Perhaps the most striking image in Maximum Tolerated Dose, the 2012 documentary about the morality of animal testing from Peterborough filmmaker/photographer/doom rapper Karol Orzechowski, isn’t a gory vivisection or a diseased animal shoved in an inhumanly small metal cage; it’s a rat in a wheel.
The mechanized wheel turns slowly, at a constant rate, and the rat is forever struggling to hold stable ground. Blocking its path is a small metal platform jutting out of the floor of the wheel. As the wheel and the platform turn, the rat is scooped up. It clings desperately to the platform as it’s lifted higher into the air, past the horizontal point, until it is unceremoniously dumped back to the bottom of the wheel. The rat can barely recover before the platform comes back around the other side, and the whole process begins again.
Maximum Tolerated Dose is an incendiary piece of filmmaking, and rather novel in the animal rights movement for its dual focus: on both the ‘non-human animals’ being tested, and the ‘human animals’ doing the testing. There’s an odd parallel between these two groups. Both have become tools of a massive industrial system they can’t even fathom. The lab animals are trapped, but so are the lab workers, indoctrinated to believe in the rightness of their task and forced to close off some part of their moral humanity, to serve some nebulous (and possibly non-existent) ‘higher purpose.’
“A lot of my dreams revolve around situations where I’m on the run,” Orzechowski tells me. “Where I’ve done something and I’m going to be caught. The worst thing that can happen to any of us is to have our agency stripped away. The ability to make choices, that’s what freedom is.”
These themes, these images, recur over and over again in Orzechowski’s work, in film as Decipher Films and in photography as Decipher Images: the same inhuman industrial spaces built in cinder blocks and chain-link fences and smashed windows, then left to rot; the same wild, lost faces, struggling against their bonds.
These are also the same figures in Orzechowski’s musical alter ego, Garbageface. Over beats of harsh industrial noise and tangled glitchy electronics, the rhymes of the self-described “doom rapper” are rapid-fire, free association prophecies of the apocalyptic present, acts of radical honesty and self-flagellation.
And yet, Garabageface is not without hope. There is great humour and warmth in Garbageface, in his songs, his performances, and his life. Across seven years and half a dozen albums, EPs, and mixtapes, he presents a thoughtful examination of the problems of humanity, and a roadmap for perseverance in an uncaring world.
“I will exit this world as a flatline, but for now I ride a synthesizer bass line,” he says on 2013’s “Mental Alchemy,” perhaps his clearest statement of purpose yet. “And until the loop is over, I’ll just boogie to the downbeat, take in my surroundings with a healthy dose of skinned teeth.”
This is the philosophy of existential nihilism, a recognition of the essential absurdity of life. Godless, directionless, hopeless, the only certainty of life is that one day we will die and be forever erased from the Earth. Life is chaotic and without inherent purpose, as we are tossed around by our own biology and our own systems of oppression.
It’s a painful, unpleasant truth, but it’s also a liberating one, forcing us to construct our own conceptions of morality and meaning from the ground up—as long as we never lose sight of that One Big Truth. Says Garbageface, “There’s not a payoff waiting for you to be killed, and it would be a big mistake to live for that rot, taking all your morals from a fucker on a mountaintop.”
The music of Garbageface is an assault on people’s complacency and their willful blindness to the truth of the world. It’s an attempt to shake people awake—metaphorically, and sometimes literally.
He spits harsh truths at a relentless pace, in dense lyrics that whip back and forth between unflinching self-examination, blunt politics, surreal asides, and clever wordplay. His beats, generally built from scratch by the ‘face himself, are intricately constructed machines of industrial noise, abrasive conglomerations of lurching drum machines and splintered synths, distorted guitars and frantic electronics.
Other elements find their way into the mix as well. There’s a strain of spiritualism and a fascination with Christian and pagan mysticism in his work. Garbageface will often mark his playing spaces with a pentagram on the stage (and then break the circle at the end of the night). And there’s great humour in his music, a pop culture savvy that reaches from Werner Herzog, Franz Kafka, and Kurt Vonnegut to Back to the Future, The Simpsons, and Marc Maron.
