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Against Redemption: Extra-diegetic Techno
n this piece, I work with Detroit techno DJ Carl Craig’s DIA Beacon museum installation Party/After-Party to consider the role of techno music in evolving constellations of racialization, the post-industrialization of urban space, and aesthetics. Techno is inseparable from the race and class struggles, capital evacuation (and reinvestment), and architectural ruination that have shaped Detroit during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Techno reconfigured and manipulated the anti-human robotic pulse of the automotive labor process designed to speed up production and eliminate the shop-floor autonomy of a largely Black and increasingly militant workforce after World War II (Georgakas and Surkin 2012, Noble 2011). But unlike the vocal script of the blues, gospel or Motown (which left Detroit for L.A. in 1972), techno deconstructed soul motifs with “four on the floor” beats, modulated warning sirens, bells, and chimes, and repurposed, antiquated synthesizers (especially the Roland 303, 606, and 808) (Bredow 2006). A new sonic form emerged specific to American industrial spaces of waste and abandonment.
Moving away from the diegetic form of soul, blues, and other song-based idioms to a music of patterned acoustic space, techno is extra-diegetic, environmental, and sub-perceptual, creating “a sense of the contemporary moment as one in which structures of meaning have given way to the undecidabilities and instabilities of synaesthetic affect” (Pope 2011, 30). Techno is profanely entangled with technology as both brutality and as possible escape, a product of the devastating transnational aspects of deindustrialization and its resulting cultural reconfigurations. Inspired by equal parts George Clinton and Kraftwerk, an emblematic influence upon techno was Detroit DJ The Electrifying Mojo, who beamed down late night mashups of Italo-disco, European new wave, Chicago house, and Motown from his mothership hovering over the city, capaciously reformulating any stale notion of “Black Music”.
Long a creative and cultural innovator of Detroit techno, Craig released his first track, Elements in 1989 as Psyche on Derrick May’s Transmat label. From early on, Craig created an immense range of possible techno sounds, using different monikers for each project such as 69, Paperclip People, and Innerzone Orchestra. In the early 1990s Craig’s output ranged from creepy, experimental tracks like If Mojo was A.M. to proper club bangers like The Floor to the jazz track Bug in the Bassbin. Released under his own Planet E label, Craig’s 1995 Landcruising solidified Craig as a techno auteur, taking the shape of an alien automobile trip through a landscape of rising and falling synths, sweeping drum filters, and resonant arpeggiated notes. Unlike either the machinic dystopia of Kraftwerk or the dance floor demands of drum-bass heavy techno, Craig knit together atmospheric space, suspenseful string riffs, and vocal samples into spacious, uplifting, and immensely catchy techno record. As his career has developed, Craig has challenged many of the genre limitations of electronic music. He collaborated with dub producer Moritz von Oswald to reinterpret Ravel’s Bolero and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In 2017, he collaborated with classical pianist Francesco Tristano to write Versus, techno tracks to be performed live by a classical orchestra.
Party/After Party was Craig’s first foray into museum installations. In a launch event, Craig commented that the “installation is all my experiences from traveling, from going to clubs all around the world” and the piece would evoke both the ecstasy and joy of a warehouse rave and “the feeling of loneliness with tinnitus” after leaving (Craig 2020). When it opened, Party/After Party was hyped as one of the first museum installations by a techno artist in the United States and a major recognition by the high-art world of techno music (despite long-standing engagements with durational sound and visual art by minimalist composers). To many in the art and music worlds, the sounds of Detroit techno were finally getting their due.
In conversation with discussions in Black geographies, sound studies, and urban geographies regarding the production of Black sonic expression and spatiality in non-dialectical dialectical relation to racial capitalist logics, I am interested in techno’s desertion of “the nauseating and bizarre ethic of ‘redemption’” (Eshun 00[-002]) and techno’s sonic subversion of the politics of representation, liberal humanism, and the compulsory fixity of an essentialized Black condition or aesthetic. In rejecting “something so rigid as an identity, an identity in which there has to be a fixed and immobile core, a core that is structured to hold inviolate such a complete biological fantasy as race- whether white or black” (Delaney in Dery 1994) within a landscape (ab)used and abandoned by racial capitalism, what speculative aesthetic possibilities has techno made possible? In the following, I consider these themes through reflecting upon the Party/After Party exhibit and the politics of techno’s movement into the space of the museum alongside the broader spatial configurations of techno in and out of the post-industrial Midwest.
