An Interview with Michaël Sellam: Black Metal Forever, radical transformations, and reptilian squamate

Sellam_BMF_8

Michaël Sellam, “Logotype”, 2010

Throughout 2012, I screened Michaël Sellam’s “Black Metal Forever” video across the United States with the program Black Thorns in the Black Box. I came across the video a year earlier, during my research on contemporary artists working with Black Metal, and was fascinated by his fusion of Black Metal with new media and architectural space. The video is essentially a creative documentation of Michaël’s interactive machine “Black Metal Forever”, which was featured at Cent Quatre in Paris, France during NÉMO 2010, a festival of digital arts dedicated to audiovisual performances and multimedia installations, now in its 15th edition. The “Black Metal Forever” performance is documented on the artist’s website and within press from the NÉMO festival, but I have been starving to find critical engagement (or even some basic information) released about it, beyond its original audience. Since 2010, “Black Metal Forever” has been reborn through subsequent exhibitions, and it will soon be incorporated into an artist book publication. It is evident that this creature lives on. The following interview aims to engage some of the numerous questions I received about “Black Metal Forever” during the screenings, and to expose the work to a broader audience, with the hopes of inciting more conversation.

Michaël Sellam is based in Paris, France. Associating music research to his artistic projects, he questions, through a complex and varied practice, forms which spread from installation, to video, sculpture, and performance. Michaël Sellam has exhibited his work at galleries, museums, and arts festivals internationally, including RIAM 09 festival for art and music in Marseille (2012); Biennale of Contemporary Art in Bourges (2012); Sonica festival of transitory art in Ljubljana, Slovenia (2010); Select Media Festival: Insurgent Media Art in Chicago (2002); and Radiotopia at Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria (2002). Additionally, he has recently founded the experimental online exhibition platform Grande Narrative, and conducts lectures and workshops on electronic arts throughout France. He is currently in residence at the Esbama in Montpellier. In this context, he is preparing two exhibitions and a monographic catalogue for the beginning of the year 2014.

Amelia Ishmael:
One of the aspects of the video and sculpture “Black Metal Forever” that I find most compelling is the way that Black Metal—which is frequently very earthbound and organic in its references to natural environments and folklore—is combined with new media in your work. Black Metal has long had a suppressed relationship to electronic music and samples that I think that this artwork engages with, but you also seem to be extending Black Metal into a new terrain. What was your inspiration for combining this particular music with the crane?
Michaël Sellam:
There are several elements that made me decided to work on this project. First of all, this is a music that I listen to among many other musical “styles”, I wanted to do something with it. I’ve also read an interview with the avant-garde composer John Zorn, the creator of the Tzadik label. For him, it was a music that he couldn’t appreciate, that did not interest him, and it is precisely for these reasons that he has to devote himself to it, to discover it, and as he was going to concerts, listening to many recordings, his vision of the music was obviously enriched. In the same way, I have the habit of questioning my taste, my fascination, or my rejection of such or such form always becomes a critical distance. I can’t satisfy myself with an enthusiastic or negative position. I’m a very open person, which has a vision of art as an expression of total freedom. I wanted to work on the uses of the world. The industry is one, the music is another. Black Metal is a radical, extreme music and I wanted to work with a very hard form that embodies a refusal, a full social rejection. At this time, I had several ongoing research on economy and production systems, I listened and read many documents about the working world, about the working conditions of the workers. I heard a broadcast on the radio on the history of a Black Metal fan who worked as a mechanic. During the day he was “neutral”, dressed with a simple held work, his uniform, clothes that anyone expects to see a mechanic wear. In the evening, he could finally put his black clothes on and have his nails and face painted, he could wear his steel points bracelets and collar. He could be himself only after his day of work. With this project, I wanted to question this standardization effect, why a worker could not combine his passion for Metal with his working tool? Why should working time be necessarily separated from leisure time? Why not merge the two? This performance also proposed a bizarre meeting between the world of construction workers, some of whom certainly have children who listen to Black Metal. It was also for me a way to bring together several generations, to create a popular social meeting. The use of computer technology was obvious, it was the only way to intelligently amplify the crane and produce a music different and paradoxically close to Black Metal. I like paradoxes.

