Art Pop, Deconstructed Dance Music / XL / June 26, 2020 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
KiCk i is the Arca album that I have been waiting for. I have been following the Venezuelan artist back since I encountered her work as a producer for FKA twigs, and was immediately intrigued by her fusion of pop and experimental electronic music – as well as the fascinating visual corporeal experiments by her fellow traveller Jesse Kanda that, as with twigs, gave the music an additional dimension in music videos and live sets. But none of Arca’s major solo releases until now have fully impressed me. Despite moments of greatness on all of them, the first two – Xen (2014) and Mutant (2015) – are somewhat too sketchy and generic in my book, whereas Arca (2017) added intriguing vocal components, but unfortunately toned down the elements of deconstructed dance music from the earlier releases. Hence, up to now, my best moments with Arca mainly came from her production work for other artists – twigs and Björk in particular, but Kelela as well – while I have been hoping for a solo album that would tie all the pieces together. KiCk i is that album for me – as it is fuelled by an intriguing synthesis of pop and (deconstructed) dance music that, in my book, joins the likes of twigs, Holly Herndon and Björk as the best kind of marriage between pop and sonic experimentalism today.
Indeed, the amplification of the pop elements has given the somewhat empty style of the first two albums the momentum that those tunes lack – while preserving the intriguing sonic experimentalism that they at the same time also showcase, in terms of a great marriage between Arca’s more pop-oriented co-production side and more experimental solo side. Vocals also plays a prominent role on the record – sometimes heavily processed in the gender-bending style of The Knife/Fever Ray (whom Arca expressed admiration for in a recent interview with The Wire), and through guest appearances from fellow travellers such as Björk and Sophie (whose music also revolves around synthesising pop with experimental club sounds). This adds another important sonic register to a fascinating art pop album that convincingly moves between calm melodic passages and frenetic rhythmic explosions, as well as a wide range of vocals with and without synthetic augmentation. It is indeed Arca’s ability to seamlessly navigate between more straightforward pop tunes and club-influenced compositions of a more experimental kind (most recently on her great mixtape @@@@@ from earlier this year) that I find particularly compelling about her music, and I think that this is the first of her solo records where she really has managed to bring both these sides of her work together.
Another crucial component of the album’s art pop profile is, of course, its visual side – which always has been important in Arca’s work and that always has revolved around a kind of experimental, gender-fluid approach to corporeality. From the earlier visuals by Jesse Kanda – in which she did not appear herself – to the more recent stuff that puts her at the centre through the album artworks and music videos. This shift was there already in her previous album – but whereas she as a nonbinary person was portrayed as a freak or outcast in the music videos that accompanied that album, in the visual side of KiCk i she displays a refreshing cockiness through the fusion of pop music’s libidinal engineering with modernism’s formal subversions from the perspective of gender, or identity, augmentation (as in the great video for the track ‘Mequetrefe’, below).
Another way of putting this is in terms of what I think of as corporeal formalism. More specifically, corporeal formalism refers to the work of artists who utilise formal experimentation as an instrument for subverting our perspectives of the body – for instance through experiments with identity that are central to the work of certain modernist artists in how they use their own bodies as canvasses for formal experimentation. Two examples from art pop would be Björk and Grace Jones, who both are well-known for their bold ways of tweaking and morphing their own bodies through the use of costumes, make-up, digital manipulation, and so on, in terms of a kind of corporeal formalism or formal shapeshifting that has become a central part of their artistic profiles (in music videos, on record covers, during live sets, etc.). Arca, similarly, has taken up corporeal formalism as an artistic methodology in order to – like Jones – utilise its subversive approaches to corporeal identity as a means to overcome the limited modes of identity congruent with gender binarism. There is thus an inherent link, I believe, between corporeal formalism and non-binarism, in that the bodily reordering of the former may be utilised as an instrument for what the xenofeminist collective Laboria Cuboniks has referred to as gender abolitionism – which refers to the ambition to abolish the binary gender system (as opposed to gender as such) under the aegis of the proliferation of gender differences emancipated from all kinds of gender-based social oppressions (as well as oppression based on race, class, etc.). The advantage of a genre like pop and the building of an artistic persona that goes with it, is that it provides plenty of room to experiment with, for example, corporeal formalism of the gender abolitionist kind (in music videos, cover art, promotional material, etc.) for artists with the ambition to do so. Aside from the music, this is certainly what stands out on KiCk i – which seems to mark the (re)birth of one of the most exciting figures in contemporary art pop.