An Interview with Valnoir
by Tenebrous Kate | Feature Photo Credit: William Lacalmontie
Metastazis is one of the most remarkable design studios currently active, aggressively pushing the boundaries of extreme music design while infusing album layouts, posters, and projects with a sophistication that elevates this type of graphic design to an artform all its own. It should come as no surprise that Valnoir, the mastermind behind this studio that has produced art for such powerhouses as Laibach, Alcest, Behemoth, Ulver, and Blut Aus Nord, is a man of creative intensity with a strong ethical stance towards the artwork he produces. Heathen Harvest spoke to Valnoir about his artistic process, what it was like to accompany Laibach to North Korea, his penchant for incorporating unusual and controversial materials into his art, and the concept of petit bourgeois cannibalism.
Heathen Harvest: Although the designer plays an important role in helping to define a band’s aesthetic, he is often invisible to everyone but the most rabid of fans. How do you feel about this?
Valnoir: People rarely buy an album because of the cover. Unless you’re a designer yourself, the cover won’t make a difference. I like my personality to be invisible, in a way. It’s about delivering the band’s message. My job is to provide for the artist, not to use the band as a vehicle to sell my own art. I think some bands are grateful for that because I’m not trying to step on their toes. It’s also why I can switch between totally different styles. Sometimes putting rays and gold won’t work with the band; I just want something sober and minimalistic.
HH: That’s interesting, because there’s a big presence of you as the artist on the Metastazis site. You strike me as someone who cares a great deal about what you’re putting out, to the point that you have a manifesto on the website outlining your working style in no uncertain terms, beginning with the words, “Metastazis does not obey its clients. Metastazis does not carry out its clients’ every whim.” How do you strike a balance between conveying the band’s message and staying true to yourself? How do potential clients respond to that?
VA: It’s a filter, basically. It stops most of the bands who don’t want to work following my ethics. If people go through this filter and accept the terms to work with me, then I assume they’re intelligent enough. I do accept some modifications; if the input is intelligent then I’m open for discussion. I’m just extremely annoyed by people trying to do my job and thinking that because they pay me, that I’m just a tool for them. It’s for the bands’ sake as well. They have to trust me. I know better than they do what is a good composition and what are good forms. Obviously if they feel that the artwork I’m delivering betrays their ethos, then of course I can go back. I don’t want to push you to do something you feel betrays you.
HH: Does the process ever break?
VA: Yes, it happens often. Maybe once out of four times. It happened most recently with Dool. I was recommended to them by their label, but they didn’t really know about my ethics. I delivered many options that were to my eyes acceptable, and they were very picky on every detail—the typography, everything. After months of work, I realized it wasn’t working, so I had to walk away from the project. Of course, it was sad to throw it in the trash can.
I’m not the kind of designer who will just pick an illustration and stick the band’s name on it; that’s very, very naughty. I always re-adapt it to the project. Especially in the black metal world, design can be very generic. A lot of art has no personality at all—some bands are happy with just a pentagram and some flames.
HH: One of the unique things about your artwork is the incorporation of unusual materials into your finished prints, like the King Dude poster produced using ink that contains human bones. You also film the creation of these special projects. Can you tell me more about this?
VA: This is something I’ve developed over many years, although I don’t rely on it because I have to find the right project for the right band. The idea is to add a sub-layer of interpretation so that it’s not only the image that’s talking but also the ink. Everything must be consistent in the work. I’m experimenting with gunpowder, with wine, with meteorites. This process can be highly narrative, but of course it must be connected to the message of the band. Using blood to work with Darkspace makes no sense, and using gunpowder in a project for Watain doesn’t work.
