ESSAY: Copenhell Revisited through Aesthetics

An analysis in theoretical aesthetics on the prevalence of Affect at Copenhell Festival.  (All photo credit to 

Back in my studies at RUC, I wrote an essay within the field of aesthetics with a case study on Copenhell. The essay explores the cathartic effects of the festival as a sanctuary for metal heads.

Case Study: Copenhell

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

Aesthetics is to the untrained eye much more than its mundane and somewhat banal  common understanding. Being both a descriptive term and a complex concept on its own, Aesthetics breeds a somewhat acrimonious dynamics of discussion as to its significance, even it’s very definition. In our usual understanding, one tends to describe the aesthetics of a given object, situation, event or area as a judgement of its physical attributes, in other words, its aesthetic appeal. (Böhme 1993: 114) Before delving into too much historically diachronic and theoretical perspectives on Aesthetics, I was also under the same conviction and using the term as a means to describe the somewhat shallow and surface-like characteristics, rather than any deeper meaning, which subsequently could allude to a greater number of social and academic significances.

A course in Aesthetic theory will, in fact, enlighten you to the importance of Aesthetics within the academic field of Performance Design. Furthermore, studies of aesthetics introduces a variety of useful concepts and thereby also the methodological tools for analysis that aid in understanding the cultural phenomena of performance events. In the case of this essay, the understanding of Affect takes a central position and forms the basis for a case analysis and subsequent discussion of a given event.

The case study of this essay, Copenhagen’s premier Metal festival “Copenhell” will be used to contextualize a more concrete understanding of what Affect is, by attempting to extract its significance in a contemporary event. It is within this essays’ hypothesis that Affect is something that can be identified and is actively engineered within the design-spectrum of Copenhell as a means to create a more intense aesthetic experience for its participants. The first section will briefly introduce Copenhell.  The second section will provide the necessary theoretical insight to the field of aesthetics, where Copenhell will occasionally be correlated with the mentioned theory to provide a more vivid picture of what characteristics the theory points towards.  Most importantly, however, concrete focus will be implemented on Affect as one of the key sensory experience, often induced by aesthetic effects, circumstances or interventions.

With the given theoretical foundation, the case of Copenhell will then be analyzed, based on a partly hermeneutical methodology by way of interpreting the used texts as a means for analytical basis. The hermeneutic approach gives us the philosophical and critical anchorage to look closer at the central implications of Affect in a concretized situation. In other words, to commence by the critical and concrete interpretations of selected theoretical texts, which ultimately “encourage reading between the lines” (Hope & LaCoure, 2010: 436). Since the empiricism (like in the forms of qualitative data like interviews etc) does not feature in this essay, it is a theoretically grounded argument. Subsequently, the results garnered from the analysis will form a part of a discussion that relates the concept of Affect to an alternative perspective, which hopefully intensifies the importance of its study, namely that of Nietzsche’s dichotomous understanding of Apollonian and Dionysian forces and the related concept of Catharsis as the significant denominator and bedrock of the Copenhell Experience. Ultimately, the paper’s discussion and conclusion will provide a synthesis of the key analytical findings, which will subsequently attempt to answer whether a discussion of Affect in the case of Copenhagen is a fruitful way of understanding its socio-cultural importance as a contemporary event.

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

Copenhell initially opened its fiery gates in 2010 with a line-up consisting 17 acts. What was initially a two day festival, quickly picked up speed and expanded into 3 days with an additional stage, making a total of 3 performing stages. (See appendices 1a) Copenhell is heavily marketed during the promotional stages of the festival. An example is the Metal-cruise which featured as a boat-party prior to the festival. (see appendices 1b) Another example is the “When Copenhell Freezes Over” event in Vega that shines light on upcoming bands. At the actual festival, the area is divided up into different themed areas and the stalls retain their own identity in terms of drinks, food styles and merchandise. There is also a large German style beer tent next to the Viking land that features spit-roasted pork and a common sauna. Copenhell has now grown into a festival that features 39 acts and a solid 14000 visitors attending. This writer personally visited the festival 3 times, so the discussion of Affect will also pull on some personal experiences from the field, yet it still remains somewhat hermeneutic as the bulk of interpretation is theoretically based. Further details on Copenhell will feature throughout the paper.

