Hackney in East London is an area which could easily be compared to Brooklyn: it is also London’s poorest borough and has become a breeding nest for artist.
I get off the bus and the wind almost knocks me off my feet. Sophie Adams, an artist whom I’d pitched tonight’s event is following. The streets are silent; everyone is wrapped in heavy winter jackets since a five day blizzard has been sweeping away any hope of summer.
Our destination is an old Inn I thought closed for a long time. The Islam green paint is peeling off and scaffoldings are plugged onto the pub’s façade like a fixation ring on a triple fracture. Through the window, there are no more chairs, no tables, the juke box is burst open; panels have been ripped off the wall and the paper is shredded; what was once a warm public house has been lynched and hurled in a corner left in shock. As the door opens Sophie hides behind me.
We are here for Black Metal Chicken an event organised by the band Corporate Psychosis, an apocalyptic noise band funded by Henrik Heinonen with Oscar Gaynor and Matthew Peers. At first it looks like the building is being squatted and these events are not common in London. Since squatting was made a criminal offence in the wake of the 2012 Olympics as part of a right-wing “clean-up”, it is tough: facing a maximum imprisonment of 6 months and a hefty £5.000 ($7600) fine, most places would avoid promoting their cultural stand unless acting for the community. But this is not a squat, it’s a rented space that will be knocked down in a month and turned into flats.
It is colder inside than outside but at least we’re off the freezing wind; booze will be de riguer. Two sofas, a large wooden table and a huge brown chrysalid mounted on the wheeling stem of an office chair are what makes the furniture. An empty television with a mannequin’s face in it is lit by red spotlights; wrapped in the leg of a woman’s tight, little hooks are stringed to tiny engines pulling on the fabric; the face swells. It’s repelling, edgy and bleak.
“Mutation and identity is what’s center to my work, it is noisey, a kind of kitsch overload,” tells me Victor Ivanov a tall and broad bleached blond man. “What’s the plan tonight? What are we meant to see?” I bluff. “We don’t know…yet,” he answers secretly. “We have been asked to be here but we don’t know what we are meant to do. Although we have ideas but we are just waiting for them to be called into action.”
For the next 20 minutes I will be talking with Ivanov and Andie Macario – another of the artist who wears a luxurious violet wig she combs with her fingers. We discuss London and how much we all struggle to afford a living. Sophie comes back from the corner shop with a bottle of vodka and a mango juice carton.
People slowly arrive and I can tell looking at their faces that I am the only one who knows what is going to happen: risky masochistic performance, violent creative clashes mocking humanity, Noise – but in what order?… The lights are dimmed and candles are lit up. There is no music but the constant hubbub of people conversation as the place is filling up.
It’s nine pm and it seems that nothing is in the way to start. Artists have mixed with the crowd, and they don’t know what is meant to happen. They seem to be waiting for the curator, Heinonen running around hectically, like a Gerbil in a small cage. In fact it’s all in the role play he’ll later tell me. “Are you the ceremony master?” I ask him. “I got Ivanov and Macario to be present here tonight because I trust what they do and I like the way they work, they are very serious.”
“Tonight there is a collection of people who are concerned about what is happening to us. But I wouldn’t call myself a curator. I hate the word curator; my work is more like “organising exhibition”. It starts with a space, place, site and it always has some particularly meaning, narrative, its history and also ideological connotations that comes with the space, which you have to take into account. I don’t work in a studio, I am not into this tradition of gallery space and so on. I think we have to figure out something else, something different from art with a big “A”.”
Suddenly, we’re told it’s time to eat and that “black food” will be served. On the table are smoking breaded lamb hearts, fried calves liver, haggis, roasted aubergine and black bread, all free of charge. It feels like a feast of vanity. “Why Black Metal Chicken?” I ask Ivanov. “Because we wanted to stuff speakers into that cooked chicken and play Black Metal through it.”
Then there’s a move. As about fifteen of us are sat around the table, the Benny Hill tune is hurled out of the speakers from the back of the pub and I see Ivanov wrapping his hands around Macario’s neck, strangling her. Macario’s face has turned a reddish mauve; she coughs, a touch of white foam forming at the corner of her mouth, gasping for air like a fish out of water. It doesn’t feel real but I can tell by the sombre air behind Ivanov’s mask that he is choking her. Everyone has left the table, and stand around the performing couple. Should it be stopped?
