I am personally fascinated by the way that heavy metal intersects with academia. There are still lingering cultural assumptions that heavy metal is tailor made for the enjoyment of Beavis and Butthead, through intelligent and detailed investigation heavy metal almost always proves to be a deep, rich and varied subject for study. Amelia Ishmael is one of those academics who has turned their keen analytical eye to heavy metal and turned up riches. She comes from an art history and critical writing background, perfect for engaging in metal exegesis, especially for the black metal theory journal Helvete, which she co-edits. She also devotes time to exploring metal as an example of fine art, and often curated metal-influenced gallery shows and other exhibitions. It’s my pleasure to have her as part of Girls Don’t Like Metal.
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How did you first become drawn to aggressive music? What is your heavy metal love story?
About 16 years ago, I found myself in the cradle of death metal: swampy Florida.
A friend from art class made me a Six Feet Under tape. It took a while to get into. At first I was really concerned that the lyrics were not clear, there’s a lot of growling. But this friend taught me that the voice was like an instrument and the lyrics were not always necessary to know.
Around this time another friend made me a mixtape of black metal music. My encounter with Six Feet Under prepared me for the foreign tongues and the screeching vocals. The selection on this tape was more atmospheric than aggressive though. It was a form of love letter; the song titles referenced walking through graveyards by moonlight, the pleasure of seducing and being seduced, and the mystique of the oceans and cosmos. It started with Arcturus‘s “Du Nordavid,” went through some Emperor, Cradle of Filth, and Samael, and ended with Pink Floyd’s “Jughead Blues.”
Black metal was unlike anything that I had ever heard before, it was beautiful yet disruptive. It was difficult yet pleasurable. It gave me goosebumps; it made me nervous and excited at the same time. I played this tape until it stretched out.
What led you to pursue heavy metal as an academic subject? In particular, tell us about your graduate work on black metal and art.
I love the music and the art, it has a special significance to me. But, until recently, these are two interests were things that I was taught to keep separate.
I mean, there were real penalties for affiliating with this musical culture when I was growing up. After the Vampire Murders in Florida in ‘96 and the Columbine massacre in ’99 everyone who wore black was scapegoated. Parents would pull their kids to the other side of the street, you’d get followed in convince stores by the staff, my family and non-metal friends were worried about my soul, some of my friends would get kicked out of school at random, we were sent to counseling because other classmates and the security thought we were a threat, I was denied promotions at work or simply left off of the schedule. This was not because we did anything harmful, just because we looked “suspicious.” Eventually I learned the advantages of looking less suspicious, and how to keep some of my interests to myself. Yet this culture and community continued to mean a lot to me, it means a lot to me still.
Something’s changed since then. It seems that more people are enjoying Metal and interested in talking about it. The big signifier to me was when Banks Violette’s sculptural rendering of a Burzum album cover made the Arts section in The New York Times.
In graduate school I found myself in a position where I was free to experiment, and to bring my interests together. Rather than write about new trends in art history I wanted to write about something that related to what I knew and where I came from.
My first essay on the subject stemmed from a Harpoon concert that I saw in Chicago. I was taking a visual culture course at the time and reading a lot of psychoanalysis about the difference between aggression and violence, and I thought that this was a very interesting aspect of the metal performance. Here was the vocalist growing and screaming into the mic, literally foaming at the mouth. But then on occasion he would turn back to the drummer and smirk. Because he was performing, he was having fun, and we were too. I wrote about the stage as a transitional space where artists can express ideas and acts even that did not necessary find a healthy place anywhere else within our culture. This is one of the things that we enjoy so much but that has been most misunderstood by popular culture. Later I wrote about how this stage space extended beyond the music venue to the gallery or museum for Black Metal art.
Do you find that the academy or art world is resistant to the idea of heavy metal intersecting with art & academia, or relatively open and accepting of it?
There’s certainly a din of academic writing that approaches metal studies in a superficial, dismissive, or demeaning way, yet I’ve found an incredible amount of support from interdisciplinary studies. First through the Black Metal Theory Symposia, then through The Home of Metal Conference. There’s an excellent group that recently started up called ISMMS (or, International Society for Metal Music Studies) that promises a lot of support to rising scholars in Metal studies. There’s a rising number of panels on Metal studies in Popular Music conferences. The Metpol list and the Black Metal Theory blog are great.I think that most of the academic writing on Metal is being done in Sociology, Musicology, Philosophy, and Literature. The innovations of these cross-disciplinary groups are inspiring and the international collaborations that they spark are continually impressive.
Robert Walser is probably one of my favorite Metal writers for his discussion of Metal as a discursive field where many different perspectives come together, his realization that Metal is a form of conversation and a source of knowledge, and his assertion that Metal communicates beyond the lyrics (which most people get stuck on).
