Art historian Jamila Moroder argues that an exhibition in Bolzano, Italy, disconnects techno from its Black heritage, and suggests we take a more complex view.
As I read the curatorial statement of the exhibition TECHNO, a certain campaign slogan resonates incessantly in my head. “Make Techno Black Again” is a project represented by DeForrest Brown, Jr. to counter the fact that many people are unaware of techno culture’s roots in a Black musical tradition and its ties to Black experiences in industrialized labor systems, due to its commodification and whitewashing. The exhibition at MUSEION | Modern and Contemporary Art Bolzano, Italy, typifies this ignorance.
Why does an exhibition which aims to examine the contemporary human condition and social order through the lens of techno music disconnect the genre from its Black creators and the city of Detroit, where it originated in the 1980s? Museum director and curator of the exhibition Bart van der Heide says that he prefers a “global” perspective on techno, starting in the mid-1990s. This implies that the Blackness of techno and its global character exclude each other, which is simply not the case. As Jenn Nkiru has explained, techno can be considered a “transposed African power.” And as Arthur Jafa points out frequently, pop/Black music – including not only techno but a great diversity of musical styles – were dominant cultural forms of the twentieth century.
An exhibition gravitating around techno could have been the perfect opportunity to complicate the ways in which Blackness, in its multidimensional and transcendental forms, is thought. For Alexander G. Weheliye, professor of African American studies at Northwestern University, an inability to comprehend techno’s Blackness can only be grounded in the colonial construction of Black culture as “primitive”: “Because Detroit Techno is so invested in an idea of cutting-edge technology, it is hard to square it with the prevailing Western ideas about Blackness and Black culture as ‘primitive’ and therefore not technologically savvy.”
The curator proudly points out the gender and ethnic diversity of the artists involved in the exhibition. Yet the conceptual and theoretical framework in which the artworks are positioned remains white – while claiming to be global. How can a global perspective completely lack Black intellectual thought and theories when topic is fundamentally a part of Black cultural heritage? The illustration used to represent the exhibition shows purple limbs erupting from planet earth wearing white gloves like those of Mickey Mouse, which derived from blackface minstrelsy – creating a clear signal that the exhibition’s performative globality is actually whiteness in disguise. It is clearly necessary to confront racism and decenter whiteness in order to open up space for global perspectives to come to the fore, the systemic racism of the music industry is not brought up in the exhibition itself and is only referenced in two pages in the TECHNO reader, an anthology of texts commissioned by the museum. The issues of appropriation and commodification of Black music are all but avoided.
The exhibition is articulated through three central themes: Freedom, Compression and Exhaustion. Each artist seems to have developed their own strategy to defy this imposed frame. Sandra Mujinga’s ghostly, haunting figures in Spectral Keepers are made of fabric and bathed in alien-like green light. Their names correspond to various numbers in Lingala and challenge the hedonistic escapism of a commodified techno culture. On whose labor has this “freedom” been built, she seems to ask – and who is excluded from it?
Emeka Ogboh’s beautiful album Beyond the Yellow Haze interweaves electronic sound with the pulsing sounds from the streets of Lagos. Presenting his sound installation in the Exhaustion category seems misleading. Why and by whom is the sonic landscape of Lagos perceived as exhausting? Sound becomes tangible as a technology that is related to the experience of space and memory. In a similar vein, Berlin- and London-based musician Nkisi links ancestrality and descendants through rhythms and vibrations in her audiovisual sound installation Ninga Na (sounds of connexion).
As a white person who cares about art by African, Afrodiasporic, and African-American artists and the discourse around it, I think it is crucial to step back and line up behind voices that have been purposefully misheard, so that different subject positions, perspectives, and narratives can be reclaimed – ultimately leading the art discourse to higher levels for everyone. Instead of inviting DeForrest Brown, Jr. for a podcast interview once the exhibition was already set up, it would have been more valuable to ask him to curateTECHNO himself, or at least ask him to join the curatorial team early on to allow a critical engagement with questions regarding techno’s ownership and belonging.
The exhibition would have gained by pushing – in the spirit of techno – against the limitations of the (institutional) machine.
TECHNO at Museion, Bolzano in Italy runs through 16 Mar 2021.
Jamila Moroder is an art historian and painter. She graduated from the Freie Universität Berlin in 2020 with a MA Degree in Art History in a Global Context. Her research focuses on the interconnectedness between art, fashion and politics in films by Sembène Ousmane.