Traversing the Techno Museum
Five years in the making, Party/After Party converted the 30,000 sq ft. industrial basement of DIA Beacon, a former Nabisco packaging plant located along the now-suburbanized, Metro-North commuter banks of the Hudson River, into the phantom of a rave. During the 1980s and 1990s, early techno artists took advantage of vacated industrial spaces, often lit by a single strobe light, to host dance parties that eschewed fashion for anonymity in the factory surround. One of the key party spots was the derelict Packard Plant, built in 1903, and Detroit’s first modern automobile factory consisting of 47 buildings spread across more than 40 acres. By the mid-1950s however, major postwar recessions, reduced demand for American cars, and the relocation of production to whiter and non-unionized parts of the country had caused the complex to shutter (Apel 2015).
To enter Party/After Party, one passed not through illegally dumped trash but by a Robert Smithson sculpture of carefully arrayed broken glass to find a staircase descending into a concrete expanse. The vast basement was interrupted by evenly spaced structural pillars awash in cool luminescence reminiscent of the Alien films - blue, shifting to purple, to red, to white, to green, back to blue. Every so often, shutters mechanically opened letting the pale November sky onto the basement floor. Matching the swell of synths and climaxes of basslines, people audibly gasped with the reappearance of light, an effect that Craig had conceived as an ode to Berlin’s Panorama Bar with the same effect. Walking through the columnar soundscape, the quality of sound shifted, bass tones amplifying or dropping out altogether, a foreground snare beat wandering back into the subconscious. Compositionally, sounds moved like a giant insect fractally reflecting the matte neon, rising and building, collapsing and dilating but nothing overriding the coleopteran pulse. Like the interstitial moments between heartbeats, there is a realm of improvisational chaos beneath the veneer of order.
Watching a dad with a baseball cap and Blundstone boots chase his small child from pillar to pillar, I wondered if techno’s culture of experimentally repurposing industrial spaces was now just a relic of a mythic, aestheticized past, reified for the museum’s delivery of authentic experience, “memorable events, revealed over time, that engage individuals in an inherently personal way” (Pine and Gilmore 1999 and 2007)? What work was Party/After Party doing to foster the museum’s glorification of its former manufacturing history, conveniently evacuated of all signs of laborers? The repurposing of the Nabisco ruins into a museum retreat for wealthy urbanites belies the ominous reality that the repurposing of decaying, fixed capital is highly selective in a landscape of destruction and that the post-industrial is never really “post”. For years Nabisco has been involved in labor disputes with largely Latinx and Black workers over withheld wages, layoffs, and poor healthcare in its factory on Chicago’s Southwest side. As techno pulsed into an empty hull that once stored cracker wafers, an aestheticized, consumable industrial past hinged upon spatially relocating an industrial present (back) into the Midwest and across the globe.
The museum as such is irrevocably and inevitably a vexed space for the elitist capture of Black cultural expression and Carl Craig’s personal aspirations and visions as an artist entangle him in these very circuits. In her review of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 show, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85”, artist and critic Hannah Black discusses the “tragedy of the canonization of political art”. Whereas art may work towards the enactment of an entirely different way of communal and collective life, “museums are sites of the production and maintenance of value; they are oriented toward the preservation of objects, which capitalism has rendered antithetical to the preservation of people.” While Craig’s Party/After Party is not explicitly political, Hannah Black’s critique highlights the problem of memorializing and displaying underground Black music out of its largely undercapitalized and uncelebrated contexts.
Machine Mythology and Conceptechnics
But if we remain focused on the movements and entanglements of Craig’s sound, do the sonic palpitations themselves contain new spatiotemporal possibilities? Rather than Craig’s exhibit moving into the museum, might the DIA Beacon be but a temporary (and arbitrary) portal into a landscape of sonic Blackness momentarily captured by White consumption? In his path-breaking work of cultural criticism, More Brilliant Than The Sun (1998), Kodwo Eshun suggested as such, that the man-machinic melding of techno sounds served as a theoretical intervention itself. Writing against prevalent forms of music journalism at the time, Eshun argued that most critics focused on “the liveshow, the proper album, the Real song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical, the pure, the true, the proper…all notions that stink of the past, that maintain a hierarchy of the senses, that petrify music into a solid state in which everyone knows where they stand, and what real music is” (Eshun 1998, 00[-006]).