In the art world there’s a tremendous strength of artists working with Metal, but only a few brave editors, curators, and art historians who are responding and are willing to work with them—Jérôme Lefèvre, Kevin Muhlen, and Shamim Momin are a few of my favorites. And, I should say, Art21 has been very extremely supportive by hosting my “Transmission” column on their website.
What interests you about the intersection between black metal and contemporary art and culture? What is it about the art of black metal that sets it apart?
Black Metal’s sonic and visual components are absolutely inseparable. The music elicits visions; the visions elicit music.
Many of the artists who work with Black Metal have a practice that spans across both visual art and music.
The signs that surround Black Metal are distinct and function as a very clear system of communication.
But, what really hooks me is that Black Metal is not just a music genre from the late 80s, or a contemporary art movement, what really fascinates me is that it’s an international language. Since I’ve started my work with Black Metal I’ve discovered that I can talk with people all across the world about this thing, Black Metal, and everyone has their own personal connection to it. We can agree on certain root aspects—such as its tone, or texture, or atmosphere—yet Black Metal transforms as it moves from place to place, it takes roots somehow within each individual’s unique history and local culture. It’s extremely personal, yet it can also bridge cultures. When Norway announced in 2011 that its foreign diplomats would receive training in Black Metal part of me trembled with the dream that each country could participate in this “awakening.”
Tell is about your curatorial work, in particular the Black Thorns exhibit.
My curatorial work with the Black Thorns exhibitions evolved out of my thesis “Black Metal in the White Tower: Metal’s Formless Presence in Contemporary Art“, which deals largely with artworks by Grant Willing, Terence Hannum, and Banks Violette. I was particularly concerned with the formless spaces within each of these artists’ photographs, drawings, and installations—how these spaces were informed by black metal’s visual culture, how the artists potentiated black metal’s sonic activity within their art, and the strange things that happen when black metal enters the art gallery or museum.
The Black Thorns exhibitions were inspired by my research for this thesis, in the two years of research I learned about so many fantastic artists and I needed to see their work in one place, in person. No one had curated a Black Metal exhibition at this scale before, and I felt it was absolutely necessary. Significant artists from all over the world are now engaging Black Metal as a discursive language, yet without strong curatorial and critical support their works are frequently misunderstood or taken only at a superficial level, their innovations and value have gone largely unrecognized. There were two exhibitions really: the gallery exhibition and the screening program.
Black Thorns in the White Cube featured drawings, photographs, prints, and artist books by Alexander Binder, Vincent Como, Terence Hannum, Karlynn Holland, Elodie Lesourd, Aaron Metté, Christophe Szpajdel, Grant Willing, and Tereza Zelenkova. It was largely concerned with the semiotics of Black Metal art. It moved within the murky Midwest, between the Paragraph Gallery in Kansas City and Western Exhibitions in Chicago.
Black Thorns in the Black Box was a touring video and film screening program that included works by Annie Feldmeier Adams (for Locrian), Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, Una Hamilton Helle, Devin Horan, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Semiconductor, Chris Kennedy, Marianna Milhorat, Jimmy Joe Roche, Shazzula (for Cultus Sabbati), and Michaël Sellam. My concern with the screening was how the mood of Black Metal translates through moving images and sound. This wasn’t a Black Metal documentary or only a screening of music videos, it was a series of videos and films that evidenced Black Metal’s presence.
The exhibitions received a tremendous amount of support from local papers and internet forums, and even from international arts and culture magazines. Terence Hannum and I collaborated to produce a limited-edition exhibition catalogue that sold through half of its run before it even came off the press. So far it has shipped to twelve countries across the world. (There’s still a few available here.)
These exhibitions took a LOT of work and devotion to pull off. Looking back, it was probably insane for me to manage them all by myself, but somehow it all came together beautifully. The reception has been inspiring. The entire project helped me carve out a specialized niche in the forefront of a huge conversation that is picking up steam. It has helped me find and connect to a growing range of artists and professionals, many of whom are now close friends and collaborators.
Tell us about your time with Helvete, a publication about metal and theory. What makes heavy metal such a rich subject for theoretical discourse?
Helvete is a new academic journal of Black Metal theory. Zareen Price initiated it in 2011 after the second Black Metal Theory symposium in London. She learned about me through my presentation there and asked me to be involved in the first issue, “Incipit,” as a co-editer. I turned down the offer a couple times because I was deep in preparations for Black Thorns, but she was persistent and I was curious, and eventually I accepted. I worked with Helvete alongside Zareen, Aspasia Stephanou and Ben Woodard for a little over a year to select and edit the essays contributed. I also curated a visual art project titled “The Night is No Longer Dead; it has a life of its own” which includes works by artworks by Alexander Binder, Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, Ibrahim R. Ineke, Alessandro Keegan, Irena Knezevic, Allen Linder, Gean Moreno, and Nine Yamamoto-Masson. Punctum Books will release the issue in early 2013.
