Techno is the Message. Reflections on the Short Circuits of the Electronic Music Industry

taken from the book Ultrablack of Music

Introduction – The following fragments constitute a series of reflections on techno music and technoculture. They are presented unsystematically as a testimony to the way we communicate on the internet. The key thread that unites these thoughts is the idea that techno music best reflects the experience of the current cultural industry. With Theodor Adorno and Stuart Hall we know that the accumulation of profit would not be possible without the exploitation of culture, and culture itself resembles more and more the infrastructure of modern platforms. This is certainly not a new trend. However, inasmuch as this experience affects subjects and their relationship with space, through techno music we may understand how technologies are changing the production of culture. Spotify and YouTube remind us of Platform Citizens; Boiler Room’s shows of Instagram Politics; Red Bull Academies of Private Universities. We may dislike all of this. Yet it is in these transformations that we can still imagine the re-configuration of politics and music. In this short collection of reflections, I argue that techno aesthetics points at the divergence between environments and bodies on the one hand, and the unity of sonic experiences and subjects on the other.

Techno brings people together (and pushes them apart) – Is it still relevant to talk about techno music as an autonomous form of emancipatory politics? Techno collective Scan 7’s famous slogan ‘techno brings people together’ speaks of an era that has ceased to exist. With the end of rave culture, the electronic music scene demonstrates the opposite. The only way to re-connect with each other is perhaps a disconnection from social media.

Techno music and technoculture – Techno music, even in its most radical expressions, functions today as a structure in which the individual reconnects to the spirit of contemporary society. As a structure, techno connects clubbers with a culture shaped by technological overload and technocratic misery, or technoculture. In this sense, music is a determined product of history. Yet the repetitive circularity of techno music mirrors the conditions of a society that is undistinguishable from its technical environment. In the latter, the sonic experience can affect – although marginally – an imagination that is increasingly feeble in front of social engineering (‘there are no alternatives’). In this sense, techno is not the product of history, but the music of cosmic space and dark matter. But isn’t the fascination for the outer space the foundation of technoculture?

Imagined (post-rave) communities – Those subjects that defined the growth of rave culture – technofeminism, afrofuturism, psychedelic autonomia, queer identities – are now confined within the walls of imagined exhibitions. The museification of technoculture is another signal of the prolonged colonization of technics in the art world. In this sense, techno arts dress up as a hoover that absorbs collective desires and translates them into visual data.

Modernity and techno art – The acclaimed techno producer Jeff Mills is the most prominent figure in the field of ‘techno art’. Of his many aliases, two are particularly relevant: The Exhibitionist and The Wizard. As the Wizard, he is the alien which travels to the outer world: his music constitutes a ‘chronicle of possible worlds’, music for exoplanets, the planets located outside the solar system. In the translation of deep space into music, visual arts and modern dance, Jeff Mills investigates nature through the lenses of technoculture. The artistic result is the representation of the physics of distant planets through bodies and sounds. His vision for the future of techno relations is unintentionally bleak: a relation between particles. The reduction of the ‘human’ into ‘particles’ reflects a misinterpretation of the residual vitality of techno. The technical artificiality of human desires should stand in direct opposition with nature. Only the ‘aesthetic subjectivism’ of a commercialised techno scene can exchange modernity for the annihilation of the human into the work of art of a mass culture. Jeff Mills is also the Exhibitionist, a DJ trapped by the success of his own very ‘earthly’ marketing. The speed through which he can mix records indicates he is a modern Hercules, the hero who defeated the Acceleration monster. The figure who emerges from these two tendencies, the Wizard and the Exhibitionist, is a space merchant who sells cheap post-humanism to individuals in search for more alienation.

Aliens and alienation – As the xenofeminist manifesto argues, we may well need more, and not less, alienation. Xeno indicates the ‘stranger’, what is ‘alien’, the becoming other. The xenofeminist manifesto argues for the exploration of the unexpected. This leap is a classic modern operation. Modern artists, poets and philosophers rescued the human from the instability of a new damned world, a world that spins between the poles of mass destructions and mass media. Theorists and collectives who argue in favour of more alienation bring hope in a techno-materialist system. Far from being a post-human tendency, the recovery of the ‘human element’ is the legacy of modernity. Technoculture continues its path on the vinyl of history: it brings people together when they fall apart.

