For Document Fall/Winter 2020, the experimental musician embraces the collective intimacy of the internet and the galvanizing force of constant self-reinvention
Octavia E. Butler’s Parable duology is an unnervingly prescient chronicle of exactly the dystopia we’re living in today. It’s equally sharp as a character study. Amid the very familiar turmoil of an American empire on the brink, Butler’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, finds liberation in a kind of anti-religion, adopting the Earthseed faith not to find the one true meaning of life but to celebrate the mystery of it. The religion compels her to fully embrace the insignificance of human life, the mutability of language, and the unknowable nature of the universe.
“Some of the faces of her god are biological evolution, chaos theory, relativity theory, the uncertainty principle, and, of course, the second law of thermodynamics,” Butler writes. “God is Change, and in the end, God prevails…. All that you touch / You Change. All that you Change / Changes you. The only lasting truth / Is Change. God Is Change.”
Lauren is also cursed with a psychological disorder called hyperempathy syndrome. She is deluded into thinking she can physically experience other people’s emotions. A similar affliction has made the electronic musician Arca (Alejandra Ghersi) the hottest commodity in production, capable of collapsing herself entirely into the varying creative projects of collaborators ranging from Björk to Kanye West. Over the past half-decade, Ghersi has come to see hyperempathy as a blessing rather than a burden. Getting on others’ wavelengths doesn’t mean being out of tune with herself, especially when that self comprises a morphing cast of characters. As Arca, Ghersi simultaneously deploys the alien and the cyborgian, the glamorous and the grotesque, the scientific and the superstitious, the dom and the sub—a psychoanalytic purging of all disparate personas that makes her one of the most honest storytellers of our time.
“octavia butler’s work actively influences the way i see identity and speculative fiction,” Ghersi wrote in a Facebook post earlier this year. “[Butler’s] books help me grapple with the complex mystery of what it means to recognize the alien inside, because in doing the imaginative work of writing about transpecies relationships empathetically, one harnesses a way of not having [to] see the ‘other’ as so extremely foreign that alienation sets in. because when alienation sets in, dehumanization is right around the corner, and that works both ways. you can’t dehumanize another without dehumanizing yourself. thank you octavia for the legacy you have left behind, for pushing to transcend barriers and for building world within worlds more like the world you wanted to be in.”
Ghersi’s Butlerian embrace of all possibilities resonates strongly in her Discord server: a Choose Your Own Adventure where gender accelerationism theory faces off against cybernetics and posthumanism, candid personal anecdotes intermingle with historical facts about ancient Greek philosophers, and pixelated chihuahua memes abound. Ghersi launched her Discord, along with a Patreon and a Twitch, at the height of the pandemic this year, when Spain’s harsh COVID restrictions went into effect. She acts as a mod in channels ranging from the totally innocuous (HOBBIES: #cooking) to the defiantly fucked-up (FERAL: #feral-entropy) to the deeply philosophical (SELF STATES: #identity-philosophy). When identity politics debate rages on the algorithm platforms—even the most quotidian of quote-tweets devolving into Rose Twitter vs Resistance Libs vs Never-Trump Republicans melting down over whose guy from the 1800s was the most correct—Ghersi’s identity-philosophy leans into the very concept of “discord” to pose an alternative that shouldn’t be as radical as it is. What if disagreement is good and necessary? And what happens if you allow discordant ideas to flourish inside yourself?
“I think that’s part of why I went into streaming and found it a place where there was solace and connection,” she says over Zoom, in front of a rainbow background she has set up for her next Twitch session. “There is a real, beautiful communal and collective intimacy that is possible online…. What our physical avatars do is not everything.”
Ghersi released KiCk i, her gender-euphoric fourth studio album, this summer—two years after she had moved from London to Barcelona to begin transitioning. She welcomed the adversity of the culture clash as a galvanizing force. “I did have this idea like, ‘Okay, it might help me figure out if [transitioning] is really something that I want to do, if my environment actually resists it, in the same way that the day-to-day attitudes of people in Venezuela made me feel like it wasn’t safe to express a part of myself,” she says. KiCk i serves as a joyful counterpoint to Ghersi’s self-titled 2017 album Arca, which featured Venezuela’s traditional tonadas as mournful operatic vocals—throwing the stories of her country’s agricultural laborers into high relief against the crude beauty of its landscapes, to gorgeous and devastating effect (often evoking Björk’s glacial odes to an Icelandic topography increasingly sold off to shell companies).
Going home would have been, for her, “not impossible, but when I hear about the idea of going back to Venezuela, it’s hard not to feel sad, because there’s so much turmoil there right now, in a day-to-day way. I do fantasize about moving back. Currently, if you go to Venezuela, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be able to leave—literally, in terms of crossing the border.” Still, the sounds of her homeland have manifested on KiCk i. But if the new music is a second homecoming, it’s one hell of a party. Venezuelan folklore and Mutant critique are sampled into a seductive digital detritus—folk magic for the internet age.
