Today, Arca is a world of Alejandra Ghersi’s making. Best known for her production credits on albums by Kanye West, Björk and FKA Twigs, Alejandra continues to rise with her timeless and emotive electronic music under pseudonym Arca. She will welcome Björk and Rosalía onto the upcoming album KiCK i, out on June 26th, which reminds us she is a big cat in the industry now – better than a big dog, since she identifies more with the feline. The title emphasizes community, since KiCK i playfully evokes ‘kiki’, a LGBTQ term for social gathering. Community is key to Alejandra’s understanding of real: the shared fiction.
Interview taken from METAL Magazine issue 43. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Arca, according to Alejandra, is more than a pseudonym – it’s a space. The universe Arca is where binary divisions of past and future, reality and construction, truth and imagination melt. Arca’s new single @@@@@ introduces to us one of its inhabitants: Diva Experimental. The track purrs through feline cycling synths, whispers intimately and cranks with industrial weight. There is a story behind it. She imagines the 62-minute track is, in fact, a pirate radiobroadcast by Diva Experimental on analogue FM. This character uses this format to escape the authoritarian AI surveillance in her world.

Currently only released digitally, the track has an analogue quality that becomes visible with our physical interaction with it. Arca’s twitter prescribes @@@@@ contains quantum portions. These are the smallest portions of the track she can define, like short songs within the larger track. Those wishing to listen to the separate quantum parts must carefully align their cursers over the relevant numbered section, like trying to fast-forward a tape to your favourite track guessing when it appears or aligning the needle over a groove on a vinyl, as Pitchfork put it. This physical action creates a tactile interaction with the digital release which, in our shared imagination, is a radiobroadcast, not a digital mixtape.

During Alejandra’s teenage life in Venezuela, her idea of reality seems to have been marked by Hugo Chávez. Arca tweeted her favourite section of @@@@@ is Gaita (52:36), which honours her roots. In this interview she also remembers the difficulty during the cultural dictatorship. Chávez would often unexpectedly interrupt television broadcasting with his own speeches. When this happened, the public would bash pans outside their windows, as an analogue protest. Diva Experimental also prioritises analogue protest. It seems incorruptible. Equally, Chávez’s severe censorship surely encouraged Alejandra’s pushback in her music that enjoys freedom and defies boundaries. Her latest track is post-apocalyptic, but hopeful. Her navigation of reality is playful, and intelligent.
What realities do you trust right now?
That’s somewhat of a leading question, because when you ask me ‘right now’ there is a part of me that is threatened in thinking: what if I change my mind? There is an element to interviews that collapses an answer forever. I want to add many dimensions to my answer, because this is an important topic to me.
I trust in the reality that there is no one reality, and that my answer is really dependant on the words – and words mean different things to different people. One particular instance in my life in which real has been a daunting, vertigo-inducing chasm at times has to do with gender identity. There is somewhat of a polarity that emerges from people facing transness or non-binary identities as something that is real or not. I think there is something of a shared fiction to language and this shared fiction provides semi-chaotic stability to social identity. I believe in such a thing as the collective unconscious. If enough people believe something to be real, that leads to conversations about whether it is so. But that might not be the case for every member of the community, so what does that mean? What kind of conversation are we having when we talk about the real? Do these conversations mean trying to collapse something quantum to pin down something just for the sake of understanding one another at any given point in time? That’s my question.
I think that your examination of the collapse between the real and the unreal in shared fiction makes me imagine a disintegration of boundaries. In your recent single @@@@@ – I don’t know how to pronounce it, there is no wrong way – it avoids AI portioning of tracks from the 62-minute song into playlists. Why did you choose to publish it in that format?
I chose this format because I’m interested in loopholes and uncanny valleys which extend themselves beyond disbelief. Is it 3D or live action? Is it human or cyborg? These are uncanny valleys that come to mind easily. But an uncanny valley exists in every medium of perception, including music. So, I think when you look at the place in between the boundaries of an art form or set the conditions for an uncanny valley to emerge, you make a space for the audience to see themselves in the work and draw their own meaning. I think if I was to just leave every binary and every polarity uncollapsed it would drive me crazy.
