August 23, 2018 -

As told to Brandon Stosuy, 2656 words.

Tags: Music, Art, Multi-tasking, Independence, Creative anxiety.

On making what you can’t find

Musician and visual artist Dominick Fernow on being inherently driven to make things, and why nostalgia and social media can get in the way of making good work.

You’ve been making and releasing music for a long time, as a solo artist and as a collaborator—noise, electronic, black metal, industrial, etc. You’ve likely put out over a hundred records, CDs, and cassettes. Do you do so many different projects, and so many different kinds of music, because it’s the way you stay interested and invested?

It’s never a matter of staying interested. It’s just a matter of trying to catch up with the ideas that are lingering. There’s just notebooks and notebooks, and pages and pages, and stacks of paper with ideas, and titles and references and designs that are never fulfilled and are never able to come to fruition. So, it’s never a matter of losing interest. There just is no other option for me. This is the only thing that I care about.

When I first moved to New York city, an old friend of mine, Matt Kenny, said something to me. We were walking around the old Virgin Mega Store, which is still to this day my favorite record store in New York city, and he said, “I’ve realized that I don’t have a lot of interests.” I thought that was really profound. He continued, “Basically, I’m just interested in one thing, and that’s painting.” It sounds grandiose in a way, but it was a radical position. Rather than saying, “I’m obsessed or driven by my subject,” it’s more that it’s the only thing that I’m interested in. It’s kind of an eliminationist way of putting devotion to an art practice.

On the counter-end of that, a friend of mine, Robert Crouch, said to me once that “art practice is not special.” I think what he meant by that is the idea that human beings making art or devoting themselves to an art practice is something inherent: at worst it’s mundane, at best it’s routine. That was also profound for me because it ate away at the concept of romanticization. If you remove romanticization from what you do, a question of how do you stay interested isn’t relevant. It’s sort of like, “How do you maintain interest in making breakfast?” It’s something that’s there, it’s something that’s constant, and it’s something that will always be with you.

As far as doing so many projects… For me it starts with subject matter, always. Even though I work in the field of music, I don’t consider myself a musician. As ridiculous as that sounds, I just consider myself an artist that works in the medium of music.

So content is the driving factor for me, and that predominantly comes from reading. When I feel like there is a lack of a certain subject matter, or an insensitivity in the way that certain subjects are handled, I just try to make what I can’t find.

I think that’s kind of the ethos of most DIY punk bands. The motivation, in the first place, is just filling a gap. It’s an act of necessity rather than a choice. So in my case it might have gone to an absurd extreme, but it’s really just an indication of being unable to find something. And that isn’t to say that I necessarily know what I’m doing, because I’ve come to realize that my process is a mix of hyper self-awareness, and being open to my subconscious.

It’s a contradiction. You have to really know what you’re missing. And in order to know what you’re missing, then you have to know what you have. And at the same time be open to just unexplainable impulses and attraction.

You’ve released a lot of stuff on your own label, Hospital Productions, but you also work with other labels. When do you make the decision to do something on your own versus working with someone else?

I usually self-release. And I put what I do into two categories: research and albums. And while the definition of an album is a loose one, and in some cases a literal one based on time duration or formatting, I define the albums as the less-specific combination of the results of the research of the individual releases that I have put out myself, which always deal in specific sounds and subjects. If you’re trying to emphasize the conclusion of the research, a third party is needed in essence to publish the result of that research. Even if you look at it in an academic way. Formatting is important.

I had a critique of some collages I did with Vatican Shadow asking, “Why are these on 8 1/2 x 11 paper? Why isn’t it the size of a wall? Why isn’t it really tiny? Why are you using generic standardized formatting?” It forced me to realize that the limitations of music formatting is part of what excites me. Because It forces you to be creative, and think, “What can I do differently with what I have?”

You’re often creating the packaging for your releases. They feel like art objects. Would you ever do art in and of itself? Or for you, is it essential that it ties into the music in some way?

I would say that I’m already doing that. It’s just I don’t have that audience. There has always been a link on the Prurient albums with visual artists that are important references and time stamps. Prurient performed in Dan Colen and Dash Snow’s “Nest” when the Cocaine Death album came out. I’ve just finished a performance with Nico Vascellari as part of his “Revenge” exhibition at Maxxi and I’m currently working on collaborations with photographer Sven Marquardt and designer Yang Li, as well as some other projects that are too early to announce. However, I find that the fine art world is just so incredibly conservative, despite its vast potential for experimentation.

A major difference between the two—the art world and the music industry—is the systems and systemic narratives around them. There’s a commercial gallery system that can try to make things feel rarified, available only to those with the capital for it, versus a label system that wants to get things out to as many people as possible. The people creating the work are represented, or framed, in different ways, too.

Yes, and yet they both deal with material creation. Music is so inherently materialistic in its most literal sense, but it is also something that compels me constantly. I am a record collector, and I keep, and I hold dear, and I hold sacred the noise tapes from the nineties. The early death metal demos, and that kind of stuff. I am endlessly fascinated by those in their most material sense. I’ve always felt the cassette was special for two reasons: that it is for your hand, the intimate palm of your hand. And that it’s the only format that is a machine. By definition, a machine has moving parts.

So there is this literal and grotesque materialism that comes along with music that in some ways the art world doesn’t have, because it deals less with creating duplicates and making facsimiles. Mostly the art world is about one-offs, or originals. That’s something that I think the music world could take from the art world: this idea of originals. There’s so much criticism of… especially in the metal scene, “Oh, why is the edition so small. And it sold out too fast.” And all this typical sense of entitlement that comes along with music.

