Fear of a Black and White Planet

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

In the essay "Death in the Image World", which deals with the Chapman Brother's work Hell, shown in the Apocalypse exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London, Rick Poynor writes about his early encounters with the horrors of the Holocaust: "In a friend's bedroom, I picked up a horror comic and read a story in which a Nazi boasted about owning a lampshade made of human skin. Visiting the house next door, I pulled a book about the Nazis from the bottom shelf and saw a photograph of a deformed leg that seemed to be the result of some kind of ghastly experiment. It would be several years before I learned the unimaginable truth behind these hints. On the way to that knowledge, many other unwelcome images put down twisted roots in my head. If my father thought something on television was unsuitable for family viewing, he switched off the box".

Our parents were not as prohibitive as Poynor's, and we probably got a much clearer idea of where those "unpleasant images" came from sooner. But even with our viewing and reading habits uncensored, we could not have helped, as children, being equal parts fascinated and disturbed by the bizarre, creepy, black and white images that plagued our television sets once a year regularly, on Holocaust memorial day. Piles of bodies, scary old people, dodgy photographs of Dr. Mengale's twins, all badly lit with the flickering candle-light of sentimental melodrama. Nothing could mitigate the shock value of these sickly broadcasts that filled the entire screening schedule of Israel's sole channel.

On those Memorial Day afternoons, spent in front of the T.V., human flesh and film became intertwined, maybe even interchangeable. Like an unavoidable tragedy, we knew damn well that those mid-eighties theatrical depictions of Jewish life in Ghetto, shot on low quality color hi-8 video, will eventually disintegrate into the long, silent shots of the grainy black and white footage that was taken by the allies' propaganda crews on the liberation of the camps. The horror did not come from the directness in which these films presented the human body in its most deplorable state, but rather from the inescapable strangeness and beauty of the ancient technology of the forties' military camera that seemed to make everything dark, surreal and important. We were pretty much accustomed to bodily horrors shot on video, from the nervous, hand-held reportage coming from Sabra and Shatila to the trashy gore movies that we rented from our local video store. Thinking about it now, it might have been a fear of Modernism, and not, say, of "the fate of the European Jewry", like they said at school, a fear of that black and white world that preceded television and yet came back every year crawling into our living rooms with its eerie silence and un-American look.

As we grew up and discovered a mutual interest in Heavy Metal, Industrial and Gothic music, we revisited many of these images through album covers and lyrics which referenced them as signifiers of ultimate evil, mystifying these historically decontextualised horrors. The deep guttural growls of the vocals and the grinding incoherence of the lo-fi production on many of those late eighties and early nineties recordings, especially of local bands, whose sound was often further corrupted by repeated bootleg taping, seemed to echo the distance of the concentration camp film footage, to be equally detached from the shiny now-ness of American chart pop. One particular image that comes to mind in this context is the cover of Israeli band Salem's Millions Slaughtered live recording tape: what at first seemed like a typical image of a mosh pit, with people crushed against each other, turned out to be a photograph of dead bodies in a death camp. But Salem's rhetoric of horror, which saw the historical fact of concentration camps situated alongside the usual quasi-mystical Satanic motifs of the Death Metal genre, was far from unique. Outside Israel it was used by anti-Semitic, neo-Teutonic Black Metal bands like Burzum, as well as bands with a less clear agenda, like Holocaust and Immortal. As we scribbled their elaborate logos on our school desks, bags, jeans and sometimes even arms, during boring classes, or as we listened to more lucid explanations of the history of World War II, we too were taking part in the ritual obfuscation of hard facts through the romanticisation of evil.

Although it didn't seem like it when we were in high school, Death Metal is not about extremities. There are plenty of other musical genres that are far more challenging and extreme - conceptually, tonally, socially: Japanese terror-noise, the American army's sonic weapons and even pirate radio U.K. garage are just a few. Metal was always about setting definite musical borders and toying with them with the musical confidence that can only come from the conservative musical authorship of a hard working guitar player. It is about refining pre-existing definitions of noise, sickness or good and bad taste in general. Maybe that's why, as far as its treatment of the holocaust went, Metal never really crossed the lines of bad taste like, for example, early Punk did, where it was not uncommon to come across a bass player dressed in full SS uniform. The horror of the Holocaust was always worshiped from a safe distance as if not to provoke its semi-holy status as the origin of evil. In many respects we choose to keep the same distance. Most of the taboos around the subject that we can think of have already been broken, but no matter how many edifying documentaries we continue to watch on television repeats, how many serious academic books we read on the Holocaust, it's at this seemingly safe, reverential distance that for a fleeting B-movie moment it remains disturbing, replete with the horrors of putrefying flesh.