Up close and personal with artists at the front lines of dark and hypnotic anti-surveillance art
Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst
This past March I had the chance to attend Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee and witness sound artist Holly Herndon perform to “fam in the house!” at a “hometown show” (as her collaborator Mat Dryhurst typed onto the screen behind her.) Holly, who grew up nearby in Johnson City, left Tennessee as a teenager and spent several years immersed in Berlin’s lively techno scene before returning to the US to study electronic music at Mills College in Oakland. In 2012, she released her first full-length album Movement to critical acclaim and then her sophomore follow-up, Platform this past May. She is currently touring across Europe with Mat, a video artist, musician, and developer of SAGA, a video platform that allows artists to directly communicate unique messages to individual viewers or change the very content of their video post-factum, if they find it is being profited from by an ad-driven aggregator site without their permission.
After Holly and Mat’s overwhelming performance in Knoxville, I was immediately left with questions about their production process, their accelerationist aesthetic, and the strange and participatory relationship with their audience. After a little googling, I found that their online personas, blogs, and videos only left me feeling more intrigued by these questions so I decided to reach out to them for some answers. The following interview was the product of a several weeks worth of sporadic, longform, and non-linear communication with them via Google Doc in the late nights after their European tour performances.
Holly and Mat, I wanted to start by asking a few burning questions about your performance at Big Ears last spring. To set the scene for the readers: it began with Mat logging onto his Facebook, pulling up the festival event page, and casually scrolling through a few of the attendees’ pictures. After “liking” a few of the more embarrassing images, he seemingly just got bored and logged out to start up his VJing program. The crowd’s reaction was predictable – occasional awkward laughter followed by the nervous shifting of body weight. I caught myself thinking, “Fuck, did I click ‘Going’?” and I doubt I was alone in that paranoia. I’ve also seen in other videos where you ask audience members to text in questions that you then display and answer bluntly in a word document onscreen. Why do you engage your audience in such a voyeuristic way?
I refuse to tether the focus of my practice to educating people about the obvious capability of underrepresented groups. —Holly Herndon
Well, this practice actually started a long time ago – we both did a piece with the philosopher Reza Negarestani called “Collusion” – in which one goal of the piece was an attempt to implicate the people in the room in the performance. It was a festival talking about Timothy Morton’s concept of “Dark Ecology” (or how creating an ‘other’ of nature is problematic), and it seemed appropriate to think of ways to make people acutely aware of what was happening around them. We were setting off cell phones, recording applause and playing it back – all kinds of tricks to break the familiar hypnotic state that people try and conjure at shows.
I think, generally, we are pretty insistent that people are aware that the show is happening, and there is not some seamless pretense presented in the work. This goes for the music, as well as the visuals. Parts should be awkward; it should be human. The whole surveillance narrative is something I’ve been doing for a long while – I started tailoring lectures and performances to the exact audience in the room years ago, and think it’s a very fertile territory to explore. Also as a means of resistance, in the sense that these are the tactics the state and companies are employing with increasing effectiveness, and people are both poorly informed about it and also unaware of quite how tailored their experience of life is by these opportunistic entities.
We are interested in finding new possibilities for empathy, intimacy, and expression.
MAT I think a big takeaway, is that we are both very interested in finding new possibilities for empathy, intimacy, and expression. Personalized data is just one of those poorly explored possibilities, so we are going to try it out.
Of course there is also a clear narrative of surveillance and sousveillance in Holly’s music, and so it makes sense to extend that to the live shows. We’ve taken it further a couple of times – we worked with an artist Michael Guidetti in SF who set up live surveillance cameras and was zooming into people’s phones on three huge projection screens while we were playing. Recently in Berlin we invited Claire Tolan (of Tactical Tech) to do a live ASMR performance in which she was tracking what people were wearing as they were entering Berghain and creating these real time charts projected around the room to tally the information.
It’s important to act responsibly, but I’m excited about artists who get their hands dirty with these issues and techniques as that is a great way for us to figure out what might be done with our predicament rather than just simply pretending we live in a simpler time. Data is a personal and political battleground.
