[ESTWeb Main Index] [ESTWeb Articles Index]

A selection of letters regarding this article has been extracted from EST3 and EST4.

The Unacceptable Face of Freedom

No, not an article on Test Dept., for those of you who expected such a thing! Instead, inspired by Thee Grey Wolves, I'd like to take a look at fascist imagery in "industrial" and experimental music.

As most of you will be aware, this kind of music is riddled with such imagery, both overt and covert. Experimental musicians, most notably Throbbing Gristle, have used the symbology of fascism, claiming that they desired to challenge preconceptions and to create a more open-minded audience. The punks made extensive use of the swastika. As part of their nihilistic rejection of society's established values, they felt the need to espouse the unacceptable, in order to adequately express their disgust with the world in which they lived. Victims of what they saw as authoritarian aggression, they responded instinctively by reflecting back that social violence in the form of an anti-social shock.

Yugoslavian avant-garde rock band Laibach adopt the appearance of totalitarianism to explore both our authoritarian society and the authoritarian nature of "rock" music. Often accused of being fascists, their extensive use of ironic humour acts as a reminder that they are not what they seem. They use the symbols both of Nazism and religion, and are clearly of the opinion that to be able to subvert and destroy the state you must first enter and understand it.

Others use not the superficial imagery of fascism but the real ethos of dictatorship in their attempts to provoke a response and expose control mechanisms. One example includes Non, who in the early eighties played concerts consisting of unbearably loud and physical rhythmic music. Audiences either fled from this authoritarian onslaught or accepted and explored the pleasure of submission.

Many of the hardbeat groups look distinctly jackbooted in their espousal of extreme physical discipline, and their replication of fascist chic throughout their presentation. Given that most of them profess to be opposed to the existing social order, they spend a lot of time replicating its style and symbols. Bands like Manufacture, Front 242 and others use hard, militaristic rhythms, coupled with samples of rightwingers and religious nutcases, presenting the raw data of their info-environment without comment. We are "expected" to understand that although these bands look like fascists, they are in fact opposed to fascism. Inevitably, they attract neo-Nazis to their music whether they like it or not. Even socialists like Test Dept have been described as "thugs of the new left" due to their masculine, angry, violent presentation. [see Letters]

Others are even more dubious. Death in June pepper their albums with skulls, runic images and paramilitary style, and have appeared on stage in brownshirts in the past. Their love of seemingly fascist gestures extends to what they lovingly describe as "the European dream", a pan-continental supernation. Depending on your point of view this may seem a noble goal, a right-wing insanity, or just a particularly naive piece of romanticism. Staying in a similar musical clique, Whitehouse and their label Come Org have used sufficiently extreme rhetoric not only in public but also in private for even the most forgiving liberal conscience to shy away from giving them the benefit of the doubt. The blatant racism of Whitehouse's William Bennett appears to have few pretensions to being a sophisticated cultural critique, despite many fans' illusions. Whitehouse's live events frequently involved lavish helpings of racial abuse, alienating many of those who were sufficiently liberal to give them a chance in the first place.

And there are others: cassette artists working in this area include the likes of the AWB group, extreme right-wing racists who have chosen to work in the experimental electronics world, and Con-Dom, a solo project from the British Isles, which attempts to explore themes of control and domination through the use of a primitivist wall of noise. The cassette underground contains numerous examples of artists exploring this sort of territory, and whilst it's certainly a valid expression, it all begins to seem a little samey and unimaginative after a while.

As T.G. made clear, surface Nazism is very stylish. Black and red and silver make a very attractive colour scheme, and fascist insignia are extremely powerful symbols. The imagery can be traced back to the Italian Futurist movement, with its love of striking, dynamic art. Most users of motifs like the swastika, like Jim Thirlwell, of Foetus, explain their use simply in terms of a desire to use visuals that they like, that they find psychically resonant. Even four decades after what the Allies ridiculously claimed to be the death of fascism, the imagery retains its powerful fascination. Extremism of any sort reverberates deep within our psyche: it touches parts of the unconscious that more moderate philosophies are unable to reach.

And of course, the punks reminded us of just how provocative the swastika remained after many years. Throwing the establishment's own excrement back into its throat is sure to result in a nauseous reaction. For groups intent on outraging society, fascism was a powerful weapon. Time at last to stamp in turn on the boot that had stamped on you, even if the only methods you had for doing so were those that the authorities had themselves taught you.

