An Interview with Holly Herndon & Mat Dryhurst
By Georgina Watson & Richard Keys
Originally published in Writing Around Sound #4
For the third issue of Writing Around Sound, we talked to U.S.-based multidisciplinary artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst about interdisciplinary modes of working, collaboration, critical engagement with contemporary technologies, the processed voice, and the politics of the platform.
You both work across a range of media and contexts – how do you conceive of the relationship between different media and differing domains of cultural production?
Mat - I don’t impose much distinction between these practices, as ultimately I’ve made the choice to focus on a work’s relationship to an audience – so in a sense everything I’m interested in is performative. There is a lot of wonderful work done for programming’s sake, and music’s sake. However the most interesting and contemporary elements for me regarding art are the opportunities that arise through the new, and largely indiscriminate, audience that the internet has enabled – who are viewing all these works and concepts in the same space, at their own time, and finding them for their own individual purposes. A lot of this is an optimistic faith that new markets for cultural production will emerge that are not so domain specific and centralised. Taking music as an example, you can see quite clearly that there is less interest now in musicological elements as there is in the timing and context of gestures in relation to an audience and greater conversation. I’ve speculated that this represents a new medium of sorts, that needs to be fleshed out and debated over.
Holly - Music and performance have always been intertwined for me; I started performing long before I started releasing recorded music, and most of the extensive vocal processing on my records is performed in real time, and later tamed in the editing process. Much of what we do is concept driven, so any programming, visual and musical decisions have been in the service of a conceptual idea. I think the boundaries between disciplines have been blurred for artists for a while now. However, institutional or disciplinary context still plays a big role in terms of how the work is perceived. Each field has its own economy and discourse, and sometimes the greatest challenge is finding ways to be experimental within those rules and expectations. For many of us, it isn’t natural to see these things as distinct.
As well as working together you have collaborated with other artists, such as the Dutch designers MetaHaven and the philosopher Reza Negarestani. How important is collaboration and how does it feed into your individual practices?
Holly - It’s really crucial. Ideas tend to be stronger when they are scrutinised by people from different perspectives. The goal is to test the ideas, and expand on them, rather than reach some middle ground consensus. I read a lot, and support the idea of reaching out to people who inspire you to get them involved and broaden the conversation. It’s also an important issue of accrediting concepts – many of the best thinking happens in niche academic or technical circles, and I’d feel disingenuous not representing where some of my own developmental thinking has come from.
Working alone at a laptop all day can be really lonely, frankly. The collaborative aspect can be a point of tension for me, as when I first started releasing, I wanted to ‘prove’ myself as a composer, producer and performer. Often when women work with men, people are skeptical of the woman’s input, even in seemingly progressive circles, something that I appreciate that Bjork has been vocal about in recent years. For that reason, it was important to me to establish myself in a solo capacity with Movement, and the ensemble and academic work that I have done.
Mat - I don’t see any other way to practice. The mythology of the lone artist genius was always a little bit cloying, and now seems ridiculously unpalatable. Working methods and inspiration are pretty transparent online, so why not reflect that in your working and accreditation practices? Metahaven get this, and operate as a family collective of sorts, and I think Reza, as an auto-didact and multidisciplinarian, has also contributed to creating a more collaborative and transparent discourse around theory and philosophy with his style of working. The traditional methods of cultural production, where a few get funding due to proximity or fortune, are more transparent that ever, so I feel a bit of a duty to call that out and have my way of practicing reflect a better alternative.
Holly, you have previously talked about your artistic and personal use of your laptop. How do these modes of use inform each other in your creative practice and to what degree does this operate as a critique of narratives within electronic music that valorise ‘analog hardware’ due to notions of perceived authenticity and intimacy?
Holly - The argument that hardware is more authentic than software is flawed for many reasons. Hardware is expensive, and I don’t think there should be a price tag on being taken seriously. There was a time when hardware was characterised as inauthentic compared to wooden orchestral instruments, and now the same thing happens with digital tools. My work is about contemporary issues and feelings, so I think it is vital that I am using contemporary tools to find these new modes of expression, otherwise cultural production gets caught in a nostalgic feedback loop, struggling to maintain relevancy and becoming simply a device for us to escape into. But honestly, I use everything: software, hardware, wooden instruments, and the original instrument, the voice. They all bring different capabilities to the table.
