Var and Pharmakon – Photo by Brooke Segarra

From Vår frontman Elias Rønnenfelt’s self-immersed drones, to Pharmakon’s punishing electro-tones, both Var and Pharmakon have been recognized for the unsettling atmosphere their music creates. Pitchfork and Sacred Bones decided to tug on the nerve endings of fans by having both acts perform together in an exclusive collaborative event Saturday night in Brooklyn. Var and Pharmakon solemnly took the floor together, their heads bent in silence. They were uniformed in white button-down shirts and black jeans. Each also sported thick ropes looped around both shoulders and knotted across their backs, foreshadowing a vehement presentation of restrained aggression.
Vår began the set with their single “Into Distance.” Rønnenfelt channeled the spirit of late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis with his seizure-like dancing. In the performance of “Into Distance,” Pharmakon’s Margaret Chardiet took no part. Rather, she stood hunched over the synth, her long blonde hair cascading over her face, and remained stiff like a frozen pillar of salt. She came to life at her cue to perform the second song of the set, “Crawling On Bruised Knees,” as Rønnenfelt slunk into the distance and stood bent over in a sort of defeated salute. Pharmakon descended like a pterodactyl. Her elbows jutted straight out like sharp wings as she clenched the mic. She swooped around the stage with large, jaunty strides, screeching her agony into the mic like an animal’s call, to which the only appropriate response was helpless, arrested attention. Making direct eye-contact with her spectators, Pharmakon threw up an invisible veneer between the performance floor and the mesmerized crowd.
Between the audience and the musicians there was no platform, no banister, no rope, no cautionary tape, but by the time the show was half over, it was like a glass wall had been erected. This may be due in part to the fact that the majority of concert-attendees were ill-prepared for what was in store for them at this particular show—a literal case of “missing the memo.” It was planned from the beginning that the Vår/Pharmakon collaborative show would include performance art by both acts. What this ended up entailing was the musicians baptismally pouring water on themselves one by one, and then sedately walking over to a mound of dirt on the stage floor where they ritualistically rubbed the dirt all over their bodies and faces. Rønnenfelt’s turn with the water-pouring also included him taking mouthfuls of water, spitting it out and, at times, allowing it to overflow past his lips after it had mixed with his spit. As this occurred, the people of the crowd swarmed and pushed to take photos and get a peek of what was going on. It wasn’t so much the spectacle on stage that was unhinging, but rather, the reaction of the crowd toward it.
People snapped countless photos with their iPhones, careening over others with their mouths agape, just as people do when the orangutan at the zoo stops sitting in the corner and starts to swing around and engage in animalistic behavior. In hindsight, the performance art (the water, dirt, and spitting was the extent of it) was unnecessary in the sense that it was anti-climatic. People were awed only because they did not know what to expect. The befuddled facial contortions of fans and the awkward hanging around after Vår and Pharmakon left the stage indicated that fans felt like they had been led towards a cliff but were never taken over the edge.
The inability of the theatrics of the show to add meaning or emphasis to the actual music left the attempt with the stain of feeling, overall, melodramatic. This is only because the music itself, and the delivery of it, stood so well on its own in the first half of the show. Both Vår and Pharmakon were able to evoke the sense of being possessed by an inner clawing anxiety, frustration, and angst. It’s clear that both acts are very talented, but if they want performance art to become their new thing (which would be cool), they need to work on their context.