Holly Herndon is hungry. By the time we connect over Skype on a November afternoon, it's nearing dinner time in Berlin, where Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst are prepping to move out of their apartment. I can't imagine they have spent much time there this year. For Herndon and Dryhurst, 2015 has been wild - a new album, new collaborations, installations and lectures and festival appearances all over the world. Their perspectives and projects were endlessly in demand this year - by the art world, the music world, the tech world. It is unsurprising: they are two of the year's most inspiring thinkers.
Together, Herndon and Dryhurst make work that interrogates the concept of the platform, which is also the title of Herndon's album, Platform, released in May by RVNG and 4AD. More broadly, their collaborations explore the intimate ways that internet culture embeds itself into our everyday lives - the emotional effects of the surveillance state, the disorientation and confusion it causes. Herndon's music incorporates "browsing sounds", where using software made by Dryhurst, she sample the bleeps and bloops of clicking through Skype, Youtube, Facebook. In a different time, the sensory experience of navigating such commercial space might be likened to the sounds of strolling around a mini-mall. But this is 2015: the corporations are in our laptops, and our laptops are in our bedrooms. Platform channels that frightening intimacy.
Currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford, over the past 12 months Herndon has traveled to lecture on topics ranging from the lack of politics in music today, to what it means to "create new fantasies.” She has been on the cover of WIRE, and deemed "the queen of tech-topia" by The Guardian. She has performed at conferences on surveillance, data collection, censorship, love, and optimism.
Platform bears Herndon's name, and it is indeed her production. But the album is largely a collaborative work, incorporating many voices and sounds and slogans and aesthetics as gestures, all amounting to a greater political project. Those collaborators include, amongst many others: Colin Self, who tours with Herndon and Dryhurst; Claire Tolan, a Berlin-based practicer of ASMR who is featured on "Lonely at the Top"; and Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden of Danish design firm Metahaven, who contributed to the ideas on the record as well as the aesthetic surrounding it. The album's brilliance is a testament to the potential that such robust collaborations can yield. "The biggest thing I've learned this year is that you can accomplish more when you work with other people," Herndon says.
Holly Herndon grew up in Johnson City, TN, a small town one county over from Sevier, where Dolly Parton is from; her childhood involved yearly visits to Parton's theme park, Dollywood. Coming from a family of preachers and lawyers, she had limited access to anything involving the art world. "I wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, but I didn't even really understand what that meant," she says. "There were so many question marks." As a high school exchange student in Berlin, she recalls wandering around empty white galleries totally baffled about how they stayed open.
For her undergraduate studies, Herndon moved to DC to study at George Washington. "I never really talk about DC because I was so depressed and unhappy there," she says. "I was working in a swanky restaurant and hoarding my tips and flying to Berlin every winter and spring break." After college, she moved back, working in clubs and entrenched in the nightlife scene. She calls it a rather decadent time in her life. In Berlin, she also worked at a start-up, and was a touring member of the band Electrocute. She played around in the noise scene, which is where she met Dryhurst. When Herndon was accepted to a graduate program at Mills College, in the Bay Area, they eloped and moved to California.
"I'm an absolute product of my environments," Herndon says. "I really like choral music because I grew up singing in the church in Tennessee, and sitting around campfires harmonizing. I really like electronic music after living in Berlin, and then I moved to California and got really into DIY programming and tech issues. I'm always engaging in everything going on around me."
"I think one of the reasons Mat and I make the work we do is because we haven't been full-time artists our whole lives," she adds. "Mat worked for Craigslist, he worked in the tech industry. I worked for a children's museum, doing exhibition repair and design. We like having conversations that are outside of music."
Dryhurst carries that point even further, placing themselves within a trend he's observed amongst artists who were forced into traditional workplaces following the 2008 economic recession. "A bunch of people didn't have time to make artwork anymore," he says. But he sees a kickback now, where people who went into professional environments, especially in places like Berlin and the Bay Area, learned about the tech and media worlds that they are now critiquing through their art. Speaking on his own experiences working in Bay Area tech, he says, "It would be a waste to not bring some of that knowledge to these art projects, or speak with conviction about this shit. It's not a purely outsider position, which I think is really cool."
While studying electronic music at Mills, Herndon began channeling her intellectual impulses through a veil of subtle pop, merging the influence of academia with dance music, and avant-garde aesthetics with accessible melodic threads to follow. "I was in an academic program at the time but on the weekends I was playing warehouse parties," Herndon says. "And they seemed like two totally separate worlds, institutionally speaking. But aesthetically, and with the tools used, it's not like they are that many miles apart. I really just wanted to call bullshit on the whole thing."
