No one would accuse Trent Reznor of taking it easy. Nine albums in as Nine Inch Nails, and one Academy Award later, the 50-year-old musician and composer's work ethic is the stuff of industry legend, a fortitude matched only by the aura his aesthetic creates. Part of that aura comes from the visual, of course, and Reznor is no stranger to collaborations; with Ministry's on Al Jourgensen as 1000 Homo DJs; with id Software on the music for 1996 video game, Quake; with David Fincher and Atticus Ross on The Social Network and Gone Girl; with David Bowie.
So when it came to the look and feel of his 2013 full-length, Hesitation Marks, Reznor returned to a core creator every bit as fastidious as himself. That mixed-media mastermind turned out to be British artist Russell Mills, a man who cut his teeth making album art for no less than Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and the Cocteau Twins—not to mention the visuals behind NIN's chartbreaking The Downward Spiral.
As with The Downward Spiral, Mills created an entire visual universe for Hesitation Marks, which now emerges as a 320-page deluxe, limited edition book, Cargo In The Blood. Inside each and every individually pieced together, hand-burned copy—only 2,000 were made—is an original mixed-media painting by Russell Mills. Cargo In The Blood is as big as it gets for the NIN fan, an opportunity to actually own a piece of legend. The Creators Project caught up with Mills to talk about alchemy, addiction, and the important influences that went into making what we might call the Nine Inch Nails art book.
Interview by Alyssa Buffenstein
The Creators Project: Since chance and indeterminacy play large roles in your process, how much did you preconceive the aesthetic of these works?
Russell Mills: As with much of my work, I’m inspired and informed by the phenomenal world, the natural world, as matter, as school, and as matrix for the actualities of places people inhabit, merely visit, enjoy, protect, defile, and ignore. The work attempts to embrace both the natural and the cultural, exploring the uneasy symbiosis between the economy of nature, of place, and our activities within and upon our environment. Many of the ideas that fuel the works and the processes used reflect Wordsworth’s imperative that art should disclose in nature’s handwriting analogues for the human mind and soul. The processes I use act as metaphors for the underlying ideas or issues being explored.
Given the processes I employ means that the amount of control I have over the final results are extremely limited. This restriction is intentional. I’m interested in taking the ego out of aspects of the work as much as I’m fascinated by the material changes that occur beyond my will. The use of unstable solutions and chemicals, susceptible to atmospheric changes—their interaction taking precedence over considerations of taste—sets off metamorphic, transformational processes, which continue to document the process of its own change. Willing to give of and change itself without losing itself; between form and formlessness; borne, not out of my will, but out of its determination, it is an ego-less, inclusive, and essentially democratic process, from which an order emerges out of chaos.
In the end I hope to produce works that have ideas at their heart, but that are allusive rather than descriptive. My works ask questions rather than deliver answers. Having no desire to be didactic, I use metaphor and ambiguity, and I hope that meaning is conveyed in the finished work, even though it may resist easy logical explanation.
What is it like to make tactile work that will eventually be reduced to a flat graphic? Did you work differently knowing most people will probably view this work on a computer/phone screen?
The translation from one medium to another, from tactile, organic and usually large mixed media art work to a flat, printed graphic work or a digital window, usually far smaller, has never really concerned me. It certainly doesn’t dictate the way I work. My first priority is to create a piece that works, conceptually and visually. How it is used (in this instance on album and CD packaging and within the digital realm) is a very distant secondary consideration. However, I do place great importance on having my works photographed well, really well; thankfully I have a fantastic photographer, Dayve Ward, who shoots my work with great care. His photographs are the final stage of the process before print. As long as his photographs capture the true tactile depth and intense color saturation of the originals, I can pretty much guarantee that the print process will be a success.
I also think that there may be a case to argue that as we are currently bombarded with Photoshopped photographic images that are flat, glossy, near-perfect, and generally figurative, then a rare sighting of an image that is organic, tactile, abstracted, and obviously hand made may be received and perceived differently. Amongst all the techno-flash, chrome-perfection of a world full of photographic imagery, an image that suggests an alternative reality in a non-figurative, allusive way can be viewed afresh, without prejudice. Also actual looking, closely, and thinking, carefully, might be acts that are resurrected through such works.
