Photos by Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool
It's hard not to get swallowed up by the ideas put forth in the artist known as Anohni's first album under her chosen name. She's called it HOPELESSNESS, an all-caps, synthesizers-blaring summation of the situations depicted therein, which included drone bombing, Orwellian surveillance, the inevitable fallibility of even the most well-intentioned elected officials, and other inescapable travails of the modern era. How can you go about your daily existence—walking your dog, buying groceries, checking your emails—when your country places so little value on the individual lives of its own citizens? And then there's the lives of kids across the globe, who are forced to live in fear of bombings predicated on tech and ideologies that we tacitly encourage. Faced with a world so distressing, it's easy to just crumble instead.
The atmosphere at the world debut of the album's accompanying live show—at New York's cavernous Park Avenue Armory on Wednesday night as part of this year's Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York—started out appropriately subdued and monochromatic, with spectators welcomed into a giant room lined with pitch-black curtains from floor to ceiling. After the lights dimmed, looped ambience wafted from giant speaker racks and a stories-tall projection showed model Naomi Campbell dancing vibrantly in an abandoned building—outtakes from the video for the album standout "Drone Bomb Me." As the camera zoomed in and out, Campbell would mouth a soundless word or two. This unsettling collision of intense movement and grey sonics continued for a full 20 minutes at the start of the set, and your only option was to stare onward, directly and uncomfortably, to stew in both the humanness and the abstraction. Were that the extent of the performance it would have been, at least in some senses, an appropriate mirror for the subject matter of album—humanity writhing indefinitely in the face of unsettling circumstances—but the dreary mood ended up being something of a fakeout for the tone of what would follow later in the show.
The desolation is clearly elucidated in the record's lyrics, but there's also joy in the firework synth bursts and ecstatic drum programming that runs through its bloodstream—there's hints of celebration, even at the end of days. She describes the gleaming instrumentals as "trojan horses," a way of sneaking the message to those who wouldn't ordinarily seek it out. The live show underscores proved that the project doesn't end with woe—there's hope somewhere in the margins. Anohni soon took the stage in a veil and hood, flanked on her right by Oneohtrix Point Never, who helped with production on HOPELESSNESS, along with producer Christopher Elms, who appeared to be standing in for Hudson Mohawke, who also contributed to the album. Performances of each song were accompanied by stark portrait videos of women of various ages and various outward gender expressions, but largely women of color, often mouthing the words.
Anonymized (or "annihilated" as she put it in a recent interview with VICE) by her own veil, and putting her words in the mouths of others, Anohni's gesture seemed to say that these songs are laments for everyone—that the power of the words lay not only in the words themselves, but the impact they make when uttered in unison. The spirit of the project echoes the model she established in a 2004 performance piece—later made into a film called Turning—that featured Anohni performing in front of projections of 13 women, as well as the "Drone Bomb Me" video, which featured Campbell lip-syncing to the track. Talking to THUMP earlier this year, she described the video segments as a way "to find a body that, in some ways, could more powerfully represent the material than I could."
Using these women as visual stand-ins represents Anohni's communitarian intent—a desire to say that we suffer under the same oppressive societal forces, regardless of cultural differences or international borders. In the lugubrious final moments of the album closer "Marrow," she asserts the whole world's connection to the destructive efforts of the West: "We are all Americans now." Catchphrases like that emphasize our commonality, but pairing Anohni's voice with the faces of other women whose experiences we don't know can create an unintentional false equivalency. Just because we're in communion with one another doesn't mean that the things we've gone through are the same.
The messages included at the songs' core are still harrowing, but there is something legitimately empowering in this collectivity. Dancefloors have always been spaces of fellowship, so it's only fitting that the electric energy of HOPELESSNESS became sternum-shaking at concert volume. The punters weren't really moving, but it's easy to imagine that they could have, particularly as Anohni suddenly became animated during "Obama"—which excoriates the current administration for its failure to follow through on promises. She confronts darkness with friends at her back, dancing anyway.
The most moving call to arms came in the show's final moments, after over an hour of dimly lit performances of songs from HOPELESSNESS and unreleased material that mirrored the album's downcast disposition. The music faded and a video clip of artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor appeared to offer a solemn, solitary bright note to highlight the collective power of what preceded it. She ponders the state of the world ("Everything is going upside down") before offering a hopeful benediction: "How are we going stop and [...] work together and make the world a better place to live for all of us?"