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Vivek Venkatesh likes to joke that his first name rhymes with “headache.” That’s a rather interesting comment from someone whose passion for heavy metal can induce that physical reaction for those not enamoured of the genre.
Venkatesh is a Concordia University professor. But he’s a most atypical prof.
Apart from teaching critical theories classes on everything from culture to politics, he is the chair of the art education department, the UNESCO co-chair in Prevention of Radicalization and Violent Extremism, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance and director of Project Someone at Concordia.
And, oh yeah, he is not only a guitarist/bassist in two experimental ensembles, Landscape of Hate and Halka, he also writes music for the groups. Plus he makes documentaries about his fave musical genre, with particular focus on inroads made by Norwegian practitioners of black metal.
The term “too cool for school” immediately comes to mind when talking to or about Venkatesh.
Not surprisingly, Venkatesh will be front and centre when Concordia hosts the sixth meeting of the International Society for Metal Music Studies, from June 6 to 9. He has helped spearhead the conference No Outsides: Metal in an Era of Contagion, which will offer an array of film screenings, performances, interactive workshops, art installations and panel discussions — both gratis and non-gratis, but all open to the public.
Venkatesh is fully aware that heavy metal, particularly its black and death metal sub-genres, can be a source of either delight or disgust to many. Regardless, the music has increasingly been drawing the attention of academics who seek to get to the core of this art form.
This is not to suggest Ozzy Osbourne or Slayer 101 courses have been popping up at universities around the planet, but rather that some scholarly types take this oft-misunderstood genre quite seriously and also believe it provides insights into societal polarization.
Venkatesh and like-minded academics feel that metal gives “a voice to under-represented groups who triumph over adversity.”
“My research and academic work focuses specifically on how we can build resilience against various forms of discrimination, xenophobia and bigotry — not only through the arts and cultural institutions, but also through pedagogy programs,” says Venkatesh, 47, who was born in India and lived in Venezuela, the U.S. and Singapore before moving to Montreal. “It’s about pluralism, a need for us to live in a society where you’re expecting people to have differing points of view and how we can help celebrate pluralism.
“The work that I do with respect to metal music studies is quite strongly grounded in this notion of prevention. It began 10 years ago when I collaborated with philosophers and experts in consumer-cultural orientations to better understand how the dark arts and the extreme metal sub-genre allow for, in a certain sense, a very healthy consumption of material of a sombre nature.”
Venkatesh views heavy metal as quite celebratory in certain ways, in connection to everything from the rise of the working class to the occult. He does allow, however, that technical death metal, a sub-genre of death metal, can be challenging, particularly with its themes of violence and solitude.
“You don’t want to necessarily embrace that with other members of the community,” he points out. “But this helps us to understand diversity in the way we produce and consume art forms. We’re trying to find ways in which metal music can break the shackles and not necessarily fall into certain tropes.”
But Venkatesh is also abundantly aware that some metal is associated with white supremacy and other racist groups.
“Even in my own work in terms of specializing and prevention of radicalization and violent extremism, I see how some artists straddle a very fine line between freedom of artistic expression and outward xenophobia and bigotry. But then you also have artists from Scandinavia, the States and even Canada who talk about freedom of religion and worship of nature. What’s important to us, though, is to preserve that classical liberal ideal to preserve the freedom of expression.”
Venkatesh has a strong connection with the International Society for Metal Music Studies, which has accepted some of his papers.
“For better or for worse, I realize that a lot of these academic conferences tend to get steeped in a very incestuous way in thinking about the field. It’s often the same scholars not necessarily looking beyond the boundaries of the field.”
Venkatesh was host of the Grimposium underground arts festivals in 2014 and 2017 at Concordia.
“We didn’t invite any academics to the festival. We invited bands, journalists and filmmakers who addressed the dark arts in general. And we brought together a whole host of the public to help us connect with people outside the academic circle who think of metal in a more global way.”
Which, in turn, has led to No Outsides: Metal in an Era of Contagion.
This prof clearly has no interest in residing in an academic ivory tower.
AT A GLANCE
The conference No Outsides: Metal in an Era of Contagion runs from June 6 to 9 at Concordia University. For more information, see grimposium.ca/ismmsschedule.
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