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

Theoretical insight on Aesthetics and Affect:

As means to briefly introduce the field of Aesthetics, it is important to elucidate that the studying of Aesthetics is deeply embedded as a branch of philosophy. This is where a historical perspective lends us an understanding as to why the study of aesthetics has changed into its contemporary expression. As a predecessor to the modern understanding, the ancient Greeks had philosophical reflections, even if only in a streamlined outlook on fashion, on poetry, painting, music, and the aesthetically beautiful, where these reflections ultimately, had a significant effect on later philosophical discussion. (Lamarque: webpage 1) The ancient Greeks brought forth what could be indicative of the first ventures into judgemental aesthetics, as Böhme would describe as “The old aesthetics”, which dealt with notions of taste in “The faculty of approval”. (Böhme 1993: 114) Kant eventually cemented the idea of judgement within aesthetic theory, which lead to the social aspect of critical conversation of art in Critique of pure reason. (ibid: 115) Whether brought to light through venture in semiotics, or a casting of negative or positively connotated judgement, aesthetics seems to straddle the borders of artistic criticism and philosophy. In short, a study of aesthetics is defined by a regard of the sensory or emotional values of aesthetics and its effects. A more contemporary understanding and clearly more relevant to the central aspects of this essay, is the understanding of aesthetics as a field concerned with the relation between environmental qualities, in this case the aesthetic qualities of a given locality, space or object, and the human state induced and catalyzed by the interrelational dynamics of their co-existence, for example, in the case of Affect. (Ibid: 114) Performance Design understanding of Aesthetics is primarily anchored in what we call the aesthetic experiences, either through our own individual aesthetic (sensory) perception of the world, or the form and material which constitutes the world’s aesthetic qualities, either constructed or natural. (See Ulrik slides)

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

In contemporary times, Wolfgang Welsch provides a somewhat graspable understanding of what is called Aestheticization processes on two levels.  Being two-fold, one deals with surface aestheticization and the other with deep-Seated Aestheticization. Surface aestheticization elucidates firstly the aesthetic furnishment of reality, which speaks of, for example, a shop receiving renovating “face lifts”, the reconceptualization of our public spaces, such as train stations doubling as museums, as is the case with Athens Metro station that excavated old ancient city walls and allowed them to remain as part of the metro experience (see appendices 2a). (Welsch 1996: 2).

Essentially, the aesthetic refurbishment is “a sugar-coating of the real with aesthetic flair”. (ibid.) Copenhell is a festival that largely sees an industrial area totally refurbished to be masked as a metal sanctuary, complete with marked off areas such as the viking lang, artistic sculptures and themes such as that of the grey wolf. (see Appendices 2b) Another surface aestheticization process deals with the most superficial aesthetic value, namely those of hedonistic feelings of “desire, amusement, enjoyment without consequence”. (Welsch 1996: 3). Copenhell, being a festival, is all about indulgement and escapism from the daily domestic life, where the aesthetic design largely appeals to some primal needs such as that of “Smadreland”. (See appendices 3a) Lastly, within the surface aestheticization, is the process as an economic strategy, where aesthetic attributes and developments have economic ambitions.

This one is somewhat a given, Copenhell is a profit-making festival and the aesthetic design and effects all point towards consumerism at some level or the other. With regards to Deep-seated aestheticization, there are essentially three different identifiable areas, of which I choose to illuminate a more general understanding, in order to synthesize its importance. Surface aestheticization reiterates many common preconceptions of aesthetics, whilst deep-seated aesteticization processes emphasize several important changes such as that in production process, where new technologies see a shift of aesthetic attributes of hardware and software. Secondly, the importance of aestheticization processes in the media and lastly, the transformation to the “Homo Aestheticus”. (Welsch 1996: 6) Copenhell has become much more than just a metal festival, it now features everything from Fashion merch, radio shows, debates, fine dining and workshops.

