With new museum, officials give techno the stamp of approval

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With new museum, officials give techno the stamp of approval
The new Museum of Modern Electronic Music in Frankfurt, Germany, April 4, 2022. The new museum, which is known as MOMEM and opened Wednesday, is a $1.3-million attempt to translate the experience of going to a club into an institutional environment. Felix Schmitt/The New York Times.

by Thomas Rogers

FRANKFURT.- These days, this German city is known as a staid financial capital and home to the European Central Bank. But in the 1980s, it held another, more underground distinction, as a hub for Europe’s budding techno scene. Although the electronic music genre’s origins are largely in Detroit, Frankfurt’s clubs were among the first to bring the sound to Europeans.

Among the most influential venues was Dorian Gray, a club with a famously decadent reputation. “It was a place for all the freaks of the night: drag queens, hard-core leather people, the cocaine crowd,” said Alex Azary, the director and a founder of Frankfurt’s new Museum of Modern Electronic Music. “When the subwoofer was turned up, your heartbeat would match the rhythm.”

Now Azary has taken on the task of educating the mainstream public about electronic music’s legacy and culture — and city officials are backing him. The new museum, which is known as MOMEM and opened Wednesday, is a $1.3-million attempt to translate the experience of going to a club into an institutional environment. MOMEM will host rotating and permanent exhibitions incorporating videos, music and interactive elements alongside live events.

The museum is also the most high-profile example of German policymakers’ increasing efforts to embrace clubbing as an economic and cultural force, and as part of the country’s heritage.

Local and federal leaders have recently taken a variety of measures to protect and promote clubbing. Last year, Germany’s Parliament changed zoning rules to reclassify clubs as equal to concert halls and better protect them from encroaching gentrification. The Free Democrats, a pro-business party that is a member of the governing coalition, has also backed an initiative to have techno music declared an item of “intangible heritage” by UNESCO. Politicians in several cities, including Berlin and Leipzig, have moved to protect clubs on a local level.

But MOMEM appears to be the first time a German municipality has financed the construction of an institution of this kind. Housed in Frankfurt’s former Children’s Museum, MOMEM is the newest addition to the city’s famous Museumsufer, a string of high-profile cultural institutions near the River Main that include the Städel Museum and the house where Goethe was born. In addition to providing the location free of charge, the city has cofinanced the project with a starting loan of 500,000 euros (about $550,000) and allowed the museum to hold its opening party in the Paulskirche, one of the country’s most historically significant churches.

Ina Hartwig, the city’s head of cultural affairs, said in an email that the city had supported MOMEM in the hope it would be a “cultural magnet” that would draw international visitors to Frankfurt.

For its opening exhibition, MOMEM is dedicating its entire space to Sven Väth, one of Germany’s best-known DJs. Curated by Tobias Rehberger, an artist who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, the exhibition includes records from Väth’s collection, virtual reality recordings of his DJ sets and dangling headphones on which visitors can listen to his original music. One area features a DJ booth — set up as specified in Väth’s tour rider — at which visitors can play records of their choosing.

“This is the beginning,” Azary said. “The first museum dedicated to modern art appeared in 1908, and now they’re in every small town. I think soon that will happen, but for this subject.”

Although Frankfurt played a key role in the early days of Germany’s techno scene, its center of gravity shifted to Berlin in the 1990s, after German reunification. The German capital has since become known globally for its anything-goes clubbing culture. According to a study by the Club Commission, a group dedicated to promoting and protecting Berlin’s nightlife, the scene pumped approximately $1.66 billion into the city economy in 2018.

Matthias Pasdzierny, a musicologist at the University of the Arts in Berlin who has written about electronic music in Germany, said in a phone interview that the German authorities’ support for clubbing and for projects like MOMEM stemmed largely from marketing considerations. “There is a global competition among cities for a certain class of well-educated young people,” he said. Highlighting a city’s club culture, he said, “is a way of saying, ‘We have interesting jobs, and you can have fun here.’”

Such concerns have become salient in business-oriented Frankfurt, which had hoped to attract bank finance workers relocating from London after Brexit, but struggled. As one writer in German business newspaper Handelsblatt put it: “Not too many London-based bankers are willing to leave one of the world’s great metropolises, teeming with cultural riches, to move to sleepy little Frankfurt.”

Pasdzierny explained that German leaders in recent decades have also come to view techno as a form of “soft power” to help improve the country’s reputation internationally. “It became a narrative freeing Germany from its Nazi past,” he said, adding that by emphasizing the country’s inclusive club culture, officials aimed to perpetuate the image of a kinder Germany.

But he said the coronavirus pandemic had shown the limits of German politicians’ willingness to offer concrete support to nightlife, as nightclubs were often the first venues to be closed when cases rose, even though they often enacted stringent safety measures.

“I think politicians are only interested when it helps them economically, or their image,” he said. “There is still the view that clubs are dangerous and dirty.”

One of Azary’s goals is to dispel simplistic views of clubbing and to explore the ideas and values behind electronic music. A 40-year veteran of the Frankfurt club scene, he said he had long believed that clubbing could be a utopian force that could encourage open-mindedness, love and egalitarianism. “It was a revolutionary feeling — we sincerely thought we could change the world,” he said. Yet given the current state of the world, “we need to admit that it hadn’t turned out exactly as we wanted,” he added.

With Russia waging war in Ukraine, he said, he had even doubted if it was appropriate for the museum to throw an opening party. “But then we decided we need to turn what we are doing into a symbol,” he said. “Club culture is about mutual respect — and about being allowed to be who you are.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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