October 17th, 2005


We are the robots

Robots After All is the new album from Philippe Katerine. Yes, that title is a cheeky wink in the direction of Daft Punk's disappointing Human After All. But there's nothing disappointing about this record, a comical-conceptual work about robots, social conformity and mechanised, Taylorised lifestyles; think of Tati's satires on modernism, Woody Allen's Sleeper, or imagine a more socio-critical take on Kraftwerk's "we are the robots". To toybox comedy-techno arrangements concocted with the help of a Groovebox and Berlin kitsch-comedian Gonzalez (whose presence builds a bridge from Paris to the Berlin ironists, people like Jamie Lidell, whose electronic neo-funk is echoed—and bettered—here), Katerine offers us funky robotic techno-disco, piss-takes of Le French Touch, Michael Jackson, Plastic Bertrand, Kraftwerk and, yes, Daft Punk, married to a quirky poetic-satirical sensibility he shares with Variétés greats like Brigitte Fontaine and Serge Gainsbourg. Here be schedules, braindead automata, interchangeable cliches, idées recus, withering sarcasm, silly voices, DJs who demonstrate their power over furious crowds by waggling the sliders at whim. Listen to the clips here, read a review (in French magazine Chronic'art) here and cast an eye over an interview with Katerine here.

In an age of conformity, Katerine is becoming more magnificently himself; a plaster-haired lush and a gentleman poet. I knew him, Horatio, back in the mid-90s, when he was a fellow Kahimi Karie collaborator, a familiar face at parties at my apartment on the Place Du Tertre. I wonder if his "robots" concept isn't a very French critique of "the anglo-saxon model", a Thatcherite-Blairite mix of "painful labour market reforms" and competitive efficiency currently battling, across Europe, with a more civilised, Slow Life-friendly, social model? The sleeve, in which Katerine and fellow robots wear a uniform consisting of white panties and pink polo neck sweaters, shows the absurdity of conformity and its coding of difference: why this particular combination rather than that one? Why do wigs seem to determine the precise degree of inclusion or exclusion from the pink panty tribe, whereas gender doesn't? As in Sleeper, Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 we see a world where a strange sci-fi conformity—which nevertheless matches our own—seems toxic and arbitrary, and only literature can save us.

"Robots après tout is almost a work of contemporary art," says Wilfried Paris in Chronic'art, "provoking ceaseless reflection, totally ludic in its procedures, totally free in its realisation..." It's interesting to see conceptual pop records straying into the realm of art at just the moment when contemporary art seems to want to embrace rock'n'roll; in today's Guardian there's an interview with Sarah Lucas, "the most rock'n'roll of the YBAs... still living the life." Whereas Katerine has the name and often the nature of a woman in his work, and seems to be veering from rock to art, Lucas has the name and nature of a hard-partying, street-fighting, football-and-community loving, balls-out man; "'I'm a better bloke than most blokes," she boasts. Art and rock, male and female, seem to be switching places. The only question is, are they switching places so that everything can change, or so that everything stays the same?