10 Radical Ideas That Inspired Holly Herndon’s Platform
A network of extraordinary thinkers helped shape one of the most important records of 2015.
"We have to create new fantasies," declared L.A.-based laptop musician Holly Herndon in a roundtable with The FADER towards the end of last year. She was referring to our need for new role models in combating the gender gap in the electronic music world, but, as she noted, inequality "extends far beyond gender issues." As the gulf between the privileged and disenfranchised yawns wider than ever, the daily demands of the digital age make it hard to know where to begin in the fight to dismantle current power structures—we are overwhelmed, and that has a paralyzing effect. As L.A. artist Spencer Longo, one of Herndon's many collaborators on her new album, Platform, put it, “the hope of digital democratization via the internet has not ended up living up to its promises and arguably has solidified pre-existing power structures even further.”
For those of us living with this predicament, Platform, released this week via RVNG Intl. and 4AD, can provide both strength and solace: it’s the kind of record that scratches at the brain, swells the heart, and stirs the soul into an active state. Curious sonic artifacts—indeterminable clicks and bubbles culled from both domestic and digital sources—find a home inside pop-leaning structures. On “New Ways To Love,” Herndon intones the words, law is a man that you can’t see, as if to point to the fact that our lives are bound by systems that we can’t see or fully understand. Hers is just one voice in the album’s choir, though: from the monastic cries of "Unequal" to the android tics of "DAO," Platform is full of voices picking their way through a constantly shifting landscape, an aural metaphor for the struggle to be heard amidst the chaos of 21st century life.
It’s a record that feels dense with ideas, but it has a very simple premise at its heart: it’s a platform for conversations—and specifically, ones about challenging current power structures. "It became really clear that I wanted to highlight other thinkers and have a conversation that wasn't just about music itself," she explains of the record’s premise. The people she chose to start conversations with include direct collaborators like Dutch design agency Metahaven—who didn’t just create the visual language for Platform, but also helped shape its ideas—and Berlin-based ASMR expert Claire Tolan, as well as contemporary thinkers like NY-based theorist Suhail Malik and London strategist Benedict Singleton, who she says directly influenced the album’s content. What unites this network of disparate artists and intellectuals is that they are all interested in and engaged with building a better world. The FADER spoke to 10 of Herndon’s collaborators about the radical ideas that found a home on Platform.
1. Change starts with conversation
Benedict Singleton, the UK strategist whose work inspired the album’s title.
SINGLETON: The word "platform" seems to be used a lot these days—there's talk of digital platforms, like Facebook, and art biennales describing themselves as platforms, etc.—but not many people seem to have really explored what it means. The term comes from the theatre, where it referred to the stage where the action takes place: a "plot-form.” A platform is something that plays a foundational role in a system; it allows something else to happen.
Consider that we don't know what the future will hold. For planning, conventionally understood, this is a problem—you want to minimize what you don't know. But if you build a platform, you want things to happen that you haven't thought about—it's like a plan that relies on the unexpected in order to work.
One of the significant things Holly's doing with this record is to experiment with how the album format, plus all its associated structures—like touring, interviews, videos—might be used as a platform for doing new things, to explore how it can respond to larger issues in the world. Take the "Home" single, where she finds a smart way to condense massive issues around online surveillance through the medium of the break-up song. Holly's turning the system inside out, explicitly revealing all the ideas, people, and so on that in one way or another contributed to [this record]. And that enables other conversations to be had (like this one), other connections to be made, other directions pursued; it becomes a platform for other people to build on, a sort of reference point. There's something incredibly contemporary about that.
2. Next-level politics need next-level aesthetics
Metahaven, the Dutch design agency who created the visual aesthetic for Platform.
METAHAVEN: Our work wants to stretch the expressive vocabulary of progressive or "science fiction politics" far beyond mere language or leftover tropes from the 1960s (as in, sit-ins and hand-painted signage). We have now seen decades of the Left trying to look, successively, as in like the Centre-Right, from the 1960s, or completely undesigned so as to appear grassroots. We want to design a new politics and a liberation from their visual dogma. All our work explores and works with “visual extremism,” which means that we intensively live through, mirror, digest, and reflect our current age in our design work, instead of being its mere bystanders or, worse, cherry-picking “curators” of an idealized, faux-minimalist design hotel.
It is our belief that science fiction politics need science fiction aesthetics, and that the two belong together; we find the same belief in Holly’s music. For example, the first visual piece we did for Holly was Call, a series of animated gifs that each have a nine-second music track embedded that plays on mouseover. Each Call gif works with different notions of landscape, portrait, and interface, recycling online portraits of Holly and placing her in a new setting. These gifs are ultra-short music videos that introduce themes of autonomy, dystopia, exit, hope, resistance, which would later become powerful tropes in the album. The video for "Home" is a veil of NSA graphics that becomes a torrent of emoji. The minute we discussed "Home," we figured out that it should be about these strange logos that appeared in NSA PowerPoint presentations leaked by Edward Snowden. Ironically, these icons of the surveillance state somehow look very much like emoji when applied as a pattern.