It's debatable whether such tactics were ever productive, however. Certainly, they didn't change the system, only reinforcing its repressive desires. The desire to shock seemed frequently to be born more out of a rejection of society than out of any embrace of a positive alternative. Mummy won't let us play so we scream and shout - this is all that provocation often amounted to. It was based on the same emotions as those of the screaming child. Our environment is unpleasant and destructive, but we do not feel we have the power to do anything about it. In such a situation, nihilism is the only viable option, but it rests upon a false assumption. We are not powerless, and to accept that we are, and do nothing but complain, can only further set back our chances of realising our true desires. Nihilism is counter-revolutionary, disempowering, and to this extent the widespread adoption of fascist imagery as a shock strategy was doomed to miserable failure. Additionally, in adopting the violent tactics of the oppressor, punk and the other protestors were admitting that they had no alternatives to offer, thus validating the initial oppression. The authoritarian state thrives on violent rebellion, using it as its own justification.

However, many scions of industrial culture would claim that their attempts to shock were more than just screams of outrage. They would claim, as for example S.P.K. did when exhibiting violent sexual imagery in their work, that the intent of the shock was to jolt people out of their everyday slumber, to awaken in them the idea that perhaps all this extreme material could be treated objectively, not just the subject of a knee-jerk reaction as was usually the case. Personally, I find this pretty doubtful, as the repetition of any image tends only to reimprint the associations that it already had. In other words, people who found the imagery disgusting in the first place are unlikely to change their minds just because they see the imagery again. I'm going to leave a consideration of the adoption of an aggressive, possibly fascist, style by groups like Laibach, Test Dept and the various hardbeat bands for another time. Instead, we have in front of us an example of the use of extreme imagery taken towards one logical conclusion: Thee Grey Wolves. By now, a century after literature and art experienced various outbursts of taboo-breaking extremism, all this may seem to be a case of retreading paths that have been walked too many times already. It may seem fair to criticise those who are still exploring the dark side of humanity of substituting the use of originality with a formula known to be good at attracting attention. Is this a fair comment on Thee Grey Wolves? Named, if I'm not mistaken after a right-wing Turkish terrorist group (much as fellow extreme electronics outfit Terre Blanche adopt the moniker of South African fascist and head of the terrorist A.W.B. commandoes, Eugene Terre-Blanche; or as S.P.K. claimed the name of the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv), Thee Grey Wolves began life in 1985. Its two members have also worked on solo projects as Tactical Aid Group and Nails ov Christ, and run their own cassette labels Artaman Tapes and Strength Through Awareness.

Claiming to be manifestations of the "Cultural Terrorism Network", Thee Grey Wolves try to adopt a uniformly extreme attitude to what they release. Their crude mail-order catalogues are peppered with crypto-fascist symbols, pictures of terrorists, Nazis and the like. Their cassette releases include "Red Terror Black Terror", "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Legion of Hell". Amongst the current projects of David Padbury (alias Crystal Knight) is "120 Days of Sodom" a planned exhibition of extreme (and probably illegal) mail-art. The intent of this last seems to be to test the limits as much as possible - to break taboos and air issues by the use of shock treatment - but whether or not this bears much relation to the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel of the same name is debatable. There was far more to "Sodom" than the desire to shock and test boundaries. The music? Oh yes, the music! Like many other groups producing "extreme electronics", their sound is that of the inside of the experimental animal's head, the scream of the gas chamber and the agony of civilisation collapsing. At least, that's one interpretation. Alternatively, I could succinctly describe it as "unlistenable noise". In reality, the music falls somewhere between the two. Harsh, painful, chaotic noisescapes, not sufficiently disjointed or extreme as to be really unlistenable: amidst the sonic sludge there is a latent structure lurking somewhere. Out of the chaos you feel almost able to pick out subliminal themes and elements - but it's possible that this is aural hallucination.