Techno is the message – Drawing from Kodwo Eshun and Marshall McLuhan, Mark Fisher argued that techno’s aesthetics plays a dialectical game. On the one hand, techno music does not leave space for human voices. The music insists on the abstractions of machinic beats. On the other hand, collectives and artists such as Underground Resistance (UR), Drexciya, DJ Stingray or Dopplereffekt created a science-fictional mythology to connect people with reconfigured histories. The political narrative is to be found in the interviews, in the album covers, in the sleeves and in the mystery of the tracks’ names. This method of placing the political layer on the artistic one suggests that the relationship between sonic arts and technologies complicate the ways in which artists communicate their messages. What Fisher insinuated in his reference to McLuhan, albeit implicitly, is that techno collectives understood how technologies work. Paraphrasing the American media theorist, techno is the message. The politics of techno music lie in the technologically-shaped relations resulting from capitalist modes of production. Such politics lie perhaps more in depth, in the origins of technics and in the human instinct of overcoming nature.

Techno mythopoiesis – Techno myths dream of a society free from racism, work and sexism, but they are confined in history. For example, techno’s afrofuturism popularised by the duo Drexciya mixes African American’s tribal pasts with futuristic visions. Geographically, Drexciya’s myth of the Black Atlantic connects West Africa, the starting point of the slave trade, with the Americas, the land of capitalism and structural racism. Drexciyans are submarine mythological creatures born from pregnant slaves who died while crossing the Atlantic. The myth remembers the atrocities of the slave trade and the foundations of the United States to all the fans of electronic music. In techno, myths past and future are active in the present. For example, looking at UR’s videos ‘Dookie Machine’ and ‘Vintage Future’ on YouTube, techno is used to denounce racist policies and governments. This is the case of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. When the city failed to treat water sourced from the Flint river supplying the public water system, the population remained without clean water for years and was rightly alarmed by the dangerous levels of heavy metal neurotoxin found in public water. Using videos to denounce this systematic failure, UR wants to have a positive impact on the communities in which techno generated. Furthermore, techno seems to convey another dilemma based on a temporal dialectic, caught between Detroit’s glorious past and the city’s present state. Once a powerful industrial metropolis, Detroit is today battling to revitalize the city. These temporal frictions paint a multi-layered aesthetics: the cosmology of Detroit’s mythological past is linked to the history of the Aztec people (cf. DJ Rolando music) and projected into a future where the malign forces that control technologies, people and their cities are defeated. Past and future are blurred into a mythological narrative in which struggles coincide with the resistance against slave traders, the resistance against the conquistadores, and the current resistance against the racism of US politics. Temporarily, UR defines a precise cosmology of resistance. The first approach is historical, by reviving mythologies which link the African American population with their ancestors. By doing so, UR encourages a form of resistance based on race and land, in a similar fashion to the political philosophy of Malcom X. The second type of resistance is about the present. UR exists within relations of state-led racism and exclusion. Lastly, the struggle must continue in the future.