Platform is a political project, an aural revolution for egalitarianism whose consequences should be reaching beyond the "music scene." Recently, in The Guardian, there was a piece by Owen Jones in which he wondered where the hell the 21st century protest songs might be, and we feel he’s just looking in the wrong direction. There is a self-politicization going on and this involves the politicization of aesthetics. The idea that beauty becomes weaponized with exit, freedom, and democracy is so much more attractive than the opposite: the beautification of weapons.
3. Your personal data is money—so withhold it (or sell it)
Hannes Grassegger, the German economist whose book, I Am Capital, fed into the album’s making.
GRASSEGGER: A big part of my life, and a big part of what I am, is now digital. What happens in the digital world—everything, all these thoughts and emotions that I've manifested and codified—can now have an effect on my physical body. For example, if I post something bad I could get fired. What’s more, looking at it from an economic perspective, all these digital aspects of mine—that I feel like belong to me—are actually being sold, dated, and transferred to some other powers. Therefore I don't have full ownership over myself.
If you compare contemporary terms and conditions agreements to historical European law in the times of feudalism, you find three really striking similarities. First, if you agree with the terms and conditions, then you agree that you don't have a right to take the company to court—so the legal system is kind of abolished. Secondly, you’re also agreeing that the company has the right to change the terms of the agreement at any time. Then, thirdly, there's this phrase which comes up in some terms and conditions, including Twitter, which essentially says, we have the right to exclude you from our services for any or no reason, including you being annoying. Exclusion means that I would get deleted, which, if I believe that these memories are part of me, means they have the right to “kill” me whenever they like to.
These companies all offer their services for free, but everything they make their money off of is my personal data. It is very similar to the classic serfdom situation, where people were offered land for free and worked on it until the overlords got the harvest. But if you encrypt it, you’re taking your valuable personal data out of the system. What if I go to these people, and tell them, "Hey, do you want my location data from my smartphone? I have it all here, it's encrypted, and if you pay me the following, I'll give you the key for it." It would then be me who would formulate the terms and conditions. It would be a sudden reversal of power. During my research for my book, I actually saw a number of small start-ups coming up with ideas of personal data brokering. Personal data is money—and what you do with money? You make sure that it doesn't get lost.
4. Art is most powerful when you’re having fun doing it
Colin Self, the NYC composer and choreographer who co-wrote and performs on “Unequal.”
SELF: I'm perpetually curious about how we as humans navigate our relationships to radical shifts in consciousness, information, technology, etc, while at the same time I also think it's important to have a playful relationship to these transitions. I'm also invested in developing platforms of discourse around identity, gender, and larger systemic issues—I like creating spaces and scenarios for people to think and play.
Last summer, Holly and I started a dialogue around some musical and social motifs we wanted to address in collaboration, which turned into a correspondence of vocal recordings and experimentations. I was sending very raw studio vocal sessions and she would transform them into melodic and percussive material. We co-authored some lyrical content, and it all came together so intuitively. I would hope listeners could identify that within "Unequal" and the other tracks there are several social, political, and aesthetic conversations taking place. The net is cast wide and I majorly appreciate that. I think our collaboration asks something about vocality and what it means to combine voices: that the voice and language are some of the most ancient forms of magic. I feel hope in giving people a toolkit of ideas, giving them agency to implement change in whatever ways they can.
5. It’s time to examine your own privilege
Claire Tolan, the Berlin-based ASMR expert who collaborated with Herndon on “Lonely At The Top.”
TOLAN: Holly and I were both very interested in using autonomous sensory meridian response [ASMR]. The near-hypnosis induced by ASMR soundscapes seems especially fertile territory for sending messages. At some point during our correspondence, Holly mentioned that she had just read an article about the coping strategies developed by the extremely wealthy to justify their status—the methods by which they ease their anxiety about being on the upper-end of vast global inequality. She suggested that we make the piece a kind of "therapy for the 1%," an anxiety-relieving ASMR track that instructs the wealthy not to worry about it—it's not their fault! They work hard! Therapy for the 1%" isn't beating around the bush about its intention; it's attempting to start a conversation about the ways in which the extremely wealthy justify their privilege.
Of course, this study of coping mechanisms and privilege justification can be applied to all of us to some degree. Our lives are replete with double-binds made in the same model as those "chaining" the very wealthy. Specifically at fault is the naughty individualism that glamorizes "visionaries" and continues to draw false parallels between "hard work" and "success." I'm sick of this kind of thinking and simultaneously implicated. To speak to another part of Platform, perhaps it is apt to say that coping mechanisms offer an escape. When you strip the models you were given for understanding—and coping with—the world bare, and turn them over, maybe you can start to envision an exit.
6. We need to build new tools if we want new ideas
Akihiko Taniguchi, the Tokyo artist who created the software that Herndon performs live with.