Although primarily designed, it seems, to repel the listener, the music is listenable enough that it can seem almost beautiful once you've reeducated your ears. As atmospheric music it's fine, if a little crude, if the kind of atmosphere you like is that found inside an abattoir. As a soundtrack to apocalypse it's a failure, coming nowhere near to reflecting the horror that hides in real life. To a certain extent, it could be argued that if you've heard one wall of noise, you've heard them all, but this isn't fair. Noise music contains a far greater array of possibilities than might seem immediately evident. It can be mindless, violent, serene, obnoxious, beautiful. As far as noise = music is concerned, other artists have explored that idea far more than Thee Grey Wolves have done, a personal favourite being the American musician PBK, who has succeeded in his attempt to develop an attractive noise aesthetic. And, as I said above, as far as noise = statement is concerned, I believe music of any kind is never capable of presenting anything other than a debased form of real extremity. It's easy to react to the group's imagery on a simple, instinctive, and immediate level. The imagery is repellent (to any reasonably socially aware conscience) and so why should anyone bother to look further into it? If you are opposed to fascism and are unable to decide on the basis of what the group is saying whether or not they are fascists, shouldn't you err on the side of caution? Even if you believe they are not, why should you be interested in all this unpleasant imagery anyway? If, as they claim, Thee Grey Wolves see it as their role to present us with information which we would rather ignore, to remind us of the true face of fascism, doesn't it seem sensible to say: "Ok, that's the true face of fascism - I know what it is, and I don't want anything to do with it"? And if I want to see what fascism's about, I don't need Thee Grey Wolves to tell me: there are plenty of real examples to choose from without needing their secondhand representations. Taboo-breaking is usually acknowledged to be a worthwhile activity. Groups like Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth promote it as a means of ridding ourselves of social indoctrination and rediscovering our "true intuitive will". As far as most taboos are concerned, this is fine, since most taboo actions are not in fact anti-social. Taboos against violence are another matter, since they crystallise what even many taboo-breakers would consider to be useful principles. How far do you go in your search for your inner self? Can you justify behaving in a "bad" way because you feel it is necessary to explore both the dark and light sides of your personality? Are the results of such self-exploration so important as to outweigh the effects on others of that exploration?

Many of the earlier "industrial" artists explored these areas: Throbbing Gristle and Monte Cazazza are amongst the best examples. It's arguable that their exploration of the extreme went further than Thee Grey Wolves would ever go since as well as just flirting with the imagery, they privately experienced and publicly performed any number of sadistic and taboo activities, of which, Cosey Fanni Tutti's exposure in pornographic magazines is probably the best remembered. And they're far from the only ones.

Outwith the musical ghettoes, artists like Rudolf Schwartzkogler have explored extreme areas in depth. Schwartzkogler, an Austrian, died in 1969 after a series of performances involving self-mutilation. His compatriot Hermann Nitsch is particularly well known for his 1970s projects, in which the public participated in cathartic rituals involving real animal sacrifice, attempting to communicate with instincts generally anaesthetised by Western social alienation. [see Letters]

Time after time those members of the experimental music underground with an interest in Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Hitler and the other popular icons of extreme evil, seem to justify their interest in such things with the simplistic and idiotic "it's what I like, so it must be all right", appealing to the anarchistic belief that everyone should be allowed to follow their innermost desires. When those desires lead them to express fascination with mass-murderers, I begin to wonder exactly where we can draw the line. Knowing your enemy is all very well, but the interests shown by people like Boyd Rice (Non) frequently seem to cross the border that separates morbid from obsessive and dangerous. But it's not just a question of how you or I or the groups themselves react to fascist and violent allusions. How do others react upon coming into contact with these bands? Some people are attracted by the simple clarity of fascism expressed within the style of bands like Front 242, Last Few Days and many others. Fascist rhetoric attracts fascists - a simple equation. If you don't want to attract such people, then you shouldn't use their rallying imagery in your publicity. This implies that anyone who uses such imagery is happy to associate with fascists, and willing to be labelled as such. Clearly, they don't find this insulting, or presumably they would do something about it.

Others are repelled. If you have suffered the effects of racism at first hand, then you may find it hard to find any liberal sympathy for those supposed sophisticates who plaster their album sleeves in swastikas. You may say this is just the result of their inability to challenge and overcome their conditioned preconceptions. I agree. I also suspect that anyone saying this would be showing a complete inability to understand exactly what it is that has produced this conditioning in the first place. If I had learned to associate the carving of NF on my door with the pushing of burning rags through my letterbox, I don' think I'd have much time for anyone asking me to challenge my preconceptions when presented with a pseudo-Nazi record cover.

