by Niklas Göransson
Metastazis is a French art studio drawing mostly from totalitarian and religious aesthetics. It’s proprietor, Valnoir, discusses his cultural exchange projects in North Korea, as well as a body of work crafted from human blood and bones.
– I’m a graphics designer and visual artist based in Paris. During the early 2000s, I received a degree in communication design. I’ve been working almost exclusively in the music and visual arts field for most of the last two decades and, at forty years of age, I can proudly say that my portfolio is approaching the number of 250 satisfied – or totally dissatisfied – bands, labels, and festival promoters. I’ve been primarily focused on black metal but life forced me to diversify my client base, opening it also for the darker spheres of mainstream music. Furthermore, I’m now also a book editor, working with two different publishing houses, Timeless éditions and Nuclear War Now! Productions, as well as the visual artist behind most images produced by Norwegian company Traavik.Info who, among other abominations, were responsible for the 2015 LAIBACH concert in North Korea.
One interesting trivia I came across was how Valnoir started out with corporate and commercial clients but soon left that world to focus on subversive underground music via his visual art and graphic design studio, Metastazis. This must’ve been quite the change of scenario.
– That’s only partly correct, it was neither especially sudden nor binary but required quite some time and a great deal of effort. When I began exploring the world of graphic design and putting ideas into images, I was already totally obsessed with black metal and any kind of musical experience imbued with a negative and macabre message. The visual tools I was learning were systematically put to the disposal of a greater evil, so to speak – first in a personal and clandestine manner, and then for bands around my area. But one must put bread on the table and local underground music doesn’t exactly provide when it comes to making a living, quite the opposite. So as soon as I had the duty to take care of myself financially, there was no other choice but to follow the dull and, frankly speaking, repulsive path of corporate design.
And how did that work out for you?
– It was horrible. Your passion burns inside but you have to get up in the morning to design web banners for matters you – in a best-case scenario – don’t care about, or outright despise, for people you often wish were already dead. This almost killed my passion at some point. One very French anecdote: I was once extremely miserable working in one of those companies, they were giving me so much shit that I decided for some aromatic payback by stopping to wash, with the exception of weekends to give my then-girlfriend a break, until they could take it no more and kicked me out of their filthy open space. But, through stubborn perseverance, I slowly managed to develop my parallel network in the world of subversive music and managed to gradually invert the balance of what I was doing for a living, as opposed to what kept my heart beating. It took me fifteen years to achieve this goal, but not a single morning goes by where I’m not happy with this choice. Rarely do you reach the most valuable and rewarding destinations by walking the easy and clearly marked paths.
In 2006, Valnoir issued a manifesto in which all future clients were advised to leave their work entirely in his hands, until full completion, concluding with a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum. I’m highly curious about how this affected his career.
– Hard to tell, haha! It’s difficult to compare my present situation with how things might’ve been without the manifesto. In a parallel reality, perhaps showing more flexibility would have brought me more clients, more money – more ’success’. But at what cost? Compromise? Accepting incompetent idiots without any knowledge or authority whatsoever instructing ME how to make things right? That’s ridiculous. So many designers praised this manifesto, I’ve been invited to give talks about it many times, and my colleagues keep telling me, ’I wish I could do the same.’ I always say, ’Then do it! Steal it! Please, stand up for yourself!’ I haven’t been especially privileged, but at least I dared; I’ve been persistent and it worked out well enough. People I work with respect my point of view and, guess what, I still have plenty of commissions, food on my table, and even extra money so I can visit my Russian girlfriend and buy human skulls. Fear paralyses mankind, forces people to make constant compromises which eat at their souls and feed them lifelong frustration in return. This leaves them empty and exhausted shells, left to perish slowly when the age of ‘retirement’ comes. No thanks, my ambitions lie elsewhere.
