These Monsters I Can Feel
AMP, August 2000
Chicks On Speed dissected by Cocoa Beware
"THEY CAUGHT THE POLTERGEIST ...
in every pen... waiting behind each monitor...
lurking... paralysing every word in my head...
I'll be your ambient room... Your feather bed...
I'll cook you macaroni, every day of the
week... anxiety attack... strikes
again... every time I reach for a pen...
P R O C R A S T I N A T O R
P R O C R A S T I N A T O R ..." (A)
Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese visionary artist, took New York by storm in the 60's. Alone in her studio. Feeding herself frantically on macaroni. Suffering various hallucinations due to a rare disorder. Rather than fall prey to the mind-bending demons, choking halos or self-generating mazes that could appear at will at any moment -- at the closing of the door, by the bottom of the stairs -- she engaged them. Teasing and lulling, pushing and struggling. Rather than staying in a passive state of acceptance, of defeat, she used the interactions to create prolific, evolving engaging work that soon earned her notoriety.
Like Kusama did in the 60s, the Chicks on Speed are becoming media darlings. Just open up recent issues of The Face or NME and you can attempt to piece together their history:
Alex, (29), sexpot aus Sydney, arrives in Munich intent on persevering through a prestigious programme in jewellry design. At school she meets New Yorkerin Melissa (29), whose paintings are called 'dilettantisch' by an instructor.
They are bored with the 'Shicki-Micki' audiences targeted by the gallery system, the lack of communication between students, and the dearth of things to do in Munich. This isn't why they cam to art school, to Europe. They want connection, they want transformation, they want art. But they don't want art and a good time to be mutually exclusive.
So these chicks buck the system. Their 'art-school dropout/prankster' mentality begins to ferment. Melissa meets Kiki, (33), a Style-Maven aus München, and eventually recruits her to help them with the dance steps to their first (silent) video project. While Kiki is effortlessly assembling the moves for the video, Melissa and Alex are dumbstruck, staring at Kiki's feet. Not only are her moves great, but she has these amazingly fierce shoes on, making these karate-kicks even more terrifying. They join forces, and Chicks on Speed are born.
By this time, the Chicks have been engineering Seppi Bar, monthly happenings in bars and spaces throughout Munich. They get friends to spin records and invite others to bring their videos, Super-8 movies, or whatever they are working on. They start bringing in DJs from Vienna, meeting more and more talented people, many of whom will collaborate with them later. Rather than just let their ideas flow in and out of those conversations laced with phrases like "wouldn't it be great if I did a website all about..." and "somebody should make a movie that has this...", they take the spaces where ideas are hatched, where others fall by the wayside, and bring in their own works in progress. They open the possibility for creation, criticism, and dialogue. They motivate others to stop just talking and to start joining. And they enjoy themselves in the process.
Out of these created spaces, Chicks on Speed are beginning to forge a world on the vertices of pop-culture, post-punk, fashion, art and club-land. The sheer ferocity of their work marks them as special. They are not creating for the rarefied elites of grrrlcore Olympia, Guerilla-girl New York, fashion-centric Paris, or club-conscious London -- though their work can be discussed in such contexts. Admittedly, Bikini Kill, Cindy Sherman, and Vivienne Westwood are all relevant. But the Chicks are taking their cheap-trash aesthetic and liberally running with it through a Video-Game-Collage of their own design.
MANY HAVE WONDERED about Yayoi Kusama's disease. Little is ever concretely written about it. I have seen it described as psychosomatic. Not really there, but she 'feels' it. But the doctors in both Western and Eastern science haven't been much help to her. What has helped her, and pushed her into the future, has always been her work.
Looking at her pieces -- her macaroni-covered purses, her giant metallic balls, her infinity nets, her universes of dots -- you can get lost in another reality. A reality where doctors and dictates make very little difference. A reality that has manifested itself into sculptures, performance art, novels, installations. A reality that becomes vivid, tangible and, ultimately, illuminating.
At their best, I feel a similar urgency in the songs and collages of CoS -- and things are just starting. The video game hasn't even been completely mapped out, but if you look closely enough, you might detect a trajectory. Kai Althoff's 'carpet creatures', the children's book Where the Wild Things Are, and Sylvia Plath's poetry can all be seen as conceptual forerunners of an alternate landscape populated by strange monsters. This world is tangibly felt in songs, in video, in sculpture, and in print. The creation of this world is the real work of art, and the works themselves can be seen as manifestations of experiences felt within it.
