Arca and Jesse Kanda Pair Beats + Images at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom
As the common thread in three of the most acclaimed releases of the 2010s – Kanye’s Yeezus, FKA Twigs' LP1 and Bjork’s Vulnicura – the artist Arca (real name Alejandro Ghersi) sits at the intersection of a complicated Venn diagram. But those credits alone don’t define him: He’s also responsible for a stirring body of solo work, which was on display Wednesday night (April 8) at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. Arca performed songs from his official debut, Xen, accompanied by visuals courtesy of his friend, collaborator and roommate, Jesse Kanda.
Visuals have played an important part in this producer’s solo releases since almost the very beginning of his career. At this show, they were the focus – Arca fiddled with knobs and triggered samples stage right; unless he ventured out from behind his equipment, all eyes were on Kanda’s work, which appeared on a screen taking up the left half of the stage. In the past, Kanda concocted covers that were bright, vivid, eye-popping (for Stretch 1 & 2, early Arca releases). The art accompanying &&&&&, a continuous 25-minute track, appears to depict a newly-invented animal. And for Xen, Kanda composed a flowing white figure said to represent the character that gave the project its title: “This very sassy, confident, very feminine side of [Ghersi] … ‘Ohhhh, she’s out,’ we say … when we’re smoking weed ... ‘Xen’s out.’ And he’s, like, going crazy, changing his outfits or whatever. That’s Xen inside of him. It’s this kind of ghost. A spirit.”
At the Bowery Ballroom performance -- after the opening “Now You Know” video, full of fireworks and quick-pans -- that spirit appeared repeatedly on screen. The ghost appeared to twirl and breakdance, pulling and bending in seemingly incompatible directions like a rubber man. At times, the number of writhing entities on screen multiplied and darkened. The movement suggested an ice-skater made of clay, or babies in danger of being torn apart by too much gravity.
Viewers also encountered the more distinctly human form from the official video for “Xen” – naked, shot from waist height, looking up, while dancing – and the figure from the “Thievery” video, bald and nude. At one point, as the figure on screen executed a slow shimmy, bursts of red lasers started to explode out of her back, leaving behind swollen, chicken-pox-like boils. Many of Kanda’s figures swelled and bulged in unusual ways.
Although the screen was the focus during much of the show, Arca was interested in personal visuals as well: He took the stage in a white fur cape and armored, heeled, black platform boots. The cape didn’t last long; underneath it, he was wearing a plunging black V-neck. That disappeared too, and soon Arca was in the crowd rapping viscerally in his underwear (which matched the boots, tough black leather). Later, he borrowed a move from Rihanna, tapping out the beat on his crotch.
An Arca track is an unpredictable thing, never content to stay in one place for long. At various times, the music evoked an epic battle between wind chimes, or a Geiger counter honing in eagerly on a nearby radiation source. There were hints of trap – especially when Arca tried his hand as MC on two tracks – and reggaeton (“Slit Thru”), as well as their opposite: beat-less explorations of soft keyboard.
But these peaceful moments are the exception rather than the rule: Arca mostly favors screeches, clatters and high percussive noises, vicious and sharp. Few things in his catalog – or anyone else’s – are as brash as “Bullet Chained,” a strafing, furious onslaught. During this song, the screen flashed, strobe-light quick, with bright, fleshy reds. Soon it became clear that the image was of the inside of a mouth – the viewer was effectively being chewed up and swallowed. Not every show devours the audience; for some artists, this visual might be wishful thinking. Here, it didn’t seem like a stretch at all.