Arca: “We’re all transitioning: from birth to death, it’s inevitable“
The artist tells i-D about her new brilliant new album, KiCk i, accompanied by remote portraits by Juergen Teller.
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus depicts the goddess emerging from the sea, nude, fully grown, encased in a large scallop shell. Around 600 years later, a new mythology harks back to that image; another a celebration of rebirth, an introduction to a new era of Arca. In the video for "Nonbinary", the lead single from KiCk i, her first album in three years, the artist stands inside her own sacred shell, this one in a flooded, post-apocalpytic graveyard. Arca – naked save for fluffy stilettos, artfully placed bandages and the flowers tied to her limbs – appears as the goddess we deserve in 2020.
KiCk i is the fifth album from 30-year-old Alejandra Ghersi under the name Arca. The follow up to 2017’s critically acclaimed self-titled project, as well as a 62-minute-long single titled @@@@@ that she put out in February. The record is inescapably joyful. It sits at a deconstructed intersection of pop and reggaeton, and boasts guest features from her friends Björk, Shygirl, Rosalía and SOPHIE. KiCk i leans in a more accessible direction, and with it, Alejandra opens herself up personally for the first time.
When I call her over Zoom, she’s sitting in the home studio of her Barcelona apartment; her keyboards visible through a digital rainbow backdrop. There are birds singing in the courtyard behind her...
Hi Alejandra. How’s your lockdown situation going?
I went full shut in, full hermit. Anything that I can do online, I do online, even when the world is functioning. I have to gear myself up just to walk out the door sometimes, and this just adds another layer. So I just get glued to the screens, reaching out in lots of different ways digitally.
The last time you were shot for i-D was with Wolfgang Tillmans in 2017. Do you remember what kind of person you were back then?
Very much so. The thing that’s interesting is how some people, loved ones, will be like, ‘So, he’s dead, right?’ I think it’s cool to be playful with it, though; it’s a messy but beautiful thing to talk about. How do we perceive ourselves? How do other people perceive us? So I look back on it now and I deconstruct it. And it’s funny because I talk a lot in my performances about dying. I ask, ‘Do you remember the first time you died?’ and I talk about death as a metaphor, because I do believe there is more than one kind of death.
So how do you deal with those kinds of scenarios with loved ones?
After transitioning – or having enough bodily or behavioural changes, or changes in preferences or expressions or values or beliefs – sometimes someone might come up to me and be confused. Is it a whole new person? Can I make mistakes? What happens if misgender you? And I think it’s a beautiful curiosity to have. I guess my attitude towards it is that we’re all in constant flux, you know? We’re all transitioning: from birth to death, it’s inevitable. And then there’s this transition that is optional, that socially – as imperfect and flawed as it is – allows you to express this thing that is so abstract and physical and primal. It’s the difference between having that static inside of you and not sharing it, and moving the static outward and into your environment. People might react to it and it’ll cause all kinds of conversations. But that’s where the magic lies, in the conversation.
Absolutely, however difficult it might be.
It took me a long time to embark on transitioning. I was thinking about it for years and the thought wouldn’t go away. I was like, well, I could just hope that it goes away for longer, or I could admit this thing… and it might make it hard to recognise myself in the mirror at some point. That was the scary part. But then I just embraced that.
You know, back in Wolfgang’s interview, you said that Arca meant a “ceremonial container that can become pregnant with music or meaning”. It now seems quite prophetic to have given yourself that artist name so long ago, given your personal evolution since then…
Definitely. It’s so weird. And I love that you pick up on that because I hadn’t thought of that.
What was the original thought process behind the name Arca?
I don’t know how much you know about this part of my life, but I was somewhat of an indie pop sensation in Venezuela. I was a self-produced teen popstar that didn’t happen. I was in the newspapers and bands would invite me to feature with them… the biggest band in Venezuela! I was getting a lot of attention for making music and it felt really nice to be not just nerdy, but to realise this could make me popular. And so I think I just followed that feel-goodness to a point of self-deceit, which sounds glitched out, but I was starting to make stuff that I thought other people would be happy with. So just as I lost sight of what I wanted to do, I pulled the plug. Then when the next project came along, I was like, what name can I put on it that doesn’t put me in a box?
