21st: The people are the party

In Europe, DJs have helped build a more populist digital culture.

Published June 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

BERLIN -- Where the two Berlin districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg meet, the streets are narrow and the blocks are cramped and littered with bars, cafes and clubs. This is the neighborhood to troll if you're going to be up all night but you're not up to one of Berlin's oversized dance warehouses, say Tresor or E-Werk. You're looking for something a little more out of the way, a snugger fit between you and the DJ, the sound and the room.

Something like Toaster. It's not an easy find, but once you've poked through the long, dark cul-de-sac with its prerequisite graffiti and discarded furniture, you descend the cracked concrete steps, pay your cover and descend some more. There's some hard-core ragga dub thing going on on the main floor, but a narrow hallway and a few more steps down will take you to the second bar, with its cocktails and thick gray air -- pungency courtesy of Turkey by way of Amsterdam. Yet another passageway leads to a tiny, odd-shaped space where a DJ is working two turntables and a modest board. A classic, straight-up beat, each layered sample chopping it up and offering new insight into it.

If you were to map a set like this, trace the sources of each beat and riff and then project all the choices the DJ has at his disposal for his next trick, you might end up with something that looks a lot like a sprawling Web site -- full of tempting links, playful connections and fortuitous juxtapositions. What the Net and Euro dance music share is a celebration of simultaneity, complexity and decentralized creativity. And if you want to understand digital culture, European style, you need to spend some time in places like Toaster.

If that connection seems like a stretch, consider the recent essay "Dark Carnival" by Paul D. Miller, a k a DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. The piece is a wild and messy ride, but the gist is easy to pick up on: We live in an age of collage, all the millennia of history laid out before us as so much raw material for our own private remix.

"Today's notion[s] of creativity and originality," Miller writes, "are configured by a postmodern discourse characterized, one might say, by velocity: it is a blur, a constellation of styles, a knowledge and pleasure in the play of surfaces, a rejection of history as objective force in favor of subjective interpretations of its residue, a relish for copies and repetition, and so on." And on and on. Miller hops among the centuries, drops names like needles, pulls quotes, juxtaposes philosophies, cuts and scratches text -- providing more than ample evidence along the way that DJ culture and digital culture have a lot more in common than just computers.

Probably the most significant name dropped in Miller's textual set is Gilles Deleuze. More than simply the French pomo du jour, Deleuze has become something of a patron saint for thinking DJs like Spooky and cybercultural critics alike, especially since his death by his own hand a year and a half ago. Briefly, Deleuze argued that any attempt at making a coherent narrative out of history impoverishes its true complexity. For DJs such as those on the Mil le Plateaux label -- named after Deleuze's best-known book, written with Filix Guattari -- "immanent" complexity, as opposed to "transcendent" narrative, is an invitation to party.

Techno, the resulting chaotic symphony, runs against the American grain. In the U.S., storytelling is the engine of pop cultural tradition, in blues, folk and rock, in Hollywood and on Broadway. A musical act has to feature a protagonist, a star. "You see a band like Daft Punk," says Sasha Koesch, who DJs at Toaster and other spots around the neighborhood, "and you know that that's going to be big in America, because they work as a band; they do have a certain rock appeal as well. They can go onstage and perform. It has to work there. Same with Underworld or Chemical Brothers. They all do quite well in America." Sure, Americans like to dance, but they also like to know who's behind the beats and what they look like -- and they like those beats wrapped up neatly within a clear beginning, middle and end. That American bias toward clear narrative and the individual artist/hero similarly conditions the differences between the U.S. and European approach to digital culture. Just as techno will be promoted by the U.S. music industry via the star system, American technology and media companies look to a concept like "push" to try to shape the simultaneity of the Web into a linear form of information delivery.

As Hari Kunzru observed in his Daily Telegraph obituary for Wired's U.K. edition, Europe's digital culture remains a far more populist and less, well, capitalist phenomenon than its U.S. equivalents. Kunzru, who'd been a Wired U.K. editor, wrote that Wired's American editors kept asking, "Where were the British equivalents of the venture capitalists, the brave new software companies, the teenage millionaires who were making the running on the West Coast? I certainly wasn't meeting them. I was, however, meeting exciting designers, musicians, hackers, artists, games companies, graphics start-ups -- a uniquely British tech scene."