In 2012, she released her first record under her own name, Movement, an album that defended the humanness within our laptops. After 2013's Snowden leaks, her next work would more directly deal with surveillance, privacy, and politics. In January 2014, she released "Chorus", which utilized the aforementioned browsing sounds technique. The song was well-recieved, but Herndon and Dryhurst didn't feel that the political message was effective enough. They began work on the video for "Home", which would be more explicit. The visuals for "Home" were a collaboration with Metahaven, who created a "data rain" of NSA logos that fall over Herndon's face. For the first time, there were clear vocals with audible lyrics and hooks. "I can feel you in my room / why was I assigned to you," she sings, "I know that you know me better / than I know me." The song gets at the uncomfortable comfort supplied by our machines: how you can open your laptop anywhere and suddenly feel at "home."
Benadict Singleton, the strategist who came up with the concept of 'platforms' referenced on the album, aptly refers to Holly Herndon as a "pop trojan horse" for these nuanced concepts. "New problems, new emotions need new sounds to match them," Herndon says. "In order to find them, we have to figure out what the problems are and deal with those issues, and then build that into the aesthetic of what we are trying to do. But it's hard, and often times it can make things sound really alien for people. That's where the pop trojan horse comes in."
Participation is a guiding ethos for Herndon. It's why she embraces pop sensibilities to pull listeners along, and it’s also why she and Dryhurst center live performances that engage audience members. "Live performances are an incredible opportunity," Herndon says. She recalls a time when they were playing Mutek in Montreal a couple of years ago, and realized that half of the North American crypto party was in attendance. "I was like, 'this is such an amazing audience, how can I get the audience to talk to each other and get to know each other?'"
At shows, Dryhurst is now known to sometimes mine the performance's Facebook event, and project profiles of those in attendance. He also often has live text message conversations with the crowd, through a number distributed to the audience, which are then projected behind Holly. "And those dialogues continue," Holly says. "We're still texting with people from Barcelona, from the show months ago. Just having this emotional outlet for people is really important." These spaces for participation suggest that anyone at a show should be engaged, that everyone should be in conversation, that no one in the room is merely a spectator.
"Music is impotent in a lot of ways," she adds. "But one powerful thing it can do is get people together to emote in one space and one time together."
PARADISE POLITICS / OPPOSITIONAL OPTIMISM
"The politics of paradise" is a phrase that Herndon and Dryhurst learned from Guy Standing, a London economist and author of The Precariat. Standing writes about the left's collective need to imagine paradisic alternatives to our contemporary conditions, to be unabashedly idealistic, to actually wonder, "What would a politics of paradise look like?" Herndon and Dryhurst treat their art platforms as spaces to imagine such expansive new fantasies.
"It's so much easier to come up with a dystopia than it is to come up with actual demands of what we want," Herndon says. "That's so much harder to imagine. It's kind of that thing where you can't imagine life after capitalism, so you just revel in dystopia."
So what would her paradise politics look like? "There's a lot of things that would be a paradise politics for me," Herndon says. "Universal basic income might play a part of it. Moving beyond this perpetual feeling of precarity. Optimism. People working together. I think it would be that everyone regardless of their background would have agency over their own lives and would feel empowered to build new infrastructures to fit their contemporary conditions."
For Dryhurst, it’s about opening up space for discourse. "We used to play shows for people getting drunk and listening to dance music, and that's really cool, there is nothing wrong with that. But now we're playing shows to economists and developers and grad students, freaks who have something to say. All of the power is in the room. In my mind, without trying to hammer people over the head with one kind of doctrine, a paradisic politics is trying to facilitate a healthy political discussion or environment within these communities. Which is definitely happening right now. Five years ago I was banging my head against the wall because it just felt pointless. The idea of rational idealism is very paradisic to me."
Herndon and Dryhurst are uncompromisingly optimistic. It is a quality they share with Colin Self, a musician and performance artist who collaborated with Holly on Platform track "Unequal" - a song Colin says is from the perspective of a gender ambiguous Joan of Arc type character on a battlefield of digital war, trying to be brave in the face of the daunting digital dilemmas we have today. "There's this weird methodology associated with optimism, which is that it's in some ways negligent or ignorant," Self says. "But I think there is something to be said for the informed optimist, or the intelligent optimist who is able to look at these factors, and see past what seems like a big issue to know there's a solution on the other side."
