AMONG THE PECULIARITIES of our current moment is an unprecedented willingness to give attractive, clearly male-presenting individuals radical gender points for wearing heels in public. That post-Butlerian zeitgeist certainly isn’t hurting the popularity of Venezuelan performer/producer Arca, and it probably explains the presence of the “I shop at Nasty Pig on lunch break from my Manhattan gallery job” contingent at his show at Brooklyn Steel earlier this month. But Arca taps into a much deeper and more powerful tradition of queer experimentation—less RuPaul’s Drag Race and more COIL’s soundtracks to Derek Jarman’s films of the 1980s. Imagine Peter Christopherson’s video for Nine Inch Nails’s “Happiness in Slavery” but with Kate Bush instead of Bob Flanagan. This is not just a regular show with a varnish coat of gender trouble slapped on.
The Thursday-night event wasn’t a concert so much as a spectacle, or maybe a ritual—as close to an immersive experience as a rock venue with a two-thousand-person capacity and a proscenium stage can get. This was a long-form performance piece, not a band showing up to recreate a dozen songs off a recent album. Familiar moments from his latest, eponymous LP wove in and out to excited applause, but that’s not really what it was about.
Arca spent much of the evening on a catwalk that extended out into the audience, and quite a few minutes offstage entirely while we were occupied by the video projections, the light show, and the music, which included slabs of thick post–Throbbing Gristle noise alongside the sensuous, alien sound on which he’s built his reputation. Arca’s fame is currently cresting on the back of production work for Kelela, FKA Twigs, and Björk, for whom he has crafted rhythms with an instantly recognizable and now widely-imitated style: skittish beats woven into shockingly organic warmth with dark, Gothy synth-strings and glitchy noise.
Everything about Arca’s show suggests a desire to resist the expectations of those who came because they liked Björk’s 2015 album Vulnicura. Which is fair enough; I can see how becoming world-famous in your mid-twenties as a Björk collaborator might create a certain kind of pressure. But it’s easy to construct a false dichotomy between satisfying and disappointing an audience. That’s how both musicians and audiences become embittered—next thing you know Pink Floyd is recording a double album about how hard it is to be famous. Arca’s graceful, determined assault on our assumptions has nothing to do with disappointment: It has all the hallmarks of an artist determined to use a newfound spotlight to conjure their full creative force. Arca resists our desire by offering us something better that we didn’t know we wanted.
Not everyone came along for the ride. The opening barrage lasted long enough to melt eager anticipation into palpable tension. People didn’t relax until the first clearly pitched notes came over the PA. I noticed a few slip out during the show; it’s rare to have more room right up front at the end of a concert than at the beginning. But those who stayed, and most of us did, were treated to the gorgeous, incomparable experience of a performer brutally and sincerely putting themselves on display. The sea of rapturous, shocked faces as the house lights came on was testament to Arca’s determination. Go see this show, is what I’m saying.