What roles do chemistry, biology and alchemy play in your process?
To varying degrees they are all important in my work. As already stated much of my works uses the natural world and its processes as a model for my thinking and my making, so a great deal of my research takes me into various strands of chemistry, biology and alchemy, amongst a plethora of other sometimes very esoteric subjects.
I use chemicals such as acids in combination with more traditional art materials in order to create unpredictable, previously unknown effects. However these chemical processes are also used to mirror the themes and ideas that I’m trying to investigate in the works, i.e. moral, personal, psychological, societal and political corrosion, decay and transformation. There is also an analogy to be found in the fact that most of these chemical processes are destructive and yet the results created are constructive. What they produce is something previously unimagined and hopefully beautiful, something that cannot be designed. The works are regenerative: from destructive forces emerges something new.
I’m interested in alchemy, not as the original alchemists were, as a means of turning base materials into gold, into the philosopher’s stone, but in its focus on transformational processes as an analogical tool by which ideas can be reframed or reimagined, or damage might be transfigured or transformed by metaphor and allusion.
How did your (and Trent Reznor’s) proximity to addiction influence Cargo In The Blood?
Greatly. The title gives it away. The works are generally about the conjoined themes of chaos and order, and control and surrender, relating to and reflecting on the traumas that both Trent and I have experienced in our lives, traumas that will inevitably continue to shape our lives.
Trent had battled with alcohol and drugs at first hand, had damaged himself and caused great distress to those around him; that’s the nature and pattern of an addiction. I’d lived with a chronic alcoholic wife for over four years, which meant being a psychological (and occasionally a physical) punching bag. While trying to be a carer I was also trying to protect my son—who was just eight when this vortex of pain and disruption exploded - from her worst excesses.
After over four years of trying to help my wife recover, unfortunately she still wasn’t prepared or wasn’t able to commit to rebuilding our lives or to stay dry. As I couldn't live with the prospect of years of more unpredictability and I had my son to think about, after weeks of painful conversations, we concluded that we’d have to divorce. Given her condition I was awarded custody of our son and while my focus was predominantly on his well being, I was also trying to make sense of what happened. A few years of shell shocked dumbness followed in which I was unable to create anything; I didn’t see any point. Nothing interested me; everything seemed trivial, irrelevant. I shut out the external world as my mind internalized, fixed on what had happened.
In our early conversations towards what became the Hesitation Marks album, Trent stated that he felt that the material he was working on was allowing him to find some kind of equilibrium in response to his years of alcohol and drug-driven anger, frustration, shame and pain. The tracks that were in process were in embryonic form, but he sensed their promise. He was feeling his way, suspecting, hoping that something new and positive and vital might emerge. I had reached a similar point.
As we discussed the Hesitation Marks project, we talked a great deal about our respective traumatic “black” years, and discovered disturbing similarities in numerous aspects of our experiences, both during and post-crises, that came into alignment. We had both reached a point at which we had understood the whys and wherefores of addiction and the appalling fallout that follows. We had both come to accept certain truths, some unpalatable, and while we were both still angry and confused, we had found coping mechanisms that were allowing us to function with renewed focus and purpose. We were both attempting to harness the energy of the massed conjoined complicated emotions were still churning in us both.
Hesitation Marks was a cathartic route out of that mire for both of us. For me, the call from Trent to say that the project was proceeding, that a new NIN album was going to happen, was the green light that I needed to really let all this emotion out. The project gave me a license to explore all the ideas about chaos and order and control and surrender that had been buzzing in my head for years. The result is the Cargo In The Blood collection, a project of reclamation and regeneration..
Who or what are some of your art historical influences?
I’ve always been interested and inspired by artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, who are true to their materials, meaning their ideas and the materials and processes they choose to use in order to examine those ideas. I prefer artists who, like me, use paint rather than make paintings, if you get my drift: artists whose materials and processes have a contextual and conceptual appropriateness; who are fully aware of the relationship between signifier and the signified and who are open to multiple readings of their work.
