The Urgency, the new DVD release from Extreme Animals (Jacob Ciocci and David Wightman), is a "visual album," like Beyoncé by Beyoncé, but any similarity to Beyoncé begins and ends with format. Beyoncé is too serious, too straight—the wrong kind of urgency. Her hooks have never found their way into the pop-punk power ballads of Extreme Animals, which mix club disco, heavy metal, and chiptunes with maximalist, strobing montage.
If there's a diva who is muse to the duo, it's the fickle Katy Perry, whose songs are sampled on two of The Urgency's eight tracks. Inspirational Katy Perry, who dedicates a rousing anthem to everyone who has ever felt like a plastic bag. Party girl Katy Perry, who gets wasted every Friday night. Bisexual Katy Perry who kissed a girl and liked it and wants to see your peacock-cock-cock. Dom/sub Katy Perry who yearns to be poisoned by aliens and is also the tiger who you will hear roar.
Katy Perry is the generic spirit of mass culture that Extreme Animals exploits in their music videos (visual tracks?). As the inclusive chanteuse, a many-faced jester of a diva, more of a pronoun than a proper one, she embodies mass culture's capacity to be anything to anybody; she personifies its endlessly renewable chain of possibilities for audiences to identify with something temporarily rather than make any final identification of it.
While the music Extreme Animals samples tends to be immediately recognizable—the theme song of the Harry Potter movies, a Katy Perry hit—the visuals tease recognition by offering identifiable forms and formats but obscure content. There's a snippet of a dragon cartoon that you might have glimpsed once in the eighties, or maybe you didn't, but at least you can identify with the experience of sitting in front of the television on a Saturday morning and watching it, or something like it, without knowing what it is, who made it, what happens in it. There's a clip from a cable access show, which you can recognize as such from the grainy light on the set even if you've never really watched cable access shows. There's the vlog, the teen who broods at the webcam, slices of her suburban bedroom framing her head. The forms of pop culture, the mass-market hardware that disseminates them, and the vernacular media consumption habits that congeal around them, flicker and intermingle in the rapid cuts and strobe effects and multiple layers of Extreme Animals' videos.
My description makes it sound like what Extreme Animals does is a pure play of signs and mediums, but their extreme empathy takes this play below the surface—they're making art from the stance of an audience instead of an artist. They're feeling what people feel when they turn to media to feel something, and mixing media to intensify their own audience's sense of that feeling. When Extreme Animals perform, as they did at the launch event for The Urgency at the Silent Barn in Brooklyn last week, Jacob Ciocci goes into a trance, headbangs, screams and jumps. He immerses himself in the rage and frustration of not getting what you/we/he want from media—wanting what it promises, which is more than it ever gives.
"THIS IS DEDICATED TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD THEIR LIVES WRECKED BY COMPUTERS, SOCIAL MEDIA, AND THE INTERNET": this dedication appears in The Urgency's first frames, and the message of sympathy and support unfolds in the final track, "Positive Mental Attitude." "I'm in a box," says a little old lady. "You don't think it's true? Just look at the edges." Her fingers point to the window that the viewer sees her in, to the screen and the monitor that the window appears on, and maybe even to the DVD box that The Urgency comes in. The boxes multiply, they get smaller and smaller, the old woman swims in a sea of apps. This track is light on music and heavy on talk. It urgently searches for meaning and explores the ideas that Ciocci writes about in the six-page zine accompanying the release: "The Boxes are cell phones, screens, computers, TVs, movie theaters, or books… [T]echnology itself is a box, and so is science, religion, pop music, organic food, and yoga," he writes. "The Boxes are interconnected traps that snare us deeper and deeper inside." Boxes shape the screen on the third track, where a half dozen tween girls lip sync Katy Perry's "E.T." for their webcams: "Take me/ ta-ta-take me/ Wanna be your victim/ Ready for abduction." Katy Perry is Extreme Animals' muse because she is the consummate maker of boxes. Producing box after box through the same body, she reminds audiences how all these boxes are made of the same cardboard. Katy Perry is Extreme Animals' muse—and like any muse, she's far away from the artist. Extreme Animals identify with the other users whose muse she is too, to make an art that tries to sing its way out of a box and into its audience.
All images: screen captures from Extreme Animals, The Urgency (2014).