Massive Attack show blurs the boundaries of art

A new collaboration between Massive Attack and documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis aims to invent a whole new category of art. As they prepare for their New York show, Lindsay Baker meets them to find out more.

At first glance it seems an odd pairing − Massive Attack, inventors of the spacey, bass-heavy trip-hop genre, and Adam Curtis, polemicist and maker of political TV documentaries. The result is a collaboration, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, cryptically billed as a “collective hallucination” and “a musical entertainment about the power of illusion and the illusion of power.

Then again, Massive Attack’s live shows have always been fairly out there, pushing the boundaries of rock concert convention, edging into the territories of art-installation and ‘happening’. On their 2008 tour there was plenty of challenging political content, with a towering LED screen as centerpiece, displaying a barrage of data. And core band member Robert del Naja – who co-created the new show with Curtis − has long been an outspoken campaigner for human rights and anti-war causes, as well as a visual artist. Their latest show makes sense as the next step for a band that has long embraced confrontational politics and experimentation.

Then there is the technique shared by both band and filmmaker. Curtis’s method is to weave together clips of film footage and to make connections from apparently disparate data and stories. It’s not so different from Massive Attack, whose music is built on the DJ principle of cutting and mixing. Curtis, self-proclaimed “provocateur” and winner of six Baftas, puts forward big, philosophical theses on the past century’s political and social history. Documentaries such as The Century of the Self, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and The Power of Nightmares, made in association with the BBC (and with access to the Corporation’s huge archive) broke new ground. They are pieces of journalism and historical investigation, but also darkly humorous works of art.

If previous Massive Attack shows pushed the definition of what a pop concert is, then the collaboration with Curtis has created a whole new paradigm. The work debuted in the UK in July at the Manchester International Festival and then went on to Germany’s Ruhr Triennale. And now it arrives at New York’s imposing Park Avenue Armory, which has recently hosted a mind-bogglingly large installation by US artist Paul McCarthy and a work made up of 42 swings suspended from the roof of the building’s cavernous Drill Hall. It is a fitting venue for such a large-scale, unorthodox event – neither documentary film nor gig, but something in between.

Surround sound

The show’s Manchester debut took place in a vast, disused railway depot, and was an intense, at times dizzying experience of complete sensory overload. The audience were provided with earplugs as they entered the venue, for protection against the booming sub-bass, and remained standing throughout. Curtis’s collage of historic reportage and pop cultural clips − flitting from Cold War-era footage to advertising and home movies – threaded together a narrative based loosely around the life of Pop artist Pauline Boty and her daughter. Projected on to enormous screens that completely surrounded the audience, the film was accompanied by narration from Curtis and pithy, aphoristic subtitles, similar to those of American artist Jenny Holzer.

Throughout the film, Massive Attack wove their soundscape of covers and original material into the assemblage of images, with band members on stage mostly remaining semi-visible or in silhouette, though occasionally their faces were projected onto the towering screens. Core members del Naja and Grant Marshall were joined by a roster of regular collaborators, including the band’s star vocalists – reggae legend Horace Andy and British singer Elizabeth Fraser (formerly of the Cocteau Twins).

Opinions, it must be said, were divided. Many loved its experimentalism and found it bold, ambitious and moving; others felt the band was not prominent enough, and some Curtis fans found the film vague and lacking the depth of his  previous work. Expectations played a part − for those anticipating a straightforward gig, the evening would have proved bemusingly political and austere.

Opposites attract

In fact, confounding expectations seems to be exactly what the show’s creators had in mind – as they told BBC Culture when we met for a chat backstage in Manchester. “I want it to be an eye-opener for people. We’re provoking people to think,” says del Naja, conceding that he also needed some “shaking up” himself. “One of the show’s themes is how we live in an atomised way. And bands do exactly the same thing – you live in a bubble for your whole career, and in the end you’re constantly referencing yourself,” he says. “Nostalgia is a powerful emotion but it also holds you back. Creating this show has been exciting but scary.”

Both del Naja and Curtis are looking forward to the New York shows, they say. But how do they think American audiences will respond? “The show transcends boundaries,” says del Naja. “It’s about a big set of ideas. In the past with our band we’ve questioned things that have happened in the world in our shows, and I think asking questions is an important thing to do. But when you think about the idea of what hip hop did for us − hip hop actually defined us, so we love American culture.” Curtis puts it another way: “This show is about our very complicated relationship in the west to American culture – about how we love it. But it’s also quite complicated.”

A former punk and graffiti artist from Bristol in the west of England, del Naja could not be further in background from Curtis, a smooth-vowelled, Oxford-educated, Home Counties man. It’s clear that both are strong characters, but who is in charge?  “I’d like to think Adam’s the boss,” says del Naja. “And to be honest, that’s been very liberating.” They initially bonded over music. “We sat there exchanging records,” recalls Curtis. “And we found a common mix − powerful, romantic music.” Emotion is important in the Curtis worldview. “Journalism has become very rigid,” he says. “But we live in an incredibly emotional age, that’s how people think and feel. I love journalism, it’s what I am, but I try and push it a bit, away from that dry, rather rigid form.”

And change – or a lack of it – are central themes in the show. “We’ve shifted from a world in which we believed we could change things to a world where nothing changes,” says Curtis. “It’s a static, rigid, managed world in which you and I are as complicit as those who manage us.” The film aims to “zoom out like a helicopter”, and see the bigger picture.

It’s not all doom and gloom, they are quick to point out, and there is a note of optimism at the end of the show. As del Naja puts it: “There is some hope.” But what they mostly want is to “make people think,” says Curtis. “What I’m doing is turning the whole process inside out, I’m taking real stories and stitching them together and saying ‘Have you thought about looking at the world like this?’”

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