ARCA by Dan Guthrie
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Dan Guthrie is a writer and multidisciplinary artist currently based in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He tweets from @danglefree, occasionally blogs as Black Boy in da Burbs and now has a website too - danguthrie.net
“What queerness is as a word, what it represents, is ideological. The word itself is trying to define something that is undefinable. The word queer has shifted meaning because it's allowed it; it's whatever doesn't fit in.” - Alejandro Ghersi
I listen to the Arca on the bus, on the train, on the plane; I turn it up loud to drown out the engine, look out the window and daydream that Arca is singing his heart out on the seat behind me. I listen to it when I’m at school, a pink jumper in a sea of blue collared shirts, and the sheer radicalness of listening to a queer man sing is enough to send adrenaline racing through my body. I listen to it when I feel on cloud nine and when I’m pissed off with the world, when I want to scream in someone’s face and when I want to whisper in their ear.
Alejandro Ghersi was born in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, and at the age of 17, moved to New York to study music recording and production at NYU. Whilst a student in the city, he began to immerse himself in the back catalogue of Arthur Russell and the music scene surrounding the radical club night GHE20GOTH1K, whilst working on his debut EPs, Stretch 1 and Stretch 2. Self-released under the pseudonym Arca, these early compositions caught the ear of Kanye West, who enlisted him as a production consultant alongside on his sixth studio LP, the minimalist and abrasive Yeezus. Soon after his contribution to the album, Arca released his debut mixtape, the unpronounceable “&&&&&”, to his Soundcloud page.
Over the course of twenty-five and a half minutes, Arca presents fourteen symphonies of chaos, throwing snatches of pitch-shifted vocals and warped melodies together, manipulating and weaponizing sounds to create a suite of pure queer noise. It’s impossible to tell where “Fossil” ends and “Feminine” begins, as the tracks are all stitched together into one continuous stream, flowing like an extra-terrestrial radio station, tuning in and out of frequencies with reckless abandon.
It’s ugly, noisy, and beautiful, all at the same time.
It says what I cannot say, without having to say anything at all. I listen to it when I walk to school in the rain, when I can’t sleep at night and all the times in-between. It perfectly encapsulates the sense of “otherness” that comes bundled with queerness - doing your own damn thing and not giving a fuck about what anyone else thinks. The mixtape comes accompanied with artwork by Arca’s longtime friend and collaborator, Jesse Kanda; for the digital release it’s a computer-generated organism, and for the vinyl copy, a distorted baby’s face. These grotesque creations complement the mixtape like a fine wine, and Kanda directs all of Arca’s later videos and provides the visuals at live performances.
Over the course of two sprawling full-length albums for electronic label Mute, 2014’s Xen and 2015’s Mutant, Arca repeats and refines his unique production style. He is sought out to handle production on tracks for left-field musicians FKA twigs, Kelela and Dean Blunt, but his most famed collaborator is his childhood hero Bjork, who reached out to him after hearing &&&&&. Together, they co-produced the majority of the tracks on her most recent studio releases, the heartbreaking “Vulnicura” and the romantic “Utopia”, and find kindred spirits in one another.
He also somehow finds the time to release two more mixtapes Sheep and Entrañas. The former soundtracks a collection for Shayne Oliver’s Hood By Air; Arca walks the runway the next season for them sporting an oversized diamond grill and the pair later collaborate on the AV project Wench. The latter brings into the mix fireworks, human screams and a Cocteau Twins sample, alongside collaborations with experimental musicians Mica Levi, Total Freedom and Massacooramaan. Both are released onto Soundcloud without any warning, and like, &&&&&, presented as continuous streams with tracks that bleed into each other.
And just when you think you know Arca, he changes.
The day before Entrañas’s release, a video pops up on Arca’s Youtube page. Sin Rumbo - “aimlessly” in Spanish. Kanda has directed the visual but there’s no CGI contortion for Arca to hide behind here; it’s simply a head and shoulder shot of a topless Ghersi, singing in his native Spanish. It’s the first time we’ve properly heard his voice, and here it is, front and centre. Raw. You don’t need to speak Spanish to understand what he’s saying, as the emotion in his voice alone carries the weight of the words.
Sin Rumbo served as a taster for Ghersi’s third studio LP, the eponymous “Arca” by Arca. A self-titled album late in an artist’s career is often a redefinition of what you’ve come to expect from them. For Ghersi, this means casting away the relentless and carnal noise of his earlier releases and embracing what one reviewer calls “ecclesiastical grandeur”. Gone is the brutal industrialism, replaced with something more human. Instead of screeches, there are whips.
The album’s cover, another one of Kanda’s creations, is a close up of Ghersi’s face. Nothing has been photoshopped out from the image and if anything, the blemishes and imperfections have been enhanced. You can see the pores around his nose and the lines under his eyes, all in blistering high definition. The same could be said about songs the album, as pretty much all of the vocals are one-take recordings, with little to no post-production processing, so what you see is what you get, warts and all.
The rawness of Ghersi’s voice carries through the album and into the subsequent promotional campaign. In photo shoots, he wraps his bare body around rocks and clay, then applies makeup to give himself bruises. In music videos, he is gored by a bull’s horn whilst staggering around on stilts and is manhandled by burly bodyguards whilst wearing a leather straightjacket in a darkened forest.
His live shows aren’t just him standing in front of some flashing lights while he loads tracks from a Macbook, they are congregations of queerness and the church is in town for one night only. LGBTQ+ people flock to hear Arca the preacher strut up and down a runway in thigh high boots, only inches away from the crowd; I watch clips of them on my phone at home and live vicariously through the shaky fan footage on Youtube.
With Arca, Ghersi has exposed more of himself than ever to create his most personal statement to date. It bears his name, his likeness, his soul, and now it belongs to you and me. His bruises, his scars, his wounds, they are ours too. We wince when he drops to the floor and all feel a lump in our throats when his voice cracks. The queer energy reverberates from the speakers in our headphones and rattles our bones to the core.
I listen to it in my bedroom alone. As a mixed race queer teenager in a rural town, and I can empathise with Arca. He had never met an openly gay person in Caracas and moved away to the big city to try and find others like himself. As I type this on my laptop at some ridiculous hour of the night, I’m taking the first step to follow in his footsteps; trying to decide which university to go to next year, which sprawling metropolis to immerse myself in where I can work out who I am and who I want to be. Arca’s music is helping me come to terms with my personal identity, and if I have to don pair of thigh-high stripper boots to finish that journey, then so be it.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.