“Are you doing anything internet-intensive right now?” Holly Herndon asks through Skype as she struggles with a new internet connection from her latest base in Los Angeles. The US-born but fairly peripatetic producer can’t hear, typing words into the chat window saying she’s only getting every second syllable. She heaves and grunts to give an impression of how it sounds, and it’s not unlike the hyperventilating whoops and howls of a song like ‘Chorus’. It’s the track that follows the first, ‘Interference’, on her second album Platform – out on RVNG Intl and 4AD on May 19 – and it’s one that explores the intimate relationship between a person and their laptop. Made up of sounds recorded from Herndon’s own computer’s processor – its inner life – ‘Chorus’ combines the clicks and currents of said device with her own voice that’s sampled, cut and filtered in a way that one could almost imagine how this electrically powered entity would actually hear.
“I’m kind of already spying on myself in that one”, she says about the early implications of the single and accompanying video by Akihiko Taniguchi released in January last year. It features browser windows, files and images, as well as webcam video and floating 3D renderings of searches for washing powder, pigeons and clothes pegs. “[It’s] spying on people in their very personal workspaces, and the very personal private spaces where they’re also spying online.” That was followed by the other side of stalking and being stalked beyond individuals to government surveillance and mass control via the networks we’re connected to in ‘Home’, released as another video in September. It’s one of two, produced with graphic designers Metahaven, along with Herndon’s long-time partner Mat Dryhurst, and a part of many other interdisciplinary collaborations on Platform including those with Colin Self (also of Chez Deep), Claire Tolan, Spencer Longo and Amnesia Scanner.
“It gets really lonely in the studio, you know?” Herndon says matter-of-factly about a part of the reason she’s embraced the collective route to production. But it also gets like that in a world where the noose of social alienation and political oppression seems to tighten with every high-tech advancement. “I feel like people try to imbue technology with a specific agency,” Herndon, and by extension Platform, says, rebuking the suggestion that we have anyone (or more specifically, anything) to blame but ourselves when it comes to this current climate of what the album press release calls “systemic inequality, surveillance states, and neo-feudalism”. That’s why, in summoning the involvement of other artists, writers and thinkers, with a similarly active interest in the basic notion of human liberty, Platform becomes a musical manifesto of political resistance.
Literally having just flown in from a show in Chicago late that evening for her first night in her new home (“no need to use a camera, I’m still in my pyjamas”), Herndon is understandably exhausted. She switches Skype apps, between laptop and phone, struggles with her tangled earphones and own exhaustion to offer insight into our changing relationships with technology, agency and oppression, and how we as a community can adapt.
You’re working with all these people who are really dispersed geographically, would you say that there is some kind of shared intent, or aesthetic, or ideology between you and the artists that you’re working with in this particularly movement generally, or is there even a movement to speak of?
Holly Herndon: I don’t know if I necessarily want to call it a movement but I think that there’s definitely a shared proactivity. There’s criticality, but joined with optimism and proactivity.
Do you think that optimism is shared by many people or a specific set?
HH: That’s hard to say, I feel like I experience a lot of cynicism today and I feel like often when you show optimism, people can be very glib, and I don’t know, I find that really exhausting.
In being completely open about who you’re working with and also referencing, I’ve also been a little bit confused about how digital culture seems to work, or how it’s criticised for the fact that people just like lift stuff, take it out of context and don’t credit anyone…
HH: [laughing] That pretty much happens all the time.
But that always happened in literature, where people would reference something, probably not with the intention of claiming an idea, but it comes with the presumption that a reader would get it.
HH: I see that as a little bit different. Whenever I see those references in literature, it’s more like, ‘oh, ha, ha, I know you know and this is like a fun little witty thing’ and ‘oh i get where this reference is from’. It’s more like an intellectual game or something and I think that’s different from just like lifting someone’s idea [laughs].
There are artists out there who do that as their entire practice; appropriating work, reformulating and representing it as their own, without adding much, if anything, as some kind of pseudo-commentary, but not really critiquing it and just benefiting from it.
HH: I think our culture is rampant with people ‘pseudo’-criticising things and simply benefitting from them [laughs]. That like sums up the last… I often think that a lot of people do it under the guise of criticism without really criticising anything. I also think it’s a very ripe time for us to not necessarily just say, ‘oh, that’s bad and we all know. I know that you know’. It’s more interesting right now when people are like, ‘this thing is bad and so why not try this thing?’ I find that way more inspiring, when someone has an alternative idea instead of just poking fun at, or showing that they know something should be criticised. I feel like that’s what’s problematic about art, ‘creating this great problem’. Why can’t it be creating these great answers?