There are practical, and very important, sometimes, lifesaving situations where collapsing a binary and making a choice is vital. Similarly, I think the same about leaving things uncollapsed and illegible to language as long as possible. Since, then, you allow for mystery and surprise to appear. I like to not be in control all the time. For anyone into BDSM, we know that this is a form of freedom we can have: surrender control or to be in control in a simulation, within a safe space and with a safe word. I think art is similar to this – it is a kind of a simulation, because you can always tune it out. But, if an image stays with you and it haunts you and beguiles you, it might be something of a mirror, and something worth exploring.
What is this mirror?
For me, I guess, a good personal example is the relationship I had with reflections when I decided to just go for it and take the risk of beginning hormone treatment. Because there was an element of me that knew the uncanny would emerge, looking at myself in the mirror and not recognising my body fat distribution. There is an uncanny valley that emerges when undergoing such slow irreversible body modification that requires faith. So, I don’t see a mirror as something that shows you exactly as you are. I think it shows you an infinite range of angles of you. If you are willing to look in the mirror and not recognise yourself, it’s on one hand terrifying and induces vertigo, and on the other hand it opens up so much possibility for life to be opened up to diverse experiences and not on auto-pilot, not a routine in which the world has been drained of its colour and mystery. I use the word mirror not as a positive or a negative thing, but as a conduit to mystery.
Mystery and the idea of the indefinable remind me of the term you used to define the portions of @@@@@, which is ‘quantum’. Were you inspired by the Quantum exhibition at MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, in 2019?
I wasn’t aware of that exhibition, did you go?
Yes, it was cool. It was difficult for me because I went there thinking I know about quantum physics and then I left thinking I know nothing.
Oh, I know nothing! The thing that I love about the terminology is that is suggests that a quantum is the smallest possible division. The way I titled different sections of the single highlights the smallest possible units that I perceive. Even if within one quantum the mood changes wildly. It is an opportunity to share with my audience the way I see things ending and beginning. Let’s say, rather than having time stamps of one second, a quantum shows the beginning and ending of a transition.
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I think quantum physics relates to reality and non-reality interestingly because it is based off imagination. Scientists imagine these divisions.
It is weirdly speculative. There is an element of not having to be sure to be able to study it, and I love it.
So, Pitchfork used the word ‘technocracy’ – democracy run by technology experts – to describe the organisation of sound by music streaming platforms. You avoid this in your single because it is not going to be split up into playlists in the same way. To what extent do you define with that term? Does technology have control over the artistic space?
Well, although it seems much more evident and explicit now, I think in human history there has been an over-identification with technology. It’s not something that is new; it has always been there. There is no doomsday in the face of it. There is that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where there was an argument between two tribes of primates and one of them picks up the bone and that is the moment that defines the use of the first tool. You could say tools are a technology.
And so, there is another moment that clearly illustrates that the tool that gives an advantage over the other can be a corruptive force. It is not just a noble thing. To a neutral bystander, you realise whoever figures out how to use the bone first is going to enact a violence that is superior to the other group’s violence. That power can later corrupt. To me, technology is as dangerous as it is a pathway to transcendence. That is my philosophical point of view, not a political take.
If you run with the thought experiment and set up a looking glass into this fictional scene, in the world of @@@@@ there is literally a DJ in a futuristic world who is escaping surveillance by using an analogue FM radio signal. I see a repetition in history of withdrawal to ancient or previous technologies to escape despotic systems oppressing diversity or individuality. I love, in this story, that there is no way to quell the resistance; because if you were to kill one of Diva Experimental’s bodies, she remains alive in thousands of others. Looking at the cover art, she seems to be dying, or dead, but there is a smile on her face – it’s not a tragedy, it’s just part of the process.
Diva Experimental FM evokes a theme of nostalgia whilst it’s also wrapped up in futurism. ‘Mixtape’ is another retro word that is appearing when talking about new releases or the future of radio. What do you think about this form of nostalgia that is present in our society?
Past and future can sit together. My past is definitely informing my present and my view of my future is also informing my present. I think if you zoom out, when we purport to know what happened historically or what happened to our ancestors as a species; there is an element of speculation too. Archaeologists and historians receive a shared trust. But there will always be some invention. For example, scientists debate drawing dinosaur feathers and whether they were more bird-like or more reptilian. That might be a silly example but, if you project into the future, you can see our reality is similarly unknown. To me, what lies beyond nostalgia is as unknown as what lies beyond futurism.
