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Escape Velocity

System Addict: Anat Ben-David Interviewed
Robert Barry , October 9th, 2014 12:25

In the run up to a very special Dirt Nonet show this Sunday at Cafe Oto, Anat Ben-David talks to Robert Barry about Chicks On Speed, Russian Futurists, and pissing off Hugo Boss.

Photo courtesy of Anat Ben-David and Jet

"I've put myself in the belly of the beast."

Anat Ben-David could be talking about the situation in the Middle East, or about that Hugo Boss party in Berlin back in 2003, or any number of the other things we discuss over the course of our hour-long conversation. But she's not. Having taken on theatre, video, music, fashion, the art world; Ben-David is now getting into property. Not the intellectual kind. The bricks and mortar sort of property. Because over the next few months, her home in De Beauvoir town will be demolished and rebuilt. It's a project she's been planning with her cohabitants for two years now and it's finally happening.

The beast in question, then, is capitalism; the whole configuration of banks and mortgages and debt and "people that take a lot of your money and do nothing". "It's very interesting to be part of it," Ben-David tells me. "To see how it works, how it functions, to feel it physically and not just talk about it from a comfortable position on the outside. We're all part of it. This system."

When I arrive at Anat Ben-David's soon-to-be-demolished home, she asks me to excuse the mess. Preparations for the imminent reconstruction aside, just a few days previously, Ben David's home had become the impromptu venue for a birthday party held for Julian Assange. The Wikileaker General himself, of course, was being celebrated in absentia. But having found the Ecuadorian Embassy a rather dry spot for a rave up ("I think they ended up just drinking tea and having biscuits," Ben-David says. "Couldn't really party there."), Assange's friends, lawyers, and supporters had ended up first at the Chicks On Speed single launch at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, and later all back to Anat's. "Somehow they all came," she tells me. "It was a bit of a different party here."

Julian Assange and Anat Ben-David are two of the many collaborators – some witting, some not – on the latest Chicks On Speed record, Artstravaganza, along with Yoko Ono, Archduchess Francesca von Habsburg, and Viennese Aktionist-turned-media theorist Peter Weibel. Despite their longstanding friendship, Ben-David only discovered herself that she was on the record a few days before the launch party:

"Come on! Gig! Next week!" The phone call had come somewhat out of the blue.

"What gig?" Anat replied, "I haven't played with you for, like, two years!"

"That song that we wrote – it's now, you know, the single. And we're releasing it!"

"Oh, OK, right. Can you send me the lyrics? I can't remember it…"

It's a curious insight into the inner workings of the artpop provocateurs, whose first performance, back in Munich in the mid-90s, involved smashing records in a DJ booth to a backing track of noise and samples. "It's completely the opposite of how I'm using to working by myself," Ben-David assures me. "I make sure that everything is under control. But with the Chicks, it changes all the time. Sometimes you go on stage and realise that this is the first time you ever heard this version of the song…"

She first met the group fifteen years ago, in Jerusalem. Ben-David was then artist-in-residence at the Habama Theatre, a situation which allowed her to do "whatever I wanted to do – I can't believe it now. I didn't really appreciate it." Music had always been around her, with several friends writing for the culture pages of a local newspaper. But at that time her work was mostly in performance art.

Since studying at the city's School of Visual Theatre, she had collaborated with fellow student Tamy Ben Tor on something like a multimedia version of those old heads-bodies-legs flipbooks. "We used to take video cameras and attach them to monitors so one of us would be the face only and the other would be the body," Ben David explains. "It would be like magic. We didn't recognise it as ourselves." Finding means like this – whether through technological prostheses or different kinds of artistic discipline – of alienating herself from her own body, making herself into a kind of "puppet", as she puts it, animated as if at a distance by some system of her own devising, has been an enduring concern of Ben-David's work ever since.

One day in 1999, Ben-David's friends, the artists and writers Pil & Galia Kollectiv, were invited to curate a night at the Habama Theatre. Having seen Chicks On Speed on the cover of Vogue magazine, they knew they had to persuade the group to come to Jerusalem. When they arrived, all they had brought were a pair of tape recorders, "– and that was their backline, you know? Everyone was totally blown away," Ben-David recalls.

They ended up spending two weeks in Israel, staying with Pil & Galia, travelling around to the Dead Sea and so forth. Ben-David stayed in touch with them ever since. So when the Chicks came to London to perform at David Bowie's Meltdown Festival in 2002, Ben-David – now a masters student at Goldsmiths College – got in touch and invited them to guest lecture there.

"So they came and did a lecture. And then they said to me, um, do you want to work with us? And I said, yeah, sure." Which is how Anat Ben-David, video and performance artist, found herself on the legendary electroclash tour around America in 2003 with Peaches and Larry Tee. "Then Peaches says one day, hey Anat! Do you wanna do some songs on my set. And I was, like, yeah, sure…"

The electroclash scene of the turn of the century proved peculiarly accommodating to interlopers from the art world. Chicks On Speed themselves had met at Munich's Academy of Fine Arts. Much of the impetus behind the scene as a whole Ben-David attributes to the particular constellation of ideas and energies constellating around Berlin's hardcore electro scene in the early nineties. At that time, Ben-David claims, Berlin's clubs were full of "people with a lot of energy, just trying out stuff and not really knowing exactly where it's going to. More interested in the image of it."

