arca's blood-soaked l.a. performance was an important cultural moment
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"What does Arca mean? Because, to your friends, you're known as Alejandro," photographer Wolfgang Tillmans asked Alejandro Ghersi earlier this year, as the experimental producer released his self-titled album, Arca. "I could say Alejandro is more personal and Arca is less so… It's more about my emotions rather than my experience. I like to think that it comes from a wilder place, where I allow myself to go emotionally on stage," Ghersi told Tillmans.
"Arca means 'box' or 'wooden' in very old Spanish. It's a ceremonial container where you store jewelry or valuables, an empty space that can become pregnant with whatever music or meaning I give to it. It was important to me that it wasn't a word that already existed but rather something hollow that I could create."
On Wednesday night, Ghersi staged a thrilling performance as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles. The second happening in the month-long fest's Open Beta series, it was titled, "Arca Presents a Night with Alejandro." The piece spoke to the ideas and meanings behind both names, and the unclassifiable artist who embodies them. It was a wild, ambitious, aching, ceremonial, tender, harrowing, shape-shifting, communal yet deeply personal odyssey that only Arca (and Alejandro) could dream up.
Let's start at the beginning. Attendees entered the show (staged inside a cavernous East L.A. warehouse) by passing through a decontamination chamber-esque installation. Flashing strobes and smoke filled the chamber as officers in full SWAT gear "scanned" each group, like a scene out of Alien. At the back of the space, a sprawling stage was erected in multiple tiers, as if it were scaffolding snaking through city blocks, or a giant jungle gym. Billowing swaths of translucent fabric, illuminated by soupy ambient light, softened the industrial edge. A platform of stairs led up to the center of the stage, where two gymnastic rings swayed gently. The entire space was strewn with fake white rose petals.
In the middle of the warehouse sat an enormous glass box — an arca, perhaps. Nearer to the space's entrance, a man covered in mirrored square panels stood stoically on a platform, holding a large palm plant. Opposite him was a medical chair with stirrups that looked like something out of Saw. The set was created in collaboration with artist Taran Allen (who has also worked with Hood by Air and A$AP Rocky).
Over the course of two hours, Arca performed songs from his newest record, and 2015's Mutant. Arca marked the first time the Venezuelan producer — who'd collaborated with FKA Twigs, Bjork, and Kanye West by 23 — sang in his native Spanish. Watching him belt tracks like "Piel" and "Anoche" with such power and deep pathos is a difficult experience to put into words.
As he sang — or thrashed and dipped to the gurgling beats of tracks like "Saunter," "Castration," and "Sinner" — Arca slipped through the crowded warehouse, stopping to interact with each facet of the set. He spread his legs in the medical chair, and shared an embrace with the mirrored palm man (then, adorably, handed one of his leaves to the girl next to me). He emerged first in assless chaps and stilettos. Later, he arrived in an ornate white matador uniform, and horse-leg stilts. He smoked a joint while laying in a coffin.
The show's notes withheld explanation as to what these layers of vibrant symbolism might mean — what kind of world we were being transported to. Arca's only elaboration was that the performance collided his "dreams and nightmares." It's as good a description as any. There's a compelling kind of shape-shifting and ambiguity that happens in dreams. We're not sure how we feel about what we encounter, and are more open to multiple meanings. Things that may appear painful give us new kinds of pleasure.
The glass box represented this fusion between dreams and nightmares perhaps more than any other element. During his first stop inside the transparent structure, Arca smeared synthetic blood on its Plexiglass walls. The image was unsettling, but his movement was soft and elegant. (After he returned to the stage, I watched crew members rapidly squeegee pools of blood from the box's floor.) This quick clean-up made sense when Arca summoned friend and collaborator Kelela into the blood-smeared structure. The future-forward siren and songwriter recently released an outstanding LP, Take Me Apart, which features contributions from Arca. Her unexpected appearance was rapturous, and disarming. Clad in white Margiela Tabi boots, Kelela commanded every corner of the crowd, singing in mournful, elegant Spanish.
No stranger to Arca or Kelela, Ashland Mines (Total Freedom) was right at home on the decks, architecting an aggressive soundscape that was at turns sensual and violent. Total Freedom layered whips, sirens, and walls of deconstructed noise that literally shook my nostrils. But he pulled things back just as beautifully, letting the sweet sadness of bubbling beats wash over the warehouse. Total Freedom's appearance was a welcome surprise to most, but his presence and perspective were vital. Arca told Tillmans of his early days attending the original era of GHE20G0TH1K parties, circa 2010, and the transformative sound he encountered. "[Shayne Oliver] and Total Freedom were really influential on me and probably the two people I heard do that [deconstructed sound] for the first time anywhere in the world."
Despite the performance's other-worldly facets, its intense emotional energy, and insane production level, Arca engaged with his audience in a fun and approachable manner. He asked Total Freedom to rewind one track because "my look is only a third of the way on!" He played one of his favorite songs, Venezuelan salsa vet Oscar D'León's "Lloraras," and invited a troupe of dancers up on stage. He paused the music to ask every dancer's name (one, Cowboy, was a fan favorite). Later, he performed while strumming on the Venezuelan Quattro, and encouraged each person to research the political turmoil currently gripping his homeland. After ripping the joint in the coffin, he took a second to breathe, giggling "I'm a little stoned!", then proceeded to shut the place down.