Resistance to what? – Is techno music a vehicle to counter-oppose mass media? If the answer is positive, then resistance to media signals a conflictual relation with technoculture. Techno music is often interpreted by scholars of popular music and dance culture as a collective ritual that enables dancers to experience norms and values (formal and informal) that regulate social relations through the mediation of technologies. According to Christoph Schaub, the politics of collectives such as UR build positive narratives of resistance beyond rigid understandings of class. UR is fascinated with the potentials of ‘transmitting communiqués of subversion worldwide’ brought by the post-industrial revolution described by the writer Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave (1980). The messages contained in UR’s ‘Electronic Warfare – Designs for Sonic Revolutions’, ‘Electronic Warfare 2.0’, and ‘Electronic Warfare 2.1’ are significant of this shift. We are moving from urban struggles and identities to electronic warfares. In these tracks, technology is problematized: robots replace humans, technologies generate gaps, communities die. At the same time, listeners are invited to the ‘Bastille Day’ and to ‘fight corporate music systems’. UR understands the challenges posed by technological developments and media in general, suspended between highly positive and catastrophic effects. Nonetheless, the collective takes position and invites listeners to interweave local issues with global issues, and images of the future with historical materials. Finally, it could be argued that UR offers a fine understanding of the complexity of new forms of resistance. It does so in three ways. Firstly, by figuring out who the enemy is. If technologies have partially destroyed the city of Detroit, moving out production and marginalizing groups along class and racial lines, people have to look beyond their neighbourhood to understand capitalism. Secondly, communication in the cyberspace complicates the production and reception of political messages. UR foresaw the importance and, partially, the mechanics of online communication. It took an underground approach opting for online anonymity. It conceived techno music as a repetitive audio-visual weapon which fires short cognitive bullets. Thirdly, it suggests that the boundaries between real and virtual political conflicts are blurred. In order to function, politics must be active simultaneously on both fronts. The future of resistance lies in its ability to escape control and remain active in the ‘world of techno’.

Death and techno – What can we learn from the myth of Drexciya? In other words, what can we learn from the deaths of the slave trade? What can we learn from a story of resistance? If Drexciya narrates the stories of aquatic creatures that live in the abyss of Atlantis, we may well take the success of DJ Stingray – the Berlin-based producer who is continuing the myth with his music production – to understand what is happening in the Mediterranean Sea. Fortress Europe and civil wars in Africa and the Middle East provoked what cultural theorist Bifo called ‘Auschwitz on the Beach’. Tens of thousands of people died while crossing the Mediterranean. All these deaths were preventable. DJ Stingray’s aquatic techno music is as bleak as these deaths. The new Drexciyans are no longer in the Atlantic Sea, but all around Sicily. It won’t be surprising if the descendants of those who died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe reconfigure the myth of Drexciya and prolong it in new directions.

Techno and death – What is dying when you dance to techno? Is it only neurons and bad memories? Is it a collective act of forgiving, an act of worshipping technologies? A transfer of memories? An act to exorcize death? To die a little bit all together? The nihilistic repetition of techno as the experience of metropolitan death.

Techno is the massage – The benefits of techno music on health are yet to be fully discovered. The immersive experience of music affects the imagination and unifies body and mind with the space around it. Closed-eyes dancing is a tool that should be prescribed by doctors and therapists to combat depression.

Is techno political? – You can divide researchers on techno music in two groups. Techno cannot be political: the reason why clubbers go dancing is to forget the week behind or ahead. The second group believes instead that techno should be political: counterculture is the engine of political disobedience and drives the formation of new subjects. Members of the first group concur in the following fallacy. They cannot argue that music is about an Ego Tunnel and, at the same time, write books about the history of music and its connection to culture. Members of the second overlook critical issues, namely the destructive neutrality of techno as a medium. Regarding this ambiguity, techno politics is in its essence negative, whereas its normative culture is profoundly positive.