Michaël Sellam, Black Metal Forever, 2010

Michaël Sellam, “Black Metal Forever”, 2010

AI:
I love this perspective that you are drawing upon… your awareness of how Black Metal fans maneuver between multiple cultures. It seems to me, then, that this there is a sort of hopefulness that you are expressing. Is this correct? By having a tool that they enjoy using, perhaps the worker could become less alienated through their work?
MS:
Yes, in a way there is a form of optimism in the project, it is definitely related to my character. I have always found that Black Metal could embody the expression of a festive, Pagan’s world vision. It is also a radical, aggressive refusal of the mainstream culture. My work as an artist is to have a radical position about our time and it seems to me obvious that I question patterns that direct our behaviors. The concepts of work, free time, culture of leisure, I found in these mechanisms of behaviours habits that seem at odds with the deep desires of individuals. In that sense, yes, I am for a radical transformation of the world of work that may come in line with the desires of each. I do not seek to change the world but to show that it can be different.

AI:
Within the video of “Black Metal Forever”, it is difficult to gauge what the reaction to this instrument was for the viewers within that gigantic architectural space. The way that the camera spend such time over the details of the instrument and its boiled surface, and the exciting and loud music, draws viewers into the machine. The duration of the video works very well to invite the viewer to peruse and reflect on what the action that is happening is, and what this “creature” could be. The video also seems to describe a very introverted, reflective space. But then, at the end, when the camera zooms out, and we see that this crane is in a public space, it is astonishing! This larger view sometimes inspires nervous and surprised laughter when I screen it. We can see dozens of people watching the machine from behind a fence, and hear the voices of children echoing through the room. The loud sounds have all stopped, and there’s this rush of coming back to the earth. What was the experience of this performance like? What sort of responses did the museum’s guests have? Did people recognize the music samples used?
MS:
There was little information for the public, just the title of the performance, the odd and massive presence of the crane, and the sonic context which evoked an open-air concert. It was for me already enough to project itself in what was going to happen. During the day, visitors approached very curious to learn about the performance while we were preparing it. There was a real announcement effect by the presence of those elements. The machine was idle and one could understand that it was going to come alive. The performance lasted about 20 minutes. As a first step, the machine deployed itself until it reached its maximum height. Then, it marked a brief pause, for a minute of silence, to return to its original form. It bent over itself slowly to suddenly turn off the sound in a final movement. Someone in the audience told me that he had the feeling of attending the last moments of the life of a creature. Only a close friend acknowledged the fragment taken from Burzum. For other people, I don’t know. I wanted a video that was not a “classical” performance documentation but which is in direct link with the project. For the recording, we privileged an approach like the animal documentary style. Filming something fragile and powerful at the same time, as if we had filmed an elephant or a dinosaur. In this logic, the plans are closer to the texture and the surface of the skin of the beast, and we then reveal its natural environment—here, the courtyard covered in the 104. I wanted the video to evoke a fragile endangered species. The title itself is a form of slogan for the survival of the Black Metal movement. A way of saying that this should continue.

AI:
Did you create any earlier versions of this performative machine?
MS:
Not directly, each of my projects are an opportunity for an adventure, a full discovery. I don’t like to do the same thing twice, nor to have the same approach on different projects. I’d never worked on a piece about Black Metal, it is a music that I like and have listened to for a long time, but there’s no real history to this performance.