This Frankenstein approach is visible not only in the disturbing imagery of CoS songs like 'Night of the Pedestrian' and 'This Is For You', but even in some of their 'more accessible' works, such as 'Glamour Girl'. When I saw the Chicks this Upstairs at the Garage in March, it began to make sense to me. As the Mini-Disc player blasted the background house cheese, I could see that CoS were singing the song as if they were on a mission. They were jumping up and down and moving around, but they weren't bouncy in that jumping-on-a-mattress, can-we-get-away-with-this? way. They didn't have childish grins on their faces. The songs seemed to be a caricature-by-collage (homage? critique?) satirising the clichés of feminity... Meanwhile, the Chicks, in their oft-described revealing dresses assembled out of old leather upholstery, were simultaneously using these clichés to promote their work. (B) With this song, they were able to infiltrate the club system while simultaneously challenging its restrictions.
At the beginning of the gig, the crowd seemed very tense. By the time 'Glamour Girl' came on, they were loosening up. I was struggling to take photos and dance at the same time. This stunningly beautiful Asian female with a shaved head was to my right. "Do you love the Chicks?", she asked me. "Uh huh", I replied. She smiled.
The Chicks finished their set with the dadaesque anthem 'Floating Pyramid...' By now the politely unkempt concert denizens had been transformed into awkwardly exposed hip types deciding to let go and dance like freaks -- just hoping they wouldn't spot anyone on the Tube ride home who had seen them. "The Floating Pyramid is up in the sky. Defining the boundaries we are all within. This is much better than what money can buy. Floating pyramids up in the sky!". I put my camera away and started jumping around. The guy on my left didn't look prepared for this. He was edging away from me.
"Over the rainbow it's not quite right. I saw a man with a face like a dog. At the traffic lights, howling at the sun. Choice is the Choice! Catch! Hold! Spin! Go! Stand! Stop! Look! No disk drive! Mop! Flip! Yell! Crave! Storm! Skip! ..." By now, everyone seemed to be completely letting go. Around me, a sea of 'Glamour Girls' and 'art-appreciators' were moving, squinting, turning, skimping in a chaotic blur. But the Asian girl was holding my hand and jumping up and down with me. And we were totally laughing...
These are the monsters that populate the CoS universe. And because of CoS, I am beginning to see them around me as well. In my chewed-up pencils and endless supplies of noodles. In the gaunt faces of clubland, and at the supermarket. This is the reason CoS exists. In the long run, it doesn't really matter what becomes of the Chicks. If they continue on to superstardom or flee into obscurity, self-imposed or otherwise... Whether they are filed in the annals of pop history next to Malaria! or Minty... it makes no difference. They have already made a huge impact. But I hope they keep going...
(A) 'Procrastinator' by Chicks on Speed (lyrics as recited by Kiki). This version can be heard on the CoS debut LP Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All!
(B) The inspiration of this analysis came from the book Yayoi Kusama published by Phaidon in conjunction with the show of her work at the Serpentine from January to March of this year. The book gave all the historical context of Yayoi Kusama referred to in this essay, and described her installation work and her outfits as "satirising [clichés] while simulataneously using them for [self] promotion..."
Good starting points for listening to CoS are their debut LP Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All! and their mix-CD The Un-Releases which is slated for re-release in the fall on K Records.
For updates on their exploits, go to www.chicksonspeed.com and phinnweb.bombsquad.org/links/artists/CoS/
Interview by Miss AMP
IF BEING HANDED A BOOTLEG TAPE OF CHICKS ON SPEED'S UN-RELEASES WAS AN INSPIRATION, MEETING THEM IN BERLIN (BY ACCIDENT) WAS OVERWHELMING. MELISSA (DARK HAIR), ALEX (BLONDE FRINGE) AND KIKI (WHITE SPIKES) WERE A RAPID-FIRE IDEAS VEHICLE: FORTRIGHT, ENGAGING AND A TINY BIT FRIGHTENING -- JUST LIKE THEIR MUSIC.
How important is the collaborative process to your work? Do the Chicks have a collective ego, or 3 separate ones?
A: It's 3 separate ones.
M: 3 separate ones that come together.
A: But also the Chicks on Speed is not just us. We're like a nucleus. But there are 20 or 30 other people who do things on our projects: on the graphics, or for the record label.
How do you describe yourselves? Art, or pop?
A: Everything! A whole new form of expression.
M: Not art...
A: We're more like social workers.
What importance do the clothes have for you?
A: All. We didn't want to wear things someone else had made. We just made the Hype clothes. We took all the articles and hype that has been written about us, and cut them all up to make new sentences. Then we screenprinted them onto these clothes from Hennes. There's this phenomenon with the press: the journalist always has the last word. The Hype Clothes were our way of taking things back before they got out of control; of reclaiming our words. We wore them to a press conference --
M: A really proper one. It had these long tables, and a translator, and water glasses and everything. When the journalist asked us questions, we read out sentences off each others' clothes.
Can fashion be art?
M: We like to mix 'high' and 'low' art.
