BRIGHTON, UK — Attempting an interview with Chicks on Speed is a logistical challenge, as members of the art and music collective are dispersed around the world. So at the time of asking these questions Alex Murray-Leslie was in Florence, Italy, and Melissa Logan was in Talinn, Estonia. The two founder members make it a condition that any interested journalists speak to both or none at all. Since other Chicks were said to be in Istanbul, Paris and a treehouse in a Redwood Forest, this writer was fortunate to keep things simple with just two long distance calls.
In terms of genre, the collective are just as hard to pin down. Many blur the boundaries between art and music, art and fashion, art and technology. But few mash things up with quite so much alacrity as Chicks on Speed have been doing for more than 15 years. They design instruments just as readily as exhibitions. And for a gig at Earsthetic festival, they’ll break down another barrier and giving their audience control of the show.
“Normally you have that undemocratic scenario with the stage and the audience, and the audience is quite passive in that respect. So we wanted to break that down,” Murray-Leslie says, assuring me that the interactive live show has been well road-tested in her native Australia. “We like to break down that genius-artist sort of thing,” she adds, with a promise to give spectators so much control that existing models of interaction appear “tame.”
With the help of a couple of strategically placed iPads, Chicks on Speed will soon be giving Brighton audiences six powerful apps with which to take part in and potentially hijack their live show. Asked to choose her favorite of these tools Murray-Leslie opts for a Spray Paint app, by which you can radically change the lighting, and an app to complement the collective’s iconic e-shoe (the world’s first wireless, high heeled shoe guitar). “It has a lot more functionality, being an app. It has more levels of complexity,” she says.
“We once had a guitar on stage and it almost led to the band just breaking up,” says the artist, who can add the role instrument designer to her CV. She guesses that recorded music is 100 years old; in fact it dates back to the 19th century. And she says: “To use these classical instruments which have been used that whole way along is a bit lame.” With hundreds of new instruments to choose from, Murray-Leslie points to the successful use of a Reactable by Bjork in 2007. “It would be a bit weird if we didn’t take part in this new trend of instrument design”
When asked what audience might be ready for such no-holds barred innovation, the Australian artist jokes about the collective’s appeal to hairdressers. Qualifying that, she says, “I think these audiences are going via context.” So festivals like Earsthetic and venues like FACT in Liverpool are what draw a crowd primed to expect: “blurring those boundaries between media art, performance, invention and science”.
Pressed to choose just one artform to take to a proverbial desert island, Murray-Leslie confounds expectations by choosing fashion. “I think it’s been put down for a long time as being decadent and associated with the luxury market, but it’s much more than that,” she says. “Fashion is starting to support the whole art world now. If you look at all the museums all the big shows are either supported by a Prada or Gucci-cucci, blah, blah.”
Fellow Chick on Speed, Melissa Logan also bucks the artistic trend by saying that, although making installations is her favorite activity, her first love is music. She even recalls a mythopoeic epiphany: “This friend of mine said we should run out in the woods, and scream. And she grabbed my hand and we ran out into the woods, and the wilderness. And she screamed and then I realized, ‘I don’t want to scream. I just want to sing’.”
The New Yorker reminds me that Chicks on Speed have some half a dozen electroclash albums to their name, a fact that some music critics overlook. “We’re not trying to be something new and be the new thing,” she says in defense of their chosen genre. Then she adds: “That’s something a little bit annoying with the music business – this idea that things have to be new to be good”. Fashion is a fickle mistress, and Logan is indeed the more fashion-critical Chick on Speed.
Perhaps she is also more circumspect when it comes to new technology. “It’s difficult engineering them properly,” she says of the collective’s bespoke ObjektInstruments. “The first shoe guitar . . . I must say it did not sound so great.” Logan says she realized why guitars are built the way they are. But undaunted, “with experience and with also tweaking, perfecting, building a new prototype,” the e-shoe was given a seal of approval.
But since the pair teamed up in 1997, technology has at last caught up with their interactive vision. “It’s got to the point where people have their gadgets and iPhones, iPads, Androids, and whatever.” So Chicks on Speed benefit from a curious and tech-savvy audience. Continues Logan: “Intimidation regarding that technology has totally disappeared and that’s why using these consumer products is actually a good way to make pieces.”
“It just seems that the tools and creation of music and visuals have gone in that direction,” she says, also expressing pleasure to be “getting away from authorship and the arrogance of the artist as sole creator. You know, most people are creating situations and platforms.” That would appear to be the modus operandi for an art collective whose moves take the form of events.
A ready situation will be brought into being by the collective’s facetracking app. Logan explains that it works with the iPad’s integrated camera to give user’s a virtual mouth which can presumably be beamed across the venue. “It’s a very simple way of just sticking the words in someone’s mouth,” says Logan for whom the facetracker is weapon of choice in the sensory overload of their live show.
“Sometimes we provide this stuff for the audience and they totally take over,” she admits. By the time the new album (Artstavaganza 2014) reaches Brighton, the live show will be honed, but not completely. “That’s also the excitement of doing live performance shows. It’s not knowing what’s going to happen next and that’s definitely stronger when the audience takes over.” So whether it’s art or music or fashion, in Florence, Tallinn or Brighton, contemporary audiences don’t seem to care.
Chicks on Speed – Artsravaganza is to be held in the Studio Theatre, Brighton Dome (Church Street, Brighton) on December 9. An accompanying film piece, Golden Gang, will be in the Founder’s Room between December 8 and December 13.
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