Michaël Sellam, Black Metal Forever, 2010

Michaël Sellam, “Black Metal Forever”, 2010

AI:
I’ve read different accounts of the sound in “Black Metal Forever”. In some articles the music is described as being composed beforehand and then played during the performance, and in others the sounds emitting from the machine are a blend of amplifications of the machine itself and music samples that are activated through the movements of the machine, with the crane operator as the musician and composer of a live score. Could you tell me which is more accurate, and why this process was chosen?
MS:
The crane is used as an amplified musical instrument, there are several sensors: three microphones and eight piezoelectric microphones across the interesting points of the machine, at the intersection of two jacks for example. All sounds are broadcast directly to a mixer where I could “play” them in real time. I’ve worked on a program with the software Max/MSP to build the set. I have used only three samples: the drums of a piece by Burzum, an electric guitar from Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed and a harsh noise fragment of Prurient, rather discretely, as a hidden tribute. The performance lasts twenty minutes, during which the machine spreads to its maximum position, then folds back on itself. I entrusted the role of interpreter to a crane operator who had worked in cinema and built bridges in unbelievable conditions in the Amazon. He was especially motivated by the project, and I chose him as we choose a very good musician in an orchestra to interpret a partition, except that it was a solo for a crane, a mechanical black mass. His very precise knowledge of the limitations of the machine allowed us to write a choreographic score together, emphasizing figures that one can’t usually do. We played with the machine as children. When I was little, I spent more time playing with my grandmother’s pans instead of my Christmas gifts, this project is also a way of saying: you can make music with everything and anything.

Michaël Sellam, "Dead body of a performance part 8", 2010

Michaël Sellam, “Dead body of a performance part 8”, 2010

AI:
You have recently translated aspects from “Black Metal Forever” into photographic prints that investigate the texture and the “skin” that cloaked the “Black Metal Forever” sculpture. Are these images that you are using in preparation for an artist book? Could you tell me about the decisions that went into making these images and how they might be incorporated within the upcoming book?
MS:
This “skin” fragments are the main elements that remain after the performance, they have the same role as the squamate of a reptile, we removed them as if we had dismembered the crane with cutters, I kept some pieces to scan them and have a very flat image, a second skin somehow. I consider the traces, slag, all that remains of the project. Usually this kind of thing ends in a dustbin, and I have a full bag of it! I have presented them in the Sécrétions exhibition—dedicated to the remains of the performance—with video, drawings and burned posters. There was a smell of burnt in space.

Michaël Sellam, Squamate, 2010. Machine's squamate, plastic burned, dimension unknown

Michaël Sellam, “Squamate”, 2010
machine’s squamate, plastic burned, dimensions unknown

AI:
The concentration within these images is transported from the extensions into space that the crane could do, to the burned skin that once covered and, in a way, veiled or hid the machine. How does the texture of the burned and heated up plastic work for you differently then a smooth and reflective surface (such as we might see in Banks Violette‘s sculptures or Benar Venet‘s paintings)?
MS:
To hide something is often a good way to make it visible, to draw attention to what lies behind the mask, behind the mirror. The plastic that we used is made to cover and package products in industry. I didn’t want to use something that was not in direct connection with the project, I would not want the crane to have a costume but to be covered with a rough, damaged, dirty, fragile and burned surface. I appreciate certain aspects of the work of these two artists, but I don’t find myself in their intentions. In my opinion, this music is in itself rough, damaged, dirty, fragile and burned. I don’t see it as something smooth, clean or reflective.

AI:
Will you continue to exhibit the “squamate”? What interests you about the translation of these skins into photographs?

MS:
It is possible, if however this fits in an exhibition project that is suitable. By digitizing these fragments of skins with a scanner, I am interested in how an image can be flattened, crushed against the glass surface. There is the concept of pressure which reminds me both the technical principle of production of these images but which can also move closer to a social context, with an atmosphere. Unlike photography, there’s no air between the camera and the subject. These are images without breath, somewhat in agony.

AI:
Will there be music with the book as well?

MS:
There are a set of pieces put together in the form of an audio CD that accompanies the book, each of these fragments contain different moments of the project. Some tracks evoke the research before the performance, others extend it. There is also a track called “NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS!” as a tribute to the work of Guy Debord and the International Situationist. I think of this object not as an extension of the performance that is a report or a document, but a piece in itself.

AI: I’m looking forward to seeing it. Thank you, Michaël!

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