But I think again, that’s something that noise really stood apart from, especially in the height of the music industry in the early nineties. Look at Merzbow/Smell & Quim, 7” Seven Inches Inside a Vagina. The limited edition comes with a plastic mold of a vagina with fake pubic hairs glued to the plastic mold. That is clearly an art object that is dramatic in its fragility. And it’s also clearly, totally materialistic. So I think what I’m ultimately getting at is that both of these forums deal with materialism. It’s just that music emphasizes production, and fine art emphasizes original creation. And that’s a dialogue that should be explored deeper.

What do you see as the function of live performance? How does it tie into your practice?

Ron Lessard always said that the true test of any noise artist is on the stage. Having to use your body and react with your body to the sound in a way that just does not happen at home. And especially in the earlier days of Prurient, with the feedback performances, I was literally just in physical pain. Just putting myself in a situation of standing in front of 13” x 12” speakers, two horns and two 15s all playing just microphone feedback. It was just literally a painful environment. And that forced me in the most visceral sense to react to the sound and explore that pain. Now I would say it’s entirely based on some sort of small, microscopic personal history. And the very small microscopic sense that the audience brings their expectation of who you are with them.

As a performer, you’re navigating this expectation of who you are, what will happen, and how to reference, overcome, or break down the expectation of that physicality in a more psychological way. But there is an impact to just seeing somebody in person, in a room, even if they aren’t doing anything. Go to a poetry reading, it’s a totally different thing than if you’re listening to a book on tape. There’s just something about the physical presence of flesh in a room.

Nostalgia culture is everywhere—in the art and music worlds and on TV and the internet. You have blockbuster exhibitions with older artists, reruns, reunion tours. How do you avoid caving in to nostalgia, or caving into the expectation of what the audience wants?

The answer to that is visuals, and changing equipment. That might be a boring reality, but it is drastically different than going on a floor with just amps and creating this sonic environment. The challenge of performance is that you’re always dealing with variables that are out of your control, and you’re trying to overcome them. Whether it’s the sound system, or whatever else is going on in the town that night. You’re trying to create the illusion that what you are doing is real and it’s spontaneous and people are somehow being privy to something that is theirs. That is what fascinates me about live performance.

I feel like I’ve always been a big believer in, “You don’t need all this stuff. You should be able to command the stage with just your body. You don’t need to have all of this traditional trappings of a show.” But we’ve been working a lot with AJ Annunziata at our label showcases, who does lights and projections. It’s been an exciting development and collaboration because what he’s been able to do is create a visual continuity between every act. When there’s a feeling of time continuing and everything being on a level playing field, that’s another way to feel like you’re not in the club. You’re overcoming the limitations of the venue. It starts to become a ‘thing’ rather than a place.

That’s something that’s very misunderstood and very powerful about the techno scene—traditionally you didn’t see the DJ, you didn’t watch the DJ, you didn’t even know that the DJ was in the room. This has obviously changed. But it’s one of the only jobs in the world where you can show up, perform the tasks that you’ve been hired to do, to do them at the right time, to do them correctly, and to totally fail to deliver the product, and the product is the vibe. That’s this invisible feeling that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the culmination of all these factors and elements, and body language. Reading the crowd and also ignoring them at the right moments. It’s like a sales pitch. It’s like you’ve got to wow them, and then tell them a story, and then you can sell them anything. I think doing this collaboration with AJ, that’s starting to get into that ethos, in a visual sense.

I think the only way to fight nostalgia is through newness and risk. But also equally important is to not make excuses, and to not apologize for your past. I see a lot of people who are trying to revise their past right now. I think that’s a huge mistake because if you’ve been around long enough, you’ll see the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows, the peaks and valleys of all this stuff. But if you were sincere in what you were doing, even if it was bad, or you feel that it was a mistake, or a failure, then you can learn.

So the path to fighting nostalgia is to never apologize. You’ve got to stay hungry. You have to pay attention to what’s going on, whether you like it or not. You have to be involved. And if you think it sucks, then you need to do it better. Continuity is the structure of creating your own world. But continuity flows forward, so your world can’t only live in the past.

You’ve managed to create a following and to make a living off of your work without using social media. Are you trying to remain within a subculture, while still growing your audience through live performances and physical objects?

You know, I’m just the son of a Vietnam Vet and an NPR talk show host. What more can I say? [laughs] For me, the social media thing is a cultural decision. I’ve never liked it. I think it’s a highly destructive element. I’ve been saying that for years. One of the good things that did come out of this current climate was the way people have started to question and become more aware of how dangerous social media can be and how powerful it can be.

I don’t like reducing scenarios into likes and dislikes. I don’t have that kind of thinking. I don’t have that wish to think of the world in those terms. I don’t want to participate in a discussion that’s unfair and unrealistic. I don’t want to participate in a product that is diminutive and that insults people’s intelligence—one that degrades them into likes and dislikes. I also think it’s a huge disservice to the art and the fun of discovering music.

I was talking to a friend of mine who did some great illegal parties in lower Manhattan. He’s about 25. I bumped into him the other day and he’s like, “Yeah man, we’re the last generation who didn’t have social media.” And I was like, “No, no, no. That was my generation.” Then I understood what he meant was that social media is its own entity outside of this internet—as if the internet was a utility, and it was just like having water and he could never have imagined living without it.

Part of the problem is that I went to design school and studied typography. The year I graduated was the first year it was a requirement to have a laptop. Typography without a laptop! In our world now it’s like joining the Hells Angels and not having to have a motorcycle. The ubiquitous online shift is a huge reservoir of paradoxes. Of course there are benefits, but I want to always try and remember the idea of active participation and not reduction.

Dominick Fernow recommends:

  • scissors
  • 3m clear tape
  • serrated defensive flashlight (for any travel, party, or walkabout)
  • donald hall
  • remembrance of frank lee morris (dead or alive)