All aesthetic design choices that somehow bring forth a sense of individual development, ie. enhancement of the “Homo Aestheticus”. These observations provided by Welsch may seem slightly irrelevant and a bit far-fetched but it serves to elucidate the sheer ambiguity of what is meant by aestheticization processes. Certain aspects of Welsch’s theory will however be used in the analytical section of this essay, where especially a deep-seated aestheticization process such as Affect holds a central position.

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

This introductory passage leads us to ask what an aesthetic experience then entails. Is it a question of seeing and recognizing the world’s so-called “aesthetics boom” or should one implement more focus on a micro-perspective that places emphasis on the individual’s experience of aesthetics? (Welsch 1996: 1) The latter seems to be more relevant as it deals with the concept of Affect as the central theme of the essay, where the next section will provide sufficient knowledge to understand it’s meaning.


Affect is a somewhat abstract concept that seems to get itself mixed up with related terms such as emotion, feelings, moods and reactions. These terms are certainly not autonomous, in fact often they are interrelated, but Affect has some very distinct characteristics, of which the bulk of the understanding is extracted from Nigel Thrift’s chapter “Spatialities of Feeling” in his book

Non-Representational Theory. According to Deleuze, one understanding (that should differentiate it from feelings) is that Affects are moments of intensity, where energy change and physical exchanges within and between bodies is in process. (See ulrik slides) Affects differentiate themselves from feelings/emotions on a number of levels.

Essentially, you are “in affect” whilst emotions/feelings are something that you inherently “have”. An example could be that a walk-through ghost/horror house internal may cause you to jump in fear upon witnessing a certain ghost clown as an aesthetic effect, would in fact be an “affective” reaction, whilst your discussion with your therapist about your fear of clowns is an expression of your emotions/feelings. Therefore, Affects are non-representational, whilst feelings often are, as they are relatable to something concrete. Affects are non-verbal whilst feelings/emotions often can be. It is important to elucidate that whilst being interrelated, the concept of Affects needs to remain distinct. Affects are largely related to bodily experience, and as one of the forefathers of Affective, Spinoza wrote “an affect or passion of the mind (animi pathema) is a confused idea” which is only perceived by the increase or decrease it causes in the body’s vital force. (Spinoza 2001) What exactly is meant by this body’s vital force is again another hugely abstract notion, yet the quote illuminates that it is largely a somatic experience caused by some sort of external factor or object which catalyzes the cause of affect.

Nigel Thrift as one of the main theorists behind what is dubbed the “The Affective Turn” in studies of humanities, choose an approach to presents a large array of categorized understandings of Affect. His approach in explaining affect is largely categorical and uses an idea of relating different historical tendencies with their respective translations of what Affect means. The first of them understand Affect as “a set of embodied practises that produce visible conduct as an outer lining.” (Thrift 2008: 175). Again this tradition alludes to the idea of a somatic experience that is constitutive of affect. The second translation is a bit more specific in the sense that it relates the concept of Affect to that of the notion of drive. Drive, which is often related to a psychoanalytic framework, is in Freudian terms a distinct physiological drive to satisfy carnal needs such as sexuality, libido and desire, and as Thrift describes “drive as the root source of human motivation”. (Thrift 2008: 177) More importantly, however, is that Drive is, as according to Tomkins, marginally different. As opposed to the Affective register (which is a deep-seated aestheticization), the drive system is largely reflexive and narrowly constrained, with specific aims such as breathing and eating. (Sedgwick 1993: 19)

Drive is also time-limited and concentrated on particular objects.(Ibid)  The third translation is based on a more naturalistic understanding and largely associated with Spinoza’s approach to Affect and the subsequent reconsideration provided by Deleuze. This translation challenges the ideas of Descartes of a two substance world consisting of extension (the physical field of objects) and thought (the property which makes us conscious beings). Spinoza believed in a monist understanding that the world was interrelated by one substance, namely “God or Nature”, in all its forms. Ultimately, “Affect is defined as the property of the active outcome of an encounter, takes the form of an increase or decrease in the ability of the body and mind alike to act, which can be positive or negative.” (Thrift 2008: 178)