For the second issue, “With Head Downwards: Inversion in Black Metal,” I am working with Elodie Lesourd to curate a new visual art project. We’re receiving submissions through February 28, if ya’ got ’em.
What are some of your favourite interviews that you have ever conducted?
ALL OF THEM! It’s always a terrific pleasure to talk to artists and musicians about their projects, their histories, and their futures. I’ve published many of these interviews through my “Transmission” column on Art21. I have some personal favorite moments, but each of the interviewees have offered me a tremendous gift simply in their willingness to participate in my interview project, and to allow me to publish their words. I am forever grateful to each of them.
Do you find that your academic and “high art” focus puts you on the periphery of the metal scene?
Does Metal have a periphery? There are so many scenes, even within Chicago, that I’ve always been able to find a place to stand. The first thing you learn at a Metal concert is how to stand your ground: it’s a whirlwind of aggression, lust, and violence, people from all directions pushing their weight around, and you’re in the middle navigating it all. There’s certainly Metal fans and artists who are offended by my work and refuse to work with me. During the exhibition run, I got into half a dozen confrontations with guests who misinterpreted my intent or thought I was taking advantage of their culture. We would usually argue, and then talk, and then part ways as good friends. Occasionally I receive nasty threats. But isn’t that a sign that you’re doing disrupting, that you’re doing something right? Wounds heal stronger.
At times I really believe that the art world is, unfortunately, much more exclusive and esoteric than any Metal subculture I’ve experienced. But, besides art and Metal, I’m also involved in the experimental cinema, sound art, and photography, as well as multiple music subcultures such as Improvisational Jazz, Industrial, Electronic, and Noise.
I don’t know if I really fit “within” any of these subcultures. Like many of the artists, curators, and editors I admire, I strive to navigate many worlds and work in the spaces inbetween. I aim to create opportunities for these subcultures to come together and interact. I’m more interested in tearing down walls than reenforcing them.
What makes gender and feminism such fascinating/challenging topics in the context of heavy metal?
First off, my feminist politics have a very strong impact on how I wrote my thesis. About a third of my the text is written in the first person. It’s a slight gesture but in academia it’s pretty radical. I use perception and personal experience of concerts, nature, and artworks to directly inform my interpretations. To take the first-person perspective is very unusual in academic scholarship; it’s widely believed to be unprofessional and I received a lot of criticism in response to this decision. The alternative, and frequently preferred, mode is to accept an objective stance, to support interpretations through footnoting other people’s writings, and to speak from outside of the experience. It’s been this way since the Victorian era, when the analytic and scientific method was adopted by European men to establish a hierarchical approach to knowledge and the myth of truth. But this is extremely limiting and problematic. Not only because there is not much previous research on this topic, a fact that has widely discouraged scholarship, but also because it’s difficult to describe the sort of phenomenological knowledge that can be gained through metal without talking about the experience itself, and because there are so many different personal experiences that one might have.
I often get asked what it means to be a woman curating or writing about this type of music and I haven’t spoken on it much or written about it yet. From what I’ve experienced there’s less violence towards women expressed in Black Metal than other forms of Extreme Metal, men are usually very respectful towards me at concerts and I very rarely feel uncomfortable, I don’t know why more women aren’t at shows. For a while I tried to coax my lady friends into going to shows with me but most of them simply don’t like the music. There are women who I regularly see at shows and I am very conscious of including women within my curatorial endeavors and interviewing women about their projects, but, you know, there are just more men involved in this subculture so it’s always going to be asymmetrical.
What pulled me into your column, actually, was that I was working on one of my projects in a neighborhood cafe and a man came by and asked me what I was doing. So I described and straight away he was utterly baffled and responded: “What? Girls don’t listen to Metal!” Girls don’t listen to Metal?! I was absolutely shocked. I guess sometimes it takes someone to flat out tell you that what you’re doing is abnormal before you get any sense of it. I think you’re doing a great project here, Natalie, the women you’ve interviewed are all extremely inspiring and they’ve enhanced my awareness and bravely confronted very real issues that exist within the Metal community, and community at large. It’s especially wonderful to hear these women’s voices, and to be assured that we’re in this together. I admire your dedication and interest in creating and continuing this forum.
What advice would you have for someone else who wanted to follow a similar career path?
Among the scraps of fortune cookie scraps I hang onto, which are perhaps best left for private reflection, I keep a quote from the artist Steven Parrino [which I altered a little] “MY THOUGHTS ON METAL AND ART: I BLEED FOR YOU.” It’s work, there’s lots of blood, lots of pain, lots of fingers worked to the bone, and lots of people standing in the way and balking that you’re doing it all wrong. But DAMN! for all the dissenters, what terrific noise we make!
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