Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cuts Like The Knife

Artists are considered singularities, able to produce that which no one else can, and their sole job in our world is to bear their vision through. Piddling things like folding laundry or making one's own snacks or being a nice person fall away when in pursuit of capital-A art. No wonder Vera Nabokov has a cult following among writers, most of whom probably long for their own laundress/editor/teaching assistant who, as an added bonus, also keeps the bed warm.

But! Singularities are rare in humanity, and even the most creative, envelope-pushing artists benefit from surrounding themselves with like-minded folks. Think of Paul McCartney: amazing as a Beatle, and decidedly meh as part of Wings. There's something so delicious about the words "art collective," am I right? No wonder so many teenagers thrill themselves by saying, "Oh, I'm in a band." In a band. "The artist" is supposed to be a lonely creature, and the cultural expectation that "artists work alone" still holds serious water. Like all lonely people, artists can be punishing to be around (think of Walt Disney's terrified office drones whispering "Man is in the forest" as Disney entered his own building, warning each other to be on their best behaviour as he passed through the office). But when they aren't actively scaring people, and they actually work with others, the results of collaboration can be astounding. See: White, Snow.

I came of age in a time of "pop divas," when teenagers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera duked it out on the charts. In no way were these performers actual divas, like an aria-delivering stage star or even a Motown-era soul sister. They were Auto-tuned, focus-grouped, and aerobicized into virtually indistinguishable plastic molds. They were propelled forwards by mostly invisible armies of stylists, songwriters, producers, "momagers," eyebrow-pluckers, and PR assistants, but the end goal was always a girl, under the spotlight, alone. The team effort was strenuously hidden, and the final product was designed to be, well, perfect. It has always been perfect. Nothing can be messy, and nothing can be difficult.

Last night, we went to see The Knife in concert. The Swedish brother-sister duo have been putting out increasingly challenging albums since 2001; the latest of which, Shaking the Habitual, manages to contain both dancefloor-friendly pop singles as well as an uncomfortable 18-minute long noise track. They write songs about gender politics and give interviews (often in disguise) that leave some journalists fleeing for the hills. Translating this album into a live concert was never going to be easy.

The Knife solved this problem by exploding the band into a multitude, bringing dancers, artists, spoken word performers, drag queens, spiritual aerobics instructors, and a metric ton of glitter into the equation. The Knife, a band of two, became The Knife, an art collective of many. Karin Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olof Dreijer stubbornly refused to position themselves as the stars of the show, and instead were swept up in the dance numbers. The singers were all arranged like backup singers—no one took center stage—and the dancers mouthed the words as well. It was disorienting, but it was also beautiful.

Art collectives have own their messy process. No one was expected to be a Vera—in the background, helpfully and unobtrusively driving the creative engine. No one was asked to be an uncredited songwriter or a no-name costume designer. The men and women who came onstage last night were all vigorously present and equally important to the show, despite the fact that some of them had made the album they were performing and most of them had not. Making anything collaboratively is a challenge (think about all the managers in the world who operate under the Peter Principle), but making art, which we've been taught is the result of a singular vision and a network of invisible and unacknowledged support struts, seems especially slippery.

The dancers last night weren't "perfect bodies." Some had hefty upper arms, or strangely shaved heads. Some had made themselves deliberately odd-looking, and the combination of so many unusual and unafraid bodies onstage (that's where the perfect people go!) at the same time was kind of breath-taking. The costumes evoked 1980s power suits (big shoulderpads and nipped-in waists), but everyone worse so much glitter it was sometimes difficult to distinguish facial features. The dance moves were angular and blocky, sometimes deliberately outmoded, but juxtaposed with the electronic music, and with the hype man's mantra "Self-consciousness is the illusion that this is only happening to you" still ringing in our ears, they worked. It all worked.

After five years of sitting on a board of directors and a year in a writer's group, I can tell you that collaborative creativity is not for the faint of heart. Art collectives get to be brave by trying to take everyone's difficult, challenging, special visions and integrating them into something that not only moves, but moves you. This is not easy. The cracks often show through. But the results, when they're like last night's show, are spectacular in every sense of the word.

Image via The Knife