I wonder how much you’re concerned about making music that people want to hear now? KiCk i is much poppier and more accessible than before.
That’s a beautiful nuance to zoom in on, and there’s no static answer. There’s a reaching out and opening up. For someone who has made music for so long, I haven’t done many interviews. There’s a part of me that’s like, wait, why am I afraid to connect? Let me take this opportunity to reach out in a different way with my music. Something more inviting, more like a celebration, a party that people want to go to.
And it really does seem like you’re being more open than ever before. I’ve seen you invite strangers to join you in conversation on Instagram, which is a brave move.
I’ve always liked the digital stage. I’ve been live streaming since before the lockdown, but it definitely took on a different connotation when there was no more touring. I was craving to feel part of the room; that sense of community and togetherness. Live streaming is like the ocean… I don’t want to throw myself into it too much, but I also don’t want to shy away from it. There’s something magical about it.
So you’ll keep on paddling. There was a particular livestream you did towards the end of last year, where you discussed transitioning yet still identifying as gay. And you highlighted the fault in our language.
When it comes to sexuality, which is so ineffable, it’s something you can’t really find the right words for, which is why the language around it is constantly shifting. It’s like, as soon as you pin it down, a response to that definition will emerge. I see my gender identity as non-binary, and I identify as a trans Latina woman, and yet, I don’t want to encourage anyone to think that my gayness has been banished. And when I talk about gayness, it’s funny because I’m not thinking about who I’m attracted to. It’s a form of cultural production that is individual and collective, which I don’t ever want to renounce. I wanna have my cake and eat it sometimes.
Which is completely within your right.
I know that there are so many risks to seeing ourselves as fluid, because it’s terrifying; you
want to be a consistent and rock hard person, and you want to know where you end and where others begin, but we’re part of a collective, so it’s beautiful when conversations happen. You don’t have to fight fire with fire. I accept responsibility for my own feelings, but I don’t accept responsibility for other people’s. I try not to get baited into fighting over what is often the definition of a word.
It sounds like you’re remarkably good at staying calm.
When I’m not crying randomly.
Before we go any further, what’s the story behind the title KiCk i?
The first image that comes to mind when I think of the word ‘kick’ is a prenatal kick; that instance of individuation, that unmistakable moment where parents realise their baby is not under their control but has its own will to live, its own impulses that are erratic and unpredictable, separate to their own. I think later we have a hard time distancing ourselves from authority and disagreeing with the top-down system that we perpetuate. So this is celebrating the moment of disagreement that is an expression of feeling alive. The baby doesn’t think about kicking, it kicks because it’s a vital impulse: there’s no malice in it.
And the album is the first in a series of KiCks, right?
I see it as a three-act experimental electronic opera cycle, followed by an epilogue, which is just my piano compositions – no singing, no effects, no pyrotechnics, just compositions. I figure that each part represents a different side of me. I can’t say that I can contain all my multitudes in one album, but I can open an era and let them do their thing without over-controlling it. You don’t have to get stuck between yin or yang. I speed the tempo up on one album, then slow it down for the next one – it’s like a world map, and I’m just building it. There’s a mythology, there are characters, there are settings. And there’s Electra Rex.
Who is Electra Rex?
Electra Rex is one of my alters. So there’s the Oedipus Rex complex and the Electra complex, but I’ve never seen anyone merge the two before. The myth of Electra Rex, I propose, is that she killed her mother and her father and then had sex with herself. And that’s where Electra Rex starts.
And she’s a persona across KiCk?
I call them self-states, which is the term I use on "Nonbinary". I said alter though, because there’s an element of the person talking to you being different when Electra is on the mic, you know? She’s so mischievous but has really good intentions. I have this cast, I guess, a sea of characters. Xen is another one – Xen, after whom I named my 2015 album.
