Ceramics can be typecast as a clean or pristine artform. Occasionally an artist, such as Galen Olmsted, will challenge those assumptions with something either jarring or violent. Ceramist Keith Harrison also played against type during his residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year by collaborating with the metal band Napalm Death.
The artist received his MA from the Royal College of Art in 2002. According to his biography, Harrison has been involved in a series of process-based live public experiments that investigate the direct physical transformation of clay from a raw state utilizing industrial and domestic electrical systems. Harrison says he is interested in the processes of destroying as well as making and he also likes to manipulate the public’s role in the observation of these processes. He’s employed Napalm Death’s music before in his work, filling a room with sound from one of their albums as he works with clay on a record turntable.
According to an article in The Vinyl Factory, Harrison’s and Napalm Death’s Bustleholme performance pitted the legendary grindcore band against three stacks of speakers clad in ceramic tiles by Harrison. The speakers were built to resemble the buildings at the Bustleholme tenant estates, where Harrison lived as a child. Although the artist told Vinyl Factory that he doesn’t have many negative memories about the place, he said the tenancy buildings are a symbol of poverty and the social divisiveness of Thatcherism.
So it was up to Napalm Death to destroy the buildings in effigy. Harrison states in the documentary linked to this post that he hoped the band’s music would “expose” the sound structure underneath the tiles, but that’s just a polite way of saying it was possible that the ceramic elements could be blown apart by devastating metal music. The band felt like they could rise to the challenge.
“I’m a little bit of an art wanker,” singer Barney Greenway says in the video. “The chance to do something other than just pure music and the ethos of the band… I just thought it was brilliant.”
About 80 250-watt speakers were encased within the structures. Grindcore, which Napalm Death helped pioneer, is a style of metal music which uses heavily distorted instruments and songs structured around “blast beats,” the repetitive, rapid playing of 16th notes divided uniformly among a bass drum, snare and hi-hat cymbal. The genre is known for violent, sudden bursts of noise that erupt and quickly recede. Napalm Death are Guinness World Record holders for the shortest song, “You Suffer,” which clocks in at one second. The documentary made it clear the ceramist and the band didn’t know going into the performance whether the structures could be destroyed with sound. Band members said their strategy was to play violently and have their sound engineer push the speakers and oscillators as hard as they could go.
The show was scheduled for the Victoria and Albert’s Europe Gallery in March last year, but – like someone’s fussy dad- the V&A canceled the performance over fears about the volume. According to The Quietus web site the V&A released a statement saying a safety inspection showed that the volume could damage the “historic fabric” of the building. Somewhere between then and the making of the documentary, the excuse changed to concerns that the volume could damage other ceramic works on display. I suppose that makes a little more sense than the idea (as fantastic as it would be) of grindcore reducing a whole building to rubble, but it’s a moot point as the performance moved several months later to the less-squeamish De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.
So much of metal is about spectacle to compliment and enhance the music’s aesthetic. Metal bands are known for stunts such as over-produced music videos, spraying fake blood over their audiences or performing on a replica of a viking longboat. It’s a fine line to walk; if a band goes too far they become a self-parodying cliche. With that in mind, this performance seems simple and refreshing; Napalm Death was boiled down into their core element. A band’s raw sound being harnessed to shake a structure apart is far more “metal” than the goofy costumes, facepaint or stunt gigs in Antarctica used by other acts.
Perhaps this says something depressing about Thatcherism and social division, but judging from the video the ceramic forms held up rather well against the band’s set. Only a handful of tiles fell off. At one point in the video, an audience member vaults over the dividers and starts attacking the work. In an example of what we could call emergent performance art, the man hits one of the buildings with a nasty-looking kick and then he smashes loose ceramic tiles against the structures until he’s tackled by security guards.
Harrison states in the documentary that he thought the fan-intervention mirrored the atmosphere of the performance and that the structures ended up looking like how he imagined them with or without someone actively attacking them. He reiterated that the project wasn’t “engineered” and that whatever would happen with regard to the structures would happen.
Harrison softens his descriptions of the project. For him, the sound “exposes” the speakers rather than destroys his tiles; the tile structures didn’t fail to break, they weren’t specifically “engineered” for that purpose. Perhaps Harrison doesn’t mean to, but he sounds like he’s hedging. The best description of the performance actually comes from one of the fans who was interviewed following the show: “I came here expecting explosions, but instead I got creeping decay. I feel better about it now.”
The fan is correct. Both outcomes are equally metal.
Bill Rodgers is a Contributing Editor at CFile.
Above image: Keith Harrison and Napalm Death, Bustleholme, 2013. The structures took up the space in front of the band where there would typically be a crowd of people. Screenshot from a documentary courtesy of Jared Schiller.