The Monochrome Muse: Extreme Culture and Lo-Fi, High-Contrast Art
The British serial murderer Dennis Nilsen, once he had cemented his singular legacy of death dealing, came to be known by an ironically colorful sobriquet: “The Monochrome Man.” It is a label that has resolutely stuck with him throughout the years, because it so perfectly communicates the idea of a “Manichean double-headed monster”[i] living in the type of binary on/off relationship to humanity that has come to typify slayers from Bundy to Gacy (as well as more garden variety psychopaths). Masters contends that this was not a “dramatic contrivance conceived after his arrest…but a long-standing obsession,” and in particular an obsession with how “the contrasting poles of nature […] possess[ed] him equally.”[ii] The stark polarization of Nilsen’s personality, between the “light” civil servant / social activist and the “dark” murderer, has remained a subject of fascination for both the general public and for students of criminology, with even Nilsen’s documented articulacy on the subject only serving to raise more questions where answers are expected.
There is a less frequently discussed, but no less engaging, story relating to how a comprehensive “monochrome” aesthetic has been used to communicate messages of modern society hiding its own threatening “us-against-them” polarization behind a colorful façade of nuance and variation. Artists employing this aesthetic have tended to portray modern post-industrial societies as being every bit as incapable of compromise as a figure like Nilsen, and in the process hint that his actions are not so much an aberration within those societies as they are the apotheosis of them. Consider: though Nilsen’s crime spree ended in the early 1980s, his claim to have been motivated by “misplaced love out of its time and out of its mind” seems to maintain an eerie resonance within the era of social media-driven mania for acceptance.
At the time when Nilsen’s crimes became public, and when this aesthetic become a subcultural staple, plenty of the art world was already trending towards monochrome for its own purposes, resulting in era-defining projects like Robert Longo’s “Men In The Cities” series of photo-realistic portrayals of contorted figures in business suits (amusingly, this work also found its way into the realm of “murderer chic”, being featured as the décor of Patrick Bateman’s apartment in the film of American Psycho). However, this is not the particular type of monochrome art to be discussed here: running parallel with the officially recognized, acclaimed technical mastery of Longo’s portraits or the majority of Robert Mapplethorpe’s output was an unofficially recognized style that seemed to borrow the compositional simplicity of the Rorshach inkblot while replacing its sense of ambiguity with a harsh, occasionally menacing clarity.
Born simultaneously of “industrial culture” ethos, photocopier technology, and the invisibly thriving circuit of unofficial, modular networks for ‘zines and mail art, this was a low-fidelity and severely high-contrast type of black-and-white graphics whose inaccurate portrayal of human subjects nevertheless achieved an enduring hold on the subcultural imagination. In roughly this same era, decentralization of communications and ready availability of reprduction technologies helped to disseminate the message of insurrectionary movements ranging from the Animal Liberation Front to the Rote Armee Fraktion, with the printed manifestoes and bulletins from such organizations being similar in layout and appearance to ‘zines dealing in esoteric music and performance subcultures. The high-contrast photocopy aesthetic was put to use by these radicals as well and, though underground artists’ use of it did not necessarily imply a complete congruence with the aims of these groups, it certainly suggested a willingness to be perceived as acting with the same sense of urgency and maintaining the same level of militant devotion to their own expressive output.
Though the aesthetic was common throughout the fringes of radical art in the 1970s and 1980s, being utilized for projects like the “neoist” conceptual band Lieutennant Murnau, the agglomeration of factors noted above was most easily seen within the subculture of violent industrial or “power electronics” music. This style was exemplified by the U.K. project Whitehouse, who did in fact dedicate their 1983 LP Right to Kill to Nilsen, and whose graphics otherwise featured monochrome, high-contrast reproductions of portraits of lust murderers like Nilsen and Peter “The Düsseldorf Monster” Kürten. Sonically, the band provided bracing distillations of the experiments with electronic feedback and sheer volume that were previously by composers like Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier, paired with vocalizations not too far from the scream-enhanced “text-sound” experiments of François Dufrêne. More relevant to this discussion, though, was the unyielding focus on the low and high ends of the frequency spectrum (part of a stated program to make “the most repulsive records ever created”), which made their choice of graphic motifs all the more appropriate.
Whitehouse and their label Come Organisation were not the sole progenitors of a graphic style wherein lo-fi monochrome graphics complemented disturbing audio content; in fact the decentralized and collaborative nature of their parent subculture has made it difficult to trace an exact genealogy of degraded monochrome aesthetics. The same approach was, for example, also put to notable use by Catalan conceptualist Jordi Valls, notorious for surrealist actions such as ritually lacerating a set of paintings that “bled” onto the stage of the Spanish TV show L’edad d’Oro while a pack of confused-looking German Shepherds stood guard. Valls’ pseudonymous project Vagina Dentata Organ also issued a complete recording of Jim Jones’ sermonizing conducted immediately before the “revolutionary mass suicide” of the Jonestown cult at Guyana. For reasons that are probably obvious, it is a legitimately affecting and frightening piece of work coming out of an underground whose products can be dubiously authentic in their outpourings of sociopathic sentiment. The audio content speaks for itself, showing as it does the unvarnished megalomania of a man who believed his followers’ collective suicide “would […] be the desired world-ending event, a prelude to universal spiritual and political bliss.”[iii] The choice of graphics that adorn the record and accompanying ‘zine consist of Jones’ emotionless portrait rendered in, again, high-contrast monochrome, along with visuals of the deceased rendered in the same fashion.