It’s a complex and ever-shifting tapestry, but one that becomes all the clearer when you take a look at Garbageface’s personal history.
Karol Orzechowki was born to Polish Catholic parents, named after the new Polish-born Pope John Paul II, nee Karol Józef Wojtyła. His early education in easy-listening, inoffensive pop music (Michael Jackson, ABBA, the Chipmunks) took an abrupt left turn in Grade 3, when a friend’s older brother lent him a mixtape. On it: the brutal, grimy thrash and heavy metal of Slayer, Sepultura, Metallica, and Ministry. “It was almost traumatizing, but in a good way,” he recalls. “It completely devastated what I thought music was. I didn’t know that music could sound scary.”
Shortly after came Orzechowski’s first introduction to rap. Public Enemy’s collaboration with Anthrax on “Bring tha Noize” was his gateway drug, introducing him to a world of percussive politics, combining a rawness of feeling and directness of message with a complexity of production. “That fucking sound!” he recalls. “A lot of their music is so fucking interesting. There’s no producers that sound like the Bomb Squad. They just used weird fucking sounds.”
Orzechowski soon found expression of his nihilist teenage angst in the 90s alt rock of Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden. The industrial music of Nine Inch Nails showed him the devastating power of electronics, as Trent Reznor smashed his synths and drum machines to broken shards of harsh noise. By high school, Orzechowski was also listening to prog and jazz, embracing the surreal and experimental potential of music.
But as his tastes changed, rap remained a constant: groups like NWA and Rage Against the Machine, who used the form to speak frankly about politics and social issues; Eminem, who broke ground for white rappers, coming as he did with the seal of approval from Dr. Dre; and Gravediggaz, who pioneered ‘horrorcore rap’ and showed that rap, too, could be scary.
Amidst his influences, Garbageface has still carved out a performance style all his own. In addition to his auditory assault, the small, lean figure weaves his way through his live audiences, strutting and posturing, and often selecting specific audience members as the subject of his aggression. His targets are not random; he goes after people being distracting to others or letting the performance slip past them, their faces buried in cell phones.
“They are disrupting the possibility of what could actually happen,” Orzechowski tells me. “You know when you’re at a show and everyone’s fucking into it, and everyone’s energy is focused. And it’s not about focusing on a person; you’re focused in the moment, listening to the sounds, and everyone’s magically paying attention and feeling similar feelings and it’s fucking magic.”
He will call out specific members of the audience on mic, publicly shaming people for being aggressive or disruptive and encouraging them to leave the venue. “If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s OK,” he tells me. “I’m uncomfortable too. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s OK to be not at ease together.”
It doesn’t help that Garbageface is frequently the odd man out at shows, the lone rapper at a metal show, the lone doom performer at a rap show, the quiet man at the back of the room thinking about vegan politics. But then again, that’s kind of the point. “To me, Garbageface is about solitude, and what is left over when you boil yourself down to the sticky essence. It is about trying to connect with other people, but on a little bit more of a spiritual or a metaphysical level.”
And yet, in Peterborough, this loner has found a place he fits, a part a whole “community of freaks,” as he lovingly calls it, in the bizarre and seedy corners of the Spill and the Garnet, amongst the city’s other lost experimenters, searchers, outcasts, and angry losers. “From the depths of depression to the top of alright, Peterbory Ontary gettin scary at night,” he raps on “Dirt Off Yr Grave.”
He pairs easily with the devastating rage boil of the city’s hardcore and punk scene. He performs dark rituals for Solstice with local goth, drone, and electro acts. He joins with jazz and experimental acts from the strange liminal frontiers of music, with the Fat Plant Assembly and Craig Pedersen’s bands. He opens quirky garage rock bills with brainy indie kids like the Lonely Parade and Faux Cults. It’s not unusual to see the same faces follow Garbageface from show to show, gleefully screaming along with his despairing rhymes.
