Text by: Lee Henderson
As a subject, Dave Poolman’s decision to focus on certain heavy metal imagery represents one aspect of the artist’s practice of investigating the conventions of crude social behavior and positioning examples of this in the world of visual art. Heavy metal is the highest form of crudity. Heavy metal turns crudity into a community, a society of malcontents formed around the hellfire circle of deranged sounds. Heavy metal has become the Western world’s folk music of baseness, sung by lechers to induce antisocial barbarity among its followers. And out of this miserable anarchy there is catharsis on a mass scale that is intended – by heavy metal’s own practitioners, by and large – to pacify, to inoculate the demon spirit that has most of America by the throat. We listen to heavy metal because we cannot be deceived – the world is a gore fest, a sadistic wasteland of lynching, rape, insurrection, and calculated treachery. I always knew that Napalm Death spoke the truth if only I cared to listen as attentively, as frequently, and as loudly as possible.
Heavy metal is heavy enough to be listed on par with marijuana as a bad influence on a kid. Metal is the sonic gateway to the destructive side of humanity. Heavy metal and marijuana are best friends. And this is exactly the appeal of metal and weed to a very unimpressed demographic of society, whose impression of work is to jerk off and play the guitar, and whose version of hello is an upraised middle-finger. Fuck you. As in: Fuck. You. We may ask ourselves, "Who are these metal worshippers?" How did such offensive, painful, and thoroughly wolfish music gain such a firm foothold so easily, and then unleash the claws and get grindingly worse, and also more awesome? And things have gotten grindingly clawingly worse in the world, but also more awesome, from the metal point-of-view. Metal has been broadening its awesome horizons for over thirty years. Metal speaks for and is a frequently active member of a new generation of utterly atomized and disenchanted middle-class, the dental plan-less poor, and the demonically-possessed; the low-expectation groups who saw It coming, the incoming obliteration of polite society. Metal is the soundtrack to this erosion of democratic manners. It is the sound of the erosion of democracy. This is an exaggeration or a joke maybe.
Democratic people can’t decide if we should take heavy metal culture as a serious threat or a harmlessly and mostly alienating form of expression. I just read an article in The New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian called “Azzam the American; The making of an Al Qaeda homegrown,” about a rural Californian named Adam Gadahn, aged twenty-eight, who is presently one of Al Qaeda’s chief spokesperson’s. Khatchadourian writes, “It’s unclear when Gadahn first encountered death metal, but by 1993 he had decided to learn as much about it as he could. Many of its followers, he found, were cerebral teen-agers like him. They were searching, not so much for a way to release their rage but for an experience that was authentic and powerful…More important, its correspondence network made geography irrelevant. It was a world that Gadahn could belong to.” And as I read this I was struck by the journalist’s earlier description of the genre. At first, the description is evenly didactic in the most forgivingly mainstream voice. “Death metal is a severe offshoot of heavy metal, a reaction to the superficiality of eighties popular culture. In the early nineties, bands that played death metal considered themselves part of an elite vanguard…it is a subculture in love with its offensiveness, and obsessive about guarding its artistic purity.” First of all, the voice here implies that, with all respect, the reader probably has no idea what the author is talking about. But also noticeable is how the author, however inadvertently, forms a very well-phrased base in order to proceed to my first quote, and makes an entirely mainstream rhetorical argument that heavy metal trained Gadahn to become an Al Qeada operative. The telling sentence in the journalist’s sequence is stressing that, “More important, [heavy metal’s] correspondence network made geography irrelevant.” Azzam the American, trained by grassroots cassette-tape bootleg sharing to become a master propagandist for a terrorist rhizome, perfectly groomed by the longhairs of death metal to speak as a proselytizer for the suicidal cause of the turbaned Al Qaeda. Gadhan is the most perfectly positioned middle finger, the biggest heavy metal fuck off pointed right in the face of the most powerful men in America. Gadahn is also perfection positioned to plant the seed for more death metal fans to grow up from Morbid Angel to “homegrown Al Qaeda..” An already disenfranchised minority in a democratic society, kids who love and listen to heavy metal, now have a world famous enemy of the state in their extended network. The story of Gadahn’s obsessive relationship to death metal reveals few uncommon anecdotes, though it’s all freakish-sounding in the article, goes on for another two pages. And if Khatchadourian, the writer of the article, is rhetorically persuasive enough, it sounds like this class of music listener is about to get a lot more disenfranchised. And this dude Azzam, I’m looking at his picture now, and he still looks completely heavy metal, even in the “pristine white robe and white turban.” Gadhan has taken the corrosion of conformity to its natural extreme. But the kicker is the last line of the article which sounds like a Judas Priest lyric but is a quote from Gadhan, the Californian Al Qaeda rock star, from his latest straight-to-Internet video “An Invitation to Islam” (Sept. 11, 2006): “So don’t be complacent, or let the Devil deceive you into thinking that your connections will intercede for you on that terrible day.”