“Why are we watching that? Are you all right?” erupts Sophie. Macario is about to pass out.
And release. The music stops and a long silence floats thick in the air. It was somewhere sexy but very grotesque and we watched. Till the end. He could have left her dead. We wouldn’t have moved…
But it was meant to be a performance; something shocking that was played to aggress. Adrenaline had kicked in and it was hard to go back to the food. We wanted more. Suddenly, the whole place roared with discussions.I hear that it was the first time they’d performed in front of other people. Ivanov is shaking, speaks very fast and occasionally stutters. “It was a good feeling but there were dangers. It was good because nobody knew what was going to happen, then this girl asks “are all right darling?” It was quite something.”
He seems hard for him to stay focus. Sophie appears on my back: “I thought the timing was good,” she says. “Just as the audience were eating, helping themselves to food. If I didn’t know it was a performance, I would have been concerned, it relied heavily on our knowledge and trust that this was a performance. I think, they were trying to communicate the uncanny, notions of sadism, the erotic. Perhaps, too, how vulnerable we are to another person’s decision to harm us?”
“It was nerve racking,” says Macario very slowly. “I didn’t know when it was coming. We decided not have control when it was actually done so the curator put on the Benny Hill theme tune and we got cued in.” The anticipation as well was quite…But I have quite a high tolerance. I am in the fetish theme and I have this character that has a name, she is a performer and she likes to be looked at…it’s kind of pieced to my art practice; it is a separate theme but I like to do things in public. Throughout my whole life I have been fed this idea that women are baby making machines and need to serve their man; I like to play with the idea of over-performing feminine identity through the use of drag and creating various characters for myself.”
“Is it artistic?” I ask.
“I am an artist first and it is part of the world of the artist to perform a character as well; or a caricature from themselves. Because that’s only the way you are able to be free and to be truly yourself. Because it’s okay for an artist to be crazy; it’s acceptable.”
“You are quite limited, you have quite a lot of boundaries as a person. When you’re an artist, or a performer it gives you this elevated freedom that perhaps you wouldn’t have normally.”
The second act starts. Heinonen puts on his baby mask and follows destructive sound performance with made up guitar, keg drumming and screams and shouts.
At that point I just wandered where I’d walked into. I was baffled and very much wandering whether this had any aesthetic sense or any meaning really. It felt as if we’d come to a point of transition, that moment when genre mutates and it’s dirty and we put everything together and, chew, eat and digest; aesthetic was being stretched beyond rupture point to find its limits and ours. Theory and beauty mixed with the bloody guts of feminism, artifice and hyperreality. I saw rituals, erotico-porno art; hazy narratives and no reliable truths.
However, I felt the whole a bit too clumsy. As if playing too much with the shock factor in a way that “this shouldn’t be shown, so here it comes.” I saw their approach as a sort of unfocused radiating violence; they don’t speak; they shout. They don’t cuddle; they choke. They recycle the streets, they “attack” morals, social behavior and contracts, all at once and from every direction. A bit like a campaign without program.
Heinonen would later tell me that it started as a joke during a video show of Raymond Petitbon until it evolved into Black Metal Chicken.
The group believes that we are all “un-dead corpses” or “human being without a subject” since we live in a world preconditioned for social performance. Comparing liberal democracy to a totalitarian regime like Soviet Communism, Fascism or National Socialism, they engage the crowd to discuss and react within their own socio-political “trauma” in order to redefine themselves.
In a very Adorno-istic way, the group concentrates on cultural criticism and it’s modernity: machine, violence, hyper reality and Post modernism exclusion: we have wandered too far out of the cave and lost our sense of humanity and the best way to re-identify as human beings is to test our morals; our emotions; our senses and nerves, all of what makes us humans.
“I am little bit more optimistic,” Heinonen cuts. “This is what I try to express, I don’t know if I succeed but our identity, ourselves is passed on to us by our parents and family and our identity is a form of power, limitation and control. Out of this we have to go “too far” if we are seriously gonna have some form understanding of ourselves. Seeing shocking images on the internet, where people are almost abusing themselves, as hard as I can, I try to see humanity in there. I try to see something beautiful or touching, or something that tells about this person, what is inside him or her. See, I take Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers) work very seriously, I think he manages to do something good out of this crazy jumble of stories, It’s grotesque but it’s beautiful.