You could be forgiven for expecting Arca’s set at the Pitchfork Music Festival to be a somber one. The Venezuelan producer’s recent self-titled album plays like a dirge for a faintly remembered lover. It’s the first Arca project to feature prominent vocals, which often take the shape of wails and jagged gasps or carry the rich inflections of the Venezuelan folk songs called tonadas. The album Arca conjures profound desire and profound suffering, but the producer’s show on the festival’s Blue Stage on Friday pushed aside that weight in favor of play, camp, and welcome confusion.
Arca shared the bill with visual artist Jesse Kanda, who’s designed all the producer’s album covers and music videos to date. Though Kanda recently released a debut EP under the name Doon Kanda, the music onstage was all Arca. Kanda was there to control the visuals on the LED screen behind the DJ decks—a common enough sight at concerts and festivals, but rarely highlighted on the schedule. Kanda was no footnote: the videos were as vital as a second strand of music straining through the festival speakers.
A gleeful, effortless MC, Arca began his set even before the crew had resolved the technical difficulties with the LED screen—for the first third of his time slot, he played against intermittent tests of the visual equipment. Decked out in a skintight, backless bodysuit, Arca made the Blue Stage feel like 90s night at a gay club, except swirled through an industrial blender. He brought out a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, tried momentarily to pop it open, then handed it to one of the photographers in the pit. “Thanks, cutie,” he said with a grin. Once the bottle had been uncorked, Arca took a huge swig and (maybe accidentally) spat most of it back out on the stage.
Little of the music in Arca’s set came from any of his albums, which tend toward the cerebral and severe—they’re great headphones listening, but not exactly party music. He wasn’t there to spin anyone else’s hits either. With the same dexterity he displays on his recordings, he spliced together Afrobeat, trance, nu metal, and riot grrrl into a deranged, mutilated beast. He blasted Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon”; he worked in Deftones’ “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away),” emphasizing the ragged breath at the beginning of the track. He laughed maniacally over thrash metal. He punctuated stretches of deck work with live vocals, mostly rapped, mostly in Spanish. At one point he killed the backing track to come to the edge of the stage and deliver a poem that ran adjacent to his lyrics on Arca. “¿Por que me tocas?” (“Why are you touching me?”) he pleaded to an imaginary lover or antagonist, his hand closed around his throat, repeating the question with increasing urgency. The drama ended, and he switched back out of character.
While Arca’s first two albums, 2014’s Xen and 2015’s Mutant, worked through bodily incarnations of identity—Xen is named for a feminine force that Arca says he’s felt running through him since childhood—this spring’s Arca zooms in on the festering welt at the intersection of desire and violence. He pleads with invisible lovers to be killed, tortured, or subsumed as an act of love. The simultaneous beauty and harshness of the music can be disorienting or even comic—at one point, a quietly lovelorn ballad breaks open into an instrumental track consisting only of whip sounds. During his set, Arca teased out the comedy and beauty of extreme contrast, dancing around the stage to screams and distortion like his song had just come on at the club.
Behind him, the kinks in the visual rig finally worked out, Kanda also worked in contrasting affect. The visuals bore little resemblance to Arca’s music videos, which early in his career depicted ambiguously gendered, computer-generated figures roaming through dark spaces. More recently, Arca has appeared in his videos in the flesh, caressing lifeless bodies while singing or walking around on huge custom stilts that make him look like a cyberpunk satyr. For the Pitchfork set, Kanda opted out of original digital work in favor of found footage, first of a fishing boat unloading its haul, later of veterinary procedures. The imagery tended toward the upsetting (a dog with a massive tumor enveloping most of its face), though Kanda punctuated it with moments of serenity (two nude figures embracing in a swimming pool). Some clips confused the line between beauty and disgust: several audience members groaned at seeing the rear end of a goat giving birth, but many cheered when the slimy kid finally plopped to the ground.
The ambiguity generated by those contrasts—between attraction and revulsion, love and violence—propels Arca and Kanda’s work in its efforts to excavate the affective nuances of queer existence. To live in a queer body is often to confuse the hegemonic gaze, to rupture the heterosexual, cisgender way of seeing others. In their performance, Arca and Kanda glitched and reprogrammed default modes of consumption at music festivals. We didn’t hear Arca’s critically lauded album tracks—instead we got split open and stitched back together, a little freer than before.