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When the World is Running Down- Massive Attack v Adam Curtis

October 1, 2013

When two of Britain’s most interesting exponents of documentary film and music; Massive Attack and Adam Curtis combined for a show in NYC’s Park Avenue Armory, there was an expectant air in the crowd.

The seemingly endlessly expansive hall of the Armory had somehow been rendered smaller, with eleven projection screens surrounding a rectangular space, with the band situated on a stage at the front, but only visible through the protection screens.

What did we see?

It wasn’t a concert, or a documentary with a live soundtrack, it was something else all together.

During the performance, you were never quite sure where to point your ears or eyes, as images and sound assaulted you from various angles. Unlike many other events, there was no lull, no dull moments, you had to stay alert and awake- there was no checking emails and texting!

That was the intention as Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja told Rolling Stone

“I think there’s a risk of everything becoming very generic, the idea is to make it confrontational on an aural level and a visual level.”

In the end it was really an Adam Curtis show, ably assisted by Massive Attack playing a soundtrack to the footage and bursting from it on occasion to perform a few covers that featured the vocal talents of Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy.

Curtis’ message was that people are controlled using the science of data analysis and system planning. However, despite “The System’s” best efforts, many of the methods its employed have backfired- Chernobyl being a case that Curtis dwelled upon footage of workers sacrificing their lives for the greater good.

One of the best stories told in the “set” was about Donald Trump hiring a mathematical genius with experience developing sophisticated models for both the nuclear and gambling industries. Trump hired him to devise a way to stop a Japanese gambler who was winning millions from him at his Atlantic City casinos. The genius invented a game to draw the gambler into playing for high stakes and it worked, but it failed because couldn’t calculate that the gambler would be killed by the Yakuza before “The Donald” received his money.

Much of Adam Curtis’s footage and news came from the broken Russian system that collapsed into chaos in the 1980s; generating disappear, violence and corruption and a leaving a vacuum that provided the platform for Putin to rise unchallenged to power.

Maybe, Curtis is suggesting that Russia is the model for the future of The West?

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, towards the end of the show, various subtitles proclaimed “that the future was in our hands” and “possibilities” awaited, but we were all sent away by German shepherd guard dogs, who’s giant shadows cast on the Armory walls sent us off into the night.

While a few might have been disappointed this wasn’t a traditional Massive Attack concert, most would probably agree it was a success in terms of provocatively getting people talking and discussing ideas that are well beyond the radar of the mainstream American news media. 

Finally, I will leave it to Del Naja to explain his thoughts behind the show in an interview he conducted earlier in the year for German television.

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