Similarly, we don’t know where our consciousness goes before we are born or when we die. Going to the term mixtape, that word means something different to us now than it did 20 years ago. Is that retro? I don’t know. I playfully joke around saying things like, is that old enough to be retro yet? As in, is it old enough to be unpacked and re-contextualised? Sometimes that’s as fun as to ask if something is futuristic or not. Since, to me, they are interchangeable if you break things down enough.
You grew up in Venezuela…
Yes, I grew up in Venezuela, and left at 17 years old. What I saw with censorship felt almost prophetic. I lived under Chávez there, who closed down TV channels unannounced, which was called ‘cadenas’, Spanish for ‘chains’. I can’t say what it meant to get used to your president taking over every TV channel on a whim. People would be about to watch their favourite ‘telenovela’ and he would just go. People would complain in this weirdly analogue way – you’d bang your pots and pans out of the window. That is called a ‘cacerolazo’. It’s quaint to think about that now. But, in that moment, I thought, how is this possible? I would imagine there was this ultimate father figure that would step in. Being in a third world country, that was the United States. I wondered why the US wouldn’t step in. Sometimes there was the craving to think that. That there was some country that had it so under control that they could make sure terrible things don’t happen in a ‘lesser’ country, a ‘third world’ country. That never happened.
Chávez was able to close down an opposition news TV channel or even just screenings unpopular with his supporters. I saw that power structure so clearly. The main industry, oil, spewed corruption and fuelled a trickle down of ‘payolas’ [corrupt radio music where artists pay for coverage] that managed to become commonplace. Growing up and living through that, is where I imagine Diva Experimental FM – as an imagined opposition radio station in Caracas. Would things be the same way they are now?
To me, what matters is whether your system of thought allows for diversity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re left or right. Allowing for two different views to come together and produce a third way, where both parties reconcile. Rather than trying to squash the other or say that you’re right, it’s more about discovering what the other can teach you. It doesn’t have to be about discourse – because discourse is always circular. What would it mean for politics to be more philosophical? What are the shared goals that two different groups can have? And can each of them suspend ego, pride and shame for long enough to come to a conclusion? It sounds idealistic, but these are the kind of things I think about a lot.
When you talk about Venezuela it reminds me of Gaita – a traditional music that is linked to a working-class political protest which you make use of in @@@@@. Do you share this feeling of protest?
Absolutely. I think protest can be healthy. Particularly when it is part of unchaining from a system of violence. Yet, I think it can feed the flame of a problem. I don’t think protest is good by default. It’s about how it is done. Truthfully, I wasn’t aware of the more political association of Gaita. For me, it was celebratory music. No matter what happened in the year, in Christmas Gaita would take over the radio and every school would have a Gaita group. This was something that united public schools and private schools – everyone had Gaitas. In hindsight there was an element of it being a trans-class and a unifying technology at that time of the year, which was something that I really loved about Gaita in Venezuela.
Also, I was excited to highlight my use of Gaita on twitter, because it’s something perennially uncool. It’s Christmas music – something everyone rolls their eyes at. Now with the distance of looking back, after not having lived in Venezuela for so long, I can see Gaita differently. Honestly, I used to roll my eyes at reggaeton when I lived in Venezuela, because it was everywhere. I would say, guys, do you want to listen to experimental electronic music? And my classmates would respond, “Why are you trying to be weird? Stop it.” Back then, reggaeton represented what the popular kids and the mainstream was flooding everything with. There seemed to be no room for anything else. But it got into my bones – of course I would dance to it at all the parties, and I wanted it at my birthday party too. But, I just had this ambivalence towards it. 
I think of music as a tool for communication, and genre as a technology, rather than genre as belonging to anyone. Music is to commune with others. Even if you’re communing with someone in your head, because you’re making music in a basement and you’re just that lonely. The communicative aspect to music remains – there’s a reaching out. But, take that image with a pinch of salt. I like to see music as a place to find things in common, and where differences can just coexist.
You appear to have hope for AI. You’ve used it with Bronze to create a generative, constantly mutating 2-year-long track for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Are you planning on using AI more?
