Boogie Monsters – Ghosts of the 70s in the digital age

Installation shot from Kraftwerk's 2012 music and art installation at MoMA PS1, New York
Installation shot of Kraftwerk’s 2012 installation at MoMA PS1. Forty years on Kraftwork retain the design motifs that place the band both in the past and in the future.

It is difficult to deny that Kraftwerk have been an astoundingly influential band since their formation in 1970. Revolutionary at the time, the German quartet incorporated an almost entirely synthesised music in an attempt to foreground the oncoming new media phase. But one of the more interesting quirks about Kraftwerk is not necessarily their music itself, but the idea of time that surrounds their music. With its industrial, drum-machine-driven synth and robotic sound, the music was designed to be “music of the future” in the 70s. However, it has since dated due to the technology that they employed in making it, and has instead placed them irrevocably at a certain point in the past. They are a band that lack a temporal definition, both part of the past and part of the future.

The digital age is popularly seen as an age of infinite information. It is described using terms like “interactivity” and “new media”, and is highlighted as an era that allows for the endless access of customised information at the fingertips of every individual user. The result is often a transient relationship between the user and the information, and as a result the idea of time, and our use of time, is becoming topical in current cultural writing.

I recently had a conversation with a friend where we discussed how this overload of information that we are faced with in digital life is becoming impossible to keep up with. He pointed out the growing trend in online browsing to switch from search engines and web-surfing to following “digital curators”. These 21st Century prospectors are in charge of scouting the digital landscape and mining nuggets from the world wide web, then presenting this information in more centralised online locations.

Screenshot of the designboom homepage, 10-10-2012
Screenshot of the designboom homepage, taken on 10-10-2012

The trend has already begun to hit full tilt, with blogs and web-pages now catering to more generalised but often subcultural tastes. Examples include designboom, a site and e-mail newsletter dedicated to handpicking the best in contemporary design, art and architecture, but with specific styles, themes and motifs that run through all of the popular selections. Likewise Rookie e-zine, “an online publication for girls featuring writing, photography, illustrations, video and more” retains a specific brand image that appeals to its readers, not only through its site design, but through the carefully selected content that appears throughout the site. Blog pages like nialler9 or Hyperallergic cater to specific readers that are not only interested in the broader fields of music or art, but are selected to the taste of the writers and journalists involved.

What seems to be happening is that the “information overload” of the first decade of the 21st Century is causing a reaction that is inspiring a new technique of how information can be condensed and better directed. However, both the idea of the transient information overload and the idea of curators bottle-necking this information may be off-shoots of another connected but entirely independent era.

Installed artwork from the Black and White Gallery, April 2012In the 1970s artist and writer Brian O’Doherty originally wrote the articles that made up his influential work Inside The White Cube, where he had outlined trends that pointed to a new future for art exhibition spaces. He pointed out that the museums and galleries of old were adapting to a changing environment of art and spectator that required new methods of display, including new methods of curation. O’Doherty was writing among a school of critics who saw the development of artistic display as being less streamlined than it had been in the past century, as spaces began to incorporate new display techniques that had not previously been mainstream in traditional spaces. In this period there was an influx of new art that was creating a demand after the 1960s’ “art-as-capital” movement, and there was, to an extent, an “information overload” in the art world.

It was in the same period that Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock (1970), describing the “speeding up” of life in response to various aspects of global politics and sociology. It was also the same period that Tom Wolfe chose to drop an a-bomb on the culture of short-term “movements” in art in his biting work The Painted Word (1975).

“We’re surrounded by the fuzz and rumble of endless imagery…Most of it needs excising. Even if we’re fearful that we’re probably missing something, we’re probably not. We have to discard…and work out what is worth looking at, what is worth remembering, what are the images that matter, what will we retain?” Robert Hughes, from The New Shock of The New, 2004, BBC, 31:22 – 32:30

Long exposure image representing movement, time In 2004 Robert Hughes revisited his 1970s art documentary to give it a re-treatment in The New Shock of The New, quoted above. In this documentary Hughes had witnessed a further thirty years of evolution in the world, and yet retains many of the ideas and images that first occurred to him in the period where “the new” was first “the new”. Although the term is much older, in 1970s art criticism “New Media Art” became the popular branding euphemism associated with art that used technology in any way.

What is important about the specific texts and ideas of the 1970s is just how they have been influential to the digital age. It may not be so much that the attitudes and ideas that dominate digital society are so much an evolution from what happened in the 1970s, but whether the specific origin of these ideas, and when these ideas were conceived, that actually influenced how people began to think about digital life. As the 1970s welcomed the first incarnations of the now everyday object, the personal computer, there may be a temporal connection between how we view the digital age and the popular theories that were around in the 70s.

Image of a model of Yuri Gagarin's pod from the Museum of Natural History, NY
A reconstruction of Yuri Gagarin’s space pod – there is something awe-inspiring about pieces of history floating around in the present day.

As the old question lingers, does life imitate art? In this sense, could it be a result of the art, music and writing of the 1970s that suggested to us that transience would be a part of the future that we chose to live in something that mimics past predictions of that future? Or have we just fallen into a similar era of information forty years after the dawn of the digital age?

Like the music of Kraftwerk, the era of digital curation, in response to the era of information overload may just be a window of the past viewed from the future. The ideas might be dated, but they are still relevant. Have we simply repeated the theories that heralded the dawn of the digital age? Or are we just living through similar issues to those that occurred in the past?

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact ( for more information.

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