I remember you speaking at Unsound 2012 and saying that with technological development come new problems and new ways to solve them.
HH: Yeah, I mean, I don’t remember the context of that talk, it’s been so long but that sounds like it’s still very much in alignment with what I’m working with now. People sometimes like to think of technology as the problem, which is so bizarre.
There’s that quote where you say technology is and isn’t the problem…
HH: Well, I feel like people try to imbue technology with a specific agency, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I don’t see it like that at all. I see it as more of a neutral, or just like an extension of human thought. It has everything that’s good and bad in human interaction because it’s a part of human intellectual thought.
So then does the existence of technology imbue a person with greater potential for destruction? Like the human that wields the gun is the problem, but the gun makes it easier to kill people.
HH: So you’re thinking about the gun metaphorically in terms of technology?
HH: Oh my god [sighs heavily].
Sorry am I doing what you didn’t want me to do?
HH: [laughs] No. Yes, a gun is a technology, but this gets really specific into how certain technologies are regulated [laughs]. Yeah, the gun does make it easier to kill someone but I’m from the South and a hunting family, so I grew up with guns being used to make dinner.
HH: I also don’t believe in the NRA thing of everyone needs to be able to own a machine gun in the United States to really have personal liberty but, I guess, philosophically speaking, the gun doesn’t necessarily have agency. Of course, certain technology can be developed in a way that has been designed in a specific way, but if you look at the technology of the gun, it’s like the steel and the mechanics, that can be designed in a way that’s both positive and negative [laughs].
So if you’re looking at technology or the design of certain tools, you’re looking at something as basic as C++. It’s just a language, and that can be used in both a positive and negative way. That can be designed in a way to spy on you, or to protect your privacy.
You’ve lived in a few major cities already, and you’ve just relocated to LA from San Francisco, why do you move around so much?
HH: I’m so not tied to any one particular place. My partner grew up in Kuwait and he has been moving around since he was old enough to do so. I grew up in Tennessee and I knew from the age of two that I didn’t want to live there when I grew up [laughs], even though I love visiting my family there. So we’re both just so not tied to any specific place, if we can’t afford one place, or if it’s not working anymore, or we can’t handle the dynamic in one place, it’s very easy for us to get up and leave because we’re not so emotionally tied to any one specific location.
And I guess it makes it easier because you can still maintain relationships online?
HH: Yeah, relationships have changed as well. I mean, some of my best friends I don’t see every day. I see them in my email account and then we spend time together when we’re in the same place. People are much less, kind of, what’s the word, like needy or something. Is that a bad word? Does that make it sound like I’m a bad friend? [laughs]
Do you think it’s a cultural thing or an age thing?
HH: I think it’s probably both but I think people are way more transient these days. People move around way more and it’s totally normal to live in a city for three months, hang out with someone there for those three months pretty regularly and then go to another city. It’s not like that friendship ends but you don’t have to see each other quite as often. I actually do think the nature of relationships has changed.
And this isn’t for everyone, this is an incredibly privileged position to be coming from. To be like, ‘oh yeah, I can move here if want to, when I want to, because my work is mobile’. I think most people are probably still tied to wherever their income source is, physically. So I think I’m speaking for musicians and artists on the large part. And rich people [laughing], they can do whatever they want!
Also people of certain nationalities that can’t move around as freely as others.
HH: That is absolutely the case.
When thinking about the song New Ways To Love, does this relate to the way relationships are changing?
HH: Yeah, I never really thought about it that way. I think with that, I was trying to think more like, ‘with new problems come new answers and new ways to connect and trying to solve them together, and to come together, and to help each other’. Also it comes from, that with these new conditions come new modes of emotion. So we don’t’ necessarily need to rely on the same emotive tropes that we have.
Music is pretty guilty of that, where very specific vocal inflections mean one very specific emotional thing and it’s like that will be the same for 50 years, even though the world is dramatically changing. So I really like the idea of us being open to finding new ways to be emotional and not always to rely on a kind of emotional nostalgia.
I was thinking more in terms of polyamory being a thing.
HH: Oh god! [laughs] Gosh, I’m reading this book right now, Perdido Street Fiction, have you ever read that?
HH: It’s by China Melville and it’s the beginning of a trilogy. Anyway, I’m only like 10 short chapters in but it’s this new world with all these different species and then you have these interspecies sex scenes, where it’s like, ‘he gently caresses her quivering wing’ or something. It’s so interesting, but that’s not what that track is about [laughs]. **