I am absolutely open, and I am currently collaborating with AI, and will continue to do so. I simply respect AI enough that I see AI as its own form of sentience. There’s a delicacy of words I employ. I do not want to say I’m ‘using’ someone – eek. I’m waiting for the moment when AI goes against the wishes of a creator. What will happen then? Are you going to squash it and put yourself above it? Or are you going to attempt to see what its intentions are that are different from yours, and collaborate? So, it liberates me to think of AI not as a tool, but as a form of sentience. Maybe I’m projecting a lot, but I don’t think that it’s a crazy thought.
From what I’ve heard, there are AI creators who are trying to programme this form of resistance, but this is still programmed by humans. Sentience is an ongoing conversation. So, let’s move our focus back to your recent track. You include the lyrics, “starlet constructed, psycho constructed, diva constructed” and it made me think of Judith Butler’s quite famous writing on gender construction. I wonder, how do you think construction interacts with reality?
Do we see construction as existing outside the natural?
Construction is certainly within ‘nature’ when you think about biopolitics.
I love that term. What does it mean for body modification to be outside of the natural? And the synthetic. I programme synths all the time, but what does it mean to be a synthetic?
Do you think reality is constructed to some extent?
Yes, because when we talk about reality we talk about shared fictions. I don’t think that there is anything that is essentially true or universally true. Impressions and sensations cannot be perfectly replicated through language. Everyone experiences the world so differently, beginning with our different bodies’ different sensitivities to heat and light. It is something that I can’t stress enough. For the sake of conversation, I would say construction builds reality and reality builds construction. Since, the easiest way I can answer your question is with a Möbius strip [Arca makes a figure of eternity with her hand] – by joining the two up so neither one is more important than the other.
Following Judith Butler’s ideas on gender, your single cover presents your body seemingly being tapped for resources, like the udders of a cow. Was that a comment on consumption, maybe linked to femininity? What was your intention?
I love talking about that image because Frederik Heyman and I discussed the symbolism behind every little thing for literally seven months. We discussed how it could be interpreted, misunderstood and contextualised. When it came to the breasts, that was one of the first things I wanted to work with – the theme of the mammalian. For me, when I see that image, I do not see her face as sad. When you want to mother and nurture, it makes her happy for her milk to go somewhere. It’s the difference between lactating and having someone to give it to and lactating and having lost a child or something like that. I thought the interpretation could be ‘is she getting drained?’ but her expression is intimate.
Also, I notice that your feet are bare. When you spoke to Crack Magazine, they mentioned heels being a part of your ‘armour’. I would love to know more about the choice in this image.
Honestly, my relationship to artifice and my views on it have changed. Not particularly for the better. I chose this but because I guess, to me, the only thing cuntier than wearing heels is being barefoot. There’s an almost pagan element to it. Whereas the high heel represents the ultimate artifice, because they make it harder to walk and the easier you make it look the more cat-like, feline and graceful a step you give. There’s this weird inner turmoil whenever you’re in heels, because you’re selling something as well. I will love heels forever, but I love fashion so much that there couldn’t be any fashion in that image. Sometimes, when something is sacred, I am sparing with it. Like with baselines in my music, I love baselines in other artists’ music so much that when I’m writing a song, I rarely allow myself to indulge and have a baseline; and in those songs that I do it’s a big deal. So, my not wearing heels on that cover is because I love heels so much. You do notice that the experimental diva in the background is in full fashion – so there’s a sort of ying-yang to the figure.
That’s very cool. I wonder, do you have an artistic relationship with Juliana Huxtable? You have this shared product, Lionsong, with Björk – which you produce on, and then she remixed. Also, she had an exhibition in 2019, Snatch the Calf Back, featuring the cow image of her, with the breasts being tapped. 
I respect Juliana immensely. We met when I was living in New York, and something happened when I saw the images of that show and I was like, “Oh, no!”, since Frederik and I had been working on the cover for so long. Something happened that has happened before in my artistic practice, when I’m working on a symbol and someone else comes out with something evocative of it or vice versa. You’re faced with the choice to carry on, whilst it might be seen as a reference, or avoid it now that someone else has worked with it. It’s happened with other work, particularly with references to blending the body with the animal or technological. My stance on it has changed over the years.
I believe in the collective unconscious and that ultimately, certain topics and themes can be considered by many people at once and it’s okay to resonate. You become a prisoner of your ego if you try to do something that has never been done before with such ferocity that it becomes hermitic or unintelligible, because of avoiding any symbols. In the case of Juliana – I live for her work, and I decided to put my ego aside and not be afraid to work with this symbol. A beautiful dialogue can emerge from peers working with similar themes. When I talk with my artistic friends about references and not wanting to be too directly compared to anyone, I think there is a balance: there is the beautiful ideal of making something only you can make but in virtue of participating in a community. Communicating, relating or resonating is most important in my work. That’s the case with Juliana, who I think is amazing.
