Perhaps it was the surprise of special guest Mica Levi’s opening DJ set or simply the fact that it was the Friday of the May Day bank holiday weekend, but there was very particular energy in the room ahead of Arca’s appearance at the Roundhouse.
The room felt frenetic yet muted – laden with potential. In the run-up to his recent self-titled album, Arca spoke in the pages of i-D about how his stage name “means ‘box’ or ‘wooden’ in very old Spanish… an empty space that can become pregnant with whatever music or meaning I give to it”, and in the moments leading up to his explosive entry — the circular space divided sharply by a catwalk that cut across the middle — the Roundhouse chimed with this promise.
The moment he appeared, tension evaporated. For all his digital nihilist aura, Alejandro Ghersi is not above asking the audience how they’re fucking doing tonight. There could be nothing aloof about a performance that was so immediate, accelerated and direct: he walked on to the sounds of his self-titled album track Whip, carrying a whip, and cracking it on cue to the music. As white lights exploded everywhere the only element of the room remaining ominously silent was the blank screen that would go on to display Jesse Kanda’s signature visuals.
As we’ve come to expect, Kanda’s input is as crucial as Arca’s. At times he displayed images that were just generally beguiling — including what resembled a firework exploding in slow motion underwater — but usually they existed somewhere between the beautiful and the grotesque. Be it the slow, ugly sensuality of snakes writhing in a pool of shallow tank water or the alien figure accompanying Sad Bitch, dancing slowly with its back to the audience, his focus was on physicality. Kanda’s visuals allowed Arca’s on-stage performance to reach a fever pitch he may have struggled to otherwise, culminating in a graphic depiction of anal fisting, a vivid realisation of his BDSM inspirations and fearless expressions of queerness.
Arca made a series of seamless costume changes and spent the majority of the performance with most of his body exposed, surrounded on all sides by his audience. He looked at home like that, at once the most powerful and the most vulnerable person in the room, an impression that was cemented on the many occasions he laid his voice bear on album tracks such as Desafío and Piel, a world away from the pitch bending vocals he’d deployed on previous albums. Surprisingly, the best moments came when he tapped into the lower register of his voice, letting out an unexpectedly guttural and operatic tone.
Between these moments and an explosive rap verse it felt more than ever that he was performing as Alejandro Ghersi, not Arca or his alter-ego Xen, but then identity is a pandora’s box. The exact name or title of the persona he took on for the night is beside the point: what mattered was that as the audience filtered out and the space emptied, it felt like a totally different place again, exactly as he’d intended.
Photos: Chloe Newman