The last translation is that of a Darwinian persuasion. Largely anchored in an understanding of evolution, human expression was born out of an affective expression as a means of preparing an organism for action, for example through expression signifying danger or shock. (Thrift 2008: 181). It is beyond the scope of this essay to further elaborate on these understandings of Affect, but they help to explain the grand scope in which Affect theory has developed from and into its contemporary understanding that not only finds its research potential relevant in arts and performance, but also in urban planning, politics and sociology. In this case, the analysis of the importance of research of Affect in cosmopolitics and politics in general remains somewhat irrelevant to this essay. In the case of Copenhell, it is more important to understand and thereby identify affect in the case of performing arts and events. The examples of Bill Viola’s work, which Thrift decided to use as examples, will feature sporadically throughout the analytical section that follows.

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

This analysis section will draw on certain specific examples of Affect initiation at the Copenhell Festival, certain relevant theories will occasionally feature to strenghthen the argument. “Metal Heads” have a very distinct reputation as a subculture, where the ramifications of the subculture is taken very seriously by the members within. (Weinstein 2000: 141). With a myriad of sub-genres, all with different defining aesthetic characteristics and values, the heavy metal subculture seems to be acrimonious as it is inclusive. (ibid.) As the straight-edge culture was adopted by the metalcore community, the black metal stayed on its conservative pathway, which will form the first analytical example of Affect present at Copenhell. Black Metal is a subgenre characterized by the wearing of black/white corpse and the wearing of militant clothing and listening to ultrasonic passages of grizzly metal music.

The aesthetic quality of  black metal can clearly be correlated and compared to that of Bill Viola’s work in Three Women (2008) where the emergence and disappearance of three women through a waterfall is mediatized through use of ultra-slow motion and distortion of colours. As Thrift posits, these aesthetic qualities “regularly produce extreme emotionanl responses in their audience which sometimes seem to cross over into the therapeutic, even redemptive. (Gibbons en Thrift 2008: 194) This aesthetic effects can also be related to what Thrift reveals regarding modern work where “a camera can impose its own politics of time and space”, that leads to a much more perceptible and visible aesthetic experience. (Thrift 2008:187). Whatever emotions may have stirred up redemptive or therapeutic qualities in the experience of “Three Women” is in my intepretation a similar experience of what black metal supporters experienced whilst witnessing Swedish Watain perform, their effective use of strobe lights and LED’s are similar to the aesthetic effects employed by Bill Viola, which ultimately stirred up an Affective reaction in the audience. (See appendices 3b) To some it seemed a trance-like experience where shut eyes and slow-nodding proved some sort of transportation, whilst to others the affective response was that of crowd diving in ecstacy over the rest of the crowd. In any case, metal music has many times been related to its cathartic qualities, which is a term from Greek the word kátharsis (which means cleansing or purging) Catharsis features frequently in the world of literature, drama and psychology (See website 2 – Esta Powell). In this case, however, it is relevant to be considered as a potential outcome of various levels of affect that is not related to any scientific aspects but purely on an emotional and cognitive level.

It could be argued that “catharsis” is one of the outcomes of attending a heavy metal show, or the festival on it’s whole. This argument will be discussed further in the discussion section. Levels of affect straddle the entire festival, from the purely somatic experience of moshing in a pit (See appendices) to the spontaneous mud bathing found during the rainier periods of the festival. Though, one example of an incontrovertible proof of Affect is that of Smadreland. In this area, participants are allowed to virtually smash up everything within the confines of the area, this includes used cars, stereos and televisions, which can all be smashed up with as much vigour as you please. The fact that participants can allow themselves to spontaneously smash up things is indicative of a non-representational and clearly intense outlash of somatic emotion, again perhaps alluding to some therapeutic qualities.

