jenn nkiru’s must-watch meditation on techno

August 20, 2019
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A spiritual investigation of vibration and rhythm hums through British filmmaker Jenn Nkiru’s deeply meditative and impressionistic documentary, Black to Techno. Commissioned by Gucci and Frieze for their second Summer of Love series, the 20-minute film contextualizes techno as a Black music with its roots firmly planted in the failed utopian project of the city of Detroit. Like techno music, Black to Techno is a sleek tour of electronic rhythm and soul scored by selections from the Detroit techno canon coupled with an assembly line of narrative ensemble “voices” comprised of Onyx Ashanti, Juan Atkins, DJ Lynnee Denise, Kodwo Eshun, and Waajeed, among others.

The alliterative theme of “techno, techne, technique” reoccur throughout the film and bind together the musical and intellectual framework that defines Nkiru’s thoughts on techno. To quote electronic music composer and new media theorist Beth Coleman, “As a music, techno builds such an architecture that takes ‘Techne,’ the spirit or the soul if you will, and melds it to the machine, a thing enslaved to the rhythm of production.” Nkiru has used the term “cosmic archeology” to explain her practice of combining the mediums of music and spoken word within the context of a cinematic work. A key theme that has been recovered from her intellectual digging is that techno is a vibrational technique for harnessing the soul and the self. Beyond being a music that has been publicly perceived as repetitive electronic beats scoring White European hedonism, techno is about tuning into a universal frequency and gaining a sense of existential momentum.

The doc starts with words from inventor, programmer, and beat jazz musician Onyx Ashanti sharing the myth of Drexciya conjured by an elusive electronic music duo of the same name whose sonic productions transport listeners to a speculative underwater society cultivated by enslaved Africans thrown overboard during shipments across the Black Atlantic. Ashanti’s own work comparatively operates at the level of molecular rhythm, sculpting sonic objects from vibration below the surface of structural understanding. Though not specifically techno, Ashanti interacts with technology in a way that is fused with his own body and reflective of Drexciya’s interpretation of the brutality of living in a techno-colonial economic-driven civilization. As a spiritual cyborg, Onyx Ashanti claims to harvest rhythm and beats from his inner chakra flow through programmed circuitry. When speaking about Drexciya he works through the process of physical transformation and adaptation of the Africans-turned-Drexciyans, and this explanation is soon followed by a story of his factory worker grandfather and his cohort who would name their machines eventually developing a mutual rapport and empathy through rituals of daily repetitive collaborative labor. In a discussion at Performance Space NY last year Underground Resistance label manager Cornelius Harris suggested that Black slave labor was the beginnings of American automation. For Harris and in a lot of ways Nkiru, there is a clear progression from the alienated and extractive labor of plantation fieldwork to assembly-line production of the car industry in Detroit and eventually the production of what techno pioneer Derrick May has termed “Hi-tek Soul.” As technology and capital production in America developed through the industrial revolution, so did the Black body as a unit at the base.

A soliloquy from the Last Poets soundtracked by Mad Mike’s “the Illuminator” points out that the power and source of techno has always been inside of the Black body. He goes further to say that it can be found in “our music, our tutors, our choirs, our voices.” Though the genre of techno has been generalized by mass-market distribution from the boom and near-decade late discovery by the British as well as the cultural-political moment of a Germanic version of the sound scoring the collapse of the Berlin wall, techno carries the same DNA as Motown and its soulful Chicago cousin, House. The sounds of techno inspires and repeatedly finds itself as a voice at the margins of society through the late 20th century though ultimately inscribed with centuries of Black expression of disenfranchisement. It should be noted that Juan Atkins of the Bellevue Three who originated techno alongside Eddie Fowlkes, pulled the name from the 1980 book “The Third Wave” by businessman and futurist Alvin Toffler who wrote of “techno rebels” who would embrace technology in unexpected ways against the intentions of industrial capitalism. His book covered the implications of a transition from the second wave of industrial revolution which included and promoted assembly line labor and mass production to a third wave which would focus on the information age, automated labor and the liquidation of blue collar workers to cut corporate cost. Toffler also wrote of how our engagement with business and politics would shift in such a way that we are fully represented by what labor will and can be extracted augmenting daily life to serve a standardized techno-industrial system, a prediction of modern-day start-up tech companies.

Jenn Nkiru’s interpretation of techno considers the carceral way in which Black bodies relate to technology as displayed in a scene featuring Stacey Hotwaxx, Minx, and DJ Holographic operating turntables alongside each other in a motor factory filled with assembly line workers building cars. As technology becomes more commonplace cultures form around it as does a way of life. In the case of early techno musicians the equipment that they worked with was analog and second-hand leftover from “white flight” during the motor and music industry crisis in the early to mid-’80s. One could think of Detroit as a prime example of the collective industrial promise of America whose collapse signaled a major hole in the plan of mass production for a domestic market. The injection of rhythm and soul into machines veer them off course resembling modes of jazz that exceed whatever sounds are pressed onto vinyl and the memories of being moved to dance by them in the club. Towards the end of the film Fumi Okiji, author of “Jazz as Critique” and an academic interested in Black expressive culture, describes techno as a technique of creating potential out of closed contradictions through intuitive syncopation, or “Black rhythm and Black time.” The signature trope of four-on-the-floor is simply a point of origination and return a revolution: “It’s not the notes, but the space between the notes.”