I guess the most important is the protean genius Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), the peripatetic German artist. With his startlingly poetic collages, experiments in primal phonetics, ground-breaking immersive Merzbau sculptures (pre-dating today’s multimedia installations by over 80 years) and his, as yet unrealized, dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk: the total synaesthetic work of art, his irrefutable influence has suffused every area of creative expression. Utilising society's discarded ephemera, he defined the creative process not as a separate sphere, but as intimately linked with everyday life as a process of organic transformation. Schwitters’ work introduced me to the paradigm of collage. Stealthily as perfume, the collage principle pervades our daily routines every second of our lives. And yet Schwitters, nearly 70 years after his death in poverty in Ambleside (where I live and work) in 1948, is still generally considered in the art world as a spirited but awkward aside in the annals of contemporary art and by the general public he is a complete mystery.
I first heard and became entranced by English Radio DJ Jack Jackson in the early 60s, when my RAF officer father was based in Germany, and radio was our only cultural link to the UK. With his advanced production techniques and pioneering fast-cut edits of the disparate and the unexpected, it was Jackson who triggered my nascent perceptual radar to the possibilities of juxtaposition, propelling me on an ongoing journey into the multifarious and mutable matrix that is collage: arguably the most important cultural idea of the last century.
I’ve loved Scott Walker since I first heard the Walker Brothers in the 1960s when I was entering my teens. His voice, in all of the genres he’s worked in, has always been uniquely mesmerising. I greatly admire the honesty and bravery of his move into far more challenging areas of music and sound worlds, and rather than finding his solo output since the 1980s difficult, as most people seem to do, I find it compelling and thrilling.
And I first heard Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart in 1966 when I was 14 years old. I ran away from boarding school to see Hendrix play a gig in Bath as part of the Experience’s first tour of the UK. His playing was the most phenomenal, visceral thing I’d ever experienced. On par was Beefheart, who from the off I thought to be a genuine innovator: possibly crazy but someone who really understood the potential of collage. I still listen to their music regularly and it still sounds fresh, stimulating and fantastically alien.
I find Samuel Beckett to be one of the most radical and influential writers of the 20th century, and alongside Schwitters, his minimalist work has probably the most important influence on my work.
There are many more, including JMW Turner, Joseph Beuys, Antoni Tàpies, Anselm Kiefer, Cornelia Parker, Tacita Dean, Theaster Gates, Susan Hiller, Doris Salcedo, and Berlinde de Bruyckere; filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Adam Curtis, Michael Haneke, and David Lynch; musicians Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno, Nils Frahm, the brilliant Mogwai, melancholic Max Richter; Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Rebecca Solnit, Anne Carson, Karen Solie, Jonathan Meades, George Monbiot, Wendell Berry, Sam Harris, Oliver Rackham, Robert MacFarlane, Richard Mabey and the collective Common Ground, John Berger, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, WG Sebald, David Toop (the best writer on sound in the world), Zbigniew Herbert, Anne Michaels, Cormac McCarthy, Ali Smith, Iain Sinclair, Brian Catling, Geoff Dyer, Will Self and Jeanette Winterson, Robin Robertson and Paul Farley... but you’ll be no doubt relieved that I’ve decided not to carry on listing them.
What organisms, items, or experiences does Cargo In The Blood serve as a taxonomy of?
Actually I think that the Cargo In The Blood works could be perceived as being against taxonomies and the supposed empirical laws that dictate their rigid, prescribed classification. The materials, found and rectified objects and the processes used in the works in Cargo In The Blood have predominantly been chosen to explore ideas about the emotional and psychological effects of loss, grief, trauma and the ways that the “experts” try to deal with them with rigid analysis of statistical data, while seemingly ignoring context and the infinite variables and ambiguity of human experience. Part of being human is to seek order in chaos. Just as we look for shapes and stories in weathered walls, clouds and the ink blots of a Rorschach test, we also feel the need to map territories: geographical, cosmological, emotional and psychological. In our quest for understanding of the world and ourselves, we also seek to control, and so, as we consistently measure what is visible, we are disturbed by our inability to quantify the invisible: control is denied.
