GWAR's Slave Pit and the Richmond Art Scene From Whence It Came
Here's how a former NEA staffer praised the bloodiest aliens to conquerer Planet Earth's metal scene as model citizens of "the creative city."
This article originally appeared on Creators.
GWAR, the nightmare monster metal band hiding under Jim Henson's bed, was in a conquering mood in 2013. Thanks to a small Richmond art gallery, the band that bills itself as, "an elite group of chaos warriors who ravaged the galaxy with a boundless hatred of all things alive," earned the praise of a former public servant at the National Endowment of the Arts. Thus the Scumdogs of the Universe—Blothar, Balsac the Jaws of Death, Jizmak Da Gusha, Beefcake the Mighty, Pustulus Maximus, Bonesnapper, Sawborg Destructo, and Sleazy P. Martini—also became official champions of creativity here on earth.
For those that don't know the strap-on-wearing, baby-sacrificing, blood-ejaculating sci-fi metal act, why not watch this music video compiling their most hardcore on-stage fuckery? The faint of heart be warned: it includes killing fake animals, explicit descriptions of highly creative sexual obscenities, and buckets of bodily fluid.
GWAR was originally the unholy union of a young band called Death Piggy—not to be confused with Alexandria, VA act, Pig Destroyer—and a production house called The Slave Pit, which was created by film students at Virginia Commonwealth University. As if bitten by radioactive, over-sexualized drama students, Death Piggy morphed into a theatrical metal band so outrageous it penetrated the metal scene and created its own kind of shock rock: monster metal.
Four years ago they were opening up to the world about their lives on a constant scorched-earth tour since they came together in Richmond, VA in 1984. GWAR was annihilating movie theaters with a new documentary and conquering coffee table with an artful coffee table book. In one stunt they applied for a job at our sister site Noisey. Even though frontman The Sexicutioner threatened current Editor-in-Chief Eric Sunderman's life, they didn't get the position.
As part of this push, collectively called, Let There Be GWAR, an art space in their hometown hosted an exhaustive exhibit unleashing the vile documentation of their 30-year journey from performance art experiment to international metal sensation. Black Iris Music is a music production and distribution company that opened its space to the public as an art gallery in 2013. "The motivation to open Black Iris Music's Richmond headquarters to the public comes from a desire to meaningfully engage with the city of Richmond and cultivate an awareness of cultural diversity in overlapping publics," Benjamin Thorp, a curator at Black Iris Gallery, tells Creators.
"Slavemaster of the Pit" Bob Gorman, a.k.a., Bonesnapper, approached Black Iris Gallery, offering unmolested access to documents from the band's entire 30-year history. Black Iris Music co-founder Justin Bailey thought those nuggets of metal history would be best put to use as a multimedia gallery exhibit.
"Once I was surrounded with the GWARchive I became really interested in the life cycles of the enterprise," explains Thorp. "They had kept everything; receipts, production schedules, parts lists, diagrams, fan letters, parking tickets, license plates, arrest reports, newspaper and magazine clippings… basically anything you can imagine that had some part of the creative and production process over the last three decades was there. It became clear that the story to be told was one of struggle, ingenuity, perseverance and—ultimately—an undeniable triumph."
Included in the GWARchive are early write-ups of the band's performances, posters advertising their shows, molds from which their props are cast, massive renditions of their logo from concerts, and quotes that inspire the band.
A verse from Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" hangs above what appears to be a mold for giant demon genitals: "I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe I was not offended / For I knew I had to rise above it all / Or drown in my own shit." On another is Ronald Reagan's classic quip, "I've heard that hard work never killed anyone, but why take the chance?" There are also quotes inspired by GWAR, as with this one from Beavis and Butthead: "Yeah, but it's like, if you wanna rule, you gotta be cool, like, all the time, like, even when you're taking a dump and stuff, like GWAR."
Thorp describes GWAR as a decades-long performance piece, pointing out that it's only one of The Slave Pit's projects. "We think it's not necessarily understood that way by a lot of the audience. It can be appreciated as a band, but it's equally as important to consider the minds that compel it," he says. In contextualizing GWAR's origins, Let There Be GWAR pays tribute to the art collective that spawned it.
The show also opened the door for former Director of Arts Education for the NEA, Dr. Sarah Cunningham to praise the dildo-wearing, dirty-talking, throat-shredding metal icons at her talk, "Metaphysics of the Creative City." Thorp says the talk touts the unique environment that allowed GWAR's a unique blend of transgressive creativity to thrive. "She used Richmond's intersection with The Slave Pit as a launching point to discuss notions of art-education, economics, creative labor and communication across class," Thorp says. "After the talk, one of Bob Gorman's art professors apologized to him for giving him so much shit when Bob was a student." Gorman ultimately dropped out of the VCU School of the Arts to work at The Slave Pit full time, so this must have been a sweet moment for the Slavemaster of the Pit.
Four years later, Black Iris Gallery has hosted shows about surveillance, epidemiology, and a crowdsourced wearable installation. They've been hosting intimate concerts in the back of the space called The Tiny Bar Sessions, which highlight both musicians and sound artists. Thorp producing The Children's Guide to Weapons with The Cluster Project, a satirical critique of the military-industrial complex.
In times when the future of institutional support for the arts is uncertain, it's hard not to appreciate how the Richmond art and music scene helped GWAR, along with punk and metal essentials like Avail, Municipal Waste, and Lamb of God, thrive. "In an era when the arts are under attack from the Federal Government, and funding becomes more and more scarce, the model of the Slave Pit is even more compelling," says Thorp. As for Black Iris Gallery, they're doing their part to help. "We continue hosting groups in need of temporary space to organize," he continues. Maybe one of them will be the next GWAR.