Valnoir mentioned that he’s gotten into book publishing, bringing us to his recent collaboration with Nuclear War Now! – Analogue Black Terror, essentially an underground black metal museum in printed format. This behemoth volume features a neatly compiled collage of around 450 demo booklets from over 300 bands spread over 260 pages; some from the late 80s and early 00s, but most are 90s demos. Since they are presented chronologically, one is given a unique overview of the gradual evolution of black metal aesthetics as well as the progression of sentiments and conceptual themes. This is a veritable treasure trove for anyone interested in the genre’s history.
– Last year, a close friend of mine exhumed a couple of dusty shoeboxes which had been sleeping in some basement for the last fifteen years; they were full of black metal demos, mostly from the 90s… and, for full disclosure, mostly NSBM. He brought all this to my place – we started drinking and it was then with intense emotion and nostalgia we browsed these remnants from our youth. Another full disclosure, ninety percent of those tapes were very bad. But it was like walking through a forgotten old family album. Then, out of the blue, and without even really paying attention to his own words, my friend remarked that someone should make a book out of all this. And here we are.
What was the main drive in making all this available?
– By far, the main trigger was this deeply intense and almost suffocating nostalgia I feel when closing my eyes and trying to get back to the mid-90s, when my journey into the black metal cosmos started. I’m assuming we are many who share this feeling about the era. I wanted to give it an electroshock and feel that heartbeat again. The second point was to help preserve all those documents on a medium which would properly emulate the physical, almost carnal, connections one can have with such relics. Today, most of these tapes are scattered around dusty basements all over the world, if they haven’t merely been dumped – because who in this shiny era of internet prodigies could possibly care about those terribly recorded xeroxed pieces of trash? At least, let’s give them a worthy tribute, a proper coffin, by celebrating their past and vain glory one last time in the shape of a solid, heavy book.
During its entire creative process, Valnoir kept questioning his own motivation for following through with the project.
– What was is no longer and living for the revival of energies from the past is a lost battle. And, being perfectly honest, the nostalgic thrill during the book’s construction didn’t really match my expectations. Besides the moment of actually finding the tapes, opening them and touching the paper, this was WORK, We’re talking Excel files, endless scanning, sending emails, cleaning images, more spreadsheets, finding structure, selecting typology, and then double-checking dates, titles, countries… although I deeply enjoyed the process from a professional, adult perspective, this had nothing to do with candlelit trances listening to Les Légions Noire surrounded by forest in the dead of winter. All this workload created a wall between me and the emotion one should feel when opening the book for the very first time.
One significant first was that of the aforementioned 2015 LAIBACH concert in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This entire venture was so eventful that not only did it spawn a two-hour documentary, Liberation Day, but also an entire book – Liberation Days, Laibach and North Korea by Timess éditions. The idea was conceived in 2013 whilst Valnoir visited Stockholm to help Norwegian director, arts diplomat, and provocateur Morten Traavik on an upcoming cultural exchange trip to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.
– Morten invited me to join him in directing a music video of local accordion band THE PYONGYANG GOLDSTARS playing covers of A-HA. Yes, the old Norwegian band. But during those few days in your capital, I realised that Morten was an old fan of LAIBACH and a truly disturbing scenario suddenly crept into my mind. This image came from envisioning Milan Fras, the leader of LAIBACH, walking the streets of Pyongyang. I immediately shared my vision with Morten, suggesting to him that we have them travel to North Korea for the shooting of a music video. I’d previously collaborated with LAIBACH and we were still in touch so, on the spot, I connected them – and you can imagine the enthusiasm of their feedback.
Along the way, Morten transformed Valnoir’s idea into a full-scale concert in a 1,500-capacity venue, with LAIBACH performing their own interpretation of The Sound of Music as main program. Traavik already had a network of trusted associates in Pyongyang – including members of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.
– He slowly managed to convince them that this really terrible idea was, in fact, a very good one. As could be expected, negotiations between the involved parties were not exactly a cakewalk; it took approximately two years and Morten had to make many trips to Pyongyang in order for it to happen. And there we are, August 10, 2015 – a crew of twenty-five daredevils landing in the most closed and totalitarian country on earth, run by an utterly disconnected Stalinist religious regime, to put up the gig of a so-called ’fascist’ band. LAIBACH played at 4:30 pm, no refreshments were served. The Palestinian ambassador left the venue after two tracks, claiming it was torture.
