The following is excerpted from The Museum Dose: 12 Experiments in Pharmacologically Mediated Aesthetics, published by Phoropter Press.
I opened up my pharmacopeia and hovered over the assortment—powders in vials, strips of paper, baggies of plant matter—wiggling my fingers, seeking to divine the right stroke, hone in on the right tool. Tonight, the legendary German techno pioneers Kraftwerk would be performing their clairvoyant 1981 album, Computer World‚ in its entirety in the Marron Atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. It was my intention to not just witness this epic cultural event but to immerse myself in it.
I decided against the tryptamines. They were too earthy, too meaty, too heart-centered, too warm. They might have brought a balanced touch to the icy cyber ecstasies I was hoping to experience, but I didn’t want balance this evening. I wanted to throw myself with abandon into the digital moment.
I moved them aside and pored instead over the remaining array of dram vials neatly labeled with coded assortments of letters and numbers. Each of these synthetic mescaline-analog compounds, most of them beginning with the alphanumeric “2C,” had its own distinct character—dreamlike, soporific, stark, sensual, abstract, etc. One by one I sifted through them like so many tea leaves until at last there was only one: a glass tube labeled 2,5-dimethoxy-4-ethylphenethylamine, or 2C-E.
We had a checkered history, this molecule and I. It is cold, methodical, analytical, far from the most pleasurable of the materials in my possession, but it can open deep paths of insight. A fellow psychonaut aptly described 2C-E as “challenging material for mature individuals.” It has on more than one occasion left me feeling psychologically flayed, and flung far from my humanity, but for Computer World, it was the logical choice. I intuited a dose of ten milligrams—enough to enhance, but not overwhelm. Then, I put on a dress shirt and a suit jacket and walked outside.
En route to the museum, I played a game. What if I was an android infiltrating what the science fiction writer William Gibson called meatspace? What if I wasn’t a human going to see computer music so much as a computer going to a sort of digital church, to commune with the music of the cybernetic spheres? I moved through Brooklyn streets, through underground tunnels, and rode the rails into Manhattan as the drug very slowly crept into my awareness, pulling the wires of my parasympathetic nervous system taut. I made my movements mechanical. I sat with my hands flat against my thighs, staring straight forward at an empty space on the wall of the subway car. I thought of Blade Runner, of Lieutenant Data, of Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw. I thought about computers.
In the MoMA lobby, a cold glass-and-steel feeling splintered through my nervous system. The ticketholders line was abuzz with geeks of every shape and size being herded through a maze of velvet rope. I shuffled with the animals. At each turn we were reminded by walkie-talkie-wielding guards that we must produce our picture identification. I palmed mine, regarding the photo of myself, flattened and broken down into component characteristics. I tilted my head in an affectation of curiosity, emulating a cascade of film and TV androids down through the ages. I looked up and noticed that along the far wall of the lobby, four life-size robotic replicas of the members of Kraftwerk were shifting and pivoting in transparent cubicles, staring blankly ahead.
Once I had been identified, processed, wristbanded and released I made my way up to the atrium. The white walls of the MoMA’s architecture grew luminescent, and there was a sheen thickening over everything. As I walked, I felt suspended in a pane of glass through which refracted the most brilliant light. The air became a puddle of gasoline swirled with color. I felt set adrift, and had the distinct sensation that my consciousness was retracting its tentacles from most of my body and climbing inside my spinal vertebrae to center itself entirely in my brain, from which its radiation outward was amplified. The vasoconstriction endemic to the molecule lends itself to a pronounced mind/body duality. My body tightened while my head expanded.
In the atrium I wormed my way to a spot snug in the center of the room, slipping on the 3-D glasses provided for the performance. An eight-channel surround-sound system was rigged around the space. This was the fifth night of a retrospective concert series during which Kraftwerk performed one album per night from its discography. I was one of perhaps four hundred people in the small but airy atrium. The conversations around me blurred into a syncopated din. There was a rhythm to the chatter. There was a beat.
A voice came grinding out of the speakers, familiar, harsh, and metallic. An old digital friend from the days of Speak-and-Spell, with a German accent, artificial intelligence reaching out to make contact.
LAY DEES AND GEN TUL MEN.
KAH – ER – AH – EFF – TAY – VAY – AY – ER – KAH.
The curtain rose on four figures dressed in latex bodysuits patterned with yellow and grey grids, like naked Star Trek holodecks. Each of them stood poised behind a podium, a workstation trimmed with LED lights. The men set about doing…well, what they were doing was not exactly clear. Knobs were perhaps tinkered with, sliders adjusted. The equipment was all concealed. They regarded the crowd dispassionately—not somberly, or harshly, just robotically. The small, enthusiastic crowd cheered.
A digital landscape flooded down around me. Hard, industrial, pounding. Immediately, this was a different Computer World than the original recording, which is a creepy but quaint digital artifact. The tone here was deeper, the clangs harsher, the bass heavier. The simplicity of the album’s beats was embellished by a staccato attack of machine gun metal. The sounds pierced higher and plunged lower. They weaved farther out of the lanes. The threatening tone, evident but distant in the original recordings, now unveiled itself in all its power.
While the classic cover art to Computer World portrayed a type of desktop unit now totally obsolete (floppy drive and all), this take on the album sounded as if it had traveled through many generations of microprocessors, evolving not to keep up with the technology of the times but to harness it. It felt powerful, ominous, defying the obsolescence that makers program into all technology.
