Kraftwerk and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan Crash the High Art Party

For eight days in early April this year, legendary German electronic musicians Kraftwerk performed eight of their albums—one per night, plus other assorted tracks—at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), allegedly for the ticket-buying and well-attired public, though tickets seemed to evaporate into thin air in a matter of milliseconds. MoMA billed the event as Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. That title matters. Here are some other artists with recent retrospectives hosted by MoMA: Willem de Kooning, Cindy Sherman, Bernardo Bertolucci. Not shabby company for some dudes from Düsseldorf into matching outfits and mining the musical potential of the pocket calculator.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles north, the women of Toronto-via-Montreal’s Yamantaka // Sonic Titan were touring rock clubs with bits of their “Noh-wave” Operas, giving elaborate multimedia performances with an emphasis on costumed theatrics. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan functions both as an eight-piece rock outfit and an artistic collective, with rotating participants collaborating on the group’s multifaceted projects. Founding YT//ST members alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood, both of mixed Anglo-Asian descent, formed the group to explore their diasporic roots and complex cultural identities. It’s worth excerpting YT//ST’s mission statement in its own words:

“The collective functions as a mutating and constantly evolving art cult that brings together individuals of Asian, Indigenous & Diasporic identity to perform/create as a collective. Working in multiple mediums including Installation, Theater, Music, Video, Animation, Illustration and Design, YT//ST negotiate cultural clashes between dominant cultures and those whose traditions are oppressed, erased or being eclipsed. We retell the mythologies, customs and stereotypes of our ancestors with our cartoon bodies as their vessels. We choose to replace colonial representations of ourselves and our histories with our own self-identification. We might dabble in pseudo-occult practices on occasion but they don’t seem to do anything.”

Kraftwerk and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan don’t have much in common, musically—the former generally functions on repetition and minimalism to emphasize its wonderful (or, as the band might have it, non-human) gift for melody, where the latter mixes squall and melody in equal measure, often in the service of full-throttle, rock ’n’ roll pummeling. There are other big differences, too, most significantly in Kraftwerk’s legendary penchant for creating its music in seclusion (even keeping the location of its studio secret for many years) and its ambivalence toward live performance. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, of course, lives and breathes as a performing collective, and it would be nearly impossible to separate the group’s creative ethos from its dedication to live shows.

However, as that manifesto above indicates, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is a band of Big Ideas, putting alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood in the company of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk’s original brain trust. In this way, despite all of their aesthetic differences, the two groups have more in common with each other than they do with most other contemporary musicians.

To put it more plainly, Kraftwerk and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan represent opposite poles of the same phenomenon: the strange, somewhat awkward intersection of rock culture with fine arts culture. Kraftwerk has achieved—and rightfully so—the ultimate expression of that intersection, feted by the modern art establishment at its shrine in New York City. On the other end of the spectrum, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan grind it out in sweaty rock clubs and hastily appropriated performance spaces, explicitly announcing itself as More Than a Band, and convincing—through talent, passion, and the benefit of a highly focused intent—its audiences they are, in fact, watching something more than a band. In other words, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan must still, night after night, persuade observers to accept its performances as fine art, or at least something closer to it than your typical touring fare.

Why go to the trouble? Simply, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan has something to say and has chosen, in its view, the best way to say it, which happens to be through rock music combined with kabuki makeup and geisha robes. Kraftwerk, three decades ago, chose matching red shirts and the Texas Instruments Language Translator. But once a group goes down this route, there are obvious supplementary benefits. Namely, if the group can navigate the treacherous No Man’s Land between being decried as pretentious or self-aggrandizing and finding actual acceptance by a broader art world, said group gains a level of critical acclaim more elite (and potentially less ephemeral) than even the Pitchforks or Christgaus of the world could offer.

Though it would have seemed impossible before MoMA’s intervention, Kraftwerk now possesses even more cultural capital than it did in 2011. As a touring band, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, not yet invited to the MoMA (and perhaps not even desirous of that kind of mainstream acclaim or attention) but written up in rock blogs and local arts journals alike, can enjoy the success of bringing its politics and cultural inquisitiveness to a wider—and likely more diverse—audience than would be offered to the collective by simply setting up shop in a gallery in Toronto.

The most interesting question here might be one of numbers: just how many contemporary acts could be said to straddle this line? How can we decide? What would our criteria be? Most bands—and, for that matter, most artists—don’t have a manifesto in the order of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s blurb. Kraftwerk certainly doesn’t. But both groups have a clear view on their intentions as artists, with Kraftwerk’s desire to explore various themes of dehumanization on its records communicated through its automated and synthesized musical processes as much as through its lyrics. Hütter, like alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood, makes his vision clear through interviews, if the music weren’t enough. his kind of cohesive view of one’s art—whether or not it results in explicit intellectualization, like jotting down a statement of intent—would seem to help a band move past simply writing pop songs, if it so desired. Please don’t take that as a slight against pop songs.

