“Utopia can never be prescriptive and is always destined to fail,” writes José Esteban Muñoz in his chapter “After Jack: Queer Failure, Queer Virtuosity” in Cruising Utopia. The chapter traces the queer utopian legacy of filmmaker Jack Smith through the work of contemporary artists and performers like Dynasty Handbag, Kalup Linzy and My Barbarian. This failed utopia can be seen in experimental pop musician St. Vincent’s newest music video “New York,” directed by Philadelphia-based artist Alex Da Corte, who brings his recognizable aesthetic to a larger audience.
Like a queer(er) Mike Kelley, Da Corte is probably best known for his brightly colored videos and Pee Wee’s Playhouse-esque installations, which are filled with symbolic references, odd objects, furniture and often other artists’ work. Though perhaps closer to Jack Smith’s Baghdad built in his apartment than his lush, hedonistic films, Da Corte’s work certainly fits in with the utopian impulse introduced by Muñoz.
Now, Da Corte has done music videos before, namely for frequent collaborator Blood Orange’s song “It Is What It Is.” But, his video for “New York” so perfectly conceptually captures the failure of and momentary glimpse at utopia that I’ve been obsessed with it since its recent release. Asked if he sees a difference between music videos and his artistic practice, Da Corte told Pitchfork: “Moving images and moving videos, set to music or not, are all artworks in themselves. What’s really special about making a music video is that it can be shared so quickly and so broadly. Everyone can have access to it. It’s really free.”
In “New York,” Da Corte flawlessly merges familiar imagery from his artistic practice–flat neon colors, high artifice, swans and minimalistic supermarkets with St. Vincent’s melodramatic track. This deft combination shouldn’t work.
Off her new album Masseduction, which St. Vincent (Annie Clark) described to the New Yorker as “sex and drugs and sadness” (my kind of album), “New York” maps a wistful tale of heartbreak onto the streets of New York City. “New York isn’t New York without you, love,” she begins. Clark frequently mentions Manhattan street names and locations, emphasizing the role of place in the song. She sings, “And if I call you from First Avenue where you’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me” and “So few of our old crew left on Astor.” It’s a nostalgic song, yearning for both a lost love and the city that acted as a setting for this love. In fact, “New York” just barely avoids becoming over-the-top–a departure from her more restrained electronica on her last album.
Given this epic ode to loss and loneliness, it seems like Da Corte’s sometimes bizarre and always highly stylized imagery would clash with the crushing emotional resonance of the song. With a microphone topped with burning greens, a giant keyboard reminiscent of the one in the film Big, a purple room with a bifurcated couch where Annie plays with a swan and, not to mention, a close-up of an ass in pink tights hanging out of the Astor Cube, Da Corte surely hasn’t turned down the surrealism.
And yet, these fractured scenes work to capture a utopian, dreamlike vision of New York City–one far from touristy stereotypes of skyscrapers and the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead, Da Corte depicts an idealized version of the city where bodegas can act as flower-covered sets for Clark’s reanimated mannequin performance.
Some of the references to New York are more obvious, namely the use of two Downtown public artworks–Bernard Rosenthal’s Alamo in Astor Place and Forrest Myer’s The Wall on the side of a building in SoHo. Explaining his use of these sculptures to Pitchfork, Da Corte reflects, “And I thought that both of those sculptures are quite beautiful because they in themselves depict a very simple, formal idea of a city. A cube, in a grid, or a rectangle on a grid, which is a city. And I thought entering the city in that way would be from my standpoint in Philadelphia maybe the most accurate.”
Other references to city life are more subtle such as the aforementioned bodega and a curtain, in front of which St. Vincent performs, featuring a slightly frightening Coney Island-inspired fun house face. And of course, you can’t have New York (or utopia, for that matter) without disco and Da Corte delivers with a scene in which Clark cradles a disco ball while wearing a gold lamé dress.
Overall, Da Corte and St. Vincent’s New York isn’t that storied gritty, down and dirty New York that directors and artists often like to highlight (even though that New York barely exists anymore). Instead, it’s a slightly cartoonish imagined city. Da Corte details these decisions in a statement about the video: “I think Annie’s New York is the New York of my dreams–one that is blurry and fractured, dreamy and flat. It is the Toontown to my Hollywood. It is beautiful but slightly out of reach.”
And this embrace of the “out of reach” quality in “New York” is essential. In both the video and St. Vincent’s song, there’s a sense of finding the beauty in failure. Clark sings in the chorus: “I have lost a hero. I have lost a friend. But for you darling, I’d do it all again.” At the same time, the video often reveals the constructed quality of this aestheticized New York. On several occasions, Da Corte has the moveable backdrop that sits behind Clark wheeled away, exposing its unreality. Despite its artificiality, the city and imagery within “New York” presents, as Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia, “an escape from this world that is an insistence and another time and place that is simultaneously not yet here but able to be glimpsed in our horizon” (173).
“Despite this seeming negativity, a generative politics can be potentially distilled from the aesthetics of queer failure. Within failure we can locate a kernel of potentiality. I align queer failure with a certain mode of virtuosity that helps the spectator exist from the stale and static lifeworld dominated by the alienation, exploitation and drudgery associated with capitalism or landlordism,” writes Munoz. Taking Jack Smith’s frequent accusations of “landlordism,” Muñoz almost perfectly describes St. Vincent and Da Corte’s achievement–taking us viewers on a short trip to a Downtown queer utopia, one without rent, gentrification or the closing of beloved East Village restaurants.