“Performance art” can be a dirty word. “Pretentious” and “impenetrable” are terms that may come to mind. But what about performance art by one of our most unpredictable electronic music provocateurs? If Arca’s recent Mutant;Faith performance series had to fall on one side of “concert” or “performance art,” it would be the latter. With that in mind, it’s no overstatement to say that Venezuelan experimentalist Alejandra Ghersi (who now uses feminine pronouns) has assembled — with commendable work from her collaborators — a show of awe, absurdity, and gargantuan creativity.
The shows took place at The Shed in New York City. Its Griffin Theater stage was adorned with Mars-like dirt, housing synthesizers, a baby grand piano, and a host of uncanny forms. A mass of black tendrils lay in the pit, another spread luxuriously across the piano. Each night, Arca reveled in this playground, scraped from the contours of her psyche. “This place is my dream come true,” she gushed, draped in the Venezuelan flag, wig like a gothic Hatsune Miku. A mechanical bull, noise music-emitting stripper pole, and a cartoonish skeleton served as landmarks.
Then there’s the artist herself. Beginning each night of the improvised residency — “There is no setlist,” she sometimes forewarned — she inhabited otherworldly forms. The first night, she was bound up and dollied onto the stage. A microphone taped to her throat, she cried out in guttural vowels, like she was birthed onto a battleground. She stalked about, discovering the uses of her new home. The other nights produced more bombastic characters. Performance two opened with the artist as a stomping mecha-faun, the likes of which hinted were at in her “Reverie” video. The final night saw her shuffle about as a ghoulish forest nymph with a laser-emitting backpack.
Looking like something we’ve never seen, Arca embraced the element of play. One night, she spun on her metal pole, which emitted aggravated feedback when touched. Dismounting, she gesticulated in front of her theremin synth before taking to the DJ decks and spinning a full-throttle techno set. She later mounted the conspicuous mechanical bull, situated atop a heart-shaped platform, and sang a new song called “Time.” Sometimes, if the mood struck, she would sing a ballad from her self-titled album, like “Piel” or “Reverie.” More than anything, she would joke, speak her mind, and openly appreciate the world she made reality.
“Take the barriers down,” she once requested, lying in the dirt. The next night, there were only retractable belt guards, like in an airport. The final night, nothing separated audience from stage except manners. Indeed, there was no fourth wall to be found during Mutant;Faith. Arca conversed with onlookers. “I’ve always wanted my own talk show,” she admitted. She asked them about the last dream they had. This uncommon transparency was the residency’s strongest pillar. The most interesting way this fluidity manifested was in Arca’s communication with her crew.
To manipulate her vocals, fix her makeup, have a sip of water, Arca called for her “glam squad.” Her costumer, hair and makeup specialists, photographers, nail technician — all were in eye or ear-shot, orbiting like white blood cells. The most indelible ally was the artist Carlos Sáez — her romantic partner. Sáez, a contributing artist to the show, doubled as a stagehand. He ran, ducked and lunged for Arca’s benefit, sometimes planting a sweet peck on her lips. “Pango!” Arca would call out, her nickname for him. Their tender moments were some of the most human parts of a mostly inhuman whole.
Of course, Arca’s collaborations were not without star power. Night one saw the visit of Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac — donning blond wig drag, speaking cryptic passages of a book. The third night, in a thrilling move, Arca welcomed her legendary mentor and Shed alumna Björk. She floated to Arca’s side — her outfit like an ethereal sand dollar — and performed a new song, which, it appears, will materialize on the next Arca album (Arca confirmed the project will arrive next year).
The most prominent co-conspirator of the show was the arch, industrial techno DJ Total Freedom. Each night, as guests filed in, he would loom over the decks. Muscled and inscrutable, he unleashed auditory assaults. There is a particular stretch of noise that stays with me. Pitched-up yells, like from a fighting video game, and smashing glass blew out the room for a stretch of time, ad nauseam. Freedom is a masterful curator of skin-peeling mash-ups, no doubt, but did the audience deserve this?
I found myself asking this question intermittently during some of Arca’s experiments on the first night in particular. Arca sampled each of her toys with alien-like curiosity, but not enough confidence. It was sometimes hard to sit through. The words “performance art” pinged in my head like a fly hitting a window. Of course, she dispelled that thought on the second night: The costume changes were swift, her commentary sharp and the music flowed. I just wish that every show could have been so polished.
Though, perhaps we should adjust our expectations for what an Arca performance can be. Seekers of cohesion, unity and, perhaps, ardent fans of her studio music may have left unfulfilled. Regardless, Mutant;Faith was experimentalism on a staggering scale — performance art with a pulse. It was a showcase of talent, nerve and endurance that few other musicians would dare attempt.