It’s hard to know the extent to which good ideas are a product of their environment, or the precise impact on the environment those good ideas may subsequently have. For example, intergalactic homicidal outcasts GWAR are inarguably a product of 1980s Richmond. Similarly, there is no denying that Richmond today is very much the product of GWAR. And, at least for the hordes of fawning humans that volunteer for the slaughter wherever they play, GWAR was definitely a good idea.
Longtime GWAR collaborator and resident Slave Pit Inc. artist Bob Gorman has spent decades helping that good idea materialize, as he explained when we met at the SPI HQ in Richmond. Despite the untimely (or entirely timely, depending on which Scumdog you ask) 2014 passing of GWAR lead vocalist/bassist/massacrist Oderus Urungus (played by founder Dave Brockie), work continues for GWAR and their evolving collective of Slave Pit cohorts. “People always ask me how we justify going on,” Gorman said. “As long as it works and has the same ethos, we’ll keep going.” He added, ”We’re our own biggest fans and do the stuff we wish other people were doing. We're just fulfilling a need for what we want to see in pop culture. We’re an art collective first and foremost, but it’s hard to sell that. The genius of Dave Brockie was that he knew rock ‘n’ roll sells and art doesn't.”
Currently, work may be their primary ethos—whether related to GWAR or its many offshoots, it’s a labor of both love and utility. With decades of recognition behind the GWAR brand, and with media income dwindling for artists everywhere, the collective finds creative ways to convert their experience into a living. There’s Gorman’s coffee table book Let There Be GWAR, a highly successful comic book series GWAR: Orgasmageddon, and a potential documentary in the near future. Gorman’s and Maguire’s costume design and fabrication company Corotted Artistry makes official GWAR costumes and one-off custom designs for haunted house clients. And of course, GWAR still records metal albums and produces stadium-style shows in intimate venues (intimate, that is, before brutally slaying everyone within earshot).
With Richmond as their home base, Gorman and GWAR are fully aware of the effect the environment has had on their art. He noted that many GWAR/Slave Pit members originally came to Richmond to attend art school before dropping out to pursue a non-mainstream artistic outlet. “One thing I've noticed about culture in general is that, although something isn’t a direct influence, that thing may indirectly be very important.” He explained that the existence of VCU in the 80s—this bohemian art/polytechnic school in a run-down inner city—was critical to Richmond’s counterculture. More recently, Richmond has fallen prey to the infamous cycle of gentrification that plays out in revitalized industrial cities: Artists fill abandoned buildings, improve the neighborhood, then get kicked out to make way for lofts. Gorman said, “The vibrant scene that we have now exists because no one else wanted to be here. Buildings were empty and rent was cheap. You could make a ton of noise and no one complained because no one was here. It's great that crime is down and things are open, safe, clean, and pretty, but I do miss the dilapidated Richmond that nobody cared about. Without that, GWAR wouldn’t have happened.”
Likewise, GWAR has made a clear impact on their environment, helping to lay a foundation for elements of once-underground local culture/counterculture that are now fully baked into the widespread deviant-art and metal scenes in Richmond and beyond. “What we’ve been able to do with GWAR has become a proud part of that heritage,” Gorman said. In a sense, things have caught up with them. “Cutting the First Lady’s tits off on stage is so ho-hum now. We don't even know what to do to shock people anymore.”
The local powers-that-be have joined the bandwagon, too. Altria, Dominion Energy, Capital One—these financial giants have poured cash into building up Richmond as a cultural hub. “But,” Gorman said, “they hate us. I mean, we're not something they're proud of. This is very old conservative money. They can bank on someone else way easier than us, and they will.”
Luckily, the GWAR crew isn’t alone in their efforts to (for once) stem the bleeding. Amidst the growing landslide and noise of modern culture, they’ve found themselves talking to some unexpected benefactors. This April, GWAR will be exhibited at VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), which will have its grand opening block party Saturday, April 21. “This is a world-class museum. It’s pretty awesome to get recognized and be involved in that kind of thing,” Gorman said, adding offhandedly, “For the exhibit, I’m putting together a tableau of GWAR members killing a lot of high-profile people we hate. They sent me a questionnaire, and I answered in my GWAR voice: We thought this was a spaceship, that’s the only reason we’re here.”