But great hooks, near universal acclaim, and a coherent worldview aren’t enough to get you to the MoMA, are they? Even if they’d reunite to do so, it’s difficult to see The Smiths, for instance, getting invited to play the space, despite Morrissey and Marr having given us one of the most instantly recognizable and inimitable (though so many have tried) musical worlds ever constructed. Popular art, but too pop, not enough art—or at least likely not enough of what signifies art to that establishment crowd. Kraftwerk, on the other hand, with its computers and technical tinkering and digital projections and, perhaps above all else, German accents, practically screams to the old guard of modern art, “If you’ll have me, we can share turtlenecks.” Fair enough. Kraftwerk, anyway, has its eye on more high-minded themes than Morrissey does, or at least ones less embarrassing to discuss in fancy dress over cocktails.

What about a push for innovation or at least experimentation? Kraftwerk certainly fits the bill here, perhaps more than any other popular musicians of the last thirty years. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan coined the punny term “Noh-wave” to describe its blend of Japanese theater and post-punk music, which seems new enough to me. In 2010, blog royalty Animal Collective had the honor of installing its own one-off setpiece in the Guggenheim, along with visual artist Danny Perez. Animal Collective was at the peak of its powers, having released what most viewed as its definitive work, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the year before, in a maelstrom of hype and full-court celebration by the indie and mainstream music press alike.

The Guggenheim piece, predictably enough, featured psychedelia in line with the band’s trippy aesthetic, with black lights and bright colors, strange anthropomorphic shapes, and droning sounds filling the museum’s considerable rotunda. But the event, serving the double purpose of giving Animal Collective yet another accolade to confirm its status as the new millennium’s critical darling and letting the Guggenheim receive a nice contact high from association with the band, received mostly mixed reviews. It seemed to look backwards, attempting to recreate a sentimentalized version of ’60s drug culture and dorm room bong art, without offering much in the way of new ideas or new experiences. A victory lap for the band, but not one many in the rock world or fine arts world will remember much longer.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan

So, a band with an eye on gallery spaces should have something new to say and, if possible, a new way to say it. Not very helpful advice, I’m afraid. Perhaps better advice would be not to overthink the whole thing. Kraftwerk didn’t set out to play at the MoMA, and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan would likely feel motivated to do what it does even if no one was paying much attention at all. Rather, these groups are benefiting from a cultural shift, the continued blurring of the lines between (supposedly) high and (supposedly) low culture. Bon Iver wins a Grammy on the same night as Chris Brown and Skrillex, the New Yorker writes about Jersey Shore, Kanye works with Louis Vuitton, a thousand thinkpieces are born. The phenomenon is less novel now, but that doesn’t mean its experiments always come off without a hitch.

Last week, Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden teamed with Pitchfork to present Song 1: A Happening, a one-night event pairing installation artist Doug Aitken’s wonderful Song 1 multimedia piece with live performances by an eclectic group of musicians (No Age, High Places, Nicolas Jaar, Oneohtrix Point Never, and others). Aitken’s piece, a video collage sensationally projected onto the outside of the circular Hirshhorn building at nightfall, is soundtracked by various covers and reinterpretations of the The Flamingos’ doo-wop classic “I Only Have Eyes for You;” at the Pitchfork event, the musicians played their renditions of the song live while Aitken’s projection shimmered in the background.

It was a great idea and enjoyable on its own, but when compared to a normal night of Song 1, where—unlike at the live event—the music syncs with the projection to form a cohesive work of art, A Happening seemed disjointed at best and somewhat pointless at worst. Much of the crowd, packed onto the grounds, seemed unsure what was, in fact, “happening”—everywhere I stood, I overheard variations on, “Is this it?” or “Is this the band?” If nothing else, a ticket to the show seemed to be an excuse to dress in evening wear, shell out for Budweiser, and be seen.

In other words, it was the perfect expression of the vast potential for awkwardness in this intersection of fine arts culture and rock culture. If you cared about the exhibit, you’d have done better to see it on its own; if you cared about the bands, it would be better to catch them on tour the next time they pass through. As for the two occupying the same space, culturally and physically—it felt forced, if in an earnest way. At the very least, though, the art world and the rock world will likely have a good deal more practice in the coming years at figuring out how to cohabitate. By the time MoMA rolls out Kraftwerk – Retrospective 9 10 11 12 13 14 15, it should feel like second nature.