In other words, because Europe is not crowded with netrepreneurs, because the movers and shakers on the business end of the Net are almost all in the U.S., digital culture in Europe is precisely that: culture, not really a business or economic phenomenon yet.

The evolution of techno, and the DJ culture that surrounds it, isn't an incidental story on this side of the Atlantic. The European press would never assume an attitude that giggles, "Here's another neat angle: The kids are using computers to make music!" Here, this isn't some human interest sidebar; it's an essential part of the whole digital scene -- tightly woven into Net-based art, media theory and the ways Europeans are incorporating computers and the Net into their lives.

On the U.S. pop charts, techno is likely to seem a sudden, out-of-the-blue phenomenon with the short shelf-life of any imported musical trendlet. While American labels snap up any band that sounds like Prodigy and repackage the sound as "electronica," few are confident this particular beat will go on. Whereas in Europe, it's been steadily ticking for decades -- at the very least since the emergence of the hugely influential Kraftwerk. With its sheer elegance and hypnotic simplicity, Kraftwerk got German youth to think twice about its anti-technology party line. When Kraftwerk sang about "Computer Love" back in 1981, it was difficult to tell whether that voice was tainted with cynical irony or filled with childlike wonder.

Mercedes Bunz, who covers the current scene for Easy, a Berlin drum 'n' bass zine, also writes for Spex, one of the best-known music magazines in Germany. With its leftish stance, Spex was pleased as punch with punk, but has been perplexed by the success of techno all these years. "It's ironic," Bunz says, "because the left is so anti-technology -- but techno is still happening."

And how. This summer, Berlin will host the ninth annual Love Parade, which is precisely that, a parade to the techno beat. Last year's drew 750,000 celebrants from across the continent and was treated by the city as a major tourist attraction. Surely this is the antithesis of hip, a clear sign that techno is on its way out.

"I wouldn't say so," offers Koesch, the Toaster DJ. "There is this movement in which everybody is building their own little scene somehow, while at the same time, the rave scene is collapsing. But all of these little scenes are connected to each other more than ever. There's no longer this one techno thing, but they're still all working together."

One of the influences that helps hold DJ culture together is the Net itself. Web zines such as Koesch's own soundlab keep the scene up on dates, news, interviews, reviews and the like while pulling a few other tricks print magazines can't. DJs swap samples and dubplates or broadcast entire sets across the Net, and of course, there are mailing lists galore. Koesch's roommate, who was filling the apartment with eerie electric drones when I dropped by, once arranged an entire U.S. tour via mailing lists.

But DJs do more than just use the Net the way everyone else does, to stay in touch and provide information; their scene partakes of the hierarchy-leveling, everyone's-an-artist impulses that made the Web the global free-for-all it is today.

"One of the basic techno ideas is that the people are the party," says Koesch. "This idea is going to bring a lot of people to make exactly this happen. To link the people more to the music."

One example is the appropriately named Involving Systems. Three modules are set up in a room, each featuring various lit buttons and dials. Module 3 is outfitted with a record player, and anyone can snap up samples and play with them. All in all, it's something like an interactive installation. "It is," says Bunz, "and at the same time, it's not just for listening. It really works for dancing, too. It's fun, it's not just something experimental. People can really use it at parties, making their own music."

This participatory ideal pops up all over the map. Musicians such as Oval and Brian Eno have been experimenting with software that allows listeners to set their own parameters and either let the customized tune go where it will or actively interfere. And Sony Music has just released Phosphoric Brain Massage, a unique offering from the Austrian artists Station Rose, who view their music, graphics, animation, even their hosting of the Frankfurt conference at Electric Minds as a singular, ongoing artistic project.

The overriding idea is to dissolve the artistic ego and engage the people. Gary Danner, the musician of Station Rose, describes a live performance: "What we do is set up four screens, virtual rooms, and we are not present. And this was the same with techno music in the beginning. And then it became focused on the DJ, on the star."

Star DJs will continue to flare up and burn out, and Berlin's 1997 Love Parade will no doubt be a smashing success, raking in loads of cash for the city and the scene. Still, the heart and soul of both digital and DJ culture is not the top-down sales pitch pushing a product -- it's the dark carnival in which all voices are heard, none louder than any other.

By David Hudson

David Hudson writes the English-language News Digest for Spiegel Online.

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