Can you explain your attractions to organic materials that some might find disturbing?
On one level, I find them attractive in their own right. Being from nature they are individually unique and extraordinarily beautiful. More importantly, all natural objects and materials have symbolic significance, they have associative potential to suggest meanings and connections. Also in some of the works that deal with disturbing subject matter, materials are used deliberately in the hope of creating a sense of disquiet in the viewer.
Such a piece is Home Truths, which uses spent bars of soap, human hair, lumps of coal and ashes. All of these materials are fairly familiar, most people have daily contact with soap and hair; they are at the heart of our most intimate daily rituals, as once was coal and ash, the source of heat for the home and the remnants of a fire in the hearth or under a stove; however, they can also suggest much darker connotations.
These humble, domestic, familiar materials serve a narrative function as metaphoric signifiers bridging and interweaving personal trauma with public catastrophe.
What is the significance of your use of reflective surfaces in these works, from the metal of the custom paintings to the shiny pages of the book?
Reflective surfaces can suggest connotations of perception, of seeing and being seen. They can also allude to our current times, in which we have never before been so scrutinized while also being so anonymous and depersonalized.
In some respects they are also used to comment on our celebrity-obsessed culture, in which the first person, the “I“ and the "ME" is everything, in which the media mantra of “Because you deserve it” encourages or shames ordinary people to aspire to unrealistic and unattainable ends, by which obsessive self-interest is becoming the norm. The formula proposes that anyone can become more appreciated, more noticed, can become a star, whether they have talent or not, as long as they’re willing to pimp themselves in an increasingly grotesque freak show. Those who are genuinely original and innovative, the mavericks, are ignored. The media has cannily figured out that ordinary people, doing ordinary things, in ordinary places, is easy money. In the reflection of the gaze the viewer becomes her/his own audience. This is cheap, demeaning entertainment.
The use of corrosive chemicals on these surfaces destroys their primary function: reflection. One is obliged to look more closely at both the fragments of mirrored surface to see tiny details of one’s image, and at the effects of the chemical reactions to find new images, new previously unimagined worlds. Treating reflective surfaces in such ways also alludes to the generally unseen forces of the phenomenal world, by which the manmade is persistently overwhelmed and transformed by natural processes. As with sea salt in air, which slowly etches metal with an orange marmalade rust, the materials, processes, and end results allude to ideas of the ephemeral and the enduring.
Why print each of the works twice in the book, once in color and once inverted?
the works shown in the first half of the book are true renderings of the original works, while those in the second half are alternate versions using different sections of works, sometimes in magnification. The second half of the book is titled “The Reverse Is Also True,” suggesting that another, opposite view of an idea, subject or narrative is sometimes as revealing as its supposed authentic version. Just as considering both sides of an argument can open up new readings, the images reproduced in this section have been inverted in various ways and their colors and saturations have been subjected to numerous experiments with filter treatments so as to produce new images.
The decision to experiment with inversions, with negative imagery, also parallels several of the individual works made for Hesitation Marks: Heat Signatures (Skullscape) and The First Last Look, both of which utilize X-rays. The X-ray’s potential to visually penetrate opaque objects transforms the invisible into the visible, revealing an image of something from deep within ourselves, a visceral landscape of hidden truths.
By choosing to print the regular four CMYK process colors over a layer of metallic printing, I was consciously extending my explorations into the concerns and processes used in the making of the artworks.The effects of this printing technique cannot be rendered on a computer and can only be gauged in reality if proofs are actually run out on the presses. This an expensive task as the metallic layer has to dry thoroughly before the four CMYK colors are applied. The results, relying on chance and indeterminacy, cannot be guaranteed. It’s a huge, but exciting risk: surprising accidents occur where unforeseen overlaps of colors produce unimagined, strange fugitive tones.
Click here to order a copy of Cargo in the Blood.