A lot of people across a lot of demographic points over the cultural grid would agree that metal music should be indicted as partly responsible for many of the most disastrously evil actions of modern civilization. Without the time to compile a well-seeded historical footnote, only take a moment to tally up a quick legal history of the genre starting with Gadahn for treason (first in fifty years) and working your way back in time, as far as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll if you want to. The case histories make it clear why heavy metal, despite it being stylistically erroneous and slightly impoverished on the palette, is an urgent and relevant subject to address from a more sympathetic point-of-view. There is a growing divide between the rich and the poor. Sectarian violence. These and climate change, clichés so aggressively true, much like the derivative alienation offered by metal music, that some artful attention must be taken to properly address the psychological dimensions. Sectarian Violence. Tonight. 8pm. Dave Poolman’s video and other visual art offers a point-of-view that challenges our perception of authority, and of who has worth, who has value. For appealing foremost to a large young audience of underdeveloped, hormonally fucked-up teenage boys and girls with no agency in their lives, spending all day in an under funded educational prison yard to keep them busy until their parents can take them for house arrest, and not infrequently with harsh beatings throughout the day from various peers and authority figures, for appealing to these people as a source of refuge and sympathy, heavy metal is frequently blamed for suicides, murders, terrorism, and devil worship.
Metal’s only ally, and its been this way for the whole history of the genres as they’ve overlapped, is gangsta rap. These artists are the ugly truthsayers. The ugliest ever. The loudest. The most pornographic and violent. The shit these dudes talk about is so heavy, so barbaric, insulting, nihilistic, sadistic, masochistic, and preposterously and parodistically male, that you’d have to be an absolute square to not get the spin here.
Tedious to go count it all out and do up the pie chart to show the spread for metal’s convictions, dismissals, and the lucky times when metal was found innocent of charges of social treason. Metal is a repeat offender, perpetrating the same morality crimes time and again. But surely there is also physical evidence of the constructive value of these genres, gangsta rap along with the subject of today’s essay, heavy metal. The influence, for example, on socially redeemable activities such as professional sports and publicly exhibited artwork. There are works of art such as these by Dave Poolman that can be offered as exhibits in defense of the equally inherent value that heavy metal has on culture. In the art context, the middle finger pointed at our faces is a portrait, not an insurgent’s salute or a rude request. In the era of the ever-present camera, the middle finger is the self-reflexive get out of my face. The image is a portrait of a disenfranchised hello, the anti-hello. (Rappers often use it, too.) Poolman’s art shows sympathy for and good-humored familiarity with death metal, and middle finger esthetics in general. When encountering his works, the audience is at least, you hope, entering the gallery space sympathetic and familiar with art. As an artist, Poolman can be something of a trawler, going out to sea across the Internets, fishing up particularly sought-after specimens of wriggling, still-alive culture. Found footage of the upraised middle finger is a prize, capture-and-release. Add it to the loop. The music enhances the psychological realism of the portrait. The audience sees the subject and hears the sounds of chaos and corruption locked behind the portrait’s eyes.
Lee Henderson is the author of The Broken Record Technique, a collection of stories published in 2002 by Penguin Canada, and a novel, The Man Game, to be published in early 2008. He is a contributing editor for the visual art magazines Border Crossings and Contemporary, for whom he writes on Vancouver art and artists. He curates the Attaché Gallery, a non-profit commercial art gallery inside a black, hard-shell briefcase.
David Poolman is an MFA graduate from the University of Windsor, and a graduate of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Working in video, print media and installation, he has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Recent international exhibitions and curatorial work include shows at Ziehersmith Gallery (New York, NY), Sushi Performance and Visual Art (San Diego, CA), Videolisboa (Lisbon, Portugal), Darklight Film Festival (Dublin, Ireland) and The Chicago Underground Film Festival (Chicago IL). In 2003, David Poolman and Jeremy Drummond founded SPARK VIDEO CANADA, a monthly international video series in London, Ontario. Poolman lives in Toronto and works as a sessional instructor at the University of Western Ontario and Sheridan College.