TANIGUCHI: I'm interested in art that changes things by connecting everyday life and cyberspace. Making the virtual world related to reality, rather than making an alternative world feel real, is what interests me. When I was young, [musicians like] Markus Popp frequently featured in the field of electronic music in Japan. They were making the software for their own music. It was often strange software, and I was influenced by such musicians.
I made a new application for Holly's live performance of Platform—software to simulate a virtual venue in real time. It's an attempt to obscure the boundaries of the real space and virtual space using the screen. This software also allows you to play music. Experimental musicians have often created new instruments for new music. I think that's the right idea—create a new instrument for new music—as it's a way of thinking from the meta-level of where you want to get to.
7. Logic isn’t always your friend
Matt Werth, the founder of NYC label RVNG Intl., the label that is releasing Platform.
WERTH: My area of work addresses the challenge of a rapidly corporatizing subculture. My agenda involves navigating a transitional industry while balancing corroboration with the new benefactors in an effort to sustain the creative livelihood of the artists I work with. I worked with Holly to form a narrative around her music and message leading up and into Platform.
Holly's creative processes will always remain her own, but she does not create in a vacuum. Shaping a relatable dialogue around Holly's music from the time we began working together became—literally—instrumental. We worked on creating a melodic invitation to her music and artistic practices. With our harmonization has entered a limitless chorus of contributors along the way. Our collaboration is an example of how being inclusive can overcome the need for logic. Without logic, the conventional conversations lose constraint to become optimistic and, gasp, fun. Hopefully those conversations don't determine but help inform an antidote to corporate standardization in the music industry.
8. Art needs to find an exit from the power structure, not an escape
Suhail Malik, the UK theorist whose criticisms of contemporary art structures directly influenced “Exit.”
MALIK: There's a problem with how contemporary art says it's doing politics but actually isn't doing politics. You end up with this kind of lament and melancholy within the art field around its claims. There's a discrepancy between what the curators and the artists themselves say they want to do and what they're permitted to do by the art structure. That problem isn't just about bad institutions; my claim is that it's also to do with what we want art to be and to do.
The current paradigm in the art field is that art is autonomous, and needs to constantly reclaim and and demonstrate its autonomy from external forces: the state, capitalist forms of industry, all that stuff. But the autonomy notion is the same thing as the escape notion—that art is always escaping its forces of restraint, its institutional powers and so on. I guess this happens everywhere, in music as well, with people always dissing "the man" and so on. I think that's just escapism. The notion of the exit is that we need to get out of the escape model—we need to get out of contemporary art, but we've got to be really careful. Because if you try and get out of art in the escape model, you repeat it.
What's really important in the work that Holly and Mat [Dryhurst] are doing, which carries through something of what Left accelerationism is proposing, is that the formation of a collective counterforce to the current overwhelming no-exit conditions of capitalist power is an attractive image of the future. This is what experimental music does really effectively: when you hear a sound or sonic structure that sounds like it really comes from the future and is happening before its time. Holly's music and activity makes a direct and strong appeal to the future to get us out of the present, and this is a very different kind of political-collective action to making political claims on the basis of interests and established identities.
9. Catering to the marketplace rarely yields interesting work
Spencer Longo, the L.A. artist who collaborated with Herndon on “Locker Leak.”
LONGO: The challenges I feel from a creative perspective are more specifically tied to finance and authenticity. In a moment dominated across the board by the pressures and waves of speculative valuation, the desire to somehow quantify and master this inherently unstable and unquantifiable dynamic results in the gamification of creative work: how do I create enough buzz and generate enough data for people to buy into what I'm selling? This ends up becoming a closed loop; once you work primarily from a predictive model for being creative, you have given the playing field as it stands confirmation of its own validity. For me, this isn't all that different than believing in astrology. There is a fine line when it comes to data-fetishism, and it can lead to feeling the need to be "correct" as opposed to the desire to just be interesting.
10. It’s better to fail than to not try at all
Mat Dryhurst, the L.A.-based UK artist whose “net concrète” patch Herndon used in the making of "Chorus."
DRYHURST: Nobody in this expanded group is naive enough to think that they have all the answers, but this stuff has to start somewhere, and I think all of us are using all the resources we have available to try to fashion alternatives and spread discussion—and eventually something has to break. This gets to the important principle of experimental practice for me: trying things out and ignoring the likelihood that they might fail or invite criticism. I think it's bold to speculate that an album can contribute to a greater movement, and we don't own any of this—it's hopefully something other people will attempt too.
What if all these smart artists with Soundcloud and Instagram accounts were to start finding new and principled ways to share their ideas? There is very little to lose at this point by deviating away from the traditional channels as a musician or artist. It is already happening to some extent, and these efforts are really just contributing to that fantasy. It's also important to remember that the original DIY musical culture contained many diverse opinions under a common platform, and the same applies here—this isn't about pushing one idea, but more coming to a collective understanding that something has to be done and nobody else is going to do the work for us.
All visual materials created and supplied by Metahaven.