Techno and Art – Techno is a sub-genre of electronic music characterized by machinic sounds and defined by its machinic aesthetics. Its production can be regarded as a form of sonic art. Techno producers are considered artists, because of the creative ways in which they operate hardware and software technologies. Techno music is a ‘techno art’ when it is interpreted in the broader context of technological development and global fascination towards the world of technics. For instance, Detroit-based visual artist Abdul Qadim Haqq developed, in collaboration with techno producers, dozens of album covers, thus creating a techno imagery through his conceptualization of techno music. However, the artist who has perhaps experimented the most in the field of techno art is the techno music pioneer Jeff Mills. Jeff Mills took techno music beyond its sonic boundaries and developed a ‘total work of (techno) art’, by mixing techno music with other creative forms such as cinema, classical music, fashion, sculpture, performance and dance. It was not until the second phase of his career that Mills started to experiment outside the field of electronic music. In 2005, he released Blue Potential, an album recorded live with the Montpellier Orchestra. In 2011, he realized a multimedia exhibition dedicated to the life of the American-born French dancer Josephine Baker. In the same year Mills inaugurated a series of projections at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, where the Detroit producer played live the soundtrack of the sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage. In November 2013, hosted by the Vasarely Foundation in Aix-en-Provence, Mills conceived a dance show dedicated to the discovery of the planets entitled Chronicles of Possible Worlds. In 2014, he produced Man from Tomorrow, a film that explores the relationship between techno music and architecture directed by Jacqueline Caux. Finally, in 2017, Mills was honoured with the title Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris by former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang. This mature phase inaugurated new important collaborations. In 2017, he launched the project Planets with the Lyon Orchestra and the Oporto Philharmonic Orchestra. He also worked at a second residence at the Barbican, where he directed the series of music events Into the Unknown: Journey into Science Fiction, after having already been a guest of the London-based museum in 2015 with the project Astronomy. Jeff Mills’ career, which is traceable between his debut in Detroit and his success in Paris, is paradigmatic of the controversial trajectory of techno music, which rose from a popular sub-culture to a recognized form of art. Techno art.

Algoraves – Google and Boiler Room created a partnership to offer immersive DJ sets in Virtual Reality. In future, a mass of individuals will take substances at home while participating in and partying with (although only remotely) a virtual crowd. Music will be mixed by AI after a decade of data mining. Currently, technologies like the newest CDJs can be connected to the Internet so that algorithms can learn how to create a seamless set. The triangulation with ‘smart’ technologies and servers will offer an automatic techno experience. Phones or e-watches will measure the pulse and will translate basic physiological inputs into ideas of feelings. The result will be a dancefloor in which it will be possible to get high by accessing different customer packages. Basic package: mediocre set with few releases, oppressive feelings. Medium package (it will be possible to upgrade while dancing): more releases, better graphics, better high. VIP package: it will be possible to look into the eyes of a stranger.

Virtual crowds and techno – Nightclubs are the environment where the virtual crowd of social media can form and get bigger. Bigger crowds need DJs with bigger egos. The aesthetics of the club (concrete structures, the lighting system, the environment outside) correspond to the symbols of post-industrial technoculture. In one famous club in Amsterdam, the DJ booth was placed in front of a window that overlooked a highway. The effect was that the small crowd could look at the cars passing by as if they were inside a videogame.

Crowds and techno cities – Techno develops proportionally to urbanization. In a growing city, techno events and spaces multiply. As a consequence, the techno crowd gets bigger. It is important to emphasize that the techno crowd, although isolated, is connected to all other parties. It can be said that techno crowds are atomized not only because of their composition, made of singularities, but because each unit is connected to all the others (in other discotheques or clubs). At a higher level, every club or rave is in connection with all the other techno crowds.

Techno as a fluid – Concrete is the product of aggregate and liquid cement. Music played in a brutalist warehouse functions as such liquid. It amalgamates the people of a city.

Technofeminism – The greatest achievement of post-rave club culture is the hegemonic position of feminist and queer collectives in the midst of radical technopolitics. The politicization of techno collectives operates like a subversive machine within a system. Techno against techno.

The cognitive turn of techno music – The colonization of the fields of visual arts by information and communication technologies resulted in what it can be called ‘visualization of music’. The increasing presence of data production and exchange between persons and servers produced two main effects. Firstly, we came to think that body and mind are separate in the same way music and images are. Secondly, we failed to understand that such illusory dichotomy – the separation of body and mind – is the result of a technical process. DJs think of themselves not anymore as psychologists, but as neuroscientists. However, music does not emanate from the brain, nor can we understand music by looking at brain scans. The idea that the mind is located in the brain is the illusion produced by the power of communication.

