Chiara No: On Being a Metaller and What it Means to “Other”

I saw a friend at a party who encouraged me to look into a Brooklyn-based artist working with themes of witchcraft, mysticism, and the metal music scene. Immediately, I thought of Slutist, and as a self-proclaimed metalhead myself, I quickly wrote her name down: Chiara No.

No’s Instagram and online presence is unavoidable. Each post is suffused with political responses and expanded legs. Her project, “Crowning,” which was recently on view at Bible in New York City, is made up of symbols, banners, and traditional flag-making.

I called Chiara (the “H” is pronounced) last week to discuss her work, which is centered around practicing runes, feminism in metal, and nihilistic philosophy.

Let’s begin with where you’re from.

I am from Baltimore, Maryland. I haven’t lived there in almost ten years, but I’m still beholden to that city. I went to Towson University. I actually don’t have a fine arts degree, I have a biology and an art history degree. The mathematics and scientific side is more in my work than being more of a “feeling” type of artist. I’m really envious of some of my friends who can produce, produce, produce. I’m very algorithmic and very mathematical. I have a hypothesis. I write a lot. I do a lot of research and then hopefully, within a year of writing, and researching, and figuring out these venn diagrams, I’m ready to make a series of works about a phenomenon that I have researched about. That’s kind of, in the sense, how I got into loosely practicing magic. It comes more from my science side than my art side.

I started “Crowning,” which is four years old, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a lifelong project. It seems like everything stems off of this initial idea of crowning. It was originally an idea of a personality of a band that didn’t exist with sound. It was only the branding and the merch. This happens so much in punk and metal—and I’m sure you can make the argument that it happens elsewhere—but sometimes the people wearing the t-shirt don’t listen to the band. I fall victim to this, too. We’re so complicit to this ideology of a look that if a band looks like what we want to listen to, we will wear that branding. “Crowning” has a Bandcamp but there is no music or sound. It’s just merchandise. From there, I realized that if I designed my metal band, it would definitely be a pagan feminist folkcore band, which is a Swedish/Norwegian style of metal music. It’s really ambient and loud even though it’s not using as much electricity-style instruments. I realized that I didn’t know anything about paganism. I was grabbing onto it because it seemed logical for this brand of metal. Slowly, over the years, I started researching goddesses and figuring out that in paganism there is a lot of mathematics and numerology. That instantly peaked my curiosity because I like working with numbers. This led me to runes which also have an algorithmic way. Just like tarot cards, runes are a direct link to symbols.

Crowning (Regina) (2014)

Can you expand on runes a little bit more?

Yeah, runes are casting stones. There are 24 staves divided into three groups. I think of them as three seasons. Usually each stone has a positive and negative, but not all of them. When you have different stones, you have different outcomes. I like that idea that through these symbols, you can keep on using a formula of having a different outcome every time. This is also why I don’t follow the Zodiac or believe in it. Runes began with my art practice but there were moments when I was depressed and I would try it—as a self-cleansing ritual—and I found that I always became better. I started giving in to the fact that I believe that it actually makes me feel better when I play with magic and do these solitary rituals when I need to cleanse my mental palate.

I don’t believe in religion. I don’t even believe in atheism because atheism to me is still a religion. I’m very neutral to everything. So two years ago, I finally understood why people latch on to religion. I would say that’s where my work for “Crowning” is heading. I’m interested in going back to the Druid religion, this way of mark-making, which is very hieroglyphic and ties right back into metal and thinking about branding and logos—thinking about how in metal font they have reduced language down to an image again. The image is indecipherable.

“Crowning” is a series of seven banners that I finished after three years. They were very laborious to make, and not because I didn’t have time. I really wanted to hold true to original flag making, which was an honorable thing. It was totally for me and not really for the viewer. I realized I’m doing all of these things for my personal ritual, which is great, but if anyone ever wanted to buy these things I’m like, “Oh my Lord, I don’t know if I can emotionally part with them.” I’ve invested so much ritualistic, meditative time and pondering on to them.

What materials are the banners made of?

They are made out of raw canvases. Painters canvas has a lot of chemicals on it so I bought a duck canvas—that’s what it’s called—and then I waxed the canvas before I dyed it. Then I dyed it with black dye. I found seven different types of blacks from different companies. I realized it’s really hard to dye black, from an experiment a few years back, which became a metaphor for “Crowning” and for myself. As much as I love metal, I will never be as brutally nihilistic as metal wants me to be. The closest I can get to metal is purple. You have a red channel, a blue channel and a green channel. But even within those spectrums, those companies still use a different formula for black. If I used the same ratio for black dye, all different colors came out.