Joining Alexander Wehileye, I agree with Eshun that music does not require theoretical interventions to become conceptual, that too often theory attempts to constrain and emplot sound, and most often “you don’t really need any Heidegger, because George Clinton is already theoretical” (Eshun quoted in Wehileye 2005, 202). Wehileye’s injunction is to think with sound rather than using critical theory to think about sound, reading variegated, material moments of Black cultural production as relational singularities, “ascertaining the specificity of the cultural performance in question and potentially networking it with everything else in the cosmos” (Wehileye 2005, 207). Particular to techno and Carl Craig’s Party/After Party, this helps hatch the trap of discussing techno as another minoritarian musical creation struggling against the logics of white supremacy and/or lamenting its loss of true authenticity (see Judy 1996) at the hands of a voracious art world with an insatiable, vampiric hunger for content. Rather we must attend to the material processes that structure the sonic landscape of techno while staying attentive to techno’s improvisatory defiance of those conditions, a “machine mythology and conceptechnics which routes, reroutes, and criss-crosses” (Eshun 1998, 00[-006]) the Black Atlantic charting its own spatio-temporal theories (see McKittrick’s (2001) discussion of Drexciya’s mythic cosmogeny in Dear Science).
Techno’s extra-diegetic improvisations are linked architecturally to Detroit’s landscape of industrial modernism, in all of modernism’s productivist, futuristic, environmentally toxic, and racially exploitative dimensions. Techno began in Bellevue, a Detroit suburb in the early 1980s by Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson emerging as an aesthetic reconfiguration and manipulation of an environment configured through capitalist automotive production designed to manipulate and violently subjugate Black workers (while simultaneously automating their jobs out of existence). All born in the mid-60s, Atkins, May and Saunderson were the sons of auto factory workers. A vexed sonic materiality, the abundance of new Japanese synthesizers flooding pawnshops was inseparable from the deployment of tanks, domestic surveillance, and automation to be wielded against Detroit’s working class and Black residents.
Since the 1950s, Detroit had been the site of ongoing industrial abandonment, with shop closures and automotive production outsourced to East Asia, Latin America, and cheaper parts of the U.S. While the 1967 Detroit riots are popularly cited as the particular instance of Black rage that led to suburban white flight, the abandonment of the city by factories, public institutions, and well-off White residents had begun long before, largely as post-WWII economic recessions sought new spaces for capital re-investment (Kinney 2016, Smith 1982). During the same period decentralized militant groups such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers mixed socialist ideology and Black nationalism with shopfloor and street knowledge to instigate a litany of multi-racial wildcat strikes. They also called for abolition of the nearly all-white Detroit Police Department, student control of schools, and broader reparations.
Continually waging war against the deteriorating work conditions at Detroit’s auto plants, the groups fought production increases contingent on reduced employment, which the League dubbed “n-----mation” instead of automation, citing the over-exploitation of Black workers as the key to rising industry profits (Georgakas and Surkin 2012, 85). If by the mid-1970s labor militancy had been quashed by a combination of SWAT-style police tactics, relocations, and further automation, the Detroit elite embraced a delusional cybernetic vision in which the “technical people” of the city could be “recycled” and “pointed” to new ends (Georgakas and Surkin 2012, 199).
Playing the Factory Ruination
Craig, following on the heels of techno’s innovators, shed early European rave influences for a minimalist “second-wave” Detroit techno sound. He traversed this shallow promise of cybernetic renewal, searching for the melancholic and sensual in the ruined architectures and industries of Detroit. In an interview about Party/After Party, Craig mentioned the influence of visiting Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, a series of large frescoes that depicted Ford Motor Company’s industrial production.
