Plural Machine Self-Manifest

Text: Nine Yamamoto-Masson
Image: Video screenshots
Issue: #1, Fall-Winter 2014-2015.

Kraftwerk Performing ‘Die Roboter’ on Rockpop on ZDF Television, March 29, 1978.

Kraftwerk-Sequence-1

TV show host Christian Simon:

 

“We’re going to stay tuned with more German rock music, even though this term is not a 100% fit for our next guests on today’s show. For the first time in five years in a German TV-studio: Kraftwerk with ‘Roboter.’ Greetings. I hope all is well. Ehm, it is a bit difficult to classify the musical style of these excellent gentlemen. Classical and Rock-elements have certainly been an influence, but even this does not fully describe their music. Perhaps one should say “Science Fiction Music” or even better ‘Electronic Rock.’”

 

“Wir bleiben gleich bei deutscher Rockmusik, obwohl diese Bezeichnung für die nächsten Gäste in unserer heutigen Sendung nicht hundertprozentig stimmt. Seit fünf Jahren wieder zum ersten Mal in einem deutschen Fernsehstudio, Kraftwerk und ‘Roboter.’ Guten Tag. Ich hoffe es geht gut. Äh, es ist ein bisschen schwierig, die Musikrichtung einzuordnen dieser exzellenten Herren. Klassik— und Rockelemente haben ganz bestimmt Einfluss genommen, aber auch das passt nicht hundertprozentig auf die Musik. Vielleicht sollte man sagen ‘Science-Fiction Music’, oder noch besser, ‘elektonischer Rock’.”

 

The young, full-in-denim clad TV presenter, in all his late ‘70s cool, is amused by the bizarre awkwardness of the situation: introducing the show’s next musical guest. The camera zooms out and we see Simon standing next to a life-size mannequin smartly dressed in a red shirt, black tie and with slicked-back black hair. Our host shakes the figure’s stiff hand in a one-sided greeting. The mannequin’s hand slowly sinks back in plastic inanimation.

 

This single figure is “Kraftwerk.” Not an individual, but an anthropomorphic collective shorthand for the pop machine, an arrangement of sound, visual imagery and performance understood as a “band”: a group of four musicians.

 

In the brief monologue, the young TV presenter muses on the difficulty in finding the right genre or name for Kraftwerk’s music: science fiction music? Electronic rock? Cutting to the stage cameras, the four figures are cast in silhouette for a brief moment of ambiguity in their posture. Next, synthesizer pulses accompany the introduction of each figure into the visual field of the TV camera, and of the TV screen. The performance that ensues will transgress known formats for the time.

 

In this case, a “live” performance is an inadequate if not misleading term. Take the obvious special effects deployed here, such as editing a singing human mouth onto a mannequin’s inanimate face— this is no longer a video clip. Also commonly accepted is a varying amount of integrated playback so the “live” aspect of the TV show actually begins to incorporate its own simulacrum as it proceeds. Kraftwerk turn this moment into an exhilarating situation by playing on the ambiguous potential therein.

 

What is live and what is not live? What is reality and simulacrum? These questions turn out to be irrelevant, mere strategic prompts to the real purpose which is to reveal the grey area from which Kraftwerk operate their aesthetic program.

 

Kraftwerk-Sequence-2

For this first iconic appearance on German TV after an absence of five years Kraftwerk returned as a stylized polymorph machine performing itself, using replica mannequins of the musicians interchanged with their own real bodies. The assemblage of men-machine declares its identity and presents itself as cyborg in this manifesto song, arguably among the most important in Kraftwerk’s performative and sonic repertoire. The spare lyrics processed through the signature Kraftwerk vocoder are an insistent, repetitive claim of their existence: “Wir sind die Roboter” (We are the Robots). The lyrics seems like commonplace statements, but it is the implied sentience that disturbs. In our techno-democratic dreams and nightmares, sentience entails claims to legal and ethical rights. Consciousness of the self always carries within it a threat to the (or denial of a) maker. Take Frankenstein, HAL or the Terminator. Didn’t HAL-9000 also sing?1 And didn’t this little melody, a synthesized computer voice (mimicked by Kraftwerk’s vocoder), psychologically seem as threatening as a typical, graphic horror film effect?

 

Examine the robots’ mantra: “Wir sind die Roboter.” Let A=B, in which A is “we” (Kraftwerk), and B is “the robots:”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                   


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