It is perhaps reasonable to claim that it is desirable for the audience to reach their own conclusions about the information a band presents, rather than having the band's "right on" opinions shoved down their throats. Nobody likes to be preached at after all, and the mutual back-slapping that is the essence of a socialist band playing to a socialist audience is never going to provoke any thought in either party, only reinforce their prejudices. But should bands be so afraid of expressing their own opinions that they have to shelter behind the expression of supposedly "objective" information instead? I'm happy to accept a bit of subjectivity from the group's I listen to. If I want pure facts I'll go to a library. This particular problem is acute for Thee Grey Wolves, who do try to present their material as simple documentation. Their own opinions are rarely expressed, as they feel it is better to let the information speak for itself without any distorting subjective coloration.

Nonetheless, even Thee Wolves have been forced to declare themselves opponents of fascism, as it has become clear to them that if they do not make their position clear then their audience will err on the side of caution, and stay away. This means that, like Laibach with their irony, they have had to temper their deliberately confusionist stance with a certain disclaimer, and as a result what they present can never again be so challenging. If we know that they are not really fascists, then the ambiguity of their presentation is removed - we know that they disapprove of what they are releasing, and we know how we are "expected" to react. The necessities of real life prevent them from adopting the absolute statement that they seem to desire to make. Confusion as a revolutionary tool has a long history. Within the present century it has been well documented, from the dada art movement (and others) onwards to fluxus and beyond. In Zurich and Berlin, the Dada movement hurled abuse at its audience, shat on the art of the past, and gleefully espoused every paradox it could find. While Kennedy and Kruschev faced off in 1962, flux-artist Robin Page turned what seemed like a rock gig into a potent experience when he kicked his guitar out of the building and down the street, the bewildered audience following close behind. Never let the audience know what is going on, since that way lies certainty, safety, and the end of anything challenging. This motto has served large numbers of artists well in the past, and, applied particularly to controversial and ambiguous politics, it creates a vigorous and interesting result. If people are sure of what you are saying, then it can be argued that they will accept it at face value without thinking very deeply about it. If your statement is not clear cut, then they have to decide what they think it means, and this immediately forces them to give it deeper consideration. In other words, confusionism is a tool for provoking thought. In this arena, Thee Grey Wolves succeed, despite the seeming lack of originality of their subject matter. Unlike the various industrial bands who have dabbled in extreme areas, (with the possible exception of Whitehouse), Thee Wolves make it the sole focus of their art, and in doing so focus on all the questions which surround the area. It is also fair to say that extreme situations demand extreme responses. And surely anyone who still believes that we do not live in an extreme situation has had their eyes and ears tightly shut for most of their life. Increasingly complex formal social organisation has created an environment where the stresses and strains of everyday life that would be easily dissipated by a more flexible and responsive political system are routed into artificial outlets. These stresses accumulate in the gaps between the hierarchical lines of communication, unable to be dealt with by a fixed system that cannot adapt quickly enough to new problems. As a result, the cracks begin to show more and more often, as our entire social structure suffers a nasty form of stress fatigue. The problems are there, as everyone knows, and as everyone knows the problems are not being dealt with, but wallpapered over in the hope that some future generation will have the ability to deal with them.

But extreme responses do not necessarily mean an extremely violent or nihilistic response. There are other forms of extremity. If our only desire is to draw people's attention away from the television set back to reality, to expose the civilised world as a sham, then nihilism is a good way of going about things. In the dark form favoured by many industrial artists, it represents an expression of discontent that cannot be easily repackaged and resold by the establishment, as punk was, for example. However, it's debatable whether it achieves anything else. Negative criticism is never enough on its own. Many of the groups frequently lumped in under the "industrial" banner appear to have recognised this to some extent. Test Dept, whose original performances and records were brutal expressions of anger, have softened their work as they have progressed, attempting to put out a more mature statement of their position. On their album, Terra Firma, they adopted a "green" awareness, but in general they have remained most comfortable as critics of oppression rather than attempting to offer solutions to it. To a great extent, this is a fear of becoming didactic, of telling the audience how they are expected to respond instead of leaving them to make up their own minds. Equally, it's because the group have no real political programme to offer, only a rather simplistic form of socialist consciousness.

Similarly, Nocturnal Emissions have moved away from the tactics of information overload, and from their aggressively presented reaction to their world, adopting in the last few years a more atmospheric musical style. Having decided that their is no future in just shouting against injustice, NE have tried to explore a more personal field, using instinct and the unconscious as their route to a more positive philosophy and a less reactive source of strength.