Early encounters with cybernetic portrayals of worker and machine, of the body not solely subordinated to automation but psychosomatically rearranged through the work process, had a major influence on Craig’s work. Far before the widespread aestheticization of Detroit’s post-industrial decline, Craig’s fascination with architectural ruins was inseparable from his artistic process. In a made for television documentary, Techno City in 2000, Craig stands in front of the vacated Michigan Central Station, abandoned in 1988 with the cessation of Amtrak service (since it has cycled through various plans – as Detroit Police Department headquarters, as casino, as US Department of Homeland Security base and more recently as production plant for Ford’s autonomous vehicle line). As the camera pans across the Beaux-Arts style architecture inspired by New York’s Grand Central Station, Craig waxes:
I use this building as inspiration, it comes into mind when I’m at the keyboard, you know at the drum machines, everything that I create, this, just the beauty, you know I could check it out, the lines might be bass lines and the curves might be string lines and the columns may have more to do with drum beats and you know, the intricacies of the grooves that’s within the music. I think it comes with the spirit of Detroit and it’s music, no matter what music we do there is always some type of spirit in it. You know, especially with techno because we’re dealing with machines and synthesizers we have to put some of ourselves into it and by ourselves I’m not just meaning note values, I’m meaning spirit, I’m meaning heart, I’m talking about, you know, that little oomph that needs to go into it to make it powerful, to make it definably me, definably Detroit…
In Craig’s lucid description, the resonance of a bass line is conditioned by the curvature (or not) of a building’s lines, its state of architectural decay is an emotional synthesizer wail. Ruins are never inert and Craig transforms these “unfinished histories” (Stoler 2012, 11) into sonic futurities, playing on/with (de)valuation’s dependence upon the whims of white capital.
…work[ing] at a place where I xerox copied all day, if I wasn’t xerox copying, I stapled pages all day…I think we had two or three xerox machines with a sorter on them and the paper goes “shu shu sh-sh- sha u sh-shu sh-sh-s-shu shu” and you just hear that all day [hands waving wildly back and forth, mimicking a beat]…you start hearing grooves and rhythms that are outside of the rhythms and start making things in your head that go…
Another key PaperClip People’s track “Throw” deploys a rasping, metallic scraping drum sound that could have been sampled directly from an assembly line. While the auto industry was no longer Detroit’s main employer, rhythmic monotony was obviously no stranger to the myriad forms of temporary, service, and precarious forms of work in its place. Electronic music artist and techno historian DeForrest Brown Jr. recounts Underground Resistance’s Cornelius Harris “talking about picking cotton and how Black people in a line would pick cotton in a rhythm and it would become this communal, efficient thing and they’d be singing slave songs as this would happen. There’s this communal rhythm that…was replicated on the assembly line at Ford plants and all”. From cotton picking under chattel slavery to industrial car production to a post-industrial landscape of capital flight “awaiting” reinvestment through white valorization of an aestheticized depiction of Blackness (Summers 2019), one can see techno emerging as an iteration of Clyde Woods’ “blues epistemology”. Woods saw the blues as a critique of plantation social relations, bridging “the gap between the blues as a widely recognized aesthetic tradition and the blues as a theory of social and economic development and change” (Woods 2017, 20). As plantation logics of racial subjugation, carcerality, and labor automation morph geographically and socio-technically, so do the sonic expressions tied to its violent reproduction.
Like jazz and the blues, Detroit techno had minimal commercial success until finding popularity with white, European audiences. In 1988, on a record-buying trip to Chicago, Neil Rushton, a fanatical record collector and Northern Soul enthusiast from Britain, stopped to Detroit, “realiz[ing] that there was a whole movement there, and we [needed to move quickly] to exploit it” (quoted in Sicko 2010, 66). While an early compilation exposed techno innovators such as May, Atkins, and Saunderson to considerable market success, it also had the effect of splitting a tight-knit community. Neil “made us turn against each other” remembered Eddie “Flashin” Fowlkes. Commercial exploitation and the destruction of collaborative Black improvisational sociality for white profit are crushingly predictable, forming the (anti)social, economic (libidinal, political) tapestry against which jazz, the blues, and hip-hop have traced sonic escape. While some artists, such as Craig, eventually became recognized on international DJ circuits and have received credit for their artistic innovations, the popularity of white rave culture has most often left the artistry, creative nuances, and singular constellation of Detroit’s Black techno scene unrecognized and vastly undercompensated.