Valnoir reports that LAIBACH delivered a decent show despite the hellishly stressful forty-eight hours preceding their performance. However, having seen them in concert many times before, he soon discovered that the real live entertainment of the evening lay in observing how the locals were reacting.
– I mean, LAIBACH is already totally alien to most Westerners so I’m sure you can picture the North Korean audience listening to some inexplicable OPUS cover, “Live is Life”. The elements which were actually created specifically for this show – three re-interpretations of official DPRK anthems – were all culled from their setlist by the censorship committee on accounts of being too weird and depressing compared to the original versions. The fear was that the audience would lose it, go wild, and trash the place. Highly unlikely scenario, if you ask me, but there wasn’t much room for last-minute provocations, so the band decided to comply. The remaining setlist of approximately forty-five minutes remained untouched. One thing to bear in mind here: the show was filmed by the national DPRK television network and has since been aired maybe half a dozen times. It’s been seen by a LOT of people on the territory. Now, consider this… besides LAIBACH, what Western music do they have access to? None. Therefore, the only image they have of our music culture is… LAIBACH, and only LAIBACH. It’s pretty hilarious to imagine an entire disconnected nation picturing martial industrial music as an absolute Western norm, playing in supermarkets, banks, restaurants, and wherever else.
How was the North Korean nightlife?
– Heh, as I’m sure you can imagine, Pyongyang doesn’t offer a broad scope of nocturnal pleasures besides booze and cigarettes. Most of the time, we had to limit ourselves to the entertainment premises in our hotel. One evening, being sufficiently intoxicated, we decided to venture into the karaoke bar – a den of assumed uber-kitsch glazed in the syrupy retro-synthpop usually filling the DPRK soundscape. But, to our surprise, the five-hundred or so pages-thick catalogue was also hiding two dozen Western hard rock and metal tracks, including SLIPKNOT‘s “People = Shit”. In a people’s republic, you have to admit that’s pretty bold. And, of course, they also had NIRVANA‘s lounge music classic “Rape Me”; my decision was instant. So, there I am, on stage, right in front of Mute Records’ chairman Daniel Miller, ruining my throat by screaming ’RAPE ME!’ with the voice of Varg on “Det som engang var”. The best part was this cute North Korean barmaid, clapping her hands with enthusiasm and singing along from a distance… ’Lape me, lape me’. Precious moments!
I’ve heard similar accounts from others who’ve visited the country. Kolgrim from UNPURE, a Swedish band featured in Analogue Black Terror, went to visit the 2009 Mass Games in Pyongyang. He was so moved by the occasion that he brought back a flag and hoisted it on his lawn. Photo documentation of this can be found in the Reverend Kriss Hades article.
– I remember Erik Danielson from WATAIN telling me that someone in his close surrounding went there for the Mass Games, I therefore assume he was talking about Kolgrim! How to describe North Korea in a nutshell? Take China from the mid-60s and push the volume up to eleven. Going there is like travelling back through time and, besides minor details like cell-phones and a handful of recent cars, it’s quite challenging to guess what year you’re presently in. Pyongyang is not as obviously dystopian as it is depicted in Western media, mostly fed by South Korean intelligence who are still at war with the North and therefore not exactly objective. Or just accepting as truth and forwarding any ’This is the North Korea Kim Jong Un doesn’t want you to see’ tourist-photo of a broken bicycle taken from some sightseeing bus.
I know next to nothing about these matters but am aware of a few outrageous and subsequently disproven stories reported by Swedish state television, such as the one about Kim Jong Un – the country’s Supreme Leader – publicly executing a high-ranking military official with an anti-aircraft cannon. Other imaginative tales passed off as facts include North Korea editing footage of a soccer match against Brazil to make it appear as if they won, as well as laws compelling all male citizens to adopt the same haircut as their Supreme Leader.
