replaceable.”