K: In France, the term is 'l'art de la mode'. The art of fashion. It's not even a question there. It's just everywhere else... I wouldn't want only to do clothes, though.
You've talked elsewhere about the importance of 'handmade' elements of your work -- for example, the 500 singles you had to punch holes through. Do you think you will lose that as you get bigger? Do you mind?
A: No, it just means more energy will have to be invested in things. We won't lose it! We'll never stop! We're looking for ways of pressing 3 hairs into each CD jewel case! But the manufacturers say it won't work, people won't buy it if they think there's something wrong with the box. And, we're going to be opening up a Web shop. It's called 'Chicks on Speed Sell Out'. It's exploiting all the ways we'll go commercial. We're going to sell everything: comics, writing, little bags, clothes. And they'll all be hand-done.
Has everything gone according to plan? Did you expect this? Or are things out of control?
K: We never even expected to sell more than 300 singles.
A: That's not true! When DJ Hell gave us that single, we knew it'd sell.
M: But we only pressed 500 copies! It was 7-inch vinyl. We really liked the idea of putting this hardcore music onto 7-inches, to really piss the DJs off.
And did it?
M: Yes, totally! Some of them got it re-pressed onto dub plates. But that's cool. Chicks on Speed support the bootleg market.
A: Basically, if you're making a living as an artist, if you're supporting yourself from your work and you're expressing yourself, then, it's all going to plan.
How about the art building you want to build in Berlin?
A: It's still in the planning stages at the moment.
M: You know, Situationist architects built these fantastic buildings. But they never existed.
A: You can build a building, though. It is possible. If you get the right sponsors.
How far are you prepared to get the money for it? If you had a worldwide hit, would you be able to licence your music to sell cars, or cosmetics?
A: A car... it would be good if someone would give us a car... you could do a lot with a car...
K: You can use them, you know. Adidas are going to give us these shoes, but we're going to put them in the Web shop. We're going to resell them as 'ModifiedAs'. We're going to take off the stripes, punch holes in them...
M: We shouldn't talk about that, though.
A: It isn't inevitable that big business will just use you. You can use them. You can steal ideas off the mainstream just as much as they steal ideas off you. That's the idea behind Chicks on Speed Sell Out.
Can you tell us more about the Boob Monster?
K: She's the Chicks on Speed fertility monster. The early monsters we made were androgynous. Then we wanted to make a really FEMALE monster!
A: It was for a real heavy metal record. And that's so male, so we wanted something superfemale to counter that.
M: Monsters are really strong. They're all so different to each other, yet similar in that they are all monsters.
A: Monsters are our heroes. You look in fashion magazines, there are no role models there, so you invent some yourself.
M: If you make a monster, you control it. You take its strength for yourself.
A: We want to make it into a sculpture. About 15 foot long, maybe out of stuffed tights, so children can play on it. Louise Bourgeois made one, did you see it? All these boobs. We couldn't believe it when we saw it.
Can you tell us more about the clichés you use in your work, like sexy frocks and imagery (e.g. the cover of the 'Kaltes Klares Wasser' single), the manic gabba of 'Turn of the Century', or the cheesy Euro-house of 'Glamour Girl'?
M: It's more about not having one image.
K: There's this rock notion that you should only have one idea, one image, and stick to that. We like the idea of the confusion of using many different musical styles.
A: We just like to mix everything up.
Tell us more about Sylvesterboy. He's on your record label, isn't he?
A: He's our boy! He's our new signing! He wears a cloak made out of the American flag, and furry moon boots, and he carries a light sabre, like in Star Wars. His shows last exactly 15 minutes, and he plays to music from videos.
And you're doing a show with him soon?
A: Yeah, the 'Death of Disco'. It's with a radio station.
M: But it's not really a festival or anything. There's no sound system. It's only broadcast on radio, from a caravan in a field. Everyone who comes along brings a transistor radio and listens on that.
And the audience won't be able to see you?
M: No, they will! The caravan has a little window, and they'll be able to see us and Sylvesterboy through that.
Is Berlin a creative place? Do you see yourselves as part of Berlin's tradition of anarchists?
A: Berlin's great. It's full of inspiring, creative people. We always collaborated with different people, but here they don't have to fly in. They're already in one place! But I don't see us as part of any tradition.
M: No, definitely not.
K: I belong to Berlin. My family are here. It's a real feeling of 'my town' for me. So I belong to that tradition.
Could you work anywhere else? London, for example?
A: London is horrible! Too hectic, too expensive. It's terrible for artists. All artists should get out of London, now! Although, in London, people did have the best outfits at our gigs, you know, things they had made themselves.
Would you rather people made outfits themselves, or bought your things?
M: They should make them themselves.
A: No, they should buy our things, modify them, and then sell them back to us!
Copyright © 2000 AMP. Reprinted with permission.