– One must leave behind all prejudices and expectations when entering this state. However, according to my own first-hand experience, I can testify that the residents of Pyongyang seem quite happy and live rather functional existences. The intensity of religious worship towards their leader can probably only be matched by the fanaticism of Saudi Arabians towards their miserable god, but at least they don’t hang portraits of the Prophet in every room of every building of the entire country. The people are actually very nice and welcoming to foreigners, wherever you come from; including America. The monumental scale of anything paying tribute to their leaders and the state defies imagination and has cost mountains of gold. That always bothered me a bit, in terms of financial common sense, seeing as how half the population starves in the countryside. Because, yes, as soon as you leave the capital, this country is a massive shithole – totally mismanaged and left to ruin, except for the monumental shrines devoted to the leaders. Total third world. And this is not an opinion, it’s a fact. But, as long as you don’t disrespect the state or its leaders, North Korea really is the safest place on earth. Well, unless there’s a nuclear test four-hundred kilometres (250 miles) away, like I experienced in 2017.
In August 2017, Valnoir returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for a gathering of artisans known as the DMZ Academy – also orchestrated by Morten Traavik. The event was immortalised through a documentary called War of Art, which has since been shown at a number of film festivals as well as aired on television in several countries.
– The DMZ Academy project was a multidisciplinary contemporary art seminar in Pyongyang, concluding with a semi-public exhibition and presentation of the projects developed by the visiting artists in cooperation with our Korean peers. At least, this was the original intention. Besides one Chinese artist, we were all Westerners practising forms of art which were, and still probably are, utterly alien to both North Koreans as well as the vast majority of people living in the West. That included art curation, photography – which is not considered a form of art in DPRK – graphic design applied to art, sound installations, etcetera.
Whereas the LAIBACH concert took place under relatively favourable political conditions, the DMZ Academy was organised in far more volatile times – on the verge of nuclear war even, with increased tensions between the US and North Korea.
– All the usual constructive and positive propaganda such as ’Let us build a great nation!’, ’Building socialism guided by our leaders’, and similar slogans had been replaced by utterly aggressive anti-American posters, basically calling for the total annihilation of the United States. On top of this, add the fact that the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the first in several decades, was happening during this period. Everyone in the administration – and the WHOLE country, more or less, is part of the administration – was potentially on a gulag-bound ejection seat and, as such, not exactly willing to engage with any kind of activity which could potentially be considered subversive. And, trust me, a lot of things coming from the West can easily be considered subversive in DPRK. And, last but not least, our main local collaborator in the Committee, who’d been charged with coordinating the whole project, had fallen deep into morbid alcoholism and was therefore not functional. The result when you mix those shit ingredients altogether is a perfectly good shit salad. Oh, and yes, the nuclear test…. since it was conducted under some mountain a few hundred kilometres away, the blast set off an earthquake in Pyongyang. An earthquake we felt, obviously. Cherry on the shit salad.
How was your art received by the locals?
– I suppose you could say it flew over the heads of the Committee members who, despite being pure bureaucrats with neither knowledge nor authority to give ANY input on such matters, decided to filter the content of our presentation. They freaked out when I started showcasing my skills in drawing blood; this was the moment we decided that the human bones I smuggled along in my suitcase would remain there. On the other hand, and unsurprisingly so, the actual artists we met at the academy – although regarding us as ‘gringos locos’ more than Western peers – showed genuine interest and deep curiosity towards my craft, totally understanding that blood can be used as the extension of someone’s soul and therefore be a loaded and acceptable expressive medium. After all, one of their most popular revolutionary operas is called The Sea of Blood.
Blood is an essential element in Valnoir’s general artistry. His first major project of this kind was in 2010 when he was asked to produce a limited run of posters to commemorate the release of WATAIN’s “Lawless Darkness”.
