Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the NSA and others have encroached on our privacy, everyone from technologists, reporters, politicians, and voters have been engaging in an international debate around surveillance. I believe that artists too offer an invaluable contribution to these discussions, and so when Holly Herndon, Mat Dryhurst, and Metahaven launched “Home” (2014), I was thrilled.
“Home” is a song and music video responding to the leaks featuring Herndon as both singer and performer. Developed in collaboration, “Home” heavily relies on logos and symbols from Snowden’s leaked documents. This use of classified surveillance state as medium, in a manner that artists like Trevor Paglen have sought to perfect, becomes especially compelling when coupled with Herndon’s experimental yet catchy sound. I reached out over email to talk with Metahaven and Herndon about their work and the politics of art.
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Ben Valentine: I’m passionate about the possibilities of a kind of radical art that engages with a broad public. You’ve worked with WikiLeaks, written about memes, and now worked with Holly to make pop music, talk about this process and the balance of inserting complex radical ideologies into a larger conversation.
Metahaven: Our e-book on memes, design, and politics, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?, was inspired by the KLF’s The Manual, a short book on how to write a UK Number One Hit. That book is amazing and really funny too. The KLF were interested in democratizing the possibility for everyone to reach a large audience and to that end used Stock, Aitken, and Waterman — the 1980s producers who delivered Rick Astley and others — as their template. “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Astley became the “Rickroll”—the Anonymous/4chan sign of having been tricked, fooled, or hacked, which brings the meme full circle with the Number One hit. In the book we say that “Every era, every generation, has to construct and reconstruct its political beliefs, and subsequent visuals, out of the stuff that surrounds it at any given moment. Protest signs will be made out of the cardboard, paper and textile available at that given time and place at a local hardware store; there is no hardware store selling ‘political’ cardboard, so even at that material level, a transformation always has to be made. The same goes for the visual stuff of the internet; every generation will construct new, ‘political’ beliefs out of it; out of all kinds of stuff which seemed initially non-political.”
Now that we are collaborating with Holly Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst, we get to look at another end of the spectrum where really complex, vulnerable emotions get embodied in a new type of music; our interaction with technology is the material that this music is made of but the result is not about technology but about us.
Obviously, the “other side” to the 1980s and 1990s hit factories constituted the rise of really sophisticated techno music (Aphex Twin etc.), which not just reached an audience but took that audience into an alien future. This happened at a time where the questions this music asked were not explicitly, political perhaps because the realm of ideologies seemed dead, though Windowlicker always reminds of Tony Blair.
Holly’s music lives in the border zone of several fields — techno, vocal, composition, performance, art, and programming — and it occurs to us that the self-politicization of this music is a highly personal affair for everyone involved. Holly and Mat share the same wish as we do to break out of the confines of an industry, and at the same time there is the appeal to a larger audience. Pop has the advantage that it draws on basic human emotions, and is not necessarily cerebral. So it can shape feelings, and futures, that we don’t even know exist yet. And it can do so in ways that multiply mimetically rather than through the approval of conventional gatekeepers.
Holly Herndon: I really like the idea of music providing a platform to speak to the issues of the day. A sound file is one of the most portable and universally well understood pieces of media. Unlike a lot of contemporary art — it can be transported and received quickly in it’s intended state, and most devices are optimized to play it — the potential is there to utilize that for something transformative. The form of music can also be a fantastic platform to seed complex ideas, as I found making techno — it is amazing the things you can get people to listen to if you simply embed them within a 4/4 rhythm. Music has a compelling history of seeding political shifts and characterizing alternative life choices, and it seems like a worthwhile exercise to speculate on how it can be weaponized to facilitate discussions about important issues that real people face. Sadly, the epic political and economic shifts of the past 5 years have been suspiciously silent. It seems that the greater music discourse is aloof to the changing times in this way, and even the prospect of a song of protest is treated with eye rolling and disdain. This seems like a waste to me.
BV: I want to know more about what you refer to as “a politically stagnant cultural field” — what does that mean exactly? What are its characteristics and how is it unique to our era?
HH: “Home” was partly motivated by my disillusionment with how apathetic music has become as a field. It seems like such a waste, as in many senses musical discourse has embraced radicalism in terms of aesthetics, however for some reason seems more politically inconsequential than I can ever remember. What good are radical sounds if they do not attempt to communicate radical alternatives? Is this all just an exercise in escapism and click bait? This is deeply troubling to me. I really don’t want to accept a scenario where musicians are relegated to the realm of entertainment and toothless universal/retrograde posturing and gestures.
BV: I just wrote about Birgitta Jonsdottir’s work as a poet and activist, and I’m really curious to know more about your work with WikiLeaks and other organizations that embody a more traditional activist or news role. How do you understand the role of your contributions for these organizations.
MH: We’ve been called a crypto-anarchic design group and that speaks to our love for things that are hidden; a love for cryptography, locks, keys, riddles, jokes, and more — as well as our criticism of a political system that many, rightfully, feel is beyond their individual capacity to change it. We live with abstractions. WikiLeaks and Snowden used “information” as the raw material for political change, leaving the ball in the court of “imagination” to make the next move. We’ve worked for and with WikiLeaks mostly as the makers of scarves and t-shirts for them. We believe that the organization we’ll work with next will need to focus on imagination, not just information. Our forthcoming book Black Transparency has a chapter on Russian-made internet memes in the Ukraine conflict. There is so much to be said, so much to be researched and explored, and so much to be created, especially.
BV: I’m nervous about understanding humans as data for how it obfuscates many other aspects of the individual or humanity, especially in a surveillance construct which has all sorts of power attached to it, but also in a “quantified self” and other ideas. Talk more about this data veil in the video.
MH: In “Home,” Holly is visible all the time, in different subjectivities toward the camera. The “data veil,” or rain of NSA icons, is a pop way of reworking the awkward iconography of secret power that we know about since Snowden. They’re kind of like Warhol’s, “Brillo Box”.
BV: Holly, I’m also curious about how you came to work with Metahaven, and what the process was like.
HH: We began working together after I wrote an email last year — we had been following Metahaven’s work and writing for a few years, and given the subject material of the upcoming record felt that it would be amazing to begin a dialogue about potentially collaborating together. It was important to me that we begin this conversation early in the creative process, as I did not want to see this as simply a visual accompaniment to a piece, but more an integrated conversation. Metahaven were heavily influential on the musical production. It is important for me to not exacerbate arbitrary distances between fields — which is something I feel that Metahaven have already dissolved so ably with the different facets to their practice. This is about artists collaborating together, and contributing their ideas and skills in a variety of ways to make something new and relevant. So far the process has been incredible, and we will hopefully continue to collaborate together in future. Music is quite good at inflating the importance of the individual, however I get far more excited at the prospect of what can be accomplished with a group of complementary, autonomous, and talented peers.