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How Arca finds beauty in the grotesque

Self declared mutant and author of This Young Monster, Charlie Fox Skypes Arca on a dismal Friday afternoon

Experimental music producer and artist, Alejandro Ghersi, also known as Arca, creates otherworldly and yet intimate music. Dissonant and distorting, the former child star from Venezuela first gained attention back in 2014 with his album Xen – a critical success that was followed up by the 2015 Mutant. The addition of his vocals to his self-titled third album released last year (and chosen by Dazed as the best album of 2017) brought a beautiful human element to his signature harshness. Visually Arca plays with and pushes against the boundaries of normative gender, often donning high heels not only in his performances and music videos, but in everyday life. Skirts, lipstick, and corsets are all part of Arca’s visual language, as well as fetish gear, latex outfits and bondage. Intensely sexual, Arca’s art is also injected with elements of horror and violence, often coming from collaboration with long-time friend and Dazed Beauty Community member, Jesse Kanda.

It’s Arca’s attraction to the perverse, and his ability to find the beauty in it, that has long appealed to 26-year-old British writer Charlie Fox, who wrote in praise of Arca in his new book, This Young Monster. Championed by heavyweights such as John Waters and Hilton Als, This Young Monster is a celebration of the ugly, the weird, and the transgressive. After publishing it, Charlie sent a copy to Arca, who by this point was still a stranger. We arranged for the two self-confessed outsiders to meet on Skype. This is what happened.

“Being an incurable mutant, I never had the ‘normal’ reaction to Arca’s records or videos. Yup, I go ‘Wow’ and feel sick and horny but that just means I feel at home, as if he’s stomping around inside my own brain. He takes stuff condemned as perverse, warped or frightening and rips it open to reveal something so beautiful it breaks your heart. It’s a magic trick and it’s about love. That’s my whole thing, too (if you touch the scary monster, something magical will happen) so we talked.  Ages ago, I sent him a copy of my book, This Young Monster, with a quote by Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman) from Tim Burton’s masterpiece Batman Returns scribbled on a ripped birthday card and snuck between the pic of a werewolf holding a severed head and some kids on Halloween: “Sickos never scare me,” she purrs, “at least they’re committed…” I Skyped him in my South East London bedroom on a dismal Friday afternoon. We discussed panic attacks, being grotesque, nightmare eagles and X-Men. I forgot to ask him if he’d ever cover Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’. Maybe for Xmas? He had the book in his hands and, to break the virtual ice, I took a screenshot of him licking it.

Arca: That scene changed my life.

Charlie Fox: Those early Tim Burton films mean so much to me. Like, I just wanted to have that scary power and be Catwoman.

Arca: Yeah, you are, girl! The Eartha Kitt one was legend, too, but that scene where she opens up the closet and starts cutting up all the cute t-shirts is so symbolic. It’s kind of sad because [Catwoman’s life] is about empowerment at the cost of love.

Charlie Fox: I just still wanna be that. I still wanna have— (making hands jagged and catlike)

Arca: (pawing at the screen): Claws!

Charlie Fox:  Yeah! I just wanted to revel in the darkness, having fun with everything you’re not allowed to do. Spray everything black.

Arca: It’s impossible to exorcise the darkness out of you. We can pretend it’s not there until something bursts. We want to be rigid and be only this one thing so I’m good, I’m not dirty.

Charlie Fox:  Shame is a waste of time.

Arca: It can be a good window to explore so long as you don’t get into compulsion. Compulsion is a behaviour that short-circuits you out of feeling ashamed and then you feel triple-ashamed afterwards. You get that with all kinds of self-harm.

Charlie Fox: And it comes out of curiosity, too. If you have a strange relationship to your body, you just wanna know what’s going on inside there.

Arca: When I was really young, I got this kids book on the mind. One part was about blindspots in our vision and when I came into contact with the fact that [we had] blindspots, it blew my mind. Another chapter was about lucid dreaming…

Charlie Fox: I had a really strange dream the other night. I was in bed with this eagle and it started clawing the back of my neck. It was a gorgeous bird but it really hurt. When I woke up, I could still feel the scarring and pain from this eagle on the back of my neck. I was really into it.

Arca: That sounds like the eagle in bed is you. And the you-in-bed is another you, and the eagle’s trying to say ‘Hi!’ and wake you up.

Charlie Fox: Yes! That’s what it is! [Laughs]

Arca: We try and banish whole inner realms. Sometimes you have to touch the thing inside of you’re most afraid of and see what happens when you touch it rather than look away from it all the time.