I took a weaving class—I’m not a weaver at all, I just wanted to make burlap. It’s funny, my teacher was like, “You can do all of these cool things!” and I was like, “No, no, no, I just want burlap.” The only thing that I bought was black linen. Those three fabrics—raw canvas, burlap, and linen—are the most common fabrics in medieval flags and banners.

Tenet One of Crowning: Thread, waxed thread on reactive dyed and waxed canvas, burlap and linen. 68″ x 88″ (2015)

And how many banners are there in total?

Seven.

Is there a significance to that?

No, there isn’t. Obviously seven is a magic number. There is a huge history around seven. But at this point, I realized that numerology was getting too nuanced. I use numbers really loosely now. I do, for art’s sake and for composition sake, think that odd numbers tend to be more dynamic. I kind of rested on the psychology of numbers. Tens work well, threes work well, fives, too. The human eye appreciates these odd numbers. I typically show the banners in pairs or triptychs in my perfect world. One time I showed just one because there was literally no room in the space.

Are the banners large?

Yeah, they are uniformly 60 inches wide by 88 inches long which is an arbitrary number. The original numbers did have a purpose but when I was dyeing the very first one, I missed an order of operation which significantly shrunk it to that size. I kind of just said, “Fuck it, that’s still a good size.” I appropriately sized the rest of them.

I want to discuss the terms, “slut” and “witch” and how Slutist reimagines or reclaims those words. I was thinking about this in terms of your project, “I and Other,” and your relationship to those words.

“I and Other” is the closest thing to an artist statement I’ve ever gotten for my Instagram. In every post that I do there is a type of psycho drama that happens.

I’m really interested in nihilism and nihilistic philosophy. I’m also very interested in horror philosophy and a feminist read on horror movies. If you actually break down a horror movie, usually the woman is smart and athletic, grounded with her wits. She’s also pretty. She has a virginal aspect but sometimes she doesn’t, sometimes it’s a rape revenge. She’s the one that wins at the end. She’s the one that castrates the villain, the murderer, the psychopath. She either gets away or kills the person. All of these men fall by the wayside. All of the popular girls, who resemble 70s beauty or 80s beauty, fall by the wayside and the smart person wins at the end. Well, “wins” loosely because it is a horror movie and no one really wins at the end. I did not think of this, I did a lot of research so this is not an original thought, but there is this woman that I read who said that this is the one moment, and the only moment, in cinema where young teenage boys root for a woman to win. You have these young boys that don’t realize that they are being formed by the power of these women. This writer was saying how she would go into movies and watch boys root for women but then go into another movie and no one would root for the woman—for example, in Wonder Woman. That film, as much as I love it, still fell prey to a 1950s style woman that was problematic in comic books.

So, going back to “slut,” and “witch,” it’s me going into nihilistic philosophy and the history of western humans. I was reading Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici, which talked about what the witch really was in Europe and how it wasn’t necessarily what Hollywood and literature have classified as a witch. This woman was a healer, knew about the earth, and knew what to do. The church, and capitalism, wanted to slight women’s power in the community. Since there was already so much lore, and supernatural belief, it was easy to label any woman of power as a witch. Most women were just a woman of authority, or a woman who lived on her own, or a woman who was slightly off the edge.

While I was reading about nihilistic philosophy and this book, I also realized that demons aren’t real, in the same way that—historically—witches aren’t real. It’s a way of classifying others, others that we were scared of, others that we don’t understand. “Others” have become politicized in the last few years and putting them on the outside. I feel “other” has become the PC word for this. I don’t really like the word “other” because for how progressive or conservative you are, we all “other” other people, which is really frustrating.

With my Instagram, I constantly try to figure out what demons and others are and thinking about witchcraft in a more educational way.

I am very sexually open. I think everyone should be. I don’t really relate to the word, “slut” but I am really happy about how the power is being taken back. I like women who self proclaim themselves as sluts. I don’t know if I identify as that. I just like to identify as a person who likes to have sex. I have done personal research with dating websites and slept with a lot of men and keeping data on what my perceived biases were in men. One day, I might turn that into something. It was a grad school project I did.

