“The Hydrangea work is located in this instability of narrative over reality and exploring that experience on a personal level,” write Holly Childs and Gediminas Žygus, together and via email. “[It’s] like checking in with a loved one about some crazy shit you’ve just been exposed to that has shifted your understanding of reality.” Corresponding from their respective bases in Vilnius and Adelaide, the duo are about to drop their debut collaborative album via Berlin’s Subtext Recordings on November 20. It’s the culmination of a few years work, starting with the duo’s meeting as students in Amsterdam, and carrying on into a series of performances and active installations across Europe and Australia. There was an ongoing conversation with artists and filmmakers Metahaven—beginning when Childs took part in Moscow’s Strelka Institute in 2017 and continuing at Sandberg Instituut—that arrived at the first lyric videos for Hydrangea. These are kind of abstract tableux vivants that are as alluring and eerie as the music itself—a modern classical ambient that laces itself around its thematic preoccupation with psy-ops and the media.
The album’s text is handled mostly by Childs, a writer and artist who’s published two books of experimental fiction already, with another called What Causes Flowers Not to Bloom? on its way. The novel will be a sequel of sorts to Hydrangea, where it recombines the materials and subject matter covering similar themes of military techniques, emotional confusion and indoor plants. “The protagonist takes lots of walks in the forest and pins poems to trees,” Childs explains. “Falling in love with whomever, [she] can’t tell if she’s being fucked with by a military game designer, or if she is just depressed and magic thinking.”
Žygus brings an elegance, intricacy and poignance to what had been a heavy tactility and form in their earlier bass and noise-influenced work under the now-abandoned J.G. Biberkopf moniker. On Hydrangea, words are spoken by peers and friends, including Marijn Degenaar and Mark Prendergast. They explore the potential of contemporary conspiracy theory and reality construction within swelling, euphoric atmospheres composed from parts of rave and gabber. Childs herself recites her own words observing “only without knowledge of deep history could we burn all the old energy of the world,” through the booming tones of growth and acceleration on ‘A Circle, A Spiral’. The poignant, piano-led closer of ‘Blue Carbon, Intertidal’—premiering on AQNB today—is held by the delicately pitched voice of Elif Özbay inquiring, “Are you real? Um, I’m not sure you understand exactly what ‘real’ means.”
**I’m interested in this idea of using postmodern artistic strategies to design narrative uncertainty. Can you tell me more about that?
Gediminas Žygus & Holly Childs: We were reflecting on how they create geopolitical ‘designer realities’. As Peter Pomeratsev has written, the Kremlin funds organisations that are opposed to the values of [the Kremlin], in order to create confusion, division and uncertainty in how to read the power struggles and who are the actual anti-governmental forces. ‘Russian troll farms’ are also said to have increased division in the US; the origin of a lot of extremist ‘American’ groups on Facebook can be traced back to these troll farms. Some theorists read the Russian information warfare strategy as a kind of ‘applied postmodernism’—offering skepticism and ‘alternative perspectives’ in order to create division. Since there are social overlaps between the Russian political elite and the Russian art scene of the late 20th century, some of the Russian disinformation strategies are seen to have been influenced by modern and postmodern art. The US has different strategies but it’s a bit hard to talk about the specifics, as it’s a field that is defined by the fact that the strategies must be mostly unknown to the public, as the knowledge of them would render them less effective.
**What comes out of this quite complex philosophical imagining of some very bleak and scary subjects is actually something quite beautiful on Hydrangea, and your chosen aesthetic reflects this. I’m interested in how you came to express these ideas in this form. Is it something about its complexity?
GZ: I’m thinking about the idea of beauty a lot lately. In a sense, beauty has been and still is one of the more valued battlegrounds of cultural fascism. A dismissal of the ‘ugly life’, pursuit of cleanliness and aesthetic purity are strands of fascism that have developed their own life in culture, beyond what is commonly defined as fascism. One of the moments that showed me the depth of my cluelessness, was the realisation that what the fashion industry mostly has been promoting (with exceptions) post-second world war were mutations of the idea of Aryanism. But then, there’s more to beauty than just that.
In Hydrangea, maybe it’s like this emotional experience that emerges in the face of a tragedy or pain, trying to kind of find something meaningful about your life on Earth. Both of us appreciate Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia—with all of its Wagnerian shortcomings. It can be read as this hopelessly tragic and depressing eschatology about the violence of self-interest, but for us it is also hopeful and comforting. The film also shows that there’s always a chance of finding that little grain of something to hold onto, whatever happens. It’s like where one has the choice (metaphorical or not) between life or death, and one finds that reason, however small, for choosing to affirm life. I think that exact experience of finding that reason, it feels like a ‘beautiful’ experience to me. I suspect that Hydrangea partly operates within that space, and that’s why maybe other people read it as beautiful?
HC: Melancholia and Hydrangea both depict characters who struggle with ritualised performances of daily life but seem to thrive, or at least find peace when their ontological insecurity aligns with reality through major end-of-the-world-type crises. There’s also a lot of frustrated love and care between the voices in Hydrangea.
