They don't play guitars but there's little else the Chicks on Speed won't use to make a racket to accompany their outrageous multi-media spectacle, they tell Chitra Ramaswamy
MELISSA Logan, one of the original members of feminist art-punk collective Chicks on Speed, rummages through a box of bubble-wrap in Dundee Contemporary Arts. She pulls out a hat that looks like a gramophone that's mated with a spaceship and perches it on her head.
"We don't wear them for shows because they're quite fragile," Logan notes in a slowed down New York drawl that makes everything she says sound ironic, even when she's ordering lunch. "We made it with a Belgian milliner. It's a self-contained entertainment centre."
The hats are inspired by Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century Christian mystic and composer who received visions. Using a system of microphones, they transmit what the Chicks say. Or shout.
But that's nothing. For COS's first major solo UK show, they have brought all sorts of weird and wonderful pieces of DIY techno-craft to Dundee. The Chicks call them objekt instruments and they're fun, ironic and more spiky than a stiletto, yet they also make serious points about performance art and feminism. In fact they perfectly represent the anarchic spirit of COS. Over the years the Chicks have sported outfits made from gaffer tape that would make Lady Gaga blush (okay, Gaga never blushes, but the Chicks still did it first). They've put out posters depicting nothing but wet pubic hair. They've rhymed "vermin" with "Cindy Sherman". These days, you're more likely to catch them performing in the Pompidou and Tate Modern or giving university lectures on the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s than getting naked on festival stages.
"Becoming a band made us go backwards," admits Logan. "It's not relevant or interesting to us. It seemed like locking oneself back in the cage." They've started releasing a free track on their website on the first day of every month, minimal disco stomps produced by an 18-year-old in Hamburg who Logan met on a flight. "It's such an outdated system to release an album," she says. "Instead of the whole copyright thing, we've gone copyleft. And we do DJ sets and curate nights called Girl Monster."
Back to the instruments. First up, the world's first wireless high-heeled shoe guitar, made with a Milanese designer. ("Very wearable," notes Logan. "The technology is all inside the heel.") Super-suits with body sensors sewn in. A tapestry made with local weavers in Melbourne that, when played, produces the sounds of a theremin. Cigar-boxes that double up as synthesisers. No wonder the chicks famously don't play guitars, as they deadpanned in their single featuring Peaches. Why would they bother?
"The objekt instruments have become very important to us," Logan says. "Nine years ago we just put contact mics into cigar boxes. Now we're doing them with synths. We didn't want to get into this band thing. For We Don't Play Guitars, we started using guitar belts to trigger guitar samples on. It came from all these tongue-in-cheek jokes about being anti-instrument." Guitars are symbols of masculinity, representing the butch history of rock'n'roll, the status quo. So Chicks on Speed turned them into high heels.
It's another cleverly conceived, ambitious show for DCA, curated by head of programming Judith Winter, perfectly suited to the factory-like atmosphere of the centre. The exhibition is part of Craft Festival Scotland and, during the Chicks' residency, there will be collaborations and talks with local artists, craftspeople and feminist groups. The largest gallery will include an open stage where performances, installations and political actions will take place, many inspired by the modernist movements of the 1960s.
"Performing is a powerful action when you're not playing anything," Logan muses. "Now we're more into performance art. It's a field that still feels pre-pubescent, that doesn't have the weight of tradition like music. In the photo we're using for the show we're referencing the performance artist Valie Export, who cuts out the front of her pants. But we do it with American Apparel tights cut up by the audience. We always tend to have this self-deprecating humour that annoys art people and music people." Logan smiles, pleased at the thought.
Under the stage, a weaver from Dundee will work on a loom during the show's run, making a piece inspired by Bauhaus design. "What's made in this space and for this show won't get repeated," says Logan. Half the work will be created during their residency. "It's about the chance to do something that's never going to happen again."
When I arrive at DCA only Logan is here. Over the coming weeks more Chicks will descend on Dundee. The original trio of Logan, Sydney-born Alex Murray-Leslie and German Kiki Moorse is down to two. Moorse, who came to COS from Vogue where she worked as a fashion editor, left five years ago. These days no two Chicks live in the same city. "I moved to Hamburg, Alex to Barcelona, there is a part-time Chick in Berlin but she had a baby and works from home. We have an Israeli Chick in London, one in Vienna..." Logan pauses to answer her mobile phone. It's an artist calling from Abidjan on Ivory Coast with whom the Chicks recently collaborated, making a series of banners that will be in the DCA show. "Let's get lost, bang bang," says one. "I crave," says another. The days of opening for Kraftwerk may have gone, but COS continue to be a serious international force.
Logan and Murray-Leslie met at art school in Munich in 1997. Resistant to the lack of crossover between art, music, fashion and performance they formed COS with the intention of ruffling feathers in all camps, recruiting Chicks from all over the world, and keeping their tongues firmly in their cheeks. As Logan puts it, "all we wanted was to get on stage with a mini-disc player, press play and do a show".
They couldn't have come to a better place, I tell her, with the rich fertilisation between art, music and fashion scenes in Dundee and Glasgow. "Yeah," Logan drawls. "That's what Douglas Gordon said when we first worked with him. We reminded him of those early days in Glasgow. He said seeing us made him happy because we took him back to those art shows and raves in falling down buildings. That's the thing about being confined to genres. It makes the world very flat and dull."
Chicks on Speed: Don't Art, Fashion, Music is at DCA, Saturday until 8 August. www.dca.org.uk