Can you explain what you mean by “sousveillance”?
HOLLY “Sousveillance” is a term coined by the MIT researcher Steve Mann that basically describes the act of recording yourself participating in an activity. I’ve used this technique a lot, obviously with Mat, to generate material for my work. Particularly in pieces like “Chorus” and “Home,” which dealt with themes of surveillance, it seemed appropriate to use surveillance techniques to generate that material. New discussions call for new techniques, and the hope is that the intimate collection of material translates into a kind of intimacy for the listener. That being said, this is obviously not all that new as I think Mann started playing with this stuff in the 80s. It’s just something that perhaps hasn’t been so integrated into music-making practices.
In your video for “Home,” a collaboration with Metahaven, your body keeps getting drenched by these waves of Golconda-esque NSA logos as you sing: “I can feel you in my room. / Why was I assigned to you? / I know that you know me better than I know me.” As someone who describes herself as an “unashamed laptop performer,” can you talk about these particular lyrics and how your relationship to your laptop and other technology has changed since the NSA leaks?
I realized that someone snooping around my inbox was far more invasive than someone snooping around my bedroom.
HOLLY I’ve been saying forever that the laptop is potentially the most intimate instrument, as it mediates my personal life as well as being my instrument. I realized that someone snooping around my inbox was far more invasive than someone snooping around my bedroom, and so I wanted to write a response song to that invisible entity. It was largely inspired by the film The Lives of Others. My instrument knows more about me than I do sometimes, and obviously if someone has access to that information it births a strange kind of intimacy. I quite deliberately didn’t process my voice in that track, and it is tender for me to listen back to it as it makes me wince a little to hear my voice so naked. Similarly, the candid footage that Mat shot for that video was never something I felt comfortable with, which again seemed appropriate given the context. I really feel like it’s important to try and make the process of creating this work conceptually sound with the ideas that inspire it, so that piece is still raw. It was recently completely rewritten for a live context in a powerful way that gives me some dominance over the work again. It’s probably my favorite track to play live as a result.
I’ve read elsewhere that Donna Harraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto inspired your last album, but I can hear its influence in Platform as well. Even the album cover’s collage of chrome, vector graphics, skin and bone suggests a “breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine,” as Harraway put it. This admission of vulnerability and re-assertion of intimacy with (or even dominance over) machines – do you feel like this is a more useful way forward for you than a technophobic retreat back to the “natural” or “organic”?
In short, yes. Both of us are pretty insistent on not retreating from the messiness of our increasingly integrated relationships with technology, and there is a big distinction between maintaining a critical but open perspective on developments, and adopting a reactionary approach – concepts of what is and is not “natural” are equally politicized and problematic.
Platform is a project of integration in many respects, but also of attempting to move beyond the absurd false binaries of “pop” and “experimental music.” The challenge is considered integration, finding the good stuff and stripping away the bad. In discussions around the cover artwork we spoke a lot with Metahaven about Russian constructivism, and a greater theme has always been a focus on assemblage – looking at the pragmatic adoption of technology in protest, the recombination of elements to form tools, the adoption of high and low technological techniques to reach certain objectives. The great lesson of Haraway is one of a plastic, mutable self, which is a source of great optimism for us both. The popular image of a cyborg is one of body augmentation, but both of us have been more interested in the emotional cyborg – those who use tools to emote, express compassion, build alliances across networks, disperse into anonymity. This is why someone like Chelsea Manning is such a crucial figure in our minds, this idea of leaking with love.
This plastic, mutable self you take inspiration from seems to be very much in conflict with some contemporary strains of mainstream feminism. After being quoted in an article about performing at a women-only festival, you wrote a post on your Facebook wall that I interpreted as a critique of the rigid walls around gender and the potential of transphobia in these “women-only” spaces, but also a furtherance of Harraway’s assertion of “affinity, not identity.” Are these choices of self-production and augmentation what you refer to when you talk about “creating new fantasies” and “new ways to love” in your work?
