As part of Tromsø-based Insomnia festival edition in 2020, the anti-fascist performer Helge Sten aka Deathprod was invited to propose a performance set in a church. Martin Bjørnersen seized this occasion to conduct an email discussion with the Norwegian artist about the implementation of fascist ideas in mainstream culture and his artistic vision more widely – presented here with minimal edits for clarity.
Author: Martin Bjørnersen
Photo crédit: Kim Hiorthøy
Martin Bjørnersen: Do correct me if I am wrong, but I’m assuming this would be the first Deathprod performance set in a church. How did you approach the prospect of performing in this (very) particular venue? Did the booking come with any specific restrictions?
Deathprod: Assumptions are usually not the best way to start an interview, I would say, but Deathprod has performed in churches in the past and probably will in the future. The main concern in regard to concerts is in fact the size and acoustic properties of the space. We work with sound in a very physical way, and you need a big space to make this kind of loudness dimensional for the listener. It is very rare that we play in clubs because the loudness becomes more one-dimensional, and you will experience the sound more as a frontal speaker confrontation instead of being fully immersed in sound that is evolving inside a big space. I approached this venue much in the same way as I would do at for example Berghain. It is my place of work on the day the concert will be performed. The most notable restriction was that we could not use haze, which meant that we could not implement the visual production we usually do. There are really not that many options in Tromsø when it comes to a big space where you have the infrastructure to accommodate concerts. We usually turn down several concerts every year due to issues related to finding suitable spaces to perform.
Speaking about… restrictions. One might say there is some very specific context to performing in a Christian place of worship in Northern Norway, a context that was highlighted by the other performance that sunday by Elina Waage Mikalsen, which provided a specific reference to indigenous Sámi culture, of which the church as an institution was at the very least an accomplice in a brutal attempted cultural genocide against. There are specific reasons why I’m asking which we will get to soon, but for now – did this ugly part of local history affect the way you approached the prospect of this performance?
The long history of oppression, brutality and abuse by the Christian church will always be a backdrop in these situations. I think it is hard to remain neutral to these surroundings, but at the same time it is a venue like any other venue in regard to infrastructure and logistics. It seems like the most prominent function of the Arctic Cathedral today is to serve as a backdrop for Tromsø’s tourist industry. We played two concerts at this year’s CTM festival in Berlin, and though the venue is converted to a big concert space, it used to be Berlin’s biggest crematorium. Buildings are what you put into them at any given time.
The specific reason why I found it potentially relevant to bring up here, is the fact that a large part of the material you performed that Sunday, is originally from “Occulting Disk”, an album you explicitly referred to as an “Anti-fascist ritual” upon its release in 2019. So performing that material in a church, and in this church specifically, might open up some further reflections on anti-fascism and music as a ritual practice, but also historical connections between todays brand of fascism and certain parts of our collective past, including those fairly well known but rarely discussed parts of norwegian history alluded to in the previous question?
I am afraid you are mistaken about a large part of the material in the concert being from “Occulting Disk”. About 70% of the material performed was from the album “Morals & Dogma” from 2004.
However, all concerts with Deathprod are anti-fascist. This will be true beyond the past, current and future history of the building where the concert took place. It will be true in spite of the day-to-day religious activities that take place there. “Occulting Disk” is very specifically dealing with rise of the current wave of fascism and where this material is performed will in most cases not alter the intention or message, it might however enhance it. Rituals are not exclusively a religious practice, in fact you will find it implemented in most people’s daily routine, however often not construed as rituals. A ritual is a series of actions performed in specific patterns, and if this is used as a tool to address fascism it can be healing, as well as a long-term tool for change.
You have referred to that album and the process of it as a means “to deal with the almost physical sensation of being immersed in fascist infrastructure“. Would you consider the Arctic Cathedral as a physical, fascist infrastructure?
I am mainly referring the mindset of fascism and how we, on a global level, see actual implementation of fascist ideas in mainstream culture, government and human interaction. It is becoming normalized in our daily life and we seem collectively numbed by it, opening up for an unfathomable downstream reality. A physical structure in Tromsø is not the issue at hand, even though it theoretically can house some of the ideas mentioned above.
