Joseph Mosconi explores the language of death in a whole new way.
A few days ago, I came across the video for Californian artist, poet, and linguist Joseph Moconi's newest multimedia work, Fright Catalog, and it blew my mind to smithereens. It brought together the familiar (well, familiar if you dig extreme metal) sound of grunts and howls with the utterly strange—deadpan actors painted up like dead Mafia wives and bathed in harsh colored light, stark against a clashing floral background, spitting out shards of lyrics from Darkthrone and Bone Awl in a cacophony of confusion. It was poetry; confrontational, absurdist, and nerve-wracking poetry. It was so mesmerizing, and so wholly unsettling, that I just had to track down its creator and find out what the fuck was going on. The extreme metal angle is what initially caught my interest, but after speaking with Joseph, I realized that the project went a lot deeper—that he'd approached the sounds and lyrical language of metal from a linguist's point of view, and the result is oddly compelling. "I wouldn't say that the video or book is commenting on or critiquing anything particularly," he mused. "I'm more interested in seeing what happens as language is appropriated and moves through different subcultures, how it signifies and re-signifies."
Joseph was kind enough to answer more of my burning questions and shed some light on his bizarre creation below.
Noisey: What am I looking at when I'm watching Fright Catalog?
Joseph Moconi: "Fright Catalog" is a video version of my book, which is also called Fright Catalog. The title comes from a Halloween costume catalog that I get in the mail each year. I am a taxonomist by profession, so my job is to research, collect and catalog objects and place them into a particular order. In this case the object is language. The language in the video and book is basically collaged from various sources: metal lyrics and song titles, language picked up from gaming chatrooms, art criticism, even some old lines of my own high school poetry.
Can you tell me more about the book that accompanies the piece?
I've long had a fascination with slang, specialized language, subcultural discourse, and the secret speech of closed communities. The language of metal, especially extreme metal, is hard to mistake—it has a certain aesthetic and style that means something profound to the initiated, but may be totally meaningless to others. The same is true of some of the posts you'd read in World of Warcraft chatrooms and online occult and magick forums, or with the tropes of weird fiction in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. I'm interested in how this language operates when you take it out of context and re-use it in unexpected ways. The language is already highly aestheticized, but what happens when you colorize it, collage it with lines from your own adolescent poetry, print it in a glossy magazine? What new meaning does it create for others? How does the experience of the language change as it moves through culture?
How did you come up with the concept for this video?
The video is meant to be a visual analogue to the book. The cover of the book contains a really colorful flower pattern, so we created a forest of flowers as the backdrop for the video. And most of the actors in the video are wearing makeup. Makeup and theatricality have been important parts of heavy metal culture from the very beginning, from Alice Cooper and Kiss (not really metal, I know, but influential) to black metal. We're not wearing corpse paint, but there's something about the makeup we use in the video that makes us look even more naturally dead. Essentially I wanted the visual component to act as a counterpoint to the language we were quoting. Since the language is often violent, dark, hateful, occult-oriented, and sometimes disturbing, flowers seemed the obvious choice. Flowers aren't particularly grim, but on the other hand they are the most common prop at a funeral.
The juxtaposition of bright colors and patterns with the harshness of the vocalizations was startling—was that the intended effect?
Yes—the book is full color and each page is incongruent and clashing. I fed each line of Fright Catalog through the search engine of an online color theme generator, so that a different color theme was determined for each line, resulting in the color combinations you see on each page of the book. We wanted to create a similar harshness for the video, but we didn't have much of a budget to work with, so incongruity was created through the different voices of the actors -- and later some effects in editing. The director, Mathew Timmons, basically directed us by telling us to read the lines in different voices: like, "Now do it as a newscaster! Now do it with the voice of Jello Biafra! Now you're a Valley girl, or you're a British schoolmarm!" We ended up with a lot of footage which was then edited down, usually using the best or most interesting takes.
Which metal songs did you lift from? I caught some Darkthrone and Bone Awl in there...
Too many to list! Emperor, Benediction, Blut Aus Nord, Darkthrone, Sunn O))), Leviathan, Gnaw Their Tongues...basically anything that I happened to be listening to at the time I composed it (which was probably about six years ago now).
Fright Catalog really is a piece of extreme metal art. What about the genre do you find most interesting?
Of course I'm a huge fan of metal and extreme music in all its forms. I'm also a fan of pop music, new age music, hip-hop...but maybe that's not so odd these days. I would say metal and hip-hop were the two music genres I grew up with and listened to the most through adolescence. I didn't really get into punk or hardcore or electronic music until later in high school and college. My earliest metal memory is from first grade, of debating whether the letters from the band name W.A.S.P. stood for "We Are Satan's People" or "We Are Sexual Perverts." Later, my older step-brothers would pass down cassette tapes of metal bands to me, stuff like Slayer, Anthrax, Sepultura. At this point, I think metal is one of the most diverse and experimental genres of music there is; I love how it permutates and diversifies into sub-genres and new styles, mixing with electronic and new age music, incorporating elements of shoegaze, drone and folk. I like so much and there's so much to listen to. Xasthur has always been a favorite. Bone Awl. Paysage d'Hiver. I tend to gravitate more to depressive black metal but I like something scorching every now and then too. A friend just sent me a link to an old Adramelech album that I really like.
Metal lyrics can be rough and simplistic, but there are also tons of bands who pour themselves into writing creative, eloquent, and sometimes downright poetic lyrics. How important do you think lyrics are when it comes to appreciating a piece of music?
It depends. With some of the music I listen to, the lyrics are indecipherable. Sometimes I really don't care what the lyrics are, and I'm more interested in the sound of the music. Sometimes, there are no lyrics, and sometimes, the lyrical content is totally objectionable, or the beliefs of the lyricist are something I could never get behind; they might be racist or misogynist. Appreciating music and art can be tricky that way. Ezra Pound was anti-Semitic but I still appreciate some of his poetry. I don't really like anything Varg Vikernes has to say but I love his music.
What else are you working on now?
I'm working on a project that takes various foundational "hippie" texts--books from my parents' generation, things like "Be Here Now," "The Whole Earth Catalog," "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"--and submits them to a type of sentiment analysis, which is an automated way of extracting language and information that allegedly determines the attitude, emotion, or affective state of the writer. I'm creating a book-length poem from this source material.
The book Fright Catalog is available here. In addition to creating his own works, Joseph runs a space in Los Angeles called the Poetic Research Bureau, which functions as a reading series and publication house. Find more information here.
Kim Kelly is scribbling Saturnian poetry on Twitter.