**I know both of you have a history with music, but I’m curious how you found your way back to this relatively conventional release format?
GZ: I have worked in performance art for quite a bit now, and it is always sad the inadequate relationship of the amount of resources performances require and the short life most of them have. Some works need that embodiment aspect, but it seemed that for us we had a chance to work without it, and trade it for an intimate experience in the form of a record. Hydrangea is a kind of a document of a process that offers us a chance to communicate a work and ideas beyond specific art and music audiences; beyond the cities and economical systems that actually have the resources to pay for expensive performance works. Sometimes the absurd inaccessibility of some art experiences—which exist in repressive art systems with limited and exclusive audiences—is too much. So an album, which feels a bit more democratic of a form, at least is an attempt to leak these ideas out into circulation elsewhere.
HC: We’re also living through a pandemic, and as such a record made sense as a way of making the work available to audiences, since travel, congregation, performance are health risks for now.
**What is rave’s relationship to Hydrangea? Does the gabber element have something to do simply with you both being in Amsterdam when the collaboration began?
GZ: At moments, Hydrangea is a reflection of our complex relationship to rave culture. There was a resurgence of interest in gabber culture in Europe when we were writing the foundation of the work in 2017. I was living in Rotterdam, where the gabber “emerged”, so I had an embodied experience of that side of gabber’s history. But in the record Gabber is maybe more of an environment of the moment. The characters/voices of the work are talking; it’s also an expression of us at that time, as the lyrics on the release, we were literally having those conversations in the club, so the album becomes a re-creation of that experience, mishearings, misunderstandings and all. Some aspects of the characters are Holly and me, but not always.
**It’s interesting too, that it sounds like both your experiences of rave culture in its ‘purest’ form was somewhat removed, either culturally or instrumentally, or both. Would you agree, and how do you think that plays out, in Hydrangea and your respective practices as a whole?
HC: I did not grow up in a cultural centre. My primary engagement with rave culture was between ages 12 to 16, often through the lens of my older sister, with input from cheesy compilations, late night local radio, magazines from Europe and Japan, and flyers for doofs picked up at record stores and local designer’s shops in Adelaide. I was dazzled by and got inside the culture without having access to a holistic understanding of the form. What I learned through rave was relational, atmospheric, circumstantial. Like, my sister taught me that if you use pastel metallic green eyeliner on your temples you can look like a sea animal. She had a t-shirt with a black-and-white puppy picture that she’d stitched little dinosaur figurines and sparkly pom poms onto. I learned that people on rave drugs really appreciate fluffy textures.
These experiences happened parallel to school but seemingly in a different —my engagement with rave culture was not something I could communicate to friends at school. My teenage experiences of rave were informed by and thus felt like music videos, commercials in glossy magazines, coming-of-age stories. ‘Like driving into the hills with my sister, stopping at a BP, giving a password to the guy behind the counter, receiving a photocopied map to the rave destination, driving on through thick fog until RGB spots lit up the sky, finding a park, entering the rave. Then at 15 years old, I got glandular fever and was absorbed into the hardcore punk scene, and chronic illness.
GZ: Lithuania had a charged rave culture for the last 30 years that offered forms of escape from political and social codes for various communities—queer, misfit, the growing creative class with new wealth needing a drug-fuelled escape from the corporate hustle, etcetera. It is defined by rather unthoughtful cultural appropriation. As is the whole post-Soviet region, stuck in a perpetual cultural catch up with the West vortex. The reality is that any culture that is not Soviet Socialist Realism was pretty much erased over the 20th century. And in the 90s to fill the void came an economic and cultural shock doctrine of American propaganda and Western materialist ‘end of history’ consumerism, with all of its historical ills hidden. The first records in circulation—hip hop and electronic music—were brought by American soldiers.
It’s quite a conflicting experience being often moralised about post-Soviet cultures as inauthentic—a less than mediocre mimicry. It’s sort of this impossibility: In the West, we are required to speak the Western code but then when we do, it is being read as inauthentic. What I do creatively always has to address that question at the very core.
**You’re both back at your respective homes. Did the virus send you there, and did this crisis make you think about the themes of Hydrangea differently?
HC: I preempted the WHO pandemic declaration by about 10 days, leaving Amsterdam where I’d lived for a couple of years and I went, not ‘home’ but to the town I where I grew up, but where I hadn’t lived since I was a teenager. I wanted to make sure I could provide care for my parents if the pandemic was to make that need apparent. Australian citizens and permanent residents have been banned from leaving Australia since March so I am likely to remain here for a while. Being here makes me work on Hydrangea in a different way, as the rest of the team is in Europe, so now Hydrangea time is strictly evenings and nights.
GZ: I lived in like 20-plus apartments and moved quite a few cities in the couple of years leading up to the pandemic. I lived mostly without a legal status, so it made sense to go where I would have one, as that allowed a chance at state support and the possibility to afford a sedentary lifestyle. As for Hydrangea, it is unfortunate to see how some of the themes of the work became even more pressing during the pandemic.**