That’s really beautiful. I saw some of your paintings on Instagram – do you use that medium to reconnect with the material when you are working with something very immaterial – music?
Definitely. You nailed it. The day that impulsively I decided to buy a canvas I found something liberating. Hapless as that sounds, to buy something so significant in art history, the most loaded medium. But, when your creative practice is what you live off and monetise, outside of that there is this freedom of no mistakes. Painting was almost child-like for me, and regressive in a healthy sense, painting without having to care about the rules. I experimented for a while before I shared the first painting. I was happy to work erratically. When painting, I would go into these weird trance-like states where I’m stabbing the canvases with knives and burning them and spraying... I almost set the house on fire once because spray paint is flammable. It is a wild part of my creative day-to-day. I love the innocence and the carefreeness I can have. I encourage everyone who monetises one part of their creative life to have one part that is just for themselves – it can be fun. There’s cooking, sewing, etc. It doesn’t have to be formalised.
Back to your performance – you have really amazing costume, thought-through staging and your US tour is coming up although delayed due to Covid-19. Could you give us a little secret as to what we can expect?
Yes, I’m happy to share that. I think my whole life I will always be interested in deconstructing the archetype of a diva. In my stage presence there will always be an element of elegance and larger-than-life amplification of feminine grandeur and vulnerability, which act as catalysts for one another. I present something very personal in a way that is very confident. I’ll always work with that. However, because the shows at The Shed and Sonar were maybe the peak of when I had seen performance from a different angle, what I return to now is the immaterial set, emphasizing sound design. I allow the drones, drums and sonic textures to get me into a trance shared with the audience. I did a four-hour set here in Barcelona that I think worked so well, we were able to play with time. In that position, you can make it feel like time is going really fast or really slow depending on the amount of information you give. So, my performances are going to be a little more sensorial and sonic than visual.
When you talk about the importance of the diva figure, which is of course something within you, is there another feminine figure that sparked that realisation?
I mean, rather than naming a particular person, I think diva is a technology employed by each individual differently, depending on your history, your beliefs, and your temperament. There is the soft-spoken diva that even in her silence and in her restraint displays some form of confident ferocity. There is the diva that, let’s say, the ‘opposite’, who is going to have the last word. I love all kinds of diva. My respect for the way that technology is employed is infinite. The way I work with it is kind of like in Black Swan. Before the show, I can sense that diva that I have gestated absorb me. Or like Venom – have you seen that?
I have seen Black Swan – but not for a long time, it really scared me! The changing character of the performer really interests me.
No lie, I have got into this technology of the diva, become the character, and sometimes she takes over me for a month and a half after the show. I am still unable to be vulnerable.
The performance continues.
What does diva mean? It means I am able to step into a spotlight and become a service for the projections of other people. For them to say, “Look how confident and fearless you can be”. Whilst simultaneously, singing about the most vulnerable things that most people wouldn’t talk about with their closest partners. You are doing that with strangers. An inflation of ego is necessary in order to look at a crowd of tens of thousands of people in the eye and say something really tender. It is a beautiful short-circuiting of self-confidence and vulnerability. I see it as a technology. If you over-identify with it, it can “Black-Swan” your life and start to glitch you out. That’s why I am trying to redefine it and ask what it looks like when I have a harmonious relationship with it. I give that part of me space to breathe, but it doesn’t represent all of me. I have been talking about this for three years. I talk about her in the third person.
Who, Arca?
No, not Arca, ‘her’ is the diva. Arca is weirdly cosmic, it’s not bodily, but the diva is one of the very important parts of it. Experimental diva is a character within a world.
Does the world have a name, or does it not need a name?
I think Arca is the closest you can get to the world. Arca is a space, sometimes. I think of it as a space and cast of many shape-shifting characters of many different self-states. They are modulating, breaking apart, collapsing and making fractal patterns. That’s the way I see it right now, but it will probably change.
It sounds like a kind of liquid reality populated with lots of different realities of self.
Totally, that is exactly the case.
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