Dundee Contemporary Arts ***
• The Chicks on Speed's guitar-shoes were created by Milan-based shoe designer Max Kibardin
THE links between music and contemporary art are well recognised, if not well explained. The flourishing of both in Scotland in the past two decades has been symbiotic. Art schools are a breeding ground for bands. Many of our best-known artists also dabble as musicians. Many of our best-known musicians started out as art students.
Taking the whole thing a step further there is The Band As Art. Chicks on Speed are both an all-girl band and an international art collective operating in the multidisciplinary territory between performance art, music, fashion and craft. If that sounds hard to pin down, that's the way they like it. In the title of their DCA show, the "Don't" is crossed out, making a double negative. Put these women in a box, it seems to suggest, and they'll smash it to smithereens.
The first major exhibition by CoS in the UK demonstrates the challenges of bringing their anarchic aesthetic to life in a gallery setting. The curator, DCA's Judith Winter, has wisely decided to make the opening night performance into the central feature, projecting film of the gig onto the large stage which dominates the main gallery. With so many boundaries being blasted apart, the live element is crucial to holding everything else together.
Chicks on Speed formed in Munich in 1997. With a constantly fluctuating line-up (apart from the two remaining founder members, Alex Murray-Leslie and Melissa Logan) they developed a punky, shouty signature style based on performing without instruments (their most famous song is We Don't Play Guitars). They opened for Kraftwerk, released albums, designed clothes, appeared naked on stage, made art, and accumulated a kind of cult status.
Judging by the film made on opening night, it all happens in a kind of chaotic anarchy. The Chicks pranced around in minimal, self-designed costumes, singing/shouting/declaiming, doing dance moves, rolling around on the floor, playing with each other's shoes (of which more later).
If you're lucky, you might find a member of DCA staff who will go dreamy-eyed and tell you how cool/subversive/electrifying it was to be there in person. Watching it on film just isn't the same.
But at least we can get a good look at those shoes, displayed like sculptural objects on plinths in one of the gallery's side rooms. After having the idea for wireless guitar stilettos, the Chicks subcontracted the notion (as is their way) to Milan-based shoe designer Max Kibardin and various electronics experts. The result is a range of guitar-shoes, both wearable and playable on three (albeit short) strings.
These fusions of music-art-fashion in DayGlo colours are simply gorgeous objects, though they look somewhat uncomfortable to wear and to play, particularly if one is attempting to do both at the same time. If they are a feminist challenge to the gender dynamics of men and guitars, they are heavily soaked in irony.
And if they are a challenge to the way both guitars and shoes are fetishised, they are surely also more desirable than both.
The guitar-stilettos are the zenith of a series of "objekt instruments" which include cigar box synthesisers, amplifying hats designed by haute-couture milliner Christophe Coppens, and a theremin tapestry created by a Melbourne tapestry workshop, a beautiful object which can also be played, as a theremin is, by moving the hands close to the metal antennas woven into the fabric. Beside the stage, a succession of weavers create a tapestry live, based on an abstract design inspired by speaker shapes.
While these works have been made using a high degree of skill, elsewhere the homespun DIY aesthetic is heavily emphasised: the rough wooden stage, the hand-written, photocopied 'Zine.
All this is rather clever and self-aware. The banners decorating the walls look home-made, but are in fact the work of craftsmen in the Ivory Coast, the slogans ranging from the hard-to-pin-down to the almost meaningless: "Ja Ja we'll go so far", "Create under all difficult circumstances", "We don't take any prisoners", "Fluxus for all".
This is as close as the Chicks get to telling us what they stand for. Their artistic lines of descent may be eclectic, but their biggest debt is to Fluxus, a movement which flourished untidily in the 1960s and 1970s. Fluxus, like CoS, was multi-disciplinary, uninterested in skill or in boundaries, focused around playfulness, personalities and performances. As with much ephemeral, performance-based work, it hasn't travelled well: seeing Fluxus work today, you can't shake the feeling that it would all be much more fun if you'd been there.
The Chicks declare their debt to Fluxus in a video which seems to have been made on an East of Scotland beach. Apart from frolicking in the sand in home-made costumes, trying not to look actively cold, they take it in turns to approach the camera and say a phrase beginning with "Don't": "Don't marry", "don't have kids", "don't complain", "don't get hit", "don't be mean", "don't make art".
This has been "appropriated" (their word) from a piece of writing by Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell in 1969: "Everything is forbidden. Don't touch! No spitting, no smoking, no thinking! No living!". It was ironic then, as it is now, but the Chicks – in the context of gender politics – give it new life. In the midst of all the larking about, CoS can, just occasionally, do something very serious. Most of the time, however, they're playing. Take Fashion Archive, the film playing in the smaller DCA gallery. The Chicks wanted to photograph some of their homespun outfits, but found that the life went out of them when captured in stills. They got round this by filming a kind of crazy catwalk show – rapid disrobing on stage, blundering around in costumes which cover their eyes etc – and speeding it up, a la Buster Keaton, or perhaps Benny Hill.
It's funky and funny, for all the world like a bunch of girls playing in the dressing up box and then happening upon the family video camera.
There's no doubt it's entertaining, but without the tricks the images looked dead. The works of CoS need performance to animate them. Depending on how you look at it, CoS is an anarchic, relentlessly postmodern, self-parodying torrent of creativity which manages to subvert feminism even while contributing to the dialectic on gender, or it's a bunch of women who can't really sing, paying other people to make their work while they have way too much of a good time. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.
In this exhibition, with the performance already a memory, it's easier to see the throwaway nature of the work than the scraps of substance behind it.
I suspect the Chicks don't care. Personally, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd missed the party. But it looked like it was rather a good one, and I did rather wish I'd been there.
• Until 8 August