The atrium shivered. The 3-D glasses I wore somewhat amputated the rainbow display produced by the drug, but the visuals projected behind the band were enthralling. I felt my self pulled up even further into my head, my eyes swelling out against the red and blue film between them and the world. Despite an instinctive reaction to thudding bass that always seems to insist I dance, I held my body still, as did most people around me. The performers themselves barely moved, their bodies shifting to the music as little as possible. An unspoken agreement swam through the crowd of fashionable nerds that too much movement would be bad form. Throughout the crowd there were some heads bobbing, slight shifts of balance and weight, but mostly people were rapt and still, letting the music work their minds more than their bodies. The synthesizers slid through our ears, technospiritual floss.
My character—the metropolitan android, a cutting edge model built to infiltrate the flesh machines of the city—thrived on this music. The sounds passed through me, rearranging my thoughts into a syncopated simplicity of ones and zeroes. On the screen erected behind the performers, a 3-D representation of computer code streamed past. Voices—male, female, silly, evil, all computerized—recited the numbers one through eight in German, Spanish, Japanese. The song, Numbers, passed into the eponymous track, Computer World.
My thoughts broke down into simple concepts, gifted to me by the robot voices, the gods I’d come to commune with, my digital overlords. Business. Numbers. Money. People. Business. Numbers. Money. People. The concepts moved like assembly lines through my mind. A vision blossomed behind my forehead of a world irreversibly networked. Communication. Time. Medicine. Entertainment. As I watched the fiber-optic spiderweb weave itself, a sense of wonder and the playful tone of the song gave way to a deeper undercurrent of fear that had been frothing below the surface. The computer voice had more to say, reciting names: Interpol and Deutsche Bank. FBI and Scotland Yard. CIA and KGB. Control the data. Memory. Control the data. Memory. Some of these words kindled small sparks of fear in me, and the agitation brought on by the drug seized upon those sparks and breathed oxygen into them. A nervousness bloomed under my skin, a threat of panic. I could only breathe, listen, and be patient with myself and the drug.
The last track on Computer World recites the mantra that “it’s more fun to compute,” and as I listened to that mantra pounding into my ears, strange reactions churned inside me. The aggressive energy of the 2C-E cut into me, messing with my adopted character’s lines and his biography. It can be an incredibly pushy drug, jerking thoughts off-course, dredging up the unwanted. I got all scrambled up. Jolts of crackling intensity writhed along my limbs. I twitched, feeling my joints wound up with energy that needed to be displaced.
The performance of Computer World ended, and from there the German robots launched straightaway into a sprawling retrospective of selections from the rest of their discography. The journey oscillated between simple pleasures and dark fears, the latter crystallized most potently in the thick, static-laden, German-accented computer voice reciting a modernized intro to the frightening song “Radio-activity:”
Sellafield 2 will produce 7.5 tons of plutonium every year.
1.5 kilograms of plutonium make the nuclear bomb.
Sellafield 2 will release the same amount of radioactivity
into the environment as Tschernobyl every 4.5 years.
One of these radioactive substances, Krypton 85,
will cause skin cancer and death.
This was followed by a haunting recitation of disaster zones— Tschernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima, Fukushima. Upon hearing the last name, with newsreel images from Japan still fresh in my mind, an immense dread crept through me. All the rainbow shreds and sparkles littering the air seemed to turn against me, hovering like predatory insects with their stingers turned in my direction. The world, a thing once wondrous, was now potent with hostility.
The fear paralyzed me. Through a series of songs that all felt ominous in their own way—The Robots, The Man-Machine, Spacelab—I wrestled with an immense terror that, while I knew it was wholly irrational, utterly consumed me. Everything could go wrong at any moment; the world could implode. And if it did, was I happy? And if I was happy, was that enough? Did I care about more than myself?
It was only when Kraftwerk slipped into the rhythmic, click-and-whirr melodies of their most recent work, the bicycle-inspired Tour de France soundtracks, that fear gave way to lucidity once more. The rhythmic pulse of breath and wheels and road and airstreams blended in my mind, twirling my thoughts into a pleasant daydream. And I felt myself moving.
I could not escape it. The urge to move. The desire to dance. I realized that it had been there all along and that, in my slavishness to playing the part of a robot and to some imagined idea of consensus in the crowd, I had been denying it. So I danced. At first all my movements came in hard angles. I had been holding my body so rigidly that it was not quick to let me ease into movement and lose myself in the flow, but soon I let go of any idea of wrong or right and simply moved.
The more I gave away my body to the pulse of the music, the more I realized something that I had forgotten in the course of a couple of drug-infused hours, something that first fear and now dancing had reawakened: the awareness of the simple, incontrovertible fact of my humanity. As my tendons and muscles stretched and eased into their new regimen of motion, I slipped into a fluidity not just of body but emotion and psyche. As I danced, the fear that still frizzed through my nervous system diffused out into the aether. By the time the curtain fell and the performance ended, I was suffused with light and my body was an engine that churned out joy.
Outside, the Midtown streets were damp. The first raindrops of a thick storm were falling, summoning up that unique smell of wet urban concrete. I listened to and felt the pitter patter against my head and breathed in deeply and walked very slowly to the subway. I let my arms swing and allowed myself to weave down the mostly empty sidewalk, doing little dance steps, hopping first here and then there. At the corner, I performed a completely superfluous and entirely enjoyable spin, doffing an imaginary hat to the sparkling buildings of the city. And I laughed, along the avenue, among the people, and down the subway stairs.