So clearly, there are problems with trying to create a more positive response to post-industrial society, with everyone who has rejected the extreme approach shying clear of preaching their personal solution. Maybe they just don't have the courage of their own convictions, and so are afraid to lay them on the table, open to criticism. Or maybe they appreciate that there is little point moving into a situation where both performer and audience explicitly share the same opinions, becoming trapped within their mutually reinforcing ideology.

But can replicating fascist ideology ever lead to its destruction? Are the supposed liberals only doing the Nazis' dirty work by creating a climate where the expression of fascist desires is deemed somehow made acceptable? Doesn't violence only breed violence?

Many, including the Grey Wolves argue that violence is the only solution we have left to face up against the Godzilla state. Anyone who believes that a rebellion in this country wouldn't be met by the armed response familiar from Tianamen Square, Jerusalem, Kurdestan and elsewhere is living in a fantasy. Riots in Philadelphia, USA, led to the military being called in to "restore order", with tanks on the streets to keep the populace submissive. The only difference between that and China is a linguistic one: we call it "rioting" if it happens here, and "rebellion" if it happens anywhere else; "terrorism" if it happens here, and "guerilla warfare" elsewhere. Investigations into the P2 masonic conspiracy in Italy uncovered links with the Italian extreme right-wing Gladio organisation, in turn linked to paramilitary forces in Britain which train regularly to ensure readiness for any "communist" takeover. The world we live in is a far more violent and oppressive place than the dailies would have us believe, and the argument that such a state can only be fought by using its own tactics is a powerful one.

Violence is inevitably authoritarian and repressive: it is the forceable destruction of another person's freedom, even if only their freedom not to suffer pain. The question is not whether use of violent imagery is "good". It is not. It is a question of whether or not the ends desired justify the use of such means. And still there is the unspoken assumption that there is no alternative: we can only destroy the state by taking on its mantle. Is this the only choice we are left with or are there other alternatives? Comment on any of the above is very welcome. I think it's only fair to finish with a response from Crystal Knight to a letter I sent:

"In your letter you seemed to suggest that the Grey Wolves hold a basically nihilistic outlook on life - this is not the case at all. Whilst basically our approach is anarchic we deal in the ambiguity that you spoke of for several reasons: if anything we do makes just one person think "What the fuck is the point in them doing that?" it has all been worthwhile, because it has made people question. If people are questioning then they are alive and thinking. Confusion is the key issue. It was recently pointed out to me in an indirect way that the majority of our work deals with the subject of control.

"If I could use the example of control and how we use ambiguity in a positive way, it may make things a little clearer. There is a poster we did showing some bloke being arrested by plain clothes cops - his arms behind his back, face shoved to the ground, cops with pistols drawn - the caption over this picture reads "Say No to Democracy". Anyway, the point is that some people thought we were advocating a totalitarian state whilst other people thought we were being ironic in as much as we were trying to say "Look, this is what democracy is really about!" Either perspective we are quite happy to live with, as the objective of the poster was to make people think about democracy, even if it was only for a few seconds ...

"I would disagree with you though when you say that violence perpetuates the structures of oppression. I believe the exact opposite to be true (i.e. violence is a legitimate weapon of change). I would quote the Strangeways uprising here in Salford last April, and the recent prison reforms as an example of where violence has resulted in change for the better (also the poll tax riot, and on a larger scale the Gulf War)." [see Letters]

Very Selective Bibliography:

Fräctüred #2: "Panorama", excellent article on Laibach by Norman Jope.

Vital #14: Interview with Con-Dom.

Tape Delay: very wonderful book published by SAF and edited by Charles Neal. Interviews with bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Test Dept, Laibach, Non.

Re/Search: Various books including the Industrial Culture Handbook, with material on Monte Cazazza, SPK, Throbbing Gristle and others; Burroughs / Gysin / Gristle, featuring an interesting bio of T.G. by Simon Dwyer; and Pranks, which amongst other things documents a number of very extreme performance artists. Performance Art: by RoseLee Goldberg, published by Thames and Hudson. Some material on Fluxus, Dada and Viennese 'actionism'. Lipstick Traces: by Greil Marcus, published by Secker and Warburg. Shock tactics as used by the Lettrist International and by punk.

Thee Grey Wolves can be contacted at: Artaman Tapes, 62 Saxby Street, Salford, Manchester M6 7RG, England. The Cultural Terrorist Manifesto

(C) Brian Duguid 1995