I’m more interested in what we can be than what we are told we are.
HOLLY Yes, you pretty much nailed it with the Haraway reference. I’m more interested in what we can be than what we are told we are. That’s really where the new fantasies come into play, and why flexibility around gender definitions is so crucial. Nobody really noticed, but around Platform I tried to talk a lot about Joe Meek and his record I hear a new world, which was not only an incredibly innovative production in terms of his recording techniques, but also a fantastical gesture from an artist who was regrettably ostracized for his sexuality. He chose the figure of the alien to explore this, and I’m more attracted to that ideal than ideas of ‘sisterhood’ or whatever. I’m a feminist, and deeper than that, the people I’m drawn to are aliens. That is not to underestimate the levity of the struggle for equality, but I refuse to tether the focus of my practice to educating people about the obvious capability of underrepresented groups. I’d rather work with aliens to try and make something transformative. In culture we have an opportunity to hijack reality and make of it what we please.
You recently collaborated with Metahaven and Jacob Appelbaum on two shirts to raise funds for the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Have you been in direct contact with her recently, and can you elaborate on what you mean by leaking, or infiltrating, with love?
We actually have been in contact with her. The group of us recently conducted an interview with Chelsea for Paper Magazine, conducted via snail mail through her lawyer. It was a huge opportunity, and we tried to honor it by asking questions from an unfiltered and emotional perspective. The “leaking with love” term is something we used for our recent exhibition at Kunstverein Hamburg, as we thought it was a fitting way to characterize the initial contribution that Chelsea made. This is an observation really clarified by our conversations with Metahaven, but while Snowden’s contributions were calculated strategically (using knowledge learned from the initial Chelsea leak) and warranted a significant amount of attention, Chelsea’s initial leak was really a crime of compassion and catapulted us into this new era of disgust at the injustices taking place and frustration as to how little was known about them. This compassion is often pejoratively characterized in the press as a pathology, or naiveté. We see it as a transformational act of bravery and love.
This infiltration with love, as you call it, reminded me of another interview, in which you suggested that the sound file has transformative potential, because you can get people to listen to almost anything if you embed it within a 4/4 rhythm. What are some of your own favorite projects that use this pop form as a signal carrier for more complex or seditious messages?
HOLLY I’ll turn the question around a little, as I don’t really have favorite projects and see everything we do as a continuous process. We are constantly juggling new stuff and, in a way, you are forced to rationalize your practice as a stream rather than distinct gestures. As stressful or anxiety-laden as that can be, it also speaks to this idea of the carrier signal. We are constantly sending stuff out there and it’s largely in this format that can be received and shared as intended. I think that music, and this wonderful ability that it has, can contribute cumulatively to shifts in the narrative in ways that other art forms can rarely keep up with. I don’t think any one project we have done has tipped things over the edge, but I don’t think that’s the point. We started introducing a bunch of ideas, many of them ideological, through strange electronic music a few years ago in tandem with a global community of people, and I’d like to think that over that time we’ve fortified that carrier signal, and that it has contributed to some changes in attitude. We are in Europe at the moment, and have noticed that the “Home” video we made with Metahaven is making all these appearances at serious exhibitions about surveillance and policy. Some of the vulnerable but beautiful shots Mat took of me behind a camera are appearing as the poster image to frame how people approach this topic, which traditionally may have looked austere and foreboding. I feel quite proud of that, and feel that the music and those visuals were this powerful way to approach the human and emotional aspects of this massive geopolitical issue. People are quick to dismiss the populist potential of music as a medium, but it’s really a massive opportunity.
I look at @deray as a cultural figure.