Sometimes you have technical difficulties. My idea was to use gunpowder on the cover of my book [author note: Fire Work with Me is available through Timeless] so you could set the cover of the book on fire, and it would carve the cardboard. I had this idea one or two months after the terrorist attacks in Paris. My publisher told me: “I can give you anything, but printing with gunpowder after this… I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to do it now. I don’t want my warehouse to be raided by cops.” My girlfriend back then told me not to do it. Of course when everyone tells me it’s a bad idea, I really want to do it! I started to order carbon and saltpeter to make my own gunpowder at home. Once I was with some friends, piss drunk, and my ex came through and she was like, “don’t tell me you are playing with gunpowder. You go to bed right now and stop playing with explosives while you’re drunk!”
Working with Ulver with the master tape was probably the most emotional moment in my career [author note: In 2014, Metastazis produced a limited-edition poster to be included with Ulver’s Trolsk Sortmetall box set that was printed using ink containing the master tapes from the original recordings]. I was a fan of Ulver when I was sixteen years old. I was listening to the Black Metal Trilogy when it first came out. I was deeply, deeply touched by these albums, so this was an obsession for me. They told me they would send me the master tape of the album. I wasn’t expecting the actual digital tapes. I was holding the DNA of Ulver and it was like a pure treasure. I burned it, of course. I destroyed it. The name of the project is “This is not Sacrilege” because this tape was damaged by smoke and heat during a fire in the studio where the tape was stored. They couldn’t use the recording anymore, so this was a poetic way to use it. It was very emotional when I was doing it; I had goosebumps.
HH: There’s a real visceral reaction to these materials. It sounds like it’s a very charged process for you, and for the people who get to own these artworks.
VA: These are very spiritual materials. Even though I’m an atheistic person, I still feel that it’s important to put this kind of energy into the work. There is a spiritual power to delivering a message using human bones, for instance. It’s like loading the work with a je ne sais quoi. You feel something, you feel an energy that something is happening. I was talking with a friend a while ago and he said that, “artists are experts in human emotions.” This is what we do. We must be able to deliver emotion to the people. I’m trying to go beyond the surface of the image and go deeper, provoke deeper emotions. Not just what feels good, but what feels great.
HH: Speaking of extremely charged artwork, this seems like a good point to ask about your work in North Korea. You’ve said that when you’re speaking to your contacts there, they’re artists, musicians, and everyday people and that it’s a very different experience from what someone—especially someone like myself, coming from America, where North Korea is demonized in the press—might expect. What is it like to work in North Korea?
VA: It’s always multi-layered. There’s what the North Koreans understand, what they don’t understand, and what they don’t want to understand. They are not stupid, so I see sometimes that they get that there is something a bit fishy somewhere in a project. There’s also what people interpret in the West, and then there’s what we are actually saying, and all the jokes we’re hiding when we work with Morten [Traavik, the Norwegian director whose collaborations with North Korean artists laid the groundwork for Valnoir’s work in that country].
The most important thing when you work with North Koreans is that you don’t make fun of them, it’s not constructive. It’s not helping anyone. You must be sensitive to the way they think. We have to deliver art that they can understand, that they can have emotions with, and that creates a dialogue with the West. We are trying to create an exchange and a dialogue between cultures by using elements from both of those cultures, trying to mix them and see what happens.
The North Koreans hate improvisation. Once something is fixed in the program, you can’t deviate from that approved program. Anything can happen in a massive, dangerous project. You have to be very adaptable. You always have to have a Plan B and a Plan C. Morten is very good at that, at finding the best option possible.
HH: Were there any moments you were afraid for yourself or for the North Koreans you were working with? Did you feel there was real, personal risk?
VA: Being worried for someone else? Yes. The system there means that you’re not responsible for yourself, your mentors and your fixers are responsible for you. I can assume responsibility for my own bullshit, but you’re responsible for the safety of your mentors and your fixers, and you don’t want them to have problems because you fuck up. I was worried all the time, especially during the Laibach concert because this project was so controversial in North Korea that we were extremely tense all the time. Until the review in the national newspaper—which was actually a good review—came out, we were extremely tense.