And he has also formed lasting partnerships in the city. On upcoming albums (he has several in the works), he is working with Dastard Hand, a.k.a. Patrick Holland, better known for his visual art, intricately patterned, surreal portraiture than for his music; and Matt Jarvis, whose main contribution to local music in the past half-decade has been behind the scenes, as Local Content Archivist at Trent Radio. Garbageface is even curating his own bi-monthly series of shows, Rap Club at the Garnet (next up: April 8), introducing the city to similarly daring and talented rappers from across the country, like D-Sisive and Noah23.
In my interview, Orzechowski spent a long time expressing gratitude for all the city’s given him, and expounding on the wonders of the city’s music scene. He told me that all future Garbageface releases will include a note mentioning that the music was created in Peterborough, and encouraging all listeners to seek out more Peterborough music.
His time in Peterborough has also coincided with the formation of the Killjoy Collective, a loose collection of electronic artists, which he founded with fellow Peterborian ELMS, known for his melancholy solo electro work, and Animalia, whose hypnotic music pairs moody electronics with gorgeous vocal work. More artists have followed: the fried industrial sounds of VIRE, the lively techno of Ted Kennedy, and their newest acquisition, boyBITCH, a gonzo queer electo pop artist from Toronto. It’s an increasingly disparate group, but what unites them all is a commitment to electronic music that’s smart, hits hard, and is undeniably and captivatingly live in live performance—something all too rare in electronic music.
“Everyone in the Collective are individual artists,” says Orzechowski. “We don’t lose anything by promoting each other’s work. And we all really like each other’s work. I’m not going to promote something I don’t actually like.”
Here lies the true contradiction in Garbageface. Embracing the absurdity of life and the certainty of death could so easily lead one to apathy, inaction, or even to lash out at the world. But for Garbageface, it’s propelled him to nurture all the corpses-in-waiting around him and to build a better life in the hopeless world.
In May, Garbageface will release a new 7-inch, with perhaps his bluntest title yet: NØ FUTUR(E), where he tells us “the past is a dream and the future’s a liar,” and evokes images of “a world that’s full of burning cars.”
And yet, it may not be as grim as it first seems. “It’s as much a refusal of the future as it is a statement of there being no future,” says Orzechowski. “We limit ourselves in the short term to have freedoms in the long term, but we just spend a lot of time living in the past and living in the future. We spend very little time trying to be actively in the present.”
In a way, an existentialist philosophy comes from a place of privilege. “It’s something that I can do because I’m not preoccupied with the day-to-day shit involved in other struggles,” says Orzechowski. “Of course my choices about my life are limited: I only have so much money, I only have so many resources that are available to me, but all things considered, I live with a great deal of privilege and a great deal of choice. I feel like that’s what everyone wants. Everyone wants to be an active participant in their own life, to actively choose who they are and what they’re going to do.”
And this, too, is the message of Maximum Tolerated Dose. The truly tragic figures of the film are the ‘non-human animals,’ who are without privilege, who will never escape, and lack even the basic capacity to understand their situation. The ‘human animals,’ on the other hand, have a choice. Each of the researchers profiled in the film at some point reached their own ‘maximum tolerated dose’ of pain and torment, and made the choice to change their circumstances.
In the film, Dr. John Pippin describes the moment he decided to stop his research on dogs: “My academic career as a research cardiologist was up in smoke. And, as I left [my supervisor’s] office with that knowledge, it was OK with me. It had fallen off my shoulders. I didn’t have to fight that battle any more.”
Garbageface is an ever-present reminder that we too can do the same. The world is meaningless, and so we all have the power—and the responsibility—to create our own meaning, and make our own choices about how to spend our limited time on this planet.
The question’s not so much
what are you gonna do when you get caught?
because the thing is
we’re all caught.
the question is,
what are you gonna do
when you get frrrreeeeeeeee?
Listen to an exclusive preview of Garbageface’s latest, NØ FUTUR(E).
Photos by Bridget Allin.