MAT I’ve been a little obsessed with the stream idea. I did a talk for PAN in New York a while back about how I think an artist’s practice should be better understood as a series of small gestures – a song, a tweet, an image. All part of the same unfolding piece, rather than atomized gestures. Critically we haven’t made that shift yet, but we feel it, and arguably it is how all of our work will be studied in the future. When music discourse becomes too focussed on album cycles or individual projects, it is missing out on bigger conversations that are happening. I look at someone like @deray as a cultural figure, for example, and feel a huge surge of optimism, and get really inspired by how well he uses the signals available to force things forward. Music has a powerful emotional impact on people, it’s faster to make and share than at any time in history and it is a powerful tool for building new cultures. So, yes, it’s a huge opportunity for people to step up. We just try and work on something every day, and try to juggle making a living out of it while representing what we think is important.
What is the inspiration and thinking behind your visual aesthetics of your performances?
MAT We have been experimenting with is the idea of having the artwork speak directly to the audience members in the room. This speaks a lot to my research in data mining (I’ve done a number of pieces now where the artwork knows who you are). For each show, I research who has advertized they are coming to the show through social networks, and present that back to the audience in different ways. Sometimes I use your face, other times I will integrate something trivial from the background of a picture of your bedroom. It’s intended to be a little creepy but not too blatant, anticipating a very real near future where personal information we willingly broadcast online will be used to tailor our experience IRL. When I congratulate you on a job you just got, projected on the walls of a club, it is received as both an intimate gesture and a troubling breach of trust. This is a good space to experiment with I think, and this information is publicly available as a raw material for art work.
When I congratulate you on a job you just got, projected on the walls of a club, it is received as both an intimate gesture and a troubling breach of trust.
Integrating this information and presenting it back to people can be provocative and also quite contemplative. The intention is to break the distance between what we do and the people in the room, and make people acutely aware of their surroundings. Sometimes it’s radical to just show things for what they are. When we see all the parts clearly, we can imagine ways to participate or change things. When we played Berghain recently, we invited Jake Applebaum to speak during the set in homage to people who have fallen in the name of transparency, and we turned on all the lights in the space for a minute. I found it a powerful moment and break in the usual narrative. I’m pretty adamant that an experimental practice should experiment with all available options and media, not just sound. When you start to see things that way a lot of options present themselves.
Alongside this visual hyperrealism, you also seem to be exploring a sort of accelerationist aesthetic and ethos that feels almost near-futuristic and other-worldly; words like “new,” “future,” “leave,” and “exit” appear multiple times throughout Platform’s lyrics and videos, most notably in An Exit and Interference. What do you find interesting about these concepts and how do you relate them to accelerationism?
MAT For better or worse, over the past decade things have taken a turn toward critiquing corporate aesthetics, introducing glossy and hi-def imagery back into the avant garde. At its best it can be a wonderful and humorous subject to play with. However, it can also run the risk of perpetuating the problem. Dis Magazine created a special culture, for example, and there is also the issue that once something becomes so successful, it can spiral into unintended directions. In the most regrettable circumstances, it can represent a theoretical alibi to basically be as gross and opportunistic as one pleases. One can now wear the visual and sonic language of critique and quite easily enjoy the benefits of the worlds you are purportedly critiquing.
I feel like Holly and I, and artists like Jam City, have been quite vocal about how problematic this can be. This issue also reared it’s head regarding people’s interpretations of accelerationism – which is also partly why Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (who created the term in this context) have seen cause to create a distinction now between left and right accelerationism; the latter being the prominent strategy of ‘glossy abandon’ and the former being perhaps more concerned with using contemporary infrastructural awareness to construct alternatives – making it closer in kin to constructivism, in a sense. Platform was a quite deliberate compliment to the left accelerationist approach, and we share a great many allies within that community, and continue to work with them on projects and ideas. Critique is an important first step, and next comes the need to present alternatives, which is fucking hard.
The good news, I think, is that despite the fact that some projects are more successful in their critique than others, I’m really happy that across the field we are dealing with contemporary issues and aesthetics in the arts. As recently as 3 or 4 years ago I felt super alienated by the retrospective conversations that seemed to dominate music, for example. The fetishization of old, expensive gear, “real music” and all that stuff. I think we are in a much better place now, and it’s good that there is a diversity of opinion out there – that’s the difference between a trend and a culture.