You have a lot of moments of discomfort and worry anytime you have to deal with people in uniforms, especially at the airport. The second time I was there, they were searching everything, including computers. One of the no go zones is porn. It’s illegal so you don’t want to carry porn on a computer. If you did get caught with porn on your computer at the airport, you’d probably get a slap on the wrist and have to erase it, and that would be it. I think. It was quite stressful, though.
HH: What was the response when you came back? Were there any complications getting back into Europe?
VA: The tour got a lot of attention. As soon as we got out of the plane in Beijing, there was a CNN crew waiting for us. Morten and Laibach did a whole shitload of interviews. The attention is back now because of this documentary called Liberation Day that was released recently and is getting some very good response in documentary festivals. 95% of the feedback we had was very positive. The film almost had no negative feedback, just a bit of “what is this fucking fascist band doing in this fucking fascist country?” from a few journalists in Slovenia and Norway. Even John Oliver on HBO gave us a fucked up review, it was hilarious. All of the guys of Laibach were crying when they saw that.
This was North Korea trying to open up a bit to Western culture, and not the easiest part of Western culture. Laibach is not an easy band to deal with at all! That’s where the real fun was, not to have U2 or whatever bullshit band play there, but to have one of the most controversial bands in the West playing in the most controversial country in the world. It was controversy squared.
After the Laibach concert, Morten was contacted by the agent of Marky Ramone and by Nergal of Behemoth. Nergal asked me about playing in North Korea. I told him it’s not going to happen for a simple reason. They play fucking noise for Koreans. You have two different levels of expression: the form and the substance. In North Korea, both things must fit with their culture. It must be fitting and not in conflict or contradiction to their own ideology. Also the form must be fitting to what they’re used to listening to or seeing. You can surprise them, but not too much or they won’t get it; it will fly over their heads. With Laibach, it was mostly very easy listening tracks of theirs, like their version of “Across the Universe,” for example. I think that the hardest song was “The Final Countdown,” and you could see people feeling uncomfortable with this because it was loud and they weren’t used to the pounding beat. So Behemoth going on stage with their Satanic slogans and music that is too loud even for 98% of Western people? This would never, never work in North Korea the way it is now. No fucking way. This won’t happen in twenty years, and it might not happen in fifty years.
HH: You have plans to return to North Korea this year for a collaborative workshop.
VA: The next project is called the DMZ Academy, this summer. It’s been planned for years, but it’s been postponed many times. One of the reasons was the Laibach concert was the priority and the rest was because of the sociopolitical context. There was the ebola lockdown of the country, then there were the UN restrictions, and then you had the North Korean Workers’ Party convention that was freezing the country from the inside. Seven artists from the West and one from China are going to go to North Korea to have collaborations with local artists. I will be working with very good Korean artists doing some stone painting, using ground stone as pigment, so it’s consistent with some of my projects. It will be two very different conceptions of what art can be, and the challenge is to make those very different conceptions fit together and see what happens. Then we are supposed to make an exhibition of it, and the exhibit will travel.
HH: There’s a very tactile sense to your work. Even the cover of your book, Fire Work with Me, has this rough texture to it that’s so different from what we think of with art books. How much do the sense of touch and the other senses come into play in your art?
VA: Not enough—definitely not enough. The more senses you add, the better. I work in the printing industry, so you don’t have many options to play with. My publisher went along with the idea of the laser carving on the cover—the image is actually burned in. I wanted the cover to contrast with the interior that is printed with gold, on very refined paper. I wanted to create a surprise. Often when you buy books, the cover is the most impressive part and the inside is very disappointing. I was trying to create the opposite.
I wish I could do more! I was a bit disappointed by the blood poster for Watain in this way, because I was expecting it to smell. The amount of blood that you use to print each copy was so tiny that you didn’t get any smell, but I wanted it to smell.
HH: You sign copies of your book with blood. How much of a demand does this put on your body? Have you had to change anything with your diet in order to prepare for this undertaking?
