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It can seem redundant to talk about history in relation to Chicks On Speed (COS), a floating art/music/fashion collective that first came together in Munich in 1997. Their work overflows so many cultural boundaries and is so effortlessly referential that it sometimes feels like COS have collapsed all of time, space and culture into an omnipresent 'now'. COS are both the product of an expanded field of art and actively engaged in eroding the boundaries between all existing forms of culture. Alex Murray-Leslie and Melissa Logan have been at the core of the group since its inception, and while they hail originally from Australia and the USA, they've been based in Europe for the Chicks thirteen-year history. More recently the group has been expanded to include among others: Kathi Glas in Berlin, Anat Ben-David in London, and A. L. Steiner in New York.

Walking into the live action that marked the opening of the recent COS exhibition Don't at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) I became very conscious of the dangers of pinning simple meanings to the Chicks work. The first thing that grabbed my attention was a banner bearing the slogan 'Work Hard'. The banner is one of a number shown at the DCA made by Ivory Coast sign writers for COS. The hangings produced by these workers are most usually viewed as low-tech commercial graphics, so by paying them to make pieces for the DCA show, the Chicks managed to simultaneously invoke the Dadaist ready-made and undermine stereotypical notions found within the overdeveloped world as to what African art should look like. These signs also beg the question about the relationship between COS ('middle-class white girls' according to a sign they flash in the video for their cover of the Tom Tom Club's Wordy Rappinghood) and those who don't enjoy the benefits of living in the west. This is very much in keeping with the self-conscious COS embrace of the contradictions of their position, and their desire to be participants in a process of leaderless cultural and political emancipation. It should go without saying that the Chicks are aware of the potentially problematic nature of their relationship with the Ivory Coast sign writers, since in the a 2009 interview on an ABC Sunday Arts show in Australia they denounced the use of slave labour to produce high street fashion. (1)

The 'Work Hard' slogan was a phrase with which Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn had ended a message to the Chicks. However, for me it simultaneously invoked the controversy earlier this year around Siu Lan Ko's piece included and excluded from the exhibition Le Weekend de Sept Jours (February 2010) in the gallery of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts (ENSBA), Paris. On two banners Ko had playfully transformed French President Sarkozy's 2007 election slogan 'travailler plus pour gagner plus' (work more to earn more) to read 'work less to earn less'. ENSBA director Henry-Claude Cousseau ordered the work to be taken down on the grounds it was political and therefore violated 'public neutrality'. A couple of days after it was removed, French cultural minister Frédéric Mitterrand ordered that the banners should be reinstated, so they were. (2)

As I opened my email to send this essay to my editor, I found a message from Melissa Logan saying: "alex said that you asked about the small machines oh small machines work hard, & yes, thomas hirschhorn always tells us to work hard, but actually it is taken from a earlier performance piece from 2006, lines I actually wrote for alex that I guess she didnt remember. small machines work hard so I will not have to work at all. this is about succeeding in reaching a kind of evolution, we are free & dont need to work hard, the machines will do it for us. well, a kind of utopian thought. and then we started making more & more of them..."

So Melissa's email underlines my point that you can never freeze the meaning of COS work, there are always new meaings waiting to be uncovered. Everything about Don't demonstrated the COS willingness to highlight contradictions that they intend to work through and overcome. The catalogue accompanying the show was a rough and ready black and white publication entitled The Zine, which was given away for free. It included a page entitled 'ABOUT CONTEMPORARY', that contained the following observations: (in) 'the 50s of the 20th century the museums and artspaces started to change their names from "modern" to "contemporary"…. "Contemporary" is still and always in a colonial relationship of time – keep an eye on 'ueberlegenheit"!'

Some institutions with the word 'contemporary' in their name would no doubt have censored this attack on colonialism in the art world; it is to the DCA's credit that it was happy for this page to appear in The Zine. That said, while Don't was made specifically for the DCA and premiered new work, there is no clear beginning or end to COS projects and this recent Dundee manifestation was very much a continuation of earlier shows, and in particular carried over themes from their 2009 Craft Victorian (Melbourne) extravaganza Viva La Craft! Even the title of the exhibition Don't echoes one of the best known COS tunes – We DON'T Play Guitars featuring rock goddess Peaches. (3)

Although on a surface level COS's work may appear light and easy to assimilate, when it is analysed it can prove confusing precisely because of the way it overflows conventional divisions between cultural disciplines. For example, the Chicks DCA show included ongoing live weaving at a loom. This might look to some viewers like a return to tradition, but it simultaneously invokes the work of cyber-theorists such as Sadie Plant, who has argued that the world wide web is inherently female and that its matrix-like structure relates to traditionally feminine activities such as weaving. (4) The Chicks aren't the first feminists to follow Plant's lead in this matter, video and new media artist Alicia Felberbaum has been exploring and developing these notions in her work since the late-1990s.

