In Isaac Asimov's 1941 sci-fi short story Runaround, a robot named Speedy is tasked by his human commanders with retrieving the selenium resources necessary to power the life-support system of their base on the scorching planet Mercury. However, when the robot fails to return after a few hours, an investigation into his whereabouts reveals that Speedy has become trapped in an endless feedback loop, lurching in skewed circles around the selenium pool, slurring his words and sputtering nonsensical phrases: "Hot dog, let’s play games. You catch me and I catch you; no love can cut our knife in two."
It turns out the selenium posed an unforeseen danger to the robot and, bouncing back and forth between his programmed codes of self-preservation and obeying human commands, Speedy had literally become drunk with confusion.
It’s this cognitive dissonance — the mental stress of trying to reconcile two opposing beliefs — that musician and performance artist Helado Negro, AKA Roberto Carlos Lange, will explore in his show tonight at Pérez Art Museum Miami, aptly titled "No Love Can Cut Our Knife in Two.” The performance will conclude the museum’s 2015 WAVES series, which highlights collaborations between musicians and artists across mediums such as dance, video, and visual art.
Though the Brooklyn-based South Florida native confesses he’s not a “huge sci-fi fan,” there is no denying that Helado Negro’s performances and staging over the past year or so have taken on a certain otherworldliness, subtly touching on themes relating to technology and our relationship to it. Especially now, in our perpetually plugged-in realities, Lange says, “We're so aware of really terrible things in the world and really good things in the world, and sometimes it conflicts with our own thought process, our own moral makeup.” Humankind’s understanding of its machines can be strange, and it seems, in the end, “there's still that element where we're always looking for some emotional response from technology, to not have it be so cold.”
This idea comes across in Lange’s work in many ways. From his dreamy, pulsing, sometimes disorienting synth-based compositions to his repetitive, bilingual (Lange sings in both English and Spanish) lyrics, the music itself sounds like it’s been pieced together lovingly in some dark bedroom, beamed into the cosmos, and played back for a generation of lonely, head-nodding aliens. Indeed, discussing his process, he notes, “Most of what I do, it's kind of just one foot on the ground, you know, and in your head, [you’re] in outer space.”
Lange’s imaginative, intuitive approach to his work as Helado Negro is what ultimately led to the creation of his distinctive, glittering “tinsel creatures,” and to eventually being tapped to direct and perform a specially commissioned piece at PAMM.
“I got invited to play this festival in Mexico, and I was thinking about the stage, and being outdoors, and playing in the day, and how difficult it is to hold people's attention at festivals,” he says, recalling the moment when he first imagined those “tinsel creatures."
Built by Lange as a sort of visual focal point for his solo performances, the flashy, lumbering costumes have become “these shapes that take life, and the people who are inside of them animate them — along, with my performance.”
It’s the humans in the costumes who have really added another dimension to Lange’s ethereal performances. Over the course of his latest tour, spanning some 50 to 60 shows in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, he took to the local music and arts communities of the cities he visited to solicit volunteers who would bring his empty tinsel vessels to life. It helped the musician and performance artist develop his “own language with movement and dance,” and it also helped catch the eye of Emily Mello, PAMM’s deputy director for education and public programs.
Says Lange, “She knew my music and she saw that I had been running around with these tinsel creatures everywhere, and she was really interested in it. The WAVES series is really about people doing performance and having two sides collaborating, a visual person and a sonic person, and since I was doing both, we came up with the idea to see what it would be like to work with professional dancers, to work with movement professionals.”
For tonight’s performance, the museum helped coordinate the resources and time that Lange needed to art-direct an all-new performance backed by Miami-based dancers Marissa Alma Nick, Rudi Goblen, Katie Stirman, and Megan Holsinger. The show will also feature all-new, previously unreleased Helado Negro music.
Known to veer from video and sculpture projects to sound and performance, and with previous project collaborators including Julianna Barwick (as Ombre) and Mikael Jorgensen (of Wilco), Lange says “there's no rhyme or reason” as to what will come next after Thursday’s performance, aside from upcoming summer tour dates as the opener for Sufjan Stevens.
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“I should probably be more pragmatic and practical and conscious of my economic makeup — whatever I need to pay the bills,” the artist muses, as a robot might, before quickly changing his tune. For Lange, it all comes down to timing, and if it “feels right.”
WAVES: No Love can Cut our Knife in Two (Helado Negro). 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Admission costs $4 for members, $20 for adults, $16 for seniors, students, and children. Children 6 and under may attend for free.