Though it is predictable enough that this tour would make a stop in the overcrowded neighborhood of extremist heavy metal, certain members of that scene do deserve honorable mention here, namely the Alberta-based “war metal” band Revenge. The trio is notable for a musical style reliant on splattering hyperspeed drums, fetishization of apocalyptic conflict and instrumentation that writhes angrily like slaughterhouse offal. They rely almost exclusively on a lo-fi, high-contrast aesthetic in keeping with what has already been mentioned here, with omnipresent skull / gasmask / bladed weapon insignias adorning their album covers and merchandise. The band’s monochrome promotional portraits, likewise, look to be scanned from the 9th or 10th generation of a terrorist communique, with the individual members’ identities obscured by both the high-contrast effect and by blemishes that suggest a shortage of toner or some other unfortunate side effect of constant siege conditions. Interestingly, given the predominantly Western examples mentioned to this point, there is a globally distributed cult of like-minded outfits — from Lebanon’s Damaar to India’s Tetragrammacide — who use nearly identical graphic representations of themselves in an embrace of clandestine action.
While rounding out this brief inventory, it is necessary to also mention that this aesthetic has managed to bleed out beyond more explicitly “transgressive” neighborhoods of free expression; a kind of continuity has been achieved between that culture and cultures that might be more readily associated with ecstatic acceleration than with aesthetic investigations of pathological obsessions. Namely, within techno music, there has been an embrace of a visual aesthetic that relies on monochrome portraits of physical environments that are isolated from intervention and suspended in time, among them the landmarks of Brutalist architecture. The familiar high-contrast portraits surface again on occasion, as does the familiar unpleasant subject matter, as was the case when the producer Regis (a.k.a. Karl O’Connor) utilized the same recordings of the Jonestown suicide ceremony that had previously circulated through the industrial music underground[iv]. In a way, the use of this material within the techno idiom delivers something even more sinister than music that is more explicitly confrontational: hearing the words of a murderous megalomaniac within the context of self-celebration and ecstatic dancing is arguably more affecting than hearing this same material in performances that forensically present the wrongs of human history.
Given all that has been said about this aesthetic so far, I do not feel that the tenacity of low-resolution, grain-riddled or blotchy monochromatic graphics can be fully explained by the practicality of their reproduction (this is particularly true when so much expression is carried out purely in the digital domain). When it comes to performing processes like silkscreening t-shirts, black-and-white is significantly cheaper and less time-consuming than resorting to full color. Yet this does not fully explain why, years after their introduction as t-shirt staples, readily marketable images of antiheroes like Charles Manson and Che Guevara still appear most often in monochrome versions resembling spray-painted stencils rather than full-color versions, or even black-and-white versions relying on a slightly more complex process like color halftoning. Both the producers and consumers of such commodified images surely know that the starker high-contrast versions, despite being less representative of their subjects’ physical features, nevertheless represent their ideological features better: these images both indicate and celebrate an incapacity for compromise, allowing the wearer to join in the ranks of “monochrome men” without facing the risks and consequences normally associated with being a violent revolutionary.
Furthermore, I do not think these images’ popularity can exclusively be chalked up to their use as a clear indicator of a bygone historical era, and as a nostalgia generator related to it (though the surprisingly prolific power electronics underground certainly does its best to pay endless homage to 1983). To use a more “mainstream” cultural example: this approach would not account for the effectiveness of the monochromatic “night vision” camcorder footage used in the first Paranormal Activity movie, which arguably succeeded more than high-resolution media in the ability to drive home a feeling of dread related to an imminent demonic threat. In the gaming realm, it wouldn’t account for phenomena like the controversial MadWorld game released for the Nintendo Wii, in which gameplay revolving around futuristic bloodsports is completely rendered in clean high-contrast monochrome, with only the red of spilled blood to diversify the color palette.
Whether the users of this graphic style realize it or not, there are distinct neurological reasons for why perceived limitations and constraints are often more seductive than works where all features are rendered in lush, lurid color and tactile high definition: this is particularly true for artwork involving areas of high contrast. Neuroscientists Ramachandran and Hirstein propose as much, noting how “the ability of an artist to abstract the ‘essential features’ of an image and discard redundant information is essentially identical to what the visual areas [of the brain] themselves have evolved to do.”[v] We are, they propose, subject to a psychological condition known as the “peak shift,” in which techniques such as exaggerated shading, illumination etc. cause heightened activity in areas of the brain without our being consciously aware of such. This ties in neatly with the fascination that so many extreme or radical arts subcultures have with the nature of propaganda and with persuasive effects that elude attempts at rationalization. Along these lines, Ramachandran and Hirstein’s theory of neuroaesthetics touches upon another interesting fact when they notice that “a nude hidden by a diaphanous veil is more alluring than one seen directly in the flesh, as pointed out by Ernst Gombrich […] it is though an object discovered after a struggle is more pleasing than one that is instantly obvious.”[vi] This wording, incidentally, brings us back to reasons why the graphics in this small inventory appeal to individuals who are already on the radical edge, or who aspire to be there: meditations upon lo-fi imagery and efforts to decode their essential features become a productive “struggle” in and of themselves, a micro-level commitment to entering into a more all-consuming lifestyle of the same.
It seems safe to say that, as the polarization of the public’s social and political life proceeds at a frightening pace, we will see much many more visual works that act as a visual metaphor for this polarization while also playing upon deeply ingrained features of our neurology. If or when the situation reaches critical mass, we may be hoping in vain that individuals self-identifying as extremists will limit their activities to art appreciation.
[i] Masters, B. (1993). Killing for Company. New York: Dell Publishing:
[iii] Lifton, R.J. (1999). Destroying the World to Save It. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
[iv] See the track “Solution: Voice,” originally released on the 1999 12” EP Divine Ritual.
[v] Ramachandran, V. & W. Hirstein (1999). ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6 (6–7): 15–51.