Massively Flaccid at The Armory

MAvAC photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times

MAvAC photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times

Seeing Massive Attack v Adam Curtis at the Park Avenue Armory was like stepping into a giant expanded Barbara Kruger collage, one in which her signature terse one-liner and provocative black and white image is attenuated into a 90-minute-long one-liner.

I’m appalled to see that so many reviewers of this show’s previous iterations before arriving at the Park Avenue Armory so easily drank the Kool-Aid and laud it for impressive, implacable depth.  The New York Times praises its “space afforded you to listen and think.  I mean space in the physical and metaphorical sense.”  Actually, this piece does not give you space or want you to think at all.  Or, at least, it hopes you won’t think for the 90 minutes that it idly shakes its fist at you, and then leave with a profound new ability to see the world around you.

The faulty logic of Massive Attack v. Adam Curtis is singularly incoherent, resulting in a meandering, tedious, and manipulative mashup of disjointed pop/atrocity images and power-decrying narrative, given half in projected subtitles and half in voiceover. If the experience is so much more like watching a film than attending a concert, why am I asked to stand for 90 minutes?  I know the Armory could have easily accommodated the huge audience size with seats. Perhaps “standing room only” makes it easier for bodies to be assaulted by the gimmicks of booming sounds and flashing strobes, or heed the undeniable call of “The Twist” and “Rock the Boat?”  Or perhaps standing room allows them to sell more tickets. Regardless, maybe if I’d been sitting, I would have felt less vulnerable to a looped image of a machine gun synced to strobe lights in a facile attempt to simulate gunfire.

Seating would certainly have made following the anxious, word-salad narrative of Adam Curtis’s story a bit easier.  Let me save you some time.  All you need to know is that this is 90 minutes of muddy, fear-mongering propaganda, desperately urging you to THINK while decrying the subconscious marketing systems that have subverted your ability to critique, and built up your false sense of individuality.  “We live in an enchanted cocoon that has become a sort of glittering sarcophagus, bounded on all sides by two-dimensional projections of beautiful celebrities and the like—many of them dead and yet beckoning us to stay, to ­linger with them forever,” Curtis writes.  Clearly, this is partly true.

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle must be Curtis’s raison d’etre, a foundational theme running through all of his best BBC documentary work like the Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares miniseries. Debord’s late-60s neo-Marxist analysis of our image-saturated society describes the contemporary world as a giant surface-y bubble that is impossible to penetrate.  Each of us lends a hand in building this opaque surface by participating in imagistic ways of moving through the world, where the atrocity of war and the extremity of anti-war protest alike are just fodder for the next marketing ploy.  Debord’s writing on Spectacle can be an incisive and useful model for looking at the world; but its logic is also tautological.  By definition, nothing escapes Spectacle.

One would think, in this light, that one clear way to combat the tyranny of images in a hypercapitalist system would be to grandly participate in Spectacle-making, to subvert the system from within.  This seems to be the grounding principle for Massive Attack v. Adam Curtis and Barbara Kruger’s popular collage work.

To my mind, this is a passé approach toward art-making, communicating with audiences, and moving through the world.  Art-makers, read:  audiences do not automatically lack critical thinking, and they don’t need to be condescended to, or shocked out of some pre-assumed complacency.  MA v. AC is extremely seductive, and rife with ironic juxtaposition in limp attempts at distancing techniques.  Most songs are abruptly dropped mid-verse.  Footage of minstrel shows is projected behind live Go-Go girls as Horace Andy covers The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar”; images of armless corpses (the Ceausescus?) flash by to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey.”  I found that last irony particularly offensive, being quite personally attached to that beautiful, bittersweet song.  Regardless of what MA v AC might think (or not think) about my agency to attach sentiment to a pop song, personal memories are much more powerful and resonant than the grand brainwashing they insist I’ve endured.

By its end, Massive Attack v. Adam Curtis becomes self-reflexive, describing how “the computers can make” a video montage that mixes up “past and present, real and imaginary.” (Does anybody else think “the computers” is a horribly dated phrase?)  It’s another distancing technique – Surprise! We’ve been playing you this entire time, just like mass media does!  By this point however, self-reference comes off as an attempt by the artists to cop out on their own ridiculous heavy-handedness.

The problem is, there is no accountability for the extravagant claims of this insane narrative and no provenance given for the sprawling montage illustrating it. And yes, Adam Curtis, even though we live in a world where we are lied to on all sides in the media, and where images circulate at a fever pitch detached from their sources, we still yearn for accountability in journalism.  What Massive Attack and Adam Curtis would probably loathe most to hear is that this work clearly stands in a lineage of moralistic art, and is as profoundly oppressive in its manipulative, fear-mongering agitprop as the forces it purports to rail against.


Michael DiPietro is a New York-based performer whose work intersects fashion design, sculpture and movement, investigating the experience of commodified pleasure. He has performed at Dance New Amsterdam, Flux Factory, 3rd Ward, Bushwick Project for the Arts, Market Hotel, Movement Research at Judson Church and MR Open Performance, Silent Barn, and The Suffolk, in New York, NY.  Michael holds a BFA in Integrated Design from Parsons the New School for Design, and works at Danspace Project.

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