I am not a man!/ I am not a woman!/ I am both/ I am neither/ If you don’t like it/ take a breather! So announces Miguel Gutierrez between work outs during his DEEP Aerobics set. An acronym for Death Electric Emo Protest Aerobics, there’s no doubting the intention of Gutierrez’s celebration of the non-essentialist form and, by extension, the entire oeuvre of The Knife. Performing at London’s Roundhouse in support of the release of their explicitly Third Wave, post-structural opus to feminism gone AWOL, Shaking the Habitual, the Swedish duo give added meaning to the oft-quoted maxim of Gender Trouble author Judith Butler’s, “we are always in drag”.
As a band who’s very image is unclear -an outfit taken to hiding their faces behind masks, conducting interviews only through Skype -it’s no surprise that their second tour in 14 years and five albums would feature an interrogation of performance, authenticity and artifice. Hence, the enveloping ambient opener, cast into darkness and the following confusion of who’s performing what, if at all.
There are several people on stage in brashly glittering gowns and eye make up. The layers come off at times, back on at others –hanging limp on a coat hanger when uninhabited. A bizarrely shaped tuneless guitar is played through a rotating roster of dancers –male, female, ambiguous –while vocals are handled by all, occasionally taking turns in addressing the audience with the odd “hello London!” while Karin Driejer-Andersson’s voice is seemingly channelled through these flesh and bone vessels during songs. The lights go off for the droning ambience of ‘Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised’ and ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’, no staged distraction from the unsettling mood of frustration and urgency that the track generates as a twirling fluoro whistle tube becomes the focus and only light among the shadows. Performers take up drums sticks and pretend to drum, pose and mimic performance, with their silent instruments over a backing track.
Needless to say Dreijer-Andersson and Olof Dreijer are not there. At least not explicitly. It’s hard to say because no one’s wearing a name tag and having never been offered a photo, cross-dressing, wigs and masks make it impossible to distinguish fiction from reality. But then what is reality anyway? As Olof has repeatedly told press, everything’s a performance; pictures can be deceiving and captions misleading.
Depending on your disposition, you could interpret The Knife live as one big hoax perpetuated at the expense of its audience or a brilliant expression of the complexities of human interactions, the redundancy of categorisation and liberation of transcending them. Judging by the shamelessly cavorting crowd, trembling in unison with euphoria, it’s likely they’re of the latter camp. **