February 6, 2013

Last week, Swedish electro duo the Knife released the first single from their forthcoming album Shaking the Habitual. For the nine-minute track, “Full of Fire,” they enlisted queer feminist visual artist Marit Östberg to direct the video. It’s video art, raw and immediate, and it even comes with an artist’s statement. “Who takes care of our stories when the big history [is] written by straight rich white men?” Östberg asks. On screen, she tells a story with intersecting narratives, complete with cross-dressing, biker chicks, public urination, S&M, a seeing-eye dog, awkward tween girls, and a dysfunctional nuclear family–the mother and father of which are played by the Knife’s Karin Dreiger Andersson and Olof Dreijer.

In its best moments, the video evokes the uncanny–something is just a little off, enough to make me slightly uncomfortable. At one moment, a hug lasts too long. At another, a wide-angle lens unsettles a domestic scene, its style and mood reminiscent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The video complements the track, which is harsh, repetitive, and unavoidably addictive. Aesthetically, the Knife’s new sound and Östberg are a good fit.

It’s not the first time Andersson and Östberg have worked together. Under her solo moniker Fever Ray, Andersson did a majority of the soundtrack for the queer feminist porn films Dirty Diaries that Östberg and others directed in 2009. Because the porn flicks were publicly funded, they stirred up some controversy in Sweden. Östberg vocally defended the funding, and in doing so became a familiar name.

It’s becoming more and more common for household names to have directorial cameos. Earlier this year, celebrity photographers Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson respectively directed videos for Sigur Rós and Sky Ferreira. To think in crudely economic terms, it’s cross-marketing: two compatible brands joining forces in a mutually beneficial relationship. A Ryan McGinley fan who doesn’t give a shit about Sigur Rós is going to hear their new single. Terry Richardson’s indie edge will rub off on the reluctantly mainstream Ferreira, and in turn, she helps make us forget about those allegations of sexual assault lodged against him. This isn’t to say this is the intention behind all collaborations. It’s just a reality–one both parties are usually aware of going in.

But, it would be lazy to accuse the Knife of trying to cop Östberg’s brand of badass queerness. This is not Lady Gaga trying to commodify LGBT. Over and over again, the Knife have used their publicity for political ends. (To draw attention to gender disparity in the music industry, they got two Guerrilla Girls in gorilla masks chanting “50-50” to accept a prize on their behalf on a nationally-televised awards show.) Sure, collaborating with Östberg makes them appear true to their anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal views. But this video is not about giving their fans what they want. Based on online feedback, the video is proving challenging to their audience.

Despite their resistance to cooperating with mainstream media, the Knife are incredibly popular in Sweden, and internationally they have crossover appeal. Their audience includes those that would never have come across Östberg’s work or anything like it–the video has been up for about a week and already it has nearly 100 times the views of Östberg’s four-year-old porn video Authority. And, amongst the hundreds of thousands of viewers, there are some negative reactions. trivialnonsense comments on youtube “Don’t like the video”. In fact, a fair amount of the comments express a similar sentiment calling it “crap” or “rubbish.”

Commenter Hellbilge sums it up well when they say “The video is hard to digest.” Commodification, on the other hand, is about making something easily digestible. Although Östberg’s music video might not have the anal dildo scenes that her porno did, it is still proving provocative. And with their collaboration, the Knife are bringing something provocative to a much wider audience than it would otherwise ever have.

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