COS have a strong web presence. Their website (5) is blog based, which like the rest of their practice emphasises 'the now'; most visitors are going to start with the newest entry and will then scroll down to older postings. COS exhibitions work in an analogous manner, presenting the group's latest work but supported by past endeavours, very often by reimagining this mutating history in a new context. People coming across COS for the first time in a gallery will think of them as artists, whereas those encountering the Chicks online other than via their own website – and particularly if it is through platforms such as MySpace and LastFM – may well be left with the false impression that they are simply electroclash musicians.

For me the most interesting COS web presence is their YouTube channel. (6) On this platform the Chicks are able to mix and match films that show the many and varied aspects of their work, and while their pop videos may get the most hits, they aren't the most interesting of their uploads. One film that particularly caught my attention was "Happening" DJ Set @ The City, Barcelona (create under all difficult circumstances). (7) The final part of the title seems to invoke the famous slogan coined by early Who manager and publicist Pete Meaden to describe the 1960s British mod youth culture, viz: 'Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances.' (8). While Meaden's involvement with The Who can be taken as a link to the influence of Gustav Metzger and auto-destructive art on that group's guitarist Pete Townshend (as well as the Chicks , Melissa Logan recorded a Metzger tribute track The Art Strikes Back, issued in 2008), the painted canvases COS don as clothes for this Barcelona happening will remind those who know post-war art history of the industrial painting of Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, a founding member of the Situationist International. Pinot-Gallizio's work was made using conventional craft methods but sold by the metre and among other things he draped his paintings over models as couture for his 1958 exhibition at the Notizie Gallery, Turin. (9)

The mix of art and pop culture references on the COS YouTube channel demonstrates the difficulty of differentiating between these two genres in the 21st century. In their Wordy Rappinghood pop video (10) COS are shown holding up and then dropping sheets of paper with words and slogans on them; a clear reference to Bob Dylan doing same thing to his song Subterranean Homesick Blues at beginning of the documentary Don't Look Back (directed by D.A. Pennebaker, 1967). Today Dylan belongs to both pop and high culture, since the fields of each have expanded greatly since the 1960s and now tend to interpenetrate each other. However, COS don't simply copy Dylan, they transform his gesture into a girl power critique of 'cock rock' (Pennebaker's film shows Dylan abandoning folk for pop) by placing their words on brightly coloured sheets of paper. These contrast sharply with the monochrome model seen in the black and white documentary about Dylan's 1965 British tour, (11) which is their point of reference.

Another weapon in the COS assault on cock rock are guitar shoes, the prototypes of which were displayed at their Craft Victoria show in 2009. This footwear is high–heeled with strings that when twanged trigger guitar samples via wi-fi, and was first deployed to make music in a COS live show at DCA on 4 June 2010. Created in collaboration with fashion designer Max Kibardin, these musical objects challenge gender stereotyping in pop culture by replacing the phallic guitar of the 'axe hero' with a fetish item of women's wear.

Seeing the Chicks performing with their guitar shoes immediately brought to my mind an early 1970s action by an unnamed ensemble featuring future Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, as well as C.P. Lee and Les Prior who would go on to play key roles in the theatre and rock group Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias (Albertos). Having been booked into a Manchester gay club called The Penny Farthing as a covers band, Hannett and Lee provided music, while Prior rushed onstage during a cover of Love's Ride That Vibration swinging a huge tree-felling axe around his head, which he went on to play air guitar-style behind his back as if he was Jimi Hendrix. The humour of silently miming lead breaks on a literal 'axe' was lost on the club's management, who sent their bouncers after Prior and pulled the plug on his group. Failing to understand that Prior was sending up cock rock, those running the club apparently though he was a maniac who posed a genuine threat to their customers. (12)

While the Albertos continued this assault on male dominated rock culture with releases such as their punk rock parody EP Snuff Rock (Stiff 1977) and the minor chart hit Heads Down No Nonsense Mindless Boogie (Logo 1978), unlike COS they were not making their critique from an explicitly feminist perspective. What the Albertos and COS do share is a sense of humour and an interest in theatre, but the 1970s American art ensemble-cum-band Destroy All Monsters (DAM) are far more obviously a precursor to the Chicks than C.P. Lee's various outfits. DAM were formed in 1973 by film-maker Cary Loren and the University of Michigan art students Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and Niagara. Their first performance was at an Ann Arbour comic convention, and the instruments they deployed were a vacuum cleaner, a coffee can, a saxophone and a violin. Like COS, the original idea was essentially conceptual and had as much to do with live art as rock music. After Shaw and Kelley left in 1976, initially to pursue post-graduate studies at CalArts, and ultimately to become internationally famous as artists, DAM became a conventional rock act.