Even later, developing out of this, Ben-David recognised, "this whole energy that came out of not being a proper musician and feeling uncomfortable with sound but being inspired by the feel of sound going out of control a little bit. With electroclash, there's no virtuoso. You're there on stage, and you die on stage. So I felt very comfortable, coming from art."

Ben-David's music around the time of that first electroclash tour drew directly on the research she was doing for her degree at Goldsmiths. From investigating the structural similarities between pop star and dictator, she went on to make tunes by mashing up Visage samples with the songs of Marlene Dietrich or Brecht and Weill, while making of herself a kind of futurist dominatrix. "I went into music like a storm," she recalls. And upon those stormy winds she was blown from touring with Peaches to the Tate Modern to the highly regarded Wonder Years group show in Berlin.

It was while in Berlin for the Wonder Years show that she hit upon the idea of appealing to Hugo Boss for sponsorship. Who better to support my music, she figured, than this major pop cultural brand, famous for its patronage of the arts – but less well known for having designed the uniforms for Hitler's SS? She wrote to them. They replied, "saying, basically, fuck off." All seemed lost until the intervention of Alex Murray-Leslie, of Chicks On Speed.

"Alex said to me, you know what?" recalls Ben-David. "There is this party sponsored by Hugo Boss in Berlin and they invested two million euros in it. It's insane. It's in the post office and they want us to perform there. But I think you should perform there." Poor Hugo Boss – they had no idea the Anat Ben-David whose funding application they had so curtly rejected was also a collaborator with the same band they had just asked to play at their big party. "It was," Ben-David says, "just the most insane, lavish party I've ever seen in my life. It had an ice room, with huge blocks of ice with caviar flowing over it. A fire room with these huge fires with steaks like this. Beyoncé was there. It was insane."

Not until two in the morning did Ben-David take the stage, following her old friend Tamy Ben Tor's 'electro-Yiddish' performance. "Everyone was completely trashed," Ben-David tells me. "We came out and I said, oh, this is so great! Look at this! So beautiful! Thanks for inviting me! But you know how this fortune came? We all know that it's thanks to the Nazis! Because Hugo Boss had the opportunity to design the uniforms for the Nazis!" By this time, everyone in the audience was so screwed that the announcement was met with rapturous applause. "Everyone went yeah! The show was good. The next day we went and we got outfits and shows. They gave us loads of stuff."

Back in London, however, the shit was hitting the fan. "Alex was like, oh my god! There's a big scandal. People are getting fired. They were really freaking out." Suffice to say, they have not been invited back.

More recently, Ben-David has been exhibiting at the Stanley Picker Gallery and working on her PhD at Kingston University. As an artist for whom the spontaneity of the immediate gesture is so central, the analytic nature of an academic PhD programme at least potentially presented a problem. "I deliberately decided that there are points where I decided to be unconscious," she tells me. "A lot of artists that do PhDs get over-analytic and it kills their work."

The system she devised for maintaining that separation of powers between the waking brain and the sleeping brain, Ben-David calls OperArt, a synthesis of Meyerhold's biomechanics with Surrealist automatic writing, Deleuzian desiring machines with Dalcrozian eurhythmics. "The meaning of the work comes out of the interaction between different mediums," she explains, "and the interaction is sometimes artificial – it involves electronic or digital means that abstract the voice or abstract the image, creating a sense of alienation because you want to free your own perspective."

In many respects, what Ben-David now calls OperArt has always been the nature of her practice as artist, performer, and pop star. Having formalised it in words (but not too much), simply allows her to hone the technique, refine it – and communicate it. It's an experience that came in handy for her most recent venture, as a member of a collective of artists and composers convened by D.A.R, the Lithuanian association of composers, with the British organisation, Sound and Music.

For two and a half weeks, earlier this year, Ben-David was in Lithuania, with the improvising saxophonist Arvydas Kazlauskas, Lithuanian visual artist Auksė Petrulienė, Slovakian composer Fero Kiraly, pianist Ivan Šiller, Austrian artist Katherine Ernst, Lithuanian composer Lina Lapelytė, singer and composer Maja Osojnik, and Anglo-Greek sound artist Yiorgis Sakellariou. Initially, the idea had been that each would contribute their part and it would all be slotted together somehow, but pretty soon it became a communal, group process of creativity.

"I realised that the way we worked as a group was very close to what I was looking into in my research," Anat says. "You go into it as an operation and whatever comes out becomes the meaning of the work." What comes out will be evident this Sunday, when that group, under the name Dirt Nonet, will perform in the UK for the first time, at Cafe Oto.

Behind so much of Ben-David's work lies a fascination with the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, the Russian futurists in particular. "Art was so alive then," she tells me. "It was driving things. Instead of now, where art is just being tagged along after lame political ideas. Somehow art is becoming the clown. Whereas I think, with the Constructivists, art was carrying the politics. It was at the forefront. It was breaking all the boundaries, going ahead with artistic ideas that will create a new society, a new world."

"Now, it's kind of the opposite. Everything is a bit like 'community'," she sneers the word, wrinkling her nose at it. "This is nice. All this stuff. But tame. We're very nice. But there's no feeling of energy like there was." The work of Anat Ben-David may just be one of the few remaining vectors of that energy, from the past – into the future.

Dirt Nonet play Cafe Oto in Dalston, London this Sunday