Some artists are best known for specialising in one medium, whether it be painting, sculpture, installations, print- making, film-making, jewellery, craft, collage, soundscapes, performance or music. But for Chicks on Speed, it's all of the above.
Chicks on Speed are Australian Alex Murray-Leslie and American Melissa Logan who founded the artistic collective in 1997 after meeting as students at Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Murray- Leslie was studying jewellery and Logan painting. While the two remain the drivers, Chicks on Speed's work often involves collaborating with other artists.
For their show Touch Me Baby I'm Bodycentric, A Multimodalplosion! opening in Wellington's City Gallery tomorrow, they have joined forces with Wellington-based jeweller Lisa Walker. Walker met Murray-Leslie and Logan while also a student at the academy and has worked with them several times.
Chicks on Speed are as adroit at producing music as they are in combining it with the variety of art they create that's been exhibited in galleries, including the Tate Britain in London and New York's Museum of Modern Art.
It has put them in the rare position of being artists well known not only within art circles but among music fans for their albums and gigs. It's also attracted the interest of big names.
Murray-Leslie says their next album Scream, due for release in June, will include collaborations with Yoko Ono and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living in Ecuador's embassy in London since June last year after the British government said it would extradite him to Sweden.
"He made the song with us in the embassy, which was an interesting experience," says Murray-Leslie. "We have a friend named Angela Richter, who we've known for 15 years, and she's a theatre director. She had done a series of interviews with Julian over two years for her play Assassinate Assange.
"We said 'we'd really like to work with him'. It went from there and we developed the song and we went to visit him."
Murray-Leslie won't say whether Assange literally sings on the song until the album is released. "You will have to wait and see."
Ono, another visual artist to work with music, became involved because she's familiar with Chicks on Speed's work.
"We're making a music video called Utopia. John Lennon and Yoko Ono developed the idea of a utopia in 1973, forming their own country with their own passports. We were somehow very inspired by that notion of your own land, where artists create their perfect world and that influences society."
Performance plays a strong part in Chicks on Speed's art. There's a live performance tonight in the gallery that will be recorded and played throughout the exhibition's run, so it can be viewed alongside the variety of artworks and installations by the duo and Walker. Chicks on Speed will also perform at Wellington venue Puppies tonight.
Murray-Leslie says one of the reasons Chicks on Speed have performed outside of galleries is that early on they wanted to create art that would reach a wide audience. "When we started it was more about ideas of distribution. I worked in a nightclub and I saw that music reached more people than art does. In an art gallery like this," she says, standing in City Gallery's North Gallery, "you can only fit 200 people in here".
"It was the idea of maximum distribution. If you could make CDs you'd reach a global population and that's what interests us."
Also from the beginning the duo and Walker wanted to avoid the distinctions between "high" and "low" art, to embrace it all, including craft-based arts, and mix it up. Murray-Leslie sees comparisons to Andy Warhol's approach. "It's this idea of mass, pop art in a sense."
But Murray-Leslie says after years of touring, which meant limited time to put together their multi-media shows, they're drawn back to art galleries. "It's having the time to build your 'stage' and environment and see all the different facets of Chicks on Speed in a sense."
One facet in the City Gallery exhibition is a "sonic patchwork". At first glance it resembles a wild patchwork, but on closer inspection has tiny speakers imbedded inside. Sounds are emitted by touching part of the patchwork and the sounds can be changed by touching the arm of the person who is touching the patchwork. Murray-Leslie says the patchwork will be used in their performance tonight, then elements will be part of their installation.
Logan says they call artworks like the sonic patchwork the "candy" in a Chicks on Speed show. "That one gives the candy and then people come in and you give them the difficult things or the harder things," she says. Chicks on Speed have large elements of humour, both in their performances and artworks, but a serious intent underlines it. "Seriousness and humour - it's a social misconception that they're opposites. We are using both of them - cheekiness and seriousness together."
And that "cheekiness" to Chicks on Speed's art is a strong point. Last year Logan lectured on cheekiness at a symposium on humour in art at the legendary Cabaret Voltaire nightclub in Zurich, which spawned the avant garde Dada art movement nearly a century ago.
For Logan, who wasn't a musician before Chicks on Speed, one of the most important aspects to the collective is that the work is collaborative. The Munich Academy was dominated by male professors, had a strict hierarchy and was luke-warm at what they wanted to do in art, she says. This made them more determined to do things differently. "At that time we knew that to be a successful artist 'you don't work in groups'. You're also not female, you don't work commercially and you do the same thing over and over. You shouldn't switch genres and you should take yourself ultra seriously. A lot of these things have changed."
Walker went to the Munich Academy after learning about it in New Zealand at a lecture given by Murray-Leslie and jeweller Karl Fritsch, who is now Walker's partner. "When I arrived [in Munich] Alex was running a bar in the cellar of this old army barracks where we used to live. I worked a little behind the bar." Once Logan joined, the three worked on art and performance projects in a variety of venues around Munich from bars to art students' studios. "Once it was [held] in an old shipping container out the back of a museum. It just grew by itself in a way. At one point in Munich we separated, you could say, and they created Chicks on Speed. I kept doing my jewellery work, but our friendship stayed. As the years went by opportunities came up where we were both asked to do things together."
Joint projects overseas included shows in Berlin in 2004 and Barcelona.
Walker returned to New Zealand three years ago, but kept in close contact with Chicks on Speed. To develop the City Gallery exhibition she spent the past nine months communicating with Murray-Leslie and Logan via Skype.
"It was trying to basically develop how we can bring our practices together and how collaborative it should be. It was letting it grow by itself in a way with many different influences."
Some of Walker's works in the show are a reminder that jewellery doesn't have to be restricted to a small number of materials or to a specific size. It includes sheepskin fleece. But Walker says she doesn't choose materials normally not associated with jewellery simply for their own sake. "I am very fussy to what materials enter my workshop."
Sometimes her jewellery will be based on offcuts from costumes or installations Murray-Leslie and Logan have been working on.
"It leaks into all sorts of worlds that one," Walker says about the fleece. "I like when my work does that. It touches on fashion as well, with an apron or a bib."
And like Chicks on Speed, Walker says the diversity of their show is a reminder that regardless of the medium, it's all art - and that includes jewellery.
Touch Me Baby I'm Bodycentric, A Multimodalplosion!, City Gallery, Wellington, tomorrow until April 21. Chicks on Speed also perform at Puppies in Wellington tonight.
- The Dominion Post