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Cinematic Odes to Techno, Detroit, and the Black Producers Who Started a Movement

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Ulysses Jenkins, “Dream City (still)” (1983) (© Ulysses Jenkins, all image courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix [EAI], New York)

The list of exhibitions I was heartbroken to miss before museums and art spaces shuttered this spring is long, but Dia’s Carl Craig: Party/After-Party sits right at the top. Curated by Kelly Kivland, the exhibition invited one of techno’s foremost innovators to create a site-specific sound installation at the foundation’s Beacon outpost. Since the late ’80s, the Detroit-born DJ and producer — who is still based in the city, the birthplace of techno — has been crafting singular compositions attuned to the possibilities of filters, equalizers, and the vigorous energy of a crowded dance floor.

With its cavernous, industrial architecture, Dia:Beacon’s galleries (which were once a Nabisco factory) easily recall some of the old warehouse and basement spaces in Detroit, where Black pioneers like Marshall Jefferson, Derrick May, Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale, and Juan Atkins would DJ after-hours parties that shaped the genre into a form of protest against the corruption and racist policies that had long denigrated the city’s Black population. Likewise, techno’s emphasis on repetition, and the possibilities of modularity and technology mirror those of Minimalist composition, with which Dia has long been engaged.

Beyond its embrace of these elements, Craig’s music — which is as tricky to define as it is satisfying to listen to — is also characterized by its emphasis on futurism. It feels fitting, then, that while we wait for when it might be safe to return to seeing art in person, Dia has teamed up with Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) to present a series of online screenings, featuring films and conversations that pay tribute to “archives of Black experience,” Detroit, techno, and the genre’s rich, enduring legacy.

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Ulysses Jenkins, “Dream City (still)” (1983) (© Ulysses Jenkins)

Co-curated by Dia’s Devin Malone and Kirsten Mairead-Gill, the series has so far featured films by Tony Cokes and the Otolith Group, and a conversation between Kivland, sound theorist DeForrest Brown Jr. (who is also a Hyperallergic contributor), and Craig himself. The next program will focus on visions of the metropolis. As Malone explained to Hyperallergic via email:

Alongside the commission, we wanted to give the public the chance to meditate on the political, sonic, and aesthetic reverberations of techno throughout the last 50 years. The films in this screening series form a constellation of themes that simultaneously make demands of past, present, and future, and much like techno, speak to larger questions of form, architecture, and the construction of the (post) human.

From July 16 to 19, audiences will be able to access a slate of works by film and video titans Cauleen Smith and Ulysses Jenkins, who share a deep interest in the sonic, aesthetic, and conceptual frameworks loosely linked by the moniker of afro-futurism. The program will include Jenkins’s ethereal “Dreamy City” (1981), which further explores his work as a “video griot,” in which he archives Black and Native American (his own heritage) performance and cultural production — present and past — as a means of ensuring its future. Smith’s “Songs for Earth & Folk” (2013) likewise engages the archive in both form and concept, weaving together found footage from various educational and ethnographic films. The result is a melodic meditation on humanity’s toxic relationship with the environment, set to an exquisite, improvised score by the Eternals. Smith’s films “The Changing Same” (2001) and “The Way Out Is the Way Two” (2013) will also be included in the program.

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Ulysses Jenkins, “Dream City (still)” (1983) (© Ulysses Jenkins)

As we move towards what feels like a particularly precarious future, I can’t think of a better way to meditate on possibilities we might not have previously considered.

When: Streaming July 16–19
Where: Online, via Dia:Beacon

See Dia’s website for more information and details about future installments of the series.


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