I’ve seen you perform parts of the same material at a very different setting, at the venue Østre as part of last years Ekko Festival in Bergen. I must admit that experience left me slightly puzzled as to the live presentation of the “anti-fascist ritual”. It struck me that given no introduction beforehand, theoretically there was nothing in that performance or presentation in itself that would have alienated a (theoretical!) fascist in that audience. What are your thoughts on the complicated matter of making instrumental music with an explicit political content, and communicating that intention clearly to an audience?
I think it makes a difference to make political intentions publicly known when it is a key component of the music, but at the same time I specifically work towards creating an open space for the listener, without guidance to how you should experience the music. To me an anti-fascist ritual is not necessarily about repelling or alienate (theoretical) fascists in the audience or elsewhere, it is a tool for myself to focus my attention on the constant ongoing implementation of fascism, and thus be able to deal with it on a personal level on a day-to-day basis. If others choose to utilize similar methods, that is obviously welcomed by me. Saying that instrumental music has problems communicating intentions clearly, would invalidate most abstract art. It is all a matter of context.
Are there ways to make the actual performance of music an anti-fascist act in itself? I’ve been thinking about this dilemma quite a bit the past few years for obvious reasons, and more so since that very concert. And coincidentally one example, to me, of what seems like a conscious attempt of something like that, would be what Joshua Abrams is doing with his fluctuating and seemingly quite “musically democratic” Natural Information Society project (especially the parts of that project that connects quite openly with the utopian project of Don and Moki Cherry and their Organic Music Society) – which I have also seen you perform with, at last year’s Kongsberg Jazz Festival. Your Deathprod performances, on the other hand, could even be construed as somewhat “totalitarian” in their nature, with one performer in total control of the room at all times. What’s your take on dilemmas like these, which I’m pretty sure are more than familiar to you?
If you are an anti-fascist performer, it is hard to see a context where the performance would not be anti-fascist in itself. Deathprod is a different musical setting than Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society, and it will evoke different experiences, both for the performers as well as the audience, but to suggest that a solo performer can be construed somewhat “totalitarian” in their nature, might seem like a construct on your part for the sake of the overall arc of this interview.
You are also operating in musical fields occasionally frequented by … ideological controversies regarding perceived fascist messages and the likes – if one accepts labels such as noise or dark ambient, which are frequently used about your work, so that that association might still exist if only on an involuntary basis. Was the explicit political nature of “Occulting Disk” in any way conceived as a response to this?
As earlier stated, the explicit political nature of “Occulting Disk” was a response to the global ongoing implementation of fascist infrastructure, physically and mentally. I have never associated my music with dark ambient or noise as a genre description, and I think it is a rather voluntary association if you (or anyone else) choose to bundle Deathprod with artists dabbling in murky ideologies.
Speaking about musical association and ambient music – you also chose to perform one piece from your collaboration with Geir Jenssen / Biosphere at the Arctic Cathedral. Which seems like an obvious nod to certain musical traditions associated with Northern Norway specifically. What is your connection or kinship to Geir and his work – I would assume there is one given the collaboration?
Beyond the stereotyping in your question, I would say that Geir Jenssen has produced some of the most unique and respected electronic music of any time. It has been an honor to do several collaborations and concerts with him throughout the years. One of the main reasons I found those collaborations interesting was that we have a different approach to constructing music, and it was not obvious that it would work when put in the context of an album. On both “Nordheim Transformed” and “Stator” we never collaborated on each other’s tracks; it was more of a situation where we created an arc of music that would complement the two different approaches within the format of an album.
Insomnia Festival could be categorized as part of an expanding “family group” of festivals programming electronic music from the distinctively different but somewhat related worlds of electronic club music and electronic avant-garde music, or so called art music. Ekko festival would be another one, probably several other festivals you have performed at in recent years too. Where do you see your expression fit in, in that context? If at all – it’s kind of hard to define at least everything you do as “electronic”, depending on how one defines that, some could even argue that not everything in the Deathprod catalogue is “music”, strictly speaking?
Electronic music need to operate within a wide scope, and some of the festivals you mention are very good at creating interesting context for performers, creators, as well as the audience. Electronic music is a very crude and rudimentary description of the type of tools involved in the creative and/or performative process, but it does not in any way tell you anything about what you can expect to experience. I have never tried fit into any niche or specific genre as I find it limiting to myself as well as the audience.