Levels of affect straddle the entire festival, from the purely somatic experience of moshing in a pit (See appendices 4a) to the spontaneous mud bathing found during the rainier periods of the festival. Despite all the surface-aestheticization efforts employed by the Copenhell staff, it is clearly the free ramifications of the festival area that inspire most of the rise in the affective register of the participants at the festival. As it is introduced by Mikhail Bakhtin, (Bakhtin, 1984). the “carnevalesque” nature of festival values (in which the world is turned inside out for a period in time) allows for a certain frivolous expression through aesthetic effects that exponentially lift the levels of affect, mostly positive and arguably therapeutic for the bulk of the participants of the festival. The following discussion, and subsequent conclusion, will try to tie some of these observations to an external theoretical perspective which should mould the pre-existing theory regarding affect into an alterior theoretical contribution. This discussion is by no means something that has not been explored before, but its relevance seems to me incontrovertible as it provides a anatomical understanding of the space and athmosphere that allows for these certain affects to run free and more importantly, safely at the festival.

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

One of the prime inspirations to this understanding is based in Olav Harsløf performative and historical/philosophical analysis of the Roskilde Festival perspectivized with the Ancient Greek Dionysia as a festival that provides the grounds for frivolous affective behaviour. His book “Den Store Festival”, by use of Nietzsche, concluded that there are two driving artistic forces at play, namely that of the Dionysian and Apollonian forces. At Copenhell, it is my argument that we can identify similar elements and characteristics of the same nature at play. According to Nietzsche’s work, without going into too much detail, the Apollonian driving force is related the beautiful quality of the inner fantasy realm. It is also a reflection of a higher truth, an ideal condition in contrast to the distorted experience of our domestic lives (Nietzsche,1878). Apollonian symbolism is related to that state of beauty, light and very importantly also the symbolic representation for moderation, thereby order, which is dichotomous to the Dionysian symbol for Chaos. Moderation, must be understood in the sense that it is reflected in the freedom from more uncontrollable ecstatic excitement (Nietzsche, 1878). This brings us to the understanding of Dionysian driving forces are a loss of individual foundation, the so-called collapse of principium individuationis, that yanks the persona into the innermost depths of man and nature (Nietzsche, 1878). Dionysus, being the god of wine, is often associated with intoxicants. These intoxicants, correlate with the euphoria of spring/summer weather ultimately form the development of a Dionysian condition. (Nietzsche, 1878). Whilst the Apollonian driving force is that of a calm, boundary formed nature based in aesthetic appeal of light, shapes and beauty, the Dionysian force is related to the frivolous engagement in indulgement of the primal self, thus reiterating the the famous dichotomy of Chaos and Order. At Copenhell, is is my argument that these elements, whether based in philosopher pondering, are somehow identifiable in the forms that the Apollonian condition ensures the safety ramifications and aesthetic appeal of the physical boundaries, along with the dreamlike fantasy world inspired by Apollos’s association to the dreamworld. Whilst, the Dionysian spirit manifests itself in the exhorbitant consumption of alcohol, the moshpitting and smashing as the prime indicators of an increase in therapeutic affect in safety of a symbiosis and balance of Chaos and Order.

Photo: Philip B. Hansen /

Copenhell is like many other festivals, a hugely expressive domain for participants to gather in some form of unity that allows escapism from the individual domestic identity. Festival thrive on user-participation and volunteerism, so it comes to no surprise that the Aesthetic implementations found at Copenhell, whether surface- or deep-seated, all serve to inspire as much affective response in their participants. Copenhell is however a niche-festival that clearly speaks to a sub-culture that is often related to that of anti-conventions and rebelliousness and for that reason, all aesthetic elements are catered towards satisfying this segment of music enthusiasts. Conclusively, Copenhell can be argued as being a prime example of where affect is clearly present and arguably cathartic, which further iterates that Affect studies could be fruitful and bountiful within the socio-cultural framework of Performance studies.

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