“There’s a vitality that I want to express—almost like a sexual tension. It’s just like—the lyrics and the attitude—your genitals will be touching through your clothes almost.”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes—I have one, and I’m obsessed with it,” she says when I ask if there is a legend from her childhood she still draws from. “María Lionza, and I’m so happy that I’m able to mention it. In Caracas, there is a sculpture on the highway that leads from the city to the ocean. It’s a very famous sculpture, because if you drive to the beach, you’re going to see María Lionza. And the airport is there too, so anyone who comes in and out of Caracas will see this sculpture. The artist that made the sculpture is called Alejandro Colina. And [María] is riding a tapir, and she has broad shoulders—she has an androgynous quality to her. They call her the queen, basically.
“She’s a blend of African, indigenous, and Catholic beliefs, and that’s something that makes Venezuela very unique, because there’s the Afro-Venezuelan customs, the indigenous customs, and Catholic beliefs. It’s sort of a triangle that informs a lot of the way the traditional music sounds. She represents fertility and a pilgrimage. Whenever you mention María Lionza, it represents strength and boldness.”
Ghersi holds up her phone to show me a picture. The woman and the tapir are sculpted from the same material, she points out, investing the goddess with centaur vibes. There’s an animalistic merging of the animus and anima—they are literally solidified and cast in stone—that other Latin American musicians have been drawn to. In a song by Panamanian composer and politician Rubén Blades, the goddess and the ambiguous god figure are referred to interchangeably with both masculine and feminine pronouns. (“Oh hail queen, María Lionza / For Venezuela she goes with her ounce / And taking care of this / And he is watching over his entire land / From the peasant to Cumana / He takes care of the destiny of Latinos / Living together and in freedom.”)
Ghersi’s Xen character, digitally rendered by Jesse Kanda for Arca’s first studio album (2014’s Xen), is a similarly nonbinary cyborg persona Ghersi still refers to both as she and it. A more recent archetype is Electra Rex, Ghersi’s neo-Freudian warp of the Oedipal figure that she describes almost like an art object you could put new coats of paint on or otherwise change up or play with. “This psychosexual, mythological archetype started bubbling up—Electra Rex,” she says. “I use herself more than itself, but I use herself-slash-itself. I’m trying to put forward a point about what it means to see oneself as an object.”
Mythology is palpable on the club-ready, Rosalía-featuring KiCk i song “KLK.” Ghersi met the Barcelona-raised singer-songwriter at a house party, and the two bonded over a shared obsession with the showgirl archetype. Their collab track sees them toying with traditional music and folklore, funneling shared ancient histories through an experimental reggaetón filter. In a time when physical contact is frowned upon, and exchanging sweat droplets is basically illegal, it’s a club sound bordering on nostalgic in more ways than one.
“There’s a vitality that I want to express—almost like a sexual tension,” Ghersi says. “It’s just like—the lyrics and the attitude—your genitals will be touching through your clothes almost. Unless you’re hanging out with Latin Americans and listening to reggaetón, it’s hard to see in clubs. There’s so much physical touching with the dances. And I see that as an expression of the same sensuality that comes with merengue and salsa and bachata, where you’re on the dance floor and you’re sweating over each other.”
It’s a sensuality paralleled on the dance floors of the 2000s, when GHE20G0TH1K shaped New York’s queer underground and where Arca was born. As a teenager, Ghersi moved from her conservative homeland to the NYC scene characterized by sexual deviance and constant shapeshifting, new possibilities for reinvention embedded in the space of a single block or avenue, beautiful breaks with reality glitching under the city’s grid circuit. (After moving to New York, she picked up a random guy on the Union Square subway platform by channeling the libidinal energy of queer lit icon Arthur Russell, whose biography she had just finished devouring in a Chinatown restaurant.) Via GHE20G0TH1K, she met Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, the producer Physical Therapy, and Charles Damga, whose UNO NYC label later released Ghersi’s 2012 Stretch tapes. Party flyers from the time seem simultaneously like ads for a Mutants Discord chat—clip art signifiers of an underground promised land where pop and the avant-garde collide with each other—a hyperempathic drama scored by Nguzunguzu and LSDXOXO. Nightlife, in this way, is world-building, much like Final Fantasy or Web forums or folklore—allowing outsiders not to find an escape route from real-world sorrows, but to enter sci-fi playgrounds where awkward or sensitive ideas can be put forward. While in machine learning, entropy is a measure to calculate the impurity of the group, in the club underground, the group’s impurity is its source of strength. Every night you can make a new avatar for this massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG). Planet Earth: Feral Identity Edition.
“I’m just going to live as if the world were more the way I wish it were, rather than trying to measure my risks. I’d rather just live and deal with things as they happen.”