The financialization of techno – Hypocrisy is increasingly masked as activism. Recent protests to save nightlife around the world are led by associations that are simultaneously closing and opening clubs. The clubs that are forced to close are financially unsustainable. In contrast, those clubs that must be saved are already in the secure hands of wealthy production companies. The complicity of production companies with the financial sector is a very important political issue that does not get any coverage. You have people who denounce the financialization of clubbing on social media in the morning, and play in these clubs at night. The apex of this hypocrisy is unsurprisingly in London, where property developers own clubs where discussions take place about the impact of gentrification on music.

Platform cities, platform techno – In a recent transport experiment, smart apps offered private ride homes in those night-time areas that are underserved by public transport. The data were collected with the journey history of nocturnal subjects. A clubbing map is not only an alternative geography, but a night infrastructure exploited by platforms.

Techno-oriented idealism – After subjective and objective idealisms I suggest a third idealism: techno-oriented idealism. Subjective idealism had transcendental categories through which it was impossible to grasp the objective world. Objective idealism categorised subjects into a series of historical successions. Techno idealism has merged objects and subjects in a cookie.

Full automation and pure creativity are both impossible – Techno rituals display the high-tech constituents of everyday life. Club space is often a reminiscence of the debris of modernity – industrial wastelands, basements, and tunnels extracted from urban transport networks. At the same time, techno rituals – with their repetitive and semi-automatic mechanisms – are a reflection on the technical question. The ritual brings out the irrational side of urban society, the possibility of breaking with the operational chains that dictate the rhythms of metropolitan life. Since collective memory has been outsourced to computers to the point that it is ‘difficult to forget’ what is unnecessary, techno reminds us of the processual aspects of cooperation. In order to live together we need as many technical operations as socio-cultural relations. There is nothing completely new that we can invent, nor is it completely possible to imagine our full automation.

Biological socialism will lead to victory – If some artists equalize techno with nature (thus naturalizing technologies), techno producer Gerald Donald embraces the anti-naturalist element of techno imaginaries. The founding member of Dopplereffekt and Arpanet, Donald likes to be photographed as a scientist in a laboratory. The ‘scientist’ Donald is more comfortable to act as a quantum physicist than as an alien. The titles of his songs and albums are named after theorems of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, computer science and mathematics. When he plays live, images of space, engines and abstract machines are projected. With Arpanet, Dopplereffekt and Drexciya, Gerald Donald produced two albums after conducting research on sound quantum mechanics. His technology is inspired by multimedia arts, not the other way around. By associating scientific images with communist symbols, Dopplereffekt recalls the imageries of cosmism, the quasi-occult philosophical movement that developed in Russia and then in the Soviet Union, at the basis of which there was an unlimited optimism in the capacity of humanity to evolve actively through the collaboration of philosophers, scientists and artists. ‘Biological socialism will lead to victory’, we can read on the cover of the compilation Gesamtkunstwerk, a German term which can be translated as ‘total work of art’. Its aesthetics is the evidence of a libertarian futuristic project. A futurism that lies in opposition to the Italian semi-fascist movement of the beginning of the twentieth century. On a number of occasions, Gerald Donald has addressed the problem of totalitarianism and the risks connected to the use of breeding technologies in biology, for instance when biology is invoked to create a superior race through technologies of control and selection. Despite this, Donald sees technology as the backbone of creativity. In ‘Wireless Internet’, he promotes the idea that nature itself is the greatest masterpiece of technology. More generally, a positive vision towards technological development is the foundation of technoculture. Even when techno is not intended to be political, technoculture is characterized by a positive vision of the future.

Short circuits – If we think that our subjects are something ‘naturally artificial’ or in opposition to nature, we may end up representing the divisions offered by Descartes. Even Marx’s General Intellect will be interpreted as an autonomous computer of which we must know more in order to regulate ourselves. To avoid such solipsistic paradox – namely that our brains are the infrastructure of the world’s computer and therefore its creator – we must treat the conflictual continuity between our bodies and the environment in the opposite way to the division between body and mind. Not more but less unity.

Cited Works

Adorno, Theodor W. (2010): Minima moralia: reflections from damaged life. London.