VA: The technique I have is very blood-saving. I don’t cut myself, it’s just a tiny bit of blood. The artist edition of the book is limited to fifty copies and they are all signed with the palm of my whole hand. For this, you need more than a few drops of blood, so I went to see a nurse. She took a pint of my blood at her place. The device she was using was not set correctly and at one point it just blew up. The syringe popped out because she was forcing it too much and the blood started going all over the place. Her dog was there and it started jumping around and licking up the blood. She started pushing the dog away and at this point I almost fainted because it was too much information. So now I have this pint of blood and I didn’t use all of it, so I put it in the freezer just in case it can be useful.
I don’t want to mutilate myself, though. If there is no statement behind it, I don’t want to hurt myself just to be cool.
HH: So body modification doesn’t come into the picture?
VA: No—it’s just the substance. It’s to put my DNA on the book. You cannot forge it, you know? If I do body modification, it must be part of a statement.
It’s not even about being provocative. Metalheads, I mean, they know about blood, right? Go to a Watain concert and you’ll know what the stench of blood is. I feel an artist should put his own blood into his art if he believes in it. No compromises can be made at this point. It surprises me that more artists don’t use their own blood in their art. It’s not even gory—it’s just putting an actual part of yourself into your work. A bit like Hermann Nitsch did, or Michel Journiac who made human blood sausage. I was really sad when I learned about that, because I have a friend who is a chef and for a long time we had this idea of making blood sausage with our blood, and after that I learned that Michel Journiac already did it. The idea behind it was to explore cannibalism without implying necrophilia, murder, or mutilation. It’s like hippie cannibalism because it doesn’t hurt that much. It’s just taking some blood and then cooking with it. It’s petit bourgeois cannibalism. It’s in the pipeline and we still might do it at some point. The problem is, if you want to make human blood sausage you need some good quality blood and because we smoke, we drink, and we eat meat. The quality of our blood is shitty and it would taste disgusting. If you want to make some good quality blood sausage, you need young, vegan blood. No smoking, no drinking—straight-edge, basically. I just have to get some hardcore people and convince them to give me their blood. It’s not just about doing things, you know. It’s about doing things and doing them well.
HH: You’re from a remarkable French art tradition that includes the Decadents of the Nineteenth Century, Octave Mirbeau and Huysmans, whose work talks about forbidden subjects.
VA: I want my work to be as French as possible. The Identitarian alt-right shit has nothing to do with it, but the richest material you can work with is your local material. It works with food, but I also think it works with art. The place you’re living, the architecture, your culture—you have to dig in your own garden first before trying to experiment with other cultures. I really appreciate when people tell me that my art looks French, because I really love French culture. It’s why I use so much Art Nouveau in my work, because even the subway in Paris made of Art Nouveau, and Art Nouveau comes from France.
HH: Do you have an unrealized project or a material you’d love to work with? Perhaps Vantablack has appeal to you.
VA: Of course I would love to work with Vantablack! This material is just unbelievable. As you may know, fucking Anish Kapoor licensed it so no one can use it. It won’t take too much time before another laboratory will find the techniques to make it. Do you have any idea how expensive it is to use it? It’s not available to anyone unless you’re filthy rich and have an actual project with financing to use it. It’s a fantasy for any visual artist, especially for one working in the dark spaces. It’s like lighting a room with a lightbulb that absorbs all color, all light, making all light disappear. I think it’s very appealing but it might be very difficult to handle. For example, making clothes with Vantablack would be totally useless because all your shape would disappear under it. Unless you are very, very fat, it would be of no use because no one could see your ass or your boobs or anything. You would be a black spot moving around, it wouldn’t be very appealing. I’m sure I could find a very nice way to use it or to apply it, though. I have thought about it.
Doing a poster with cocaine for Brujeria would be the best thing ever, but cocaine is too expensive. Maybe printing a poster for Revenge with the bones of Ghandi would be fun as well? Bad taste-wise, I have no limits, so don’t push me too far.