The Seventh Regiment Armory is an imposing red-brick Gothic Revival fortress looming over New York’s storied Park Avenue. Built in 1880, it once served as militia headquarters, but in 2006 it retired its militaristic responsibilities in favor of experimental performance and installation art. In the few short years of its art career, the Armory has attracted increasingly higher profile artists. For a handful of evenings, it welcomes the US debut of Massive Attack V Adam Curtis.
In the large, warehouse-like space of the Armory’s Drill Hall, eleven two-story square screens enclose a standing audience in a sarcophagus-shaped space. Over the course of two hours, the screens alight with mostly editorial and occasionally creative footage from the past fifty years arguing the increased disillusionment, disconnect and paranoia experienced by (predominantly white) Americans and Russians (Siberians, particularly). Americans deal with these changes by grasping for control via data-mining, mathematical probability– proved accurate if not omnipotent in an amusing anecdote involving Donald Trump, high-stakes gambling and the Yakuza– pharmaceuticals and perversions of finance and capitalism. Russians engage in far-reaching political corruption to mask incompetence and a totalitarian organization while squashing opposition. Both result in a “managed” society, never changing, never progressing, idle. The people wither. This is filmmaker Adam Curtis’s vision of societal decline in the atomic age.
Robert del Naja of Massive Attack is joined by vocalists Liz Fraser and Horace Andy to provide the real-time soundtrack to the narrative. Illuminated from behind the screens at the top of the sarcophagus, the musicians come forward and retreat throughout the performance. Most often, they provide ambient background music to guide the mood of the visuals. The destruction at Chernobyl is met with bleak electronic hums as the sacrifices made by ordinary citizens to contain the damage in the absence of a responsible government are described. At other times, the music highlights a disconnect between reality and perception. As New York takes an economic plunge and is besieged by crime and drug abuse in the 1970s, The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” blares and the disco rages on. The music is an integral part of the performance, used effectively to both support and subvert the message on screen.
Massive Attack V Adam Curtis is an ambitious project that works hard to logically and seamlessly integrate numerous public figures reduced to a few biographical facts and anecdotes into an overarching thesis. Despite the thinnest of presentations, the music intensifies the emotional impact. The audience audibly mourns the tragic heroes (Pauline Boty and her daughter Boty Goodwin), reviles the villains (Vladimir Putin, Goldman Sachs) and stands mesmerized by those whose path meanders both sides of the line (Yegor Letov).
Toward the end of the performance, it begins to feel overstuffed as additional points are added in the eleventh hour. It necessarily brings the audience up to present day, but also introduces the “feedback loop”– the idea that our computers process our likes and dislikes to continually offer us more of the same. The loop also offers (and traps us in) immortality, exemplified by images of Michael Jackson dancing that now appear morbid and Sisyphean. These ideas are intriguing and valid to the theme, but could be saved for another piece and explored more fully rather than rushed in the final fifteen or so minutes here.
High-profile collaborations such as Massive Attack V Adam Curtis are rare. Despite its few shortcomings, the project is a success. The audience is bombarded with images and sound for nearly two hours and then leaves– if not with the inspired take-on-the-world attitude the creators hoped for– having learned more about the interplay of events in the world around them, and the possibility within them to choose their role.