Charlie Fox: That’s what I try to do all the time. Lick the eagle. Try to empathise with things that I might think are repulsive or wanna withdraw from or whatever. I wanna get inside them and let them ooze all over me.

Arca: Beautiful.

Charlie Fox: And that’s always scary.

Arca: Fucking terrifying! But we get too bogged down in language and rationality.

Charlie Fox: I was super depressed as a child when I learnt I couldn’t turn into an animal. I could never grow fur…

Arca: You could get fur implanted! We can change our bodies. Fuck the people that would find that a problem. We’re not responsible for figuring out why something feels good because that feels eerily similar to feeling guilty about something, rather than just feeling it. Like kids are just creating ways to perceive and express themselves in the world before we think up all these dumb-ass rules.

Charlie Fox:  The time when I feel most comfortable is when there’s some element of costume or transformation that I can apply to myself and I don’t see that artifice as bad or inauthentic.

Arca: Somebody fucking tell me what ‘authentic’ is to my face! Explain it. And as they stumble in their words, they’d just realise they’re talking about words, not experience or sensuality. There’s blood and violent imagery in my videos. I don’t know why. It’s… mystical, right? That word is corny.

Charlie Fox: But it’s right. Some other thing makes that stuff come out. I never understand why I wanna make my things. Why did I wanna transform into a girl in the book? Grotesque thoughts fire me up.

Arca: It’s grotesque to believe the body we inhabit we want to inhabit 24/7.

Charlie Fox: Yeah!

Arca: But [at the same time] I like grotesque, it’s a compliment.

Charlie Fox: It’s the hottest thing.

Arca: You’re identifying a vector of how something’s supposed to move and moving antagonistically within it. It’s beautiful but confusing, too, it causes anxiety. You just have to behold the thrash metal solo of the universe. Like if you have a panic attack and you can’t tell if you’re breathing or not.

Charlie Fox: Oh, the air gets solid. It’s horridly sensual. It animates every part of your body and sets it on fire.

Arca: I like that you don’t rush to pathologise it but make it sensual. You can swerve a panic attack but she’s gonna have a cigarette and come back.

Charlie Fox: It’s always coming. I remember one where I felt like I was just a head. A suffocating head that never knew how to breathe.

Arca: Wow, that’s hard.

Charlie Fox: That’s why when I’m working I wanna have demonic fun: making things melt, making things grow where they shouldn’t.

Arca: You become the darkness and it recognises you as one of your own. A monster is an aberration. Maybe it didn’t wanna be bad but if it gets poked and prodded, it shockwaves.

Charlie Fox: And I always recognised myself way more in those characters. I was like, ‘That’s me!’

Arca: Like Psylocke from X-Men, she knew everything about fashion and she shot pink energy out of her hands.

Charlie Fox:  I liked the Beast. He was a thinker but he had this deep rage and I was so angry as a kid. Being scary is a weapon.

Arca: Like in Coco, the Pixar movie, where there’s one death, you go to the Land of the Dead, and there’s the final death where you’re forgotten. It’s chilling.

Charlie Fox: That’s the best feeling when it’s something you can’t name. A shiver.

Arca: Yes! I’m pretty good at getting into states of fear and sadness, let me try something else. It’s a game I’m playing in my head, feeling around in the dark and I can find what’s soft and instead of retreating from that to something sharp that might cut me the fuck up, I can go with the soft thing.

Charlie Fox: Let it cover you.

Arca: I like skincare a lot. The acidity of the ecosystem that lives in our face. This one queen at the pharmacist was like, Try this, it’s really good for stains. I went, (mock-horrified): ‘Stains?!’

Charlie Fox: Witch!

Arca: Like in The Sixth Sense with the mom who poisons her daughter. That film scared the living shit out of me.

Charlie Fox: So scary because there’s no quarantine between the dimensions: the dead people are just there.

Arca: Yes! OK, let’s meet next time I’m in London.

Charlie Fox: Yeah, howl for me. When I was a child, I would stand outside, howling like a wolf in the suburbs. All the kids that I never saw always howled back like this weird chorus.

Arca: Oh my god, that’s so beautiful, I’m gagging.

Art Direction: Carlos Saez
3D Artist: Sevi Iko Dømochevsky
3D Scanning: DOOB Barcelona
Concept and Creative Direction: Isamaya Ffrench and Ben Freeman
Carousel Web Development by Armin Unruh