Walking into the Park Avenue Armory you know you’re about to see something special. The Gothic Revival building, built in 1880, is breathtaking with its soaring ceilings, intricate wood, glass, and tile detailing, and unique lighting fixtures which bathe everything and everyone in a flattering, soft, and romantic glow. This environment invariably pleased the crowd being excitedly ushered in for the first view of Hopelessness as a whole. People greeted each other like old friends, even as circles of people intersected other circles for the first time like organic Venn diagrams. In the center of all the rings was Anohni. And even if you had the pleasure of catching any of the amazing Antony and the Johnsons shows over the years, this, we were told, would be something entirely new. What would we see? How would it look? How would it sound? How would she, herself, look? Predictions were thrown around, and then we were allowed to enter the concert space.
A five story screen greeted us, upon which occasionally flickered two intersecting lines and then nothing, and it was flanked by what looked like two ramps and two computer tables. Despite the crowd, the space felt empty as a loop of ambient sounds pulsed through the enormous hall. The absence of a piano on the stage was significant, but despite the open, minimal setup there was no place for one within the confines of an electronic dance album. More and more people filed in.
Over an hour later a friend of mine said he had heard from the sound guy that the show was scheduled to start 20 minutes late. He checked his phone. The clock said 8:19. It flicked to 8:20 and the lights went down at precisely that moment. This was very telling of the production – people were involved, and women especially, and despite the organicness of the human condition there was a minimalistic precision to the whole affair.
The screen began to glow. The same ambient sounds continued to loop. Naomi Campbell came into focus and began to dance in slow motion, five stories high in impossibly tall boots. She danced and laughed and raised her arms high. The camera panned in to show her face, her eyes, and the delicate hairs in her armpits. It pulled out again and she danced more, a crucifix dangling between her breasts, her long hair swaying around her. It was hypnotizing at first. She pulled us in, wrapped us up in her long limbs, and made us feel we could all be her, the face of Hopelessness. Then, after 15 minutes, it became uncomfortable. Maybe earlier for some. She moved and danced and danced and laughed and soundlessly asked for direction and mouthed more words I couldn’t read from her lips. The bemused crowd looked around at each other wondering what would happen next.
The question was soon answered when Oneohtrix Point Never and Christopher Elms appeared at the computer tables in black poncho hoodies and began to play the title track. Johanna Constantine’s blood-painted face appeared enormous on the screen, and then she began to sing. In Anohni’s voice. And then there she was, in a white hooded robe, a black veil over her face, white shoes and white opera gloves. Tiny in front of the imposing projection. You are not here to see me. You are here to see all these women who, combined, make up the me you came to see. As on the cover of the album, a composite of women of all ethnicities and ages overlapped on the screen and sang the songs in Anohni’s voice. They all became one. Dr. Julia Yasuda in blinding white, Vanessa Aspillaga bathed in tears, the incomparable Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, Shirin Neshat, and Naomi Campbell amongst many other luminaries from NYC, trans and feminist history, and Anohni’s life – all crying and singing and filmed very close up so you could see every detail of their faces, see them flinch to every lyric that touched them and us.
Anohni, for the most part, remained in the center of the stage between the two ramps that turned out to be light boxes, flicking her gloved hands to the music, occasionally looking at the larger than life women behind her. Her strength. For the seventh song, “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” familiar eyes filled the screen – Anohni’s own. We needn’t delve into the meaning of this. Later in the show, “In Your Dreams” delivered her entire face. Our only real, good, look at her. She looked sad, but beautifully determined. There is video and photos I recommend checking out on Brooklyn Vegan. The crowd swayed and clapped and cheered. Some were too mesmerized to move at all. After “Drone Bomb Me” the music stopped. Ngalangka Nola Taylor, the Martu artist, was the last to appear on the screen. She questioned why we couldn’t work as one to make the world a better place. You can see her entire speech here.
The screen went black. The house lights came up. The ambient music filled the giant hall once more. Suddenly it was just us looking at each other again, ready to go home and process what we were taking with us.
Hopelessness the album asks many questions. Hopelessness the show asks even more. And though some people will have left the show only talking about the friends and celebrities they spotted in the crowd, others are maybe thinking of more. This, I think, is where Anohni is going. We don’t know if she will ever look back. We don’t yet know if we will ever hear “Cripple and the Starfish” live again, but with women like her looking towards the future we can at least open a dialogue about the possibilities for change to come.