I do think that we have never seen an instrument quite like the personal computer. My computer mediates my entire life, and is my main instrument, and expressing that transparently has resonated with a lot of people who have a similar experience.
Mat, you have worked with non-traditional approaches to generative music in works such as Dispatch (2014) – which directly samples the user’s browsing – and Surveilling the Audience (2014) – in which meta-data derived from the audience is used to generate sound – which both seem to draw on techniques from contemporary surveillance and data-analytics.
Mat - A lot of my experiments with these approaches happened in parallel to the surveillance conversation. Dispatch came about pre-Snowden, and was largely motivated by my desire to reflect how a chunk of my life was spent collecting information on myself and others simply to try and carve a living or presence using the tools being pushed on me. Then I started to see that those who use these methods, consciously or subconsciously, were in fact privileged by the new ways that people are receiving work. The feed mentality – platforms such as twitter – privilege those who have a heightened awareness of their audience. This led me to use Facebook event pages to try and discern information about attendees, and speak to them directly, which of course has parallels in data driven advertising and political campaigns. Protest, or détournement, has always tried to find ways to compete with the methods that power is using to speak to people. So artists tried to book time on T.V., or create their own networks to distribute physical records to people to provide a counter narrative to the dominant music industry. To make the same impact today, one has to research and understand the methods by which power communicates and seduces people. Data analytics, surveillance etc. seem really relevant in that pursuit. I don’t know of too many people in music who agree with me on this yet though, but I think it makes logical sense as an aspect of my/our practice.
Holly, in line with Mat’s experiments using algorithmic processes for producing music, have you ever utilised similar techniques for writing lyrics?
Holly - Not really. I usually use stream of consciousness to find the right phonemes for sketching, and then work with the conceptual framework and emotion of the piece. There is a lot of interesting work that could be done with neural nets or natural language processing, but so far most of the impressive experiments I have seen have been very focussed on the technology, where you can’t really separate the results from the tech itself. It takes a while for poetry to emerge, and I’m not really interested in the uncanny valley effect as a destination unto itself, even though I’ve read that a lot of people read that desire into my work. I did write a song in collaboration with the artist Spencer Longo, who wrote short ‘tweet sculptures’ through his @chinesewifi account a few years back. That was an interesting way to generate lyrics, as the intention was to use a limited amount of characters to conjure up images in people’s minds that could not easily be expressed visually.
You have both previously mentioned the importance of ‘context specific expression’ (Mat), and timeliness (Holly). How do these notions inform your work?
Holly - This started for me with real time vocal processing. When I started touring, I noticed that many people at the time were mangling voices, but very few were doing it live. It’s a very different proposition for the audience and performer, when something alien, yet human is happening before your eyes and not in a distant lab – it’s somehow more palpable and confrontational.
Timeliness is an art form unto itself. Just as a skilled composer knows when to introduce certain notes or themes to direct a piece of music, a skilled artist knows when to effectively disseminate a concept – and this in turn changes how the piece is heard. We have concepts that we haven’t introduced yet for this reason; if the timing isn’t right it becomes hard to move people.
Mat - I’ve done a lot of work on this, and continue to. With the live show I’m very interested in the time and contextual aspects of improv and comedy, particularly in relation to artificial intelligence and data analytics. Computers can beat people at logical games like Go, but still can’t convincingly write a joke – this contextual dexterity gives us the edge over power for now. I joke that the live text work we do at shows are ‘Turing Texts’, basically doing everything in our power to communicate that there is a real, live, human on stage – as a point of principle to mess with the seamless transition of music from your playlists to stages and back.
Holly, I am interested in the use of the voice on your album ‘Platform’ in relation to recent thought around the feminisation of particular forms of labour, such as that performed predominantly by women in ASMR videos.
