Column: How a Satanism accusation and Internet troll culture disrupted Krakow’s Unsound festival
Nobody is safe from trolls, not even gentle experimental music fans.
Unsound, based in Kraków and founded in 2003, is a series of festivals — and a foundation — specializing in music that is as far from pop as possible. Over more than a decade and in five different cities, Unsound has presented musical events that pair the weird, the visionary, the noisy and the obscure with spaces not originally designed as concert venues: railway cargo warehouses, museums, abandoned hotels and, more than once, churches.
This year’s Kraków festival, the 13th in a row, began Saturday night and stretches through Sunday. But several of the church performances were being relocated as of this writing. Why? Because someone with a computer, an unpleasant imagination and the back cover of an album from 1984 was able to scare the right people.
Last Tuesday, the conservative Polish blog Salon24 published a post — entitled “Why does the Devil go to the church?” — that alleged Unsound’s “main goal is the unequivocal promotion of Satanism.”
Author Krzysztof Osiejuk’s sole piece of supporting evidence was a drawing taken from the back cover of Current 93’s 1984 album, “Dogs Blood Rising.” That image depicts a figure hanging on a cross with a six-pointed geometric symbol in the background.
Osiejuk makes no concrete citation of satanic lyrics or activities, but Unsound, its audience and David Tibet, the sole permanent member of Current 93 and a very public practicing Christian, are all tied to satanism in the post.
Salon24 has since taken down Osiejuk’s post, but Unsound still plans to sue the website for libel. Before being published on Salon24, the piece of writing was sent to St. Catherine’s church, where Tibet was due to perform a Current 93 set. Apparently spooked by these allegations, the church informed the festival’s organizers, Mat Schulz and Malgorzata Plysa, that the concert would need to be held elsewhere.
This came as more than a mild shock to the organizers since the church has hosted an Unsound performances every year since 2008.
Tibet, who has been releasing Current 93 records since 1983, sent the church a letter of protest. A modified version of that letter was posted on the Unsound website. It reads, in part:
“I have declared many times that I am Christian. Nearly all of my work manifests this belief, both my music and my artwork — and this conviction remains no less true even if my work often displays a dark humour — as well as my studies, including those in Coptic, which I learnt in order to work on apocryphal New Testament texts.”
St. Catherine’s was initially satisfied with the letter and reinstated the show. The church then apparently interacted with the higher-ups in the Catholic Curia, and decided again to cancel the show. Subsequently, two other churches hosting performances by artists entirely unrelated to Tibet, decided to not let Unsound put on their scheduled shows. Unsound still plans to present all the concerts, possibly at a local synagogue.
The Curia denies asking any churches to cancel any shows. So now we have canceled shows that nobody is taking responsibility for canceling. In the meantime, the author and his daughter have been using a personal blog to post increasingly slanderous statements about Unsound and the organizers. Unsound’s Gosia Plysa is accused of having “dark, hypnotic eyes,” which apparently hypnotized somebody into doing something which is never specified.
The most Web-dumb accusation posted so far involves Unsound employee Lukasz Warna-Wieslawski. To promote his radio show, Warna-Wieslawski recently posted a picture of himself holding a pug. You know, the adorable dog. A pug. Osiejuk then took the photo and posted it on his own blog, where a random commenter wrote of Warna-Wieslawski, “he will sacrifice the pug to achieve success.” It goes on like that.
Osiejuk is a member of the conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc party, and ran for office in 2011. (The name translates as “law and justice.”) This far-right party stands to win a fair number of parliament seats in the elections, which take place in several weeks. The growing power of these parties in Poland may have influenced whoever in the church made the decision to unlink themselves from Unsound, but this is as much a story about Internet trolls as it is about politics. The right wing alone couldn’t create a situation like this; the Internet is the crowbar here.
St. Catherine’s claims to have received complaints about Tibet’s performance, but there is no evidence, beyond Osiejuk, his daughter and a handful of anonymous commenters, that anybody believes anyone at Unsound is a satanist. But trolls exist as an oddly powerful group because once in a while a troll turns out to be Anders Behring Breivik or Dylann Storm Roof. Especially in Europe, the mass shooter is far less common than the troll, but the trolls wield power because the threat of actual violence can be infinitesimally small and still act as a sort of evil insurance policy, the counterweight of physical violence that allows the virtual violence to stay above the water line. If there any chance whatsoever that an Internet complainer will turn out to be a real-life protester or worse, the burden of doubt becomes immense. Otherwise rational teachers send kids building clocks off to the police, websites are shut down and concerts are canceled. (Swap in racism for religion-based paranoia as needed.)
When I asked Tibet to comment on the image in question, he sent the following:
“The symbol used on the back of ‘Dogs Blood Rising’ is a drawing of the so-called ‘Pope’s Cross,’ the crucifix he often holds up during public appearances. I took it from the cover of a book by Piers Compton called ‘Broken Cross: The Hidden Hand in the Vatican,’ which dealt with Satanic influences within the Roman Catholic church hierarchy. On the back cover of the album, you can see Aleister Crowley’s unicursal hexagram behind the cross.
“It was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on paranoia and occultism, with my usual black humour, and with Crowley’s hexagram being blocked by the cross.
“The emails and letters from people who have returned to Christianity in its various forms because of my work are plentiful, as are the letters from people who respect — or don’t respect at all — my beliefs, but are glad that I hold them and that I am honest about them.”
It seems likely that, had the church never canceled the concert, this conflict would not have reached the home pages of two major Kraków newspapers — Gazeta Wyborcza and Dziennik Polski — on Sunday. Osiejuk would have fulminated on his blog for a tiny cohort.
Unsound is my single-favorite music festival in the world, which makes this is a painful and absurd spectacle to watch. People have been distracted, hopefully for just a moment, from what has already been a powerful series of shows. (A performance by four pianists of Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerrilla,” and a DJ set by Rabih Beaini have been two early highlights.) The Curia has yet to respond to Unsound’s request for an official explanation. When it comes, it will probably not reveal who exactly was rattled by the online blockheads. But, sadly, we already know why they were.
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