Canetti, Elias (1973): Crowds and power. Harmondsworth.

Eshun, Kodwo (2016): “Fear of a wet planet”, in: Rave: rave and its influence on art and culture. London/ Antwerp.

Fisher, Mark (2007, November): Underground Resistance, in:Wire: Adventures in Sound and Music.

Fuchs, Thomas (2017): Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind. Oxford.

Haqq, Abdul Qadim (2014): 25 Years of Techno Art. Third Earth Visual Arts. 1989-2014. Detroit.

Hester, Helen (2018): Xenofeminism. Cambridge.

Berghain Ostgut GmbH (2015): Berghain: Kunst im Club. Berlin.

McLuhan, Marshall/ Fiore, Quentin (2008). The medium is the massage. London.

Mills, Jeff (2012): Sequence – A Retrospective of Axis Records. Chicago.

Rietveld, Hillegonda (2018): Machinic Possession: Dancing to Repetitive Beats, in: Julien, Oliver/Levaux, Christophe: Over and over: exploring repetition in popular music. New York.

Schaub, Christoph (2009): Beyond the Hood? Detroit Techno, Underground Resistance, and African American Metropolitan Identity Politics, in: Forum for Inter-American Research (Vol. 2).

Discography

Arpanet: Quantum Transposition. 2 × Vinyl, LP, Album. UK: Rephlex, 2005.

———. Wireless Internet. 2 × Vinyl, 12″, 33 ⅓ RPM, Album. France: Record Makers, 2002.

DJ Stingray: Aqua Team 2. 2x, Vinyl 12. Belgium: WéMè Records, 2008.

Dopplereffekt: Cellular Automata. Vinyl, LP, Album. Germany: Leisure System, 2017.

——— Fascist State. Vinyl, 12″, 33 ⅓ RPM, Yellow Label. US: Dataphysix Engineering, 1995.

——— Gesamtkunstwerk. 2 × Vinyl, LP Vinyl, 7″, 33 ⅓ RPM. Germany: International Deejay Gigolo Records, 1999.

——— Linear Accelerator. CD, Album. Germany: International Deejay Gigolo Records, 2003.

——— Scientist Mixes. Vinyl, 10″, 45 RPM. Germany: International Deejay Gigolo Records, 2001.

——— Sterilization [Racial Hygiene and Selective Breeding]. Vinyl, 12″, 45 RPM. US: Dataphysix Engineering, 1997.

Dopplereffekt // Objekt: Hypnagogia. Vinyl, LP, Album. Germany: Leisure System, 2014.

Drexciya: Aquatic Invasion. Vinyl 12. US: Underground Resistance, 1995.

——— Drexciya 2 – Bubble Metropolis. Vinyl 12. US: Underground Resistance, 1993.

——— Harnessed the Storm. Vinyl 12. Germany: Tresor, 2002.

——— Neptune’s Lair. 2x, Vinyl 12. Germany: Tresor, 1999.

Dystopian Artists. Béton Brut. Vinyl 12. Germany: Dystopian, 2013.

Mills, Jeff. Blade Runner. Vinyl, 12″, 33 ⅓ RPM. US: Axis, 2005.

——— Chronicles of Possible Worlds. CD Album, DVD Video. US: Axis, 2014.

——— Fantastic Voyage. 2x, CD Album. US: Axis, 2011.

——— Metropolis. CD, Album. Germany: Tresor, 2000.

——— Planets. 9x, Vinyl 7. US: Axis, 2017.

——— The Jungle Planet. 2x, Vinyl 12. US: Axis, 2013.

——— Woman in The Moon. 3 × CD, Album. US: Axis, 2015.

The Aztec Mystic A.K.A DJ Rolando: Knights of The Jaguar EP. Vinyl 12. US: Underground Resistance, 1999.

Underground Resistance: Electronic Warfare – Designs for Sonic Revolutions. Vinyl, 12″, 33 ⅓ RPM, EP. US: Underground Resistance, 1995.

FotoÖ: Sylvia John

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