Holly - It’s funny, when Claire and I were making Lonely at the Top, we weren’t really considering gender, even though that was how most people read the piece. Perhaps it was there subconsciously. In my music the voice is often used to pair with male created productions, often lifted from the internet and mangled beyond recognition or attribution; perhaps the ultimate disembodiment of the female voice. Because I’m producing music and producing intricate vocal processing, my voice has a distinctly different sound. In a way the natural voice is not always recognisable, but my ‘sound’, I think, is quite recognisable.
When we talk about labour, we also talk about notions of value, and I believe that contemporary tools also hold the potential to change notions of value in relation to our abilities and physical limitations. I was not graced with the most powerful singing voice, which is one classic way for a woman to be attributed as valuable in a musical context. I have, however, utilised the tools available to me to hopefully create something distinctive and valuable unto itself - which ultimately changes the conversation. In another context, I see something similar happening with the proliferation of cheap auto tune technology, which has given many the confidence to express themselves and create value around that new mode of storytelling and performance. New notions of beauty and value are being created, for good and bad, at the moment. ASMR feels really positive to me, as a largely female-led movement of artists creating intimate relationships to their audience, often outside of conservative gender roles and interactions. The movement is predicated on skill and fantasy, and is decisively aural in nature. It’s quite liberating to this effect.
Holly, you titled your recent album Platform, and you and Mat have both spoken about this notion of ‘the platform’, which can be applied to anything from a musical genre, to an operating system, or a political ideology. What can be gained from approaching artistic production via this kind of ‘platform logic’?
Mat - We try to make a platform of our practice that people can plug into and that also respects the ideas and characters we interact with. We aren’t so naive as to think that we wield any significant power in doing so, however it feels like the most honest and stimulating way to work within these conditions. Both of us had the privilege to come from a venerable subcultural tradition, and to respect that is to continue to challenge modes of power, representation and production and try and advance the conversation with our modest community. I tend to think that most things in the world are run by a limited number of people with proximity to power and resources, and so it only takes convincing the right person with these logics to make a significant impact on where things go – art generally is simultaneously irrelevant and one pair of ears or eyes away from changing the course of civilisation; that’s the thrill of it! If you want to advance a logic, develop a platform. Die Zeit in Switzerland recently interviewed an ex-Facebook employee Antonio Garcia Martinez, who described Facebook as “a hack of the state,” (1) and dismissed the idea that the platform is more interested in a Democratic or Republican agenda. The platform understands itself to be more powerful than either. It’s a cheap point to make, but a logic worth considering, that platforms are more powerful than competing musical ideologies, or art history.
Holly - Much of this came from us trying to make sense of releasing records today. This of course included the distribution of the album, as Mat mentioned, but also the content. We were interested in the press cycle, and how we could move away from talking about unnecessary details about our lives, and focus on the work that other people are doing that we find interesting. Can an album be a platform for people to find out about other work? Can we introduce other musicians, writers, and theorists to a new audience, also acknowledging that ideas don’t happen in a vacuum? It’s also trying to challenge the idea of the lone genius, which the archive loves, and privileges certain populations. Everyone involved in culture on a deep level knows that feeling when someone with a big platform releases something similar to people in your scene, and the press doesn’t look into the origins. This creates false historical narratives. If we see a record as a platform, perhaps it can be a connecting point for people, a way to show that ideas and aesthetics are part of a group consciousness (Brian Eno talks about this with his ‘scenius’ concept, which I appreciate). (2) This is antithetical to how artists are taught to behave, and of course brings forth its own challenges when presented with my name. We are still grappling with this, but it is also important to embrace contradictions when trying to push the conversation forward.
1 - “Facebook is legales Crack,” Zeit Online, accessed October 11, 2016, http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/2016-09/facebook-bericht-insider-hack-antonio-garcia-martinez-chaos-monkey.
2 - “Scenus, or Communal Genius,” WIRED, accessed October 11, 2016, https://www.wired.com/2008/06/scenius-or-comm/.