The track “Mequetrefe” is a splendid channeling of this sweaty, discordant interchange—droplets of language spilling over into something deeply evocative even for those of us barely fluent in bodega Spanglish. Come for the club beat, stay for the YouTube comments, where more multilingual Mutants explain the harrowing message underlying the track. (“My theory is that this song transits between a trans woman walking down the street with personality but also…the transit through the street with fear and violence,” reads one comment I translated on Google. “[We] go from joy to terror with speed because Arca is a palette of emotions in a few seconds, which act as a shock therapy. So here we see the contrast between personality, desire to inhabit the heteronormed world, and on the other hand regain that security in the third third of the song.” Ghersi speaks in thirds as much as she does in English or Spanish or Spanglish, a Shakespearean approach to her psychodramatic character studies.
“When I’m hyperemotional, I’m more prone to speak in Spanish,” Ghersi says about “Mequetrefe.” “That’s the language that my parents would argue in—they would fight in Spanish. I’m more interested in mixing [languages]—code switching during the songs… Spanglish is such a beautiful language. I’d be so happy if everyone started speaking Spanglish.”
Recalling her Stretch EPs’ twisted hip-hop samples—broadcasting American counternarratives through bass and harmony as much as through the literal English language—“Mequetrefe” opens itself up to multiple meanings. It’s a song for playing in the background while putting on makeup at 9pm, or it’s a song to come home and cry to when the night doesn’t pan out as you’d hoped. “‘Mequetrefe’ is funny,” she says. “It’s a song that is meant for empowerment. It’s a song that reminds me, ‘Okay, for whatever reason, you can’t be liked by everyone—especially when you’re walking down the street. But knowing that and not dimming your shine just because someone’s going to stare at you or gawk at you in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. That song is meant to fan the embers and stoke the flames of not dimming your shine just because someone might not empathize with you….It’s not about being combative, but it’s also not about shrinking. We’re always entitled to inhabit that public civic setting.”
Being uncomfortable in public civic settings became a new normal during this year’s historic anti-racism uprisings. Ghersi collaborates with London musician Shygirl on the brilliantly abrasive KiCk i track “Watch,” but their superior joint effort is surely “unconditional”—a comparative deep cut dropped at the beginning of June 2020 to raise money for Black Lives Matter and Inquest UK and best summed up in Shygirl’s own lyrical scorching of an irreparably corrupt system revealing the evil it’s created from: “It creeps over me / inside of me / it suffocates. i guess you’re winning now / again / you do the worst things / in the right ways.” Authorities beat you down because you refuse to dim your shine, but if you dull it, they’re still winning.
“I’m thinking about the differences that I perceive in my safety, as well, before transitioning,” Ghersi continues. “And I’m like, ‘No—I’m not going to avoid any neighborhood.’ I’m just going to live as if the world were more the way I wish it were, rather than trying to measure my risks. I’d rather just live and deal with things as they happen.”
Butler’s suggestion that “God is Change, and in the end, God prevails,” has always had a special resonance in the queer world. Thriving in the missed-communication entropy machine of the internet, wielding spam as a second language, and code-switching between shocking identities is a) fun and b) a survival practice. If they can’t label you, they can’t destroy you, and if you can’t be pinned down, you can always escape. Ghersi again brings up Electra Rex, the persona she collaborates with much in the same way as she does with AI, technology being at its core just another source of ideas. Ghersi’s unpronounceable, SEO-unfriendly mixtape &&&&& and 62-minute single “@@@@@” are maybe best seen in this way—not as utopian/dystopian commentaries on tech but as equally thrilling exchanges with divergent elements of our cyborgian future.
An hour into our 30-minute call, it’s almost midnight Barcelona time. I point out that our bedrooms—or the sliver of hers not obscured by the rainbow background—both show 88-key electronic pianos. Mine features a broken Target lamp, hers a large stuffed animal. “Is there a song you really like that you want me to listen to or something you would recommend?” she asks. I wish I had a cool answer to that earnest question, but I blurt out something half-baked about Chopin and recommend a book—Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, because I think she’d enjoy unpacking the irony of his own Jungian character, Oedipa Maas—and discover she’s reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
“I recently got a Kindle because I want to read more. I’m just gonna get the book,” she says, typing the Pynchon title into her computer. “I just started reading The Parable of the Sower. It’s really good so far. Do you usually read one book at a time?” She is visibly animated, considering new narrative portals that could be opened up by traversing two fictional worlds. “Sometimes I have more than one book, and I’ll take turns, I know that sounds crazy. Imagine if I’m reading a Thomas Pynchon and an Octavia Butler book at the same time—I’m gonna try it.”
Hair & Make-up Rubén Mármol at Kasteel Artist. Manicure Laura Meza, Maria Cabanillas. Photo Assistants Tom Griffith, Nathan Grimes. Stylist Assistants Juan Camilo Rodríguez, Valentina Rios, Manuel Lara. Hair & Make-up Assistant Paula Barjau. Producer Carla Genoud at Mamma Team. Production Manager Carla Ansa at Mamma Team. Production Assistant Pau Bassedas at Mamma Team.