October 8, 2009

Digital remastered

Forget about the Beatles Remasters, another, equally influential, fab foursome have released remasters of all their albums this week. Kraftwerk helped change the course of music and, in many ways, present an interesting parallel with the world of digital advertising & marketing.

When Kraftwerk began producing electronic music they had to make many of their instruments themselves as the available technology could not produce what they imagined. In the same way the early days of the commercial web involved a huge degree of invention. Those of us working online in the mid to late 90s were inventing new ways to communicate and interact with the audience. Like Kraftwerk we were experimenting with new forms of expression and not everyone got it. Then suddenly…. the world caught up.

Looking back at the history of electronic music, the 80s and 90s saw a slow decline in the quality of output from early electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk while others built on their inventiveness to take the genre further. Then electronic music became commoditized to the point where today anyone can make a song in their bedroom or even on their phone. We’ve witnessed the same thing on the internet with web 2.0 allowing anyone to be an online publisher. The results have not been pretty (I’m looking at you MySpace) even though the idea (of putting the power of the web into the hands of the people) is fantastic.

Yet while this web of the unwashed masses has been turning the internet into a bit of a mess we have seen a resurgence of the kind of inventiveness that made digital such an exciting industry when it first began. The original pioneering spirit is being remastered by a new generation – building on the past to create something new. The past was exciting but maybe the best is yet to come.

June 29, 2009



As the Tate Modern in London celebrates the centenary of this dramatic art movement with a ground-breaking exhibition, it is interesting to look at the digital life we live today and see if the Futurists’ vision was accurate. On the Tate Modern site they tell us that “Futurism was launched by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909 with the publication of the Manifesto of Futurism on the front page of Paris newspaper Le Figaro. Drawing upon elements of Divisionism and Cubism, the Futurists created a new style that broke with old traditions and expressed the dynamism, energy and movement of their modern life”. Many of the pieces feature will be familiar to most art lovers. I’m thinking of Boccioni’s dynamic bronze Unique Forms of Continuity in Space 1913 and Picasso’s Head of a Woman (Fernande) 1909.

When did our new Futurism begin? Was it with the first PC or the birth of the Internet? In many ways the Internet enables the Futurist manifesto which called people to ‘Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!’ The digital medium, in the hands of the masses, allows us to attack the establishment – even famous brands are not immune from the merciless voice of the man in the street. Something that today’s marketers have to cope with when campaigns backfire. The recent Habitat+Twitter fail sale is a perfect example.

With the Futurists speed was ‘the new beauty’, defining modern life, transforming even the structure of the human body. With the Internet data is the new beauty and can be expressed in amazing ways. Data visualization can result in incredible images that would have thrilled the Futurists. Expressing the intangible in a visual way was often their goal. Many of the artists in the exhibition sought new ways to shape their art. They drew upon new ideas of perception, experimental photography and multi-sensory responses… something that the digital medium makes possible more than ever before. Imagine showing the Futurists a touch screen wall display? Or augmented reality on a mobile phone?

Painting and sculpture were not the only ways in which the Futurists expressed their ideas, they also held “disruptive performance”. As the Tate website says, “Night life had been transformed by electrification into a fashionable spectacle, the scene of new dances and flirtations”. In his 1913 Variety Theatre manifesto Marinetti exalted it as an art-form of his time, ‘born, as we are, from electricity’ and ‘lucky in having no tradition, no masters, no dogma’. It was a theme that engaged with the excitements of pleasure and its release from inhibitions, but also with constant movement and multi-sensory experience. Looking at artists like Bjork we see this Futurist dream brought to life. Especially with experimental instruments such as the ReacTable Table Synth.

The Tate site goes on to say “Fast trains and telegraph wires – the improved communications that so thrilled the Futurists – meant that avant-garde artists working in Russia were extremely well-informed about activities in the West. The internet has taken this to extremes with people collaborating without ever meeting. One artist or musician shares something online and within hours it is mashed up, remixed or parodied. Futurism 2.0?

War was an inspiration to the Futurists. They tried to capture the voracious destruction of the First World War in paintings in an attempt to ‘try to live the war pictorially’. With the technology available today war has become fuel for outpourings of expression through Twitter as well as live images coming from the scene of the action. Artists use technology to create animations expressing the injustice of war which circle the globe becoming weapons for peace.

The industrial world the Futurists celebrated has become the commonplace. Even more recent Futurists such as Kraftwerk have seen their predictions come true. In a 1981 interview Ralf Hutter, talking about their latest album Computer World, said that before long electronic music would be everywhere. What must he think of the barrage of electronic music coming from mobile ringtones, iPods, computer games…? Technology still excites the masses yet in some ways enslaves us. Crackberry addiction, queues for the latest iPhone… Let’s admit it – we’re all Futurists now.

FUTURISM at the Tate Modern lasts until September 20.