Saturday, May 30, 2015

We're Going Places: Nirvana - Taking Punk To The Masses

Seattle's EMP, Gehry-designed like a discarded sheath at the foot of the Space Needle, is a hell of a venue; broadly collecting together popular culture. There's a suspicion that the idea is it's a museum of things that aren't usually in museums, but with most cities with a large young-ish population having tried similar schemes with mixed success, it's not quite as unusual as it might like to think it is.

Amongst the exhibits is a celebration of Nirvana, Taking Punk To The Masses. (Because he spent so much time sharing bills with the band, it's also accidentally something of a history of Tad as well.)

It's not clear who it's aimed at - tubby, balding guys who remember when all this was in the present tense and for whom the explication makes you feel like you've just come round in a hospital and the nurses aren't sure you can remember who you are; or the kids who choose a Nirvana shirt when the Ramones one is in the wash? It falls somewhere between the two, and that makes the lovingly-curated show strain a bit.

There are pieces of the true cross on display - demo tapes, Kurt's stripey green jumper, setlists and smashed equipment. But they're all tucked away in glass cabinets, giving them a reverence that they existed to reject. Like orcas, punk stuff doesn't really thrive in a small, visitor-friendly box and it loses its power. (Sure, I got insanely excited seeing the Fastbacks' name on a flier, but not as insanely excited as I would have done if there had been some Fastbacks actually playing.)

An extensive oral history project sits on a massive screen - pretty much ignored, as these huge screens tend to be; at best prodded for a few seconds before the visitor moves on - and this seems to offer the context and other voices (and the experience) that the static displays miss. It suggests that, really, this might work better as an online project rather than a thing to go to. I would have loved to have spent longer poking about in the fanzine section, but when you're already being reminded the museum closes in a half hour, and there are other people milling about, waiting for their poke at the screen, it's not the time or the place. (This also seems the place where - the walk-ons for Courtney and the odd mention of Bikini Kill excepted - most of the not-male experience seems to have been shunted to.)

Across the way, there's an exhibit of indie video games where visitors are happily playing with the games themselves on numerous large screens. It makes sense - how do you understand the evolution of video games better than by playing them for yourself?

So why didn't this logic not get applied to the Nirvana exhibition? Sure, reading the form letter they sent to fans was fun ("when we're in your home town of _______________ I hope we can hang out with cool people like you"), but nothing in the room felt like it did watching Kurt beyond-dead-panning on Top Of The Pops, or that lurch on the Friday night wwhen the news broke.

Crucially, if there's an argument for having punk (of any era) in a museum, it should be to provide the kick up the arse that all punk did; all punk does. You should leave the EMP wanting to form a band, or do a zine, or even just play a record. Instead, it just makes you want to wander over to the gift shop.

In the middle of the museum as we leave, there's a massive (100 foot? 200 foot?) screen playing a Tacocat performance for KEXP. It feels more subversive than anything in the Nirvana display. That's got to be wrong.

[You might also like:
The Beatles' childhood homes
Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame]

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