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Chicks on Speed: “Julian Assange has an honesty that’s very similar to that of an artist”

April 24, 2013

Published in The Vine

There’s the kind of artist who says they’re interested in pushing boundaries. And then there’s the type for whom self-interested talk about boundary pushing is less productive than doing the work it takes to break new ground. In theory, Alex Murray-Leslie and Melissa Logan should be exhausted. The duo, who started Chicks on Speed after a fateful art school encounter, might have thrown the illegal parties that shaped Berlin’s nineties electroclash scene but their knack for erasing the lines between fashion, music, performance and art has seen them achieve global success. Along the way, they’ve collaborated with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Peaches and Yoko Ono and shown everywhere from MoMA in New York to the Venice Biennale.

Although Chicks on Speed may trouble the divide between high and low culture, it’s dangerous to dismiss them as a Warholian wet dream. They’ve spent the last eight years working on a range of Objekt Instruments including a high-heeled shoe guitar (Kate Moss wore it naked and sent them a picture), they did a stint artists-in-residence at Hobart’s MONA FOMA festival in January where they performed in an abandoned church and, most recently, they’ve launched a major show at ArtSpace in Sydney.

Chicks on Speed have lately fixed their creative focus on the equalising power of technology, the way it can rewrite old distribution systems and disseminate new ideas. The pair’s new album, Scream, is set to be released in app form in July and will feature a collaboration with Julian Assange, recorded in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, his home since last June. Chicks on Speed were introduced to Assange through their friend Angela Richter, a theatre director who conducted a series of interviews with him for her latest play, which takes a non-narrative look at WikiLeaks and its global fallout.

In the wake of Chicks on Speed’s ArtSpace exhibition launch, Murray-Leslie, Logan and Richter sat down with TheVine for an exclusive interview about boundary-pushing, why it’s a good thing that the music industry is dead and how Assange is more artist than he is political provocateur.

Chicks on Speed are known for creating wildly original work. Which artists inspire you?

Alex Murray-Leslie: Well, sort of the obvious ones – Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic (sometimes), Carolee Schneeman. We’re inspired by a lot of seventies feminist performance artists as well as bands such as The Slits and The Raincoats. I feel like what The Raincoats were doing back in 1978 reflects a certain side of what we do now. It’s the idea that we’re all somehow linked to this greater chain.

In the last three decades, the DIY and punk scene has had many incarnations. What forces are shaping it at the moment?

Alex: You know, the DIY thing is always mentioned a lot and in a way we now have this idea that you don’t do it yourself, you do it with everybody else. So in a way we’ve shifted our manifesto.

So has your manifesto evolved? Has it become more collaborative?

Alex: We now think that loneliness is the enemy…Information frees you and so it’s better to align yourself with a lot of people rather than be alone. We work in the art world where there’s this belief about what we do being unique and exclusive. And artists such as Damien Hirst and Murakami [Takashi] have sort of changed all of that which is interesting. We’re more interested in breaking down those barriers between high culture and low, blurring them and being accessible. We’re really interested in organisations such as Wikileaks, which empower people and are total supporters of free information.

Did you both start off as fine artists and branch into different spaces?

Alex: Well, Melissa and I were both art students but we were attracted to music because it represents such a proliferation of one idea. If you held an exhibition you might have 500 people come to see your show, but if you create a seven-inch you reach so many more people.

Tell me about your next project.

Alex: We’re working on our album Scream, which is going to be released as an app in July and will also be launched digitally and on vinyl on Chicks on Speed Records and Valve. It contains ten songs, each addressing a different theme and is based on our Objekt Instruments as well.

Melissa Logan: Every time we release a new track, we’ll just put it out as an update.

Alex: The app will also contain videos we’ve developed for each song and audiences will be able to play it at the show and interact with us. You’re a user, but you’re also a creative user. It takes away that hierarchy between stage and audience and opens it up to new public art experiences.

What are your hopes for the album?

Alex: We hope that it will really change how artist release music. The music industry is long overdue to find different mediums.

Melissa: It was the industry’s own fault that it collapsed. They were overcharging, ripping off artists. It’s a great thing for the artists that the industry collapsed. Now we really have to find different systems – it’s not just something that you can become passive about.

Alex: The album includes a recording with Yoko Ono, collaborations with Anat Ben-David and [Australian extreme drummer] Tina Havelock Stevens. We also made one of those songs with our friend Angela [Richter] and Julian Assange.

How did you become involved in this album Angela?

Angela: I’m a theatre director who got bored of Shakespeare and Chekhov. I started researching a play about Julian Assange and Wikileaks but it was too difficult to get in touch with him. But then, I heard that he was auctioning lunch with himself on eBay. I eventually won it and that’s how we first met. I was very lucky. I met him some months later, we talked for five hours and he said, ‘okay you’ve convinced me’ [to work on the project]. I feel like despite everything he’s experienced he’s still someone with a lot of trust in people – he very much opened the door.

I’d visit him in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the evenings and we would talk the whole night – Julian is very detailed when he answers questions. And then, the Chicks came to me and asked if they could work with him and use some of the material. There’s this part when I asked him if God exists and he refused to answer. Then he realised he couldn’t escape – the answer he gave was long and complex, but also very deep. This is the part the Chicks used to make the song and it’s a miracle that they managed to do that.

Melissa: We’re going to release the track on an eight-inch single and we’re speaking to Vice about doing the video at the moment.

You guys align yourself strongly with Julian Assange. In what ways do your worldviews intersect?

Alex: I think we’re all interested in empowering people through information. I think there’s this innate basis that’s similar but with very, very different ways of going about it. Julian was the one who helped bring the internet to Australia! He also has an honesty that’s very similar to that of an artist. But we’re told he’s not an artist. And that’s why he causes so much trouble because when an artists does what he does, it’s another story. Artists can do what they want, but on the other hand they don’t have the same political impact – unless you’re [Chinese artist] Ai Weiwei.

Melissa: Maybe he’s open to working with us because his mother was involved in theatre and was also an activist in the seventies, exposing atomic testing grounds. She used to have very strong views – she was very courageous but she could also perform.

Angela: We played the song for Julian in the embassy. It was that typical effect – he was embarrassed to hear himself but I think he was flattered too. He then he swung straight back into political discussion.

Posted on April 24, 2013

Tags: popular culture, interview