While there are many similarities between DAM and COS as art collectives that also create music on home made instruments, there are nonetheless significant differences between them too. Judged on the one time I saw DAM in London in the late-seventies, as well as what I've gleaned from other sources, Niagara was a far less dynamic front woman than the various COS members, who share lead vocal duties when they sing. And while DAM evolved into a straightforward rock group, in recent years COS have moved away from a recognisably electroclash/rap format towards far more theatrical modes of live presentation.

Despite their strong female focal point in the form of Niagara, DAM imagery - which drew heavily from horror films – exhibited a bias towards the male end of popular culture; whereas the COS engagement with high fashion is indicative of their anti-essentialist feminist stance. Their position might perhaps be summarised along the lines of 'gender is not real, but it is experienced as real because of sexism'. The Chicks have made hats and other items of clothing that double as onstage instruments, and function as art objects when left in a gallery. As well as being beautiful and intriguing, these act as a metaphor for the mutability of everything we experience including gender (which is, of course, socially constructed).

Moving on, in Dundee COS premiered their cigar box synthesisers, with the circuitry of these electronic instruments literally installed into packaging that once contained Cuban luxury goods (aimed mainly at men!). This series of object instruments is on the one hand functional, but simultaneously draws out tensions and parallels between two very different products the Chicks have brought together to great visual and rhetorical effect. This is not a random juxtaposition: the raw materials for cigars are a cash crop once produced by slaves, while much of the technology currently consumed within the overdeveloped world is manufactured outside it by poorly paid workers whose economic position is in many ways analogous to that of plantation labour. One is also, of course, forced to reflect upon the vast differences in wealth between those who produce and consume these commodities. Likewise, I found myself thinking of a book I'd read in which it was claimed that cigar makers are the best-educated segment of the Cuban working class. According to this tome, because rolling cigars is boring, those fabricating these items would sit on benches working, as a reader with a microphone entertained them with page after page of edifying literature. (13)

COS works are so rich in their associational qualities that they appear to collapse all of cultural time into 'the now'. Nonetheless, the Chicks' art simultaneously acts as a devastating critique of the commodity economy and the ways in which capitalism renders so much of human history and production invisible. COS know the history of modernism, the avant-garde and pop culture, but they aren't burdened by it. That's why they unashamedly plunder from the entire history of art, craft and popular culture; even if they always rework the raw material they appropriate to make it appear fresh and without precedent. Like the avant-garde of the last century, COS create works from a practice of bricolage, but they do so under completely changed circumstances and within a greatly expanded cultural field.

The general consensus as to what constitutes art has changed greatly over the past thirty years. In the 1970s the idea that football, punk rock or recent Hollywood cinema were art forms would have appeared nonsensical to most people, whereas now claims of this type are rarely challenged. Having been born in the 1970s, the floating membership of COS grew up with these changes, they did not have to fight for them since the battle had already been won by pop and other artists. Obviously, when pop has been accepted as art, the notion of pop art is superannuated. The Chicks are fighting on other fronts. They may not look much like situationists but they know that as they make a revolution they must do it for fun (while simultaneously being in deadly earnest about their desire to smash serious culture). COS fuse updated takes on Fluxus, the situationists and much else, in their ongoing attempts to create transient autonomous zones during the course of their performances and other manifestations. They are as close to and far removed from the culture of the 1960s, as Fluxus and the situationists were from the Dadaists and Surrealists. To sum up, while Chicks On Speed rock, they are far more than simply musicians!

Essay written for the book Chicks on Speed: Don't Art Fashion Music (Booth-Clibborn Editions/Dundee Contemporary Art 2010).

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOK_hxMhbs
2. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2010-02-17/siu-lan-ko-ecole-des-beaux-arts/
3, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sK9XQLSpFBA
4. Sadie Plant, 'The Future Loom: Weaving Women and Cybernetics' in Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, eds Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment 45-64. Sage, 1995
5. http://www.chicksonspeed.com/
6. http://www.youtube.com/user/chicksonspeed
7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA7prqjpB4E
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Meaden
9. Home, Stewart, The Assault On Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, London 1988, page 33. A display copy of this book was available for visitors to read at the COS 2010 DCA show.
10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_1kziD6Lec
11. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061589/
12. Lee, C.P., When We Were Thin: Music, Madness and Manchester – Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, Hotun Press, Manchester 2007, page 118.
13. Ugresic, Dubravka, "Thank You For Not Reading", Dalkey Archive Press, Illinois 2003, page 5.

Journey To The Far Side Of Solipsism (essay on punk rock)

Thomas Hirschhorn (discussion)

Marine Hugonnier (review of 2008 London show)

Biggest Hayward Opening For Years (the Arts Council collection)

Saturday Nite In Shoreditch (an east London art scene social crawl)


Chicks On Speed Don't book cover
Cover of the book Chicks on Speed: Don't Art Fashion Music (Booth-Clibborn Editions & Dundee Contemporary Art 2010).