In addition, Bob Gorman will exhibit a mix of GWAR and other art at the Shenandoah Fringe Festival April 8-9 in Staunton. Pat Jarrett, a folk archivist and festival organizer, reached out as a fan trying to get metal incorporated into his efforts to support regional folk traditions. Although Virginia (and especially Richmond) has deep roots in metal, Gorman’s initial response was, “Good luck with that. Old institutions don't tend to change their mind on things like that very quickly.” However, eventually Jarrett was able to convince him that folk traditions “don’t have to be all whittling and banjos.” ShenFringe will incorporate Gorman’s GWAR exhibit into two days of diversion, visual arts, film, and more.
In recent years, Gorman has appeared as a regular GWAR character—Bonesnapper the Cave Troll—and even contributed several songs, including “I, Bonesnapper,” to the album Battle Maximus. Everyone involved in the project has to wear multiple hats behind the scenes due to the massive production and logistical issues surrounding GWAR shows. On stage, he said, “I usually played a president or a celebrity. I'm short, so I’d get decapitated because I could get away with having a fake head. I’d get killed in one scene, bleed out, run off stage to change, come back and get in a fight, get killed in another way, bleed out again—sometimes five or six times a night.”
Prior to the band’s mainstream success, GWAR didn’t need stage barricades. Most fans got it—they were crazy, but knew it was parody. The early 90s brought new blood—fans who were more caught up in the act—and things quickly escalated from organized chaos to utter mayhem. Gorman recounted a night where blows were thrown in an attempt to retrieve a stolen prop from a belligerent fan. After being tackled, the fan was so gleeful to have his ass kicked by Techno Destructo that he was laughing hysterically while being punched in the face. “They know it’s fake, but there’s this insane suspension of disbelief. They watch us kill the president, get blood all over them, and are completely wrapped up in the moment.” Looking back, Gorman laughs. “I’m an artist. I don't like violence. The fact that I was in a fist fight five nights a week, sometimes because a fan stole a prop out of my hands that I worked on for three months? It’s not something I enjoyed. Things got pretty wild for a while, but eventually improved. When Ticketmaster and Live Nation came in, as big and horrible as they are, suddenly there were real security and barricades every night. No lawsuits.”
Unscripted violence aside, with GWAR’s historical penchant for attracting scorn and criticism for their violent, rotten ways (and not just with the on-stage Morality Squad), there’s one thing Gorman has loved about all of it. “If heavy metal is influencing people to be violent, you’d think there’d be a murder after a GWAR show by someone wearing a GWAR shirt covered with fake blood, but that doesn’t happen. I think you could demonstrate that there’s even less real violence because we provide a cathartic release. We provide the scapegoat. We kill them and get it over with so you don't have to get angry and can go home happy thinking, ‘Thankfully Gwar was there to kill O.J. for us,’” he laughed.
After talking to Bob Gorman about art, music, and history, and after seeing the Slave Pit workshop in action—with GWAR propaganda plastered everywhere and disguises of great antiquity stacked rubber-on-rubber, floor to ceiling in every corner—I still have questions. But I recall that Gorman noted, with some hesitation, “We have a lot of these stories. Art imitating life, or, you know, life imitating art.” Considering GWAR’s eternal, blood-drenched war on humanity, and the ceaselessly preposterous nature of the modern world, we may never know which side is winning.
GWAR will be featured in the inaugural group exhibition, Declaration, of VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond. Grand opening block party on April 21, more details at ica.vcu.edu. Bob Gorman is also participating in the Shenandoah Fringe Festival in Staunton on April 8–9, tickets available at shenfringe.com. Witness the carnage that is GWAR online at gwar.net and see Gorman’s horror creations at corottedartistry.com.