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Pharmakon performing at the Leisure Centre

Inside Yang Li’s HUMAN MAS/CHINE with Pharmakon

‘Yang invited me into a space that I would be an alien in’ – confrontational noise titan Pharmakon discusses her recent live collaboration with Yang Li

Margaret Chardiet comes out from behind a tall stack of hardware and vanishes into the crowd. Suddenly, the audience at Vancouver clothing store Leisure Center becomes a whirling mass of microphone wires, flyers and alcohol mist. Like a wrecking ball, Chardiet has long broken the fourth wall at shows, interrogating her audience with tunneling body music and one-on-one confrontations. At one point in tonight’s performance, she walks a dozen shuffling fashion students around in a vast human lasso.

Performing under her recording name Pharmakon, it is the first in a roving live performance installation called HUMAN MAS/CHINE — a new project from fashion designer Yang Li. Now a permanent fixture at Leisure Center, MAS/CHINE is a large wheeled trunk inspired by live music equipment cases, whose component parts include amps, stage lights and a performance table.

To Li, the MAS/CHINE is the next step in his journey into live music showcases, which has seen industrial music mavens from SWANS’ Michael Gira to Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick perform at his runway shows. And like Chardiet’s live spectacle, Li’s concept is the manifestation of years of work. “Noise music is all about the physical experience,” he explains. “That’s the message I’m trying to get across.”

The trunk was built in partnership with Olaf Kneer, a long-time collaborator of Li’s and the architect behind the space. For Li, he wanted the Leisure Center’s fashion-first clientele to be confronted with something unexpected; an event that forces them to think about his clothes in a different way. “Vancouver seemed like a good city to provoke,” Li comments of the famously amiable Canadian destination. “The gesture of bringing an artist into a space where it would be impossible normally is a beautiful thing.”

Chardiet echoes this reasoning, and felt compelled to perform in a luxury setting that jars with her visceral aesthetic. Here, the Brooklyn noise titan explains more.

Hi Margaret! Tell me how you felt Yang’s concept spoke to you and the nature of your work — which often explores the relationship between mind and body, and performer and audience.

Pharmakon: When Yang first contacted me, at first I was a little sceptical because I don’t have that much knowledge or interaction with the fashion industry. I have a general mistrust of it actually, because of a lot of the damage that it does to you. But then as I spoke with him on the phone, I was immediately like, ‘oh, he’s one of us’, you know? Basically, he was inviting me into a space that is alien to me and that I would be an alien in. When you play noise to noise fans, or your friends, or your community, over and over, you’re just preaching to the choir, and you’re essentially just stroking your own ego. They know exactly your references and where you’re coming from, the history of what you do. But it’s really nice to see completely guttural, honest responses, to reach people that are outside of your own scope and road, and to test your art, to see if it works outside of its context. To just be plopped down like an alien in a strange place, surrounded by luxury goods, with people buying 400 dollar shirts before the show... 

Quite noticeably,  there were people at the show walking away looking really uncomfortable — I think a lot of them just thought it was going to be a typical fashion party.

Pharmakon: Yep. People lining up, taking selfies… And just in it for a bit of glamour, to be seen.

Yeah. It was refreshing how confused a lot of people seemed.

Pharmakon: And then they are confronted, all of a sudden, with this, and walking away terrified is a totally valid reaction. It’s not like a machismo confrontation, it’s always about this idea of the thing that people are most terrified of is human agency. Being looked in the eye, being touched, being immediately and urgently addressed, by someone who’s supposed to be a performer over there.

You coming off the stage flips the role of performer and audience — suddenly, the crowd are on stage. They’re forced to perform, however briefly.

Pharmakon: Yes, just their human response. Because so much of it is… it’s okay to walk away, to hate it and then be scared and leave. And a lot of people will. It’s okay to be so confused, that you’re laughing nervously. Or, to be rocking out and banging your head, you know?

I was reading something you said about how your music is not just an interrogation of the ears, but the human body as a physical unit. This idea also plays into your live shows, when you’re physically interrogating people. Yang’s use of the word ‘installation’ here is tenuous in a similar way — the designer presenting his concept as a spectacle, something you can walk into.

Pharmakon: The idea of it being an installation is because now that Yang has the HUMAN MAS/CHINE, he can do it again and again. He’s gonna bring it to these really unlikely places and other noise acts and bands will play through it. Because it is an installation, it had to be installed in places that was technically not a music venue, so it was very interesting to see that sort of set up. The space was so conducive to the show, too — the walls were covered in sheet metal and on the floor you can see five layers of paint from different decades that’s marbled into crust.

So you experimented with the acoustics of the space?

Pharmakon: I was actually really surprised because the ceilings are so high and it’s so big. I felt that the sound would immediately disappear into the reverberations. But there was a lot of talk about what speakers to use before the performance, and it was really hard because I wasn’t going to see the space until the day that I walked in. So I arrived and we were like, let’s get all of them. So we got all of the speakers and it sounded really great. For me it’s not just about being loud, it’s not about confrontation for the sake of being aggressive. The reason I need it to be loud is because I need people to be able to feel it in their bodies: it has to be a tactile, physical experience. And in a space like this, that’s really hard to achieve usually. The giant subs twice the size of my body right behind me didn't hurt.

