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DJ Culture Week: Searching for the Soul of the Machine

Happy DJ Culture Week! We’re celebrating the release of DJ Culture in the Mix, a groundbreaking edited collection that takes a critical academic look at international DJ culture. On Day 4, co-editor Bernardo Attias (California State University Northridge) tackles the age old question: Man, or Machine?

C2C, at rest

C2C, at rest

At the Sónar music festival in Barcelona I had the pleasure of hearing German electronic dance music pioneers Kraftwerk perform on the same night as French turntablists C2C [Ed. note: We have a great book about Kraftwerk]. Both performances were, of course, flawless, and the music was fantastic. Their presence at the same festival was unremarkable; although their sounds were quite different, both groups consist of four men playing electronic dance music from machines on tables. Both stage shows offered tightly coordinated stage routines that had been endlessly rehearsed; every single sound and movement was precisely timed and coupled with elaborate visual light shows. And indeed, both groups dramatize the interconnection of human and machine.

And yet: I couldn’t have picked two more different artists to experience back to back.  Kraftwerk is notorious for their stoic and distant demeanour–the artists deliberately perform as the robots their music celebrates. As one reviewer put it, “A Kraftwerk gig requires suspension of disbelief. Apart from the moving mouth of Ralf Hütter there’s little evidence that the band are actually creating the music live. The impression is of four middle-aged professors at podiums, feet rooted to the ground, sporadically pressing buttons or keys, twisting knobs.” I would go further–the impression is not of middle-aged professors but of literal robots. Their movements are minimal and it is impossible for the audience to see what they are actually doing at all–what we see is four figures standing behind podiums and barely moving their bodies, presumably touching synthesizers or other equipment obscured by the podiums. Their physical presence is dwarfed by the giant video screen behind them, which plays elaborate 3D videos timed to the music.

[Ed. Note: If you are experiencing audio difficulty with this clip, you can also watch it in Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/62708386 ]

Meanwhile the French turntablists C2C exaggerate their movements and their humanity – they bounce their heads to the beat; they run around the stage wildly between scratches and juggles; they gesture to the crowd; rap on the mics; and high-five each other. Their turntable trickery is perfectly timed and rehearsed so that their performance seems effortless; their hands fly across the turntables and mixers (and the bandmembers often move from deck to deck in a well-coordinated fashion) as they smile, pose, dance, gesture, and generally behave as if they’re having a great time. They seem engaged in the music and connected to the crowd; reviewers find them “infinitely likeable” based on their stage show.

I enjoyed both shows immensely, but I couldn’t help thinking as I walked to catch the 5AM bus that Kraftwerk seemed so cold and distant, while C2C seemed so connected, so present, so human. Both offered up a spectacle of human and machine as ineluctably intertwined, but while Kraftwerk did their best to make the human disappear into the machine, C2C managed to use the spectacle to bare their human souls.

And yet: I realized as I climbed aboard the bus in the emerging dawn, it was Kraftwerk’s “Man-Machine,” and not a C2C piece, that I was humming along with in my head. The line between human and machine remains elusive.

DJ Culture in the Mix is available via Amazon or wherever academic books are sold. Click here to request an exam copy.

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