Going back to my Instagram, I started it in 2016. It was an idea of desexualizing the vagina—turning the crotch, the vagina, the vulva, into this benign thing. It turned educational because I began thinking, “If my vagina could talk, what would it say?” Sometimes it says something really nihilistic or sometimes it is abject and hypersexual. Sometimes I’m doing protective circles and witches chants on my vagina to liberate it. So much of a woman’s body, and a transgender body, is politicized. Why not put policy, and my politics, right there?

Terry Adkin’s leather jacket given to No to “make something metal” with, waxed thread, rotational motor. 16″x16″x38″ (2013)

I feel like many of your posts respond to current events, or something that has just occurred in the news, something that is very immediate. That’s what is so great about social media—the immediacy. Do you see each video or post as a performance? How do you view them?

I have been called a performance artist and I have been asked to perform but I’ve actually declined each one. It’s not out of fear of performing, but having the computer or the phone in your hand, the image is supposed to be somewhat confronting. To some people, it’s not very confronting because they are very comfortable having a woman show her crotch. Some of my male friends, whose Instagram is pretty tame, keep following me because it’s this reminder that your phone has become the gallery that my work sits in. Instagram has become my gallery. How your react to my image is predicated by what you see before my feed and what you see after in your feed. Their strength exists with what happens in your feed. By themselves, isolated, I feel like they are very benign. The Instagram platform is where they get their power. A lot of it, too, is that because I do so much research and because I’m constantly reading and following threads, I started it as snarky reactions to Trump.

Also, me and my girlfriends were talking about 2007, when all of the starlets were demonized, and every fifteen minutes were getting their picture taken—before smartphones. How would your react? And also being scrutinized afterwards? The “crotch shot” became so ubiquitous during that time. Like Paris Hilton, and Nicole Richie—Anne Hathaway was a part of it. The conversation with my friends turned into this idea that: What if with one person it was accidental but then they realized that these paparazzi can’t legally post this image so they have to blur it out. And the ones who do post it, the celebrities can sue the photographer finally for overexposure. This could have been a cry for help that was simultaneously, “If you want to see everything, I’m going to show you everything because I have nothing to lose anymore because you already took everything.” I feel like the crotch shots morphed into that. I wanted the crotch to be an every day post but after a month, it turned into my research.

I went to this residency, Ox Bow, and I focused on reading and writing. I didn’t want to make any work. I started reading about nihilistic philosophy there. There was a moment where I was like, “That’s the kind of feminist I never see.” Since I’m a metaller, I’m a metalhead, I like to undermine things but I try to find the power in it. So I started combining nihilistic philosophy with feminism.

You’re a metalhead, like you said. Could you talk about the ways that you cope with the misogyny in that music scene and how you respond to it in your work?

Even though I am a feminist, I didn’t realize how much biases I had to unravel and unpack in the metal scene. I think if you identify with any group you have these biases that you didn’t notice and then you really have to step back and look at yourself and how you were raised and accept faults. Moving forward, beyond it, with an open mind.

I read other women’s accounts who have been in the metal scene—and women journalists who focus on metal—who have been documenting national changes since the 90s. I have actually never felt it in my microcosm in Baltimore. I think the closest thing to misogyny that I’ve confronted is that I go to so many shows by myself that I tend to almost, every time, have a man talk to me. I don’t mind that, I’m a friendly person. I will humor them until they say something utterly offensive. They say, “Oh, I didn’t know women liked metal. That’s really cool.” And I’m like, “50 percent of this room is filled with women, so there is lots of us that like metal.” I would never want to shut down a guy who was trying to hit on a girl in an appropriate way. But then every time, they are trying to pick me up, so they try and say, “What kind of bands do you listen to?” I don’t really feel like I have to do an interview right now. Of course I listen to metal. Would you ever go up to a guy and grill him on how metal he is? I don’t feel like I need to prove that I’m metal enough to be there.

I like being hit on and I like men hitting on me over online dating. If a woman says “no,” or turns her shoulder away from you, pay attention to that body language. A lot of women are in a place where they are actually afraid to say something for their life. That’s the normal thing: if a woman says “no” she gets beat. 40 percent of women who die [from homicide] are from domestic abuse. That’s a huge number.

Yeah, especially if white men are in your immediate circle.

I’m also a carpenter. So, I’m in a very hyper-masculine environment. Equality is utopia. I don’t believe the human race is capable of equality because we like to “other” people but I’m just hoping that it gets better and better.