So where did Xen originate?
That was born from a name I used to… I’m embarrassed to say this but I’m trying to open up about it… Does it count as catfishing if you later come out as trans?
I think you’re probably off the hook.
I was very young and I fell in love, basically, with somebody online that, for years, I told that I was a girl. At that point, I led a double life. I would go to school and be ‘he’ but to him, I was ‘she’. That left me with such a rift, especially given my interior landscape when it comes to how I felt more comfortable. Xen was the name I gave myself. I stopped doing it and I buried that part of myself because I felt so guilty that I’d get these awful stomach aches. So Xen disappeared but then she was honoured and brought back and remembered lovingly. You know, this part of me that had space to dream and to connect and explore sides of myself that I couldn’t explore IRL. I’m grateful for Xen.
So do you think that having these other alters, these self-states, is sort of a continuation of that? That they’re further ways to explore parts of yourself?
I think there’s one selfhood, one dignified unity, but sometimes there are moods that are greedy, they want time to sulk self-destructively, while there’s another part of you that’s like, get over your fear and connect. I think this is a playful way to engage with that. It’s like a mirror to parts of us.
And all of these self-states feed into the world of Arca...
I see Arca as a space, and inside that space I’m running different simulations and constantly deconstructing things and trying to keep it from being stagnant. I’m stopping it from moving too fast or too slow. I’m trying to keep a nice balance of heat and vulnerability and imagination, and I’m not trying to over-control it, but not have it be messy. There’s storytelling too, but it’s more than one story.
So how does KiCk i fit into the wider project?
If all four installations are part of an experimental electronic opera cycle, what’s the focus of this one? It’s not so black and white, but I see KiCk i as an intersection of pop and reggaeton that’s been deconstructed. Then the second one I see more in the vein of a deconstruction of hip-hop. The third KiCk is actually the least defined, and the fourth is only keys.
Not gonna lie, it sounds epic.
It’s been so long since I released an album, but I never stopped making music at the same rate. I didn’t want to release just one album and wait another three years. There’s music I wanna share before I die. I love the album format. I’ve bought albums that changed my life, so I take it seriously, you know? But I also want to play with it and shake it up. What does an album mean today? Maybe the single is an hour long? Maybe the album is fifteen hours?
How long have you been working on KiCk i?
It was done last year, pretty much, so I had a lot of time to overthink things. There was time for it steep and simmer and to ask myself: do I still live for this album? When the coronavirus outbreak happened, I was like: now is the time to be generous, now is the time to be abundant, full motion picture sci-fi fantasy. This is the new era we need; new moods, new fun, new looks, new entertainment, new beats. We need it now. Not waiting for things to get better. Art can help make it better! During times of scarcity, fantasy and joy are a beautiful space to create.
You’ve previously noted that you always learn something about yourself through your work, and I wonder what making this record has taught you?
There can be very, very, very positive and uplifting experiences that result from opening up. I think, in the context of the way the album sounds, it’s the happiest record I’ve ever made. This whole chapter of my life got me making songs that were happier than I ever thought I’d be able to make.
You must be feeling happy then, in yourself?
I mean, I’m happier. I wouldn’t say I’m happy, because I think happiness is a state that you’re always chasing. I’m looking for the experience of feeling alive, the experience of softness and pleasure. You can not even know why you want something, but completely desire it; and then when you get it, pretty sharply you start desiring something else with the same intensity. These mysteries of what it means to be happy; they’re too daunting for me, so I would never say that I’m happy but I’m definitely not unhappy.
And that’s good enough.
That’s beautiful; it’s good enough. I’m grateful to do what I do. I don’t take it for granted. I love it.
Photography Juergen Teller
Styling, hair and make-up Arca, with laser mask by Carlos Saez
Creative partner to Juergen Teller, Dovile Drizyte