Staging a rock-driven video spectacle criticizing wealth and politics might seem like a confrontational thing to do on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where money clusters like stars orbiting a black hole. However, the elite need not fear the masses they view from their windowed perches filing out from Massive Attack V Adam Curtis currently at the Park Avenue Armory; the experience here is as controlled as the one it attempts to lunge at with its collision of video and music.
If the experience was staged as a rock spectacle with the trip-hop masters Massive Attack pulsing out from behind the 11 screens fogged with churning smoke machines, it would be a visually stunning show. Yet it’s obviously aiming for much more, as the 90 minutes watched standing in a crowd looking up at the towering screens in the Armory’s equally towering Drill Hall is one of broad messages and a narrative of resisting the shackles of control by media and political manipulation.
Adam Curtis has made some brilliant documentaries and is an expert at archives scouring and splicing, but while the juxtapositions he sets up here in his broad chronological examination of the past few decades of capitalism focused on the United States and communism focused on Russia can be unsettling (think the execution footage of Nicolae Ceaușescu against Jane Fonda workout videos), it’s the all-caps messages that take away the media’s authenticity. You don’t need to make your own connections — the sarcophagus that contained the Chernobyl disaster is handily turned into a “SARCOPHAGUS OF DATA” metaphor for how recycling the recent past has trapped us in a loop (I’m not sure if Curtis acknowledges the irony of doing this with recycled footage himself). And if you have trouble following along, there are chapter headings like “Tragic Lives” and “The Shape of Things to Come” to keep you on task.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about Massive Attack V Adam Curtis is the potential for something great. The band is obviously game for anything, powering through covers of everything from the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” to Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi is Dead” with appearances from singers Liz Fraser and Horace Andy. They even throw in one of their own songs — “Karmacoma” with vocals from Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. And although they are meticulous with each of them from the shrouded space behind the screens, their power seems tempered. When the production opened earlier this year at the Manchester International Festival ear plugs were offered at the door, yet in the New York iteration the band never gets near anything intolerable.
The crowd itself seemed unsure how to act. The closest thing to transgression were the girls dancing contentedly to videos of their city being destroyed in pre-2001 NYC disaster films, the Chrysler Building exploding over and over again as they pulsed with its destructive rhythm, although this was probably more obliviousness than anything subversive. One guy talked for the whole duration without pause about pretty much nothing and gave wild applause to the most depressing confetti drop in the world in honor of the bankers who made billions off the financial crisis. Others spent the whole concert filming it through their iPhones, despite the whole thing being about the limiting nature of our “two-dimensional ghosts.” To be fair, most people watched attentively and seemed open to a different sort of video and music experiential challenge.
Sure, Curtis totally has a point in how these recordings and our obsession with the past has kept us from moving forwards in some ways. And yes, our worlds are managed, by ourselves through our personal array of social media and documentation devices. Some of the people included in Curtis’ film are fascinating, such as artist Pauline Boty who refused cancer treatment so her baby could be born, and Serbian punk singer Yegor Letov who was a radical, and complicated, political dissident.
Yet the final, blaring message is the flat: “You Can Change the World” typed across the screens, and then you walk out into a smoky darkness where a searchlight blinds you and hired German Shepherds bark from the rafters. It’s all about as nuanced as the machine gun silhouette that was on the stage for almost the whole spectacle. In a piece that’s all about breaking control, it is nothing but controlled from the corralled filing in and out of the space to the response it’s attempting to evoke, and while the visuals are captivating and the music strong, it all could have benefited from a bit more mayhem rather than management.
Massive Attack V Adam Curtis is at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 4.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!