Searching for the Undercommon Track
While my interest, following Eshun and Wehileye, has been to highlight techno’s accentuation of improvisational chaos and unpredictability (diffracted across modernity’s kaleidoscopic effects) rather than any perceived, deterministic causality of anti-Black ecologies and technologies upon cultural expression, a “blues epistemology” helps link Black sonic pasts and futurities and the incessant fugitivity of Black social practice, whether “stealing away” to a dance on the outskirts of a slave plantation (Hartman 1997) or assembling the mixers and subs for a clandestine party in a vacated warehouse. Techno articulates the “undercommon track that remains fugitive from the emerging logistics of …deadly rhythm and will exhaust it” (Moten and Harney 2014, 185-86). Techno’s force is the co-optation of mechanized logistics repurposed for liberatory means. The killing rhythm’s structure and fixity is accelerated, filtered, amplified, and injected with soul in the search for new domains, niches, and spaces of temporary occupancy within the posthuman landscape of military-industrial automation.
Techno reconsiders the past - its sacred dead, sonic lineages, and contingencies – while rejecting a compulsory fixity of an essentialized Black condition or aesthetic. In many ways, techno prefigured (or sonically theorized) a current moment in Black/trans* studies that articulates blackness as an “anoriginal lawlessness that marks an escape from confinement and a besidedness to ontology” and “no/place, a spaceless space that renders governability ungovernable” (Bey 2017, 279). Techno “dissolves this solidarity with a corpse into a fluidarity maintained and exacerbated by soundmachines” (Eshun 00[-003]). By stalling “the very logic of social syntax” (Bey, 279), techno “deserts forever the nauseating and bizarre ethic of ‘redemption’” (Eshun 00[-002]). The melding of machine and emotion challenge stale binaries between human and machine while also combatting declensionist, racial narratives of urban ruination.
And it is in this sonic groove that I’m st(r)uck, despite attempts to feel and think otherwise, by the resounding emptiness of having attended Craig’s Party/After Party. The banal rehabilitation of the museum plods along, propelled by the weight of history and civil society’s capture of the 2020 summer’s revolutionary possibilities. What could the emptied, cavernous DIA Beacon basement with its perfectly tuned sound system, a few families in masks bobbing their heads, say to any youth crew scrapping together a sound system (maybe the same one used at a protest) to throw a clandestine generator rave between COVID surges avoiding the wary ears of gentrifying neighbors and the cops? If techno is going to thwart sliding into the overbearing weight of tradition and the collectible pockets of tech dads, it must push faster and further and dirtier underground and outside the respectable interests of the museum or Boiler Room venue.
While Craig hoped Party/After Party would recall “a techno tradition of reclaiming industrial spaces for radical experimentation”, the efforts of working-class and youth culture to find spaces for lived experimentation in the gentrifying, unlivable present, highlight how memorialization easily slips into bourgeois aestheticization. For techno to proffer generative lessons for an experimental spatial politics, it is in its improvisatory flights from the bounds of capitalist (ir)realism with whatever grab bags of technics can be pilfered. It is techno’s constant destruction and reconstitution by a new generation of young, queer, and trans DJs, the combinatorial possibilities of living and breathing bodies-turned-machines-turned-bodies of the dance floor, a refutation of desiccated, definitional fixity, that is the grounds for its improvisational futurity.
Writer’s note: On Jan 12, 2022, an important space for Black, queer, trans techno nightlife in New York, Bossa Nova Civic Club, was burned in a fire and has shut down indefinitely. There is an ongoing fundraiser to support the workers as well as to rebuild (or relocate) the club. Please consider donating to their fundraising drive if you are able.
 Another key track is PaperClip People’s (one of Craig’s monikers) “Throw”. Aside from the infectious deep bass beat, the rasping, metallic scraping drum sound feels like it was sampled from an assembly line.
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Alex Liebman is a PhD student in geography at Rutgers University studying digitization, technoscience, and agrarian transformations in the sugarcane region of the Valle del Cauca, Colombia. He plays music with friends in New York, Mexico City, and Minneapolis. Alex is on Twitter intermittently and unprofessionally @alexandermxfine