How does creating music live and improvising compare to doing it in the studio?

Pharmakon: It’s very different. I live in a first floor apartment, but there’s a basement as well. It doesn’t have heat. I find that I’ll be in the basement all day and then I go upstairs to get a glass of water and pee and I’m like ‘Oh shit, I forgot to see the sun today.’ Studio time is very painful — I’m trying to force the electronics to make that sound that I hear in my head, which is actually nearly impossible to do. So the studio is this arduous, teeth-grinding situation, and performing is where all the risk is. I was performing all new songs (at Yang’s show), so there was a risk of total failure. In the studio there’s no risk, there’s kind of just work. When you perform it’s a release of all of this pent up teeth-grinding, and then it comes out and it either sounded the way you wanted and you have a cathartic release, or it didn’t and you climb into a hole for three days and hate yourself.

I’m interested in how your live show has evolved — when did you start interacting with the crowd like this?

Pharmakon: It was a really sudden evolution. For the first couple of years that I played it was mostly in basements. It was 2011 — it was 11/11/11 actually — and I got invited to play with all these people whose music I was really into, so it was super-intimidating. It was at a real venue with a big stage that was pretty high up. Everyone was sort of down there when I was playing, and I felt really uncomfortable about that. So suddenly I just decided, ‘why do I have to be up here?’ and sort of just jumped. And since then I’ve not looked back. When I first played, I did it with my back to the audience, and when I screamed I would sort of hunch over my body to force it out.

Since 2011, our interaction with live performance has changed dramatically — now we have phones, and access to a whole universe of distraction in our pockets. 

Pharmakon: But it’s not just like, I want you to be aware that I’m here, it’s like, you chose to be here, in this room, and we’re all here together, and you’re part of this. It’s an energy exchange. What happens when I go into the audience is I’m not singling people out, I just feel a magnetic pull towards people sometimes. And often I feel a dead spot, and I’ll go fuck with him. It’s like a blank, there’s nothing coming back at me, from that person. And usually I look up to see who it is that I have this dead spot coming from, and it’s someone on their phone. I’m just like, right, you’re gonna get it, you know?

“I need it to be loud because I need people to be able to feel it in their bodies. The giant subs twice the size of my body didn't hurt” — Pharmakon

So you get a sense that they are slightly ambivalent to your performance?

Pharmakon: Yeah — energy is actually a quantifiable, measurable, real substance, it exists in the world, and you can feel it. And especially feel it at shows, when all of that energy is pushed towards you, and then when they are pushing it back, the energy is bouncing around, and bodies are bouncing around.

Have you ever been physically retaliated to at a show?

Pharmakon: I got punched in the face once, that’s why I have a chip in my tooth. I don’t think it was on purpose. I knew the person who did it, and they had a substance abuse problem at the time, they were out of their mind. I think that they felt that... It was actually at that first show, but it didn’t stop me. I was like, that’s cool, let’s keep doing this. It’s interesting, some — usually men — try to do things that aren’t physically aggressive, but are extremely psychologically aggressive. They will try to do things, like, pet me on the head, or something like that. Or grab the mic and scream into it.

Fuck that.

Pharmakon: There’re always ways to deal with that, and it’s usually fun. So, bring it, you know? I think the worst that ever happened was in Chile, in Santiago, and some guy grabbed my ass while I was playing. I stopped the set and I turned around and said, ‘Don’t you ever fucking touch someone that doesn’t ask to be touched’. He was going, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it’, and I was like, ‘I grabbed your hand. You did it.’ I just kept playing and everyone in the room was staring at him. Some people think the whole thing is a joke — they see a five foot tall woman screaming and running around and think, ‘Oh, she thinks she’s so tough. I need to knock her down a peg.’ But what they don’t realise is that they are actually making themselves be seen. They are making themselves vulnerable. They think they are being the big tough guy, but in reality they’re showing all their colours, and are exposing themselves for the chauvinistic turds they are.

We’re in Vancouver, where a second wave industrial music boom happened in the late 1980s — spearheaded by Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly. A lot of bands feel a lot of confliction about the ‘industrial’ label. How do you feel about it?

Pharmakon: I think of it because it was coined specifically by Throbbing Gristle. I think of that line of industrial music. It’s like, what do you think of when you hear the word punk? What does that mean?

There’s a whole philosophy to it, far beyond the realms of music.

Pharmakon: There are so many subgenres. Is it D-beat, is it like, drunk-punk?


Pharmakon: Cowpunk, right. Cowpunk is my favourite! I think noise, and industrial is like that, it has so many subgenres at this point. At the end of the day, I view industrial, like Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails, as music. And I think of Throbbing Gristle as a project, meaning that music was part of the point, but it also existed as part of the legacy, and the words, and the images and performances. It existed as a full project. What I really like about industrial noise — what music alone can’t typically do as well — is that every part of the process means as much as every other part. It’s not like, ‘We wrote the music, and so and so drew the cover’ — it’s usually about concepts, and the lyrics speak to that, the music sounds like it, the album art looks like it.

Kind of like the COUM philosophy...

Pharmakon: Exactly, yeah. And I think that’s the legacy of it, what I think of when I think of industrial. I think of COUM, I think of Throbbing Gristle and everything that came after them. What they paved the way for...