– I’d used blood in the past for some experimentations. I remember a sixteen-year-old-me starting to reproduce the Necronomicon in its entirety using my own blood… full disclosure, didn’t reach the third chapter. Of course, hundreds of artists have used blood to paint in the past, but what I found so compelling here was finding a production method capable of making it accessible to a wider audience, just like one would with a demo or an album. I believe we printed something like 120 copies. The original idea I had after discussing with the printer was to use animal blood, probably pig; it sounded like something which would resonate with the world of WATAIN. But then Erik suggested he send a sample of his own to mix it with the animal blood. At this point, it was either too much or not enough. I then suggested that we use human blood exclusively. Shipping it from Sweden seemed a bit complicated – matters of coagulation, keeping it fresh, etcetera – so we decided it would be fully taken care of in France using blood from myself and another enthusiast.
You’ve also used ink made from human bones, correct?
– Yes. As far as I know, no one ever did this before me – but if I’m mistaken, I’d be very interested to hear about my predecessor. The basic premise was to convey a message about fear, and mostly the deepest fear of all, namely death. I do what I do, art-wise, to tame death, to make it shift from an enemy into a partner, since we must live side by side. My initial idea was to make ink pigmented with human ashes, but they are rather hard to come by, to say the least, being intimately connected to one specific type of parasite.
Are bones any easier to find?
– Luckily, I was commissioned to shoot portraits of the two members of a quite well-know and, I suppose, ’controversial’ French black metal band. The session itself was quite a ride… it was in one of the coldest parts of the country, in the middle of winter. Snow had fallen, which is a rare occurrence in France, and the place we were heading to – where the main member of the band lived – was truly haunted, grim, and populated by backward rednecks. Actually, the literal translation of the name of this village… well, the three houses in relative vicinity of each other, is ’the cold house’. Anyway, while the guys were dressing up I noticed that the drummer had a necklace made from bone, and learning they were not of animal origin triggered my curiosity. It turned out his day-job was as a gravedigger. Since he needed artwork for a side-project, and I needed human bones, we agreed I’d take care of the visuals in exchange for him digging through his cemetery to compensate my work with one kilo of very old, forgotten, and anonymous human bones; plus a side-order of used coffin-wood infused with juicy human DNA to make charcoal and darken the ink. One month later, everything was sent to me via national post services.
In 2014, Valnoir was commissioned to create a silkscreen poster meant to accompany the first one-hundred copies of ULVER’s “Trolsk Sortmetall 1993–1997” – a compilation featuring their first three albums. This time, ink was drawn from the burnt remains of the original analogue tape used for their first two albums. The debut, “Bergtatt”, is one of my absolute favourite records so I wish to know what Valnoir has to say to his defence.
– I hear you, my friend! This album belongs also to my forever and ultimate top-ten. Even if desecration is part of our mutual universe, and there can be a certain pleasure in destroying something sacred, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Here it would be useful to provide some extra contextual information: those albums were recorded at Endless Sound Studio in Oslo. When the studio closed, during the early 2000s, all master-tapes were moved to the house of a relative of the owner. Problem is, said residence partially burnt a few years later.
The fire didn’t physically destroy the tapes, but the fumes and heat ruined them beyond repair. The same fate also befell DIMMU BORGIR‘s “Stormblast”, several TURBONEGRO albums, and many other Norwegian pop, punk, and rock recordings.
– When ULVER asked me to come up with an idea for a special print for the re-release of their ’black metal trilogy’, I came up with several options that were not realistic to them. For example, making ink from the ashes of instruments used on the recordings; all of which were long lost. Then Garm came up with this incredibly radical and genius idea – one I immediately approved – of using the actual master-tape for two of the albums. When I received this huge BASF analogue studio tape, the emotion I felt was really, really intense. The box was covered in illustrations and graffiti drawn by the band during the recording session and also contained the sound engineer’s tracking notebook. I cut pieces of the tape and burnt them to destroy the plastic and extract the metallic particles to use as pigment… pure black metal DNA!