"It's so essential to be optimistic, to think that there is actually an alternative possible, so you can start fantasizing and imagining what the alternative is," Herndon says. "But it also has to be metered. We spend a lot of time in the Bay Area, and some times optimism there can totally run amok, and can quickly turn into let’s-make-an-app-for-that solutionism. It's important to always have a critical backbone to everything."
Amongst their ambitions, Herndon and Dryhurst aim to infuse experimental electronic music with a politics that is critical and compassionate at the same time. "For the past 5-6 years, part of the reason we can play shows is because there is a certain interest in strange electronic music, particularly from the United States," Dryhurst says. "And that's really awesome. The big danger though, is if we aren't using that platform, or those new channels to communicate something or advocate for any kind of position, is that a waste?"
"A lot of the pop music or even avant-experimental pop music I come across, so much of it is styling," Herndon says. "I'm not anti-fashion or anti-styling, I think that can be hugely political and transformative. But I think it needs to be more than just styling. If you are going to have a radical style, why not have a radical political point that you stand behind? Doesn't that augment your style or make it all the more rich or interesting? I'm way more interested in radical ideas or radical sounds that are communicating those radical ideas than just a radical packaging."
Herndon recalls a recent experimental installation the duo created for Hamburg's Center for Art and Media's Sound Dome. While traveling to Eastern Europe for a festival, they collaborated with teenagers on political slogans, including Holly's favorite, LEAKING WITH LOVE TOO MUCH TO BE CONTAINED. "We asked these teenagers to read the slogans and then we created a new technique where we infused their speech with ASMR sounds we had recorded. And it was built so when their mouths would open, you would hear the crackling of whatever ASMR sound we were working with. ASMR apparently is so physical that when you hear it, it relaxes people. So what if you could infuse political slogans with ASMR techniques? Would it mean that those political slogans would go straight to the body? Would you absorb them in different ways?"
The slogan speaks to the way they have embraced compassion in 2015. "It's kind of been this big subtext that Mat and I have worked through and really come to embrace over the past year," Herndon says.
THE WAY YOU RELEASE WORK IS PART OF THE WORK
Herndon and Dryhurst think in gestures. They advocate for this idea that micro moments of creation online - a tweet, an interview, a video - are not fleeting, but rather, a means of gesturing at their greater political project. This approach is something Dryhurst had in mind earlier this year when he released Saga, a software that allows artists to take back a sense of agency with how their work is shared online.
Saga's goals are not just to interrogate pre-existing platforms, but to create new visions entirely: to provide tools for artists to maintain autonomy online. Saga is a self-hosting platform through which artists could control how and where their worked is able to be displayed on the internet. For example, the platform would allow artists to have full control over how their videos are displayed in different places online, to not allow their work to be exploited by publications. Artists might choose to display a certain message when the video is embedded on a corporate website, while letting teens on Tumblr post freely. "People were expecting me to release an LP, and then I released some software," he laughs. "In my mind, I thought this was the right contribution to make at this point in time."
Dryhurst fantasizes about a future where communities of people work on not just amateur software projects, but all sorts of amateurish self-hosted gestures. "In my mind the politics around self-hosting could quite feasibly in the next five or ten years emerge to be as big of a distinction as the major-indie distinction used to be. Like, will you funnel your work to these awful, narrow, centralized platforms that will only benefit the VEVOs of the world, and whoever is most attractive to advertisers? Or do you choose your own path? And that gets me so excited, because that adds danger and distinction to this work."
Recalling his own roots in hardcore and black metal scenes, Dryhurst brings up the early days of Dischord when explaining the spirit that must be channeled in digital spaces, as we rethink hosting, platforms, and space online. In fact, his first job after graduating college at age 19 was with Southern Records, a label with ties to Dischord and Crass Recordings, which he says was hugely influential on his own thinking.
"The best example I can think of is Dischord," he says. "The way they released work was part of the work. They pressed those records for political reasons. They were priced to be affordable and cheap. They played shows where everybody could attend. The way it was distributed was deliberate. It was all based on very principled decisions. You can learn a lot from that. It's going to look very different, but the spirit of that is incredibly powerful. That's where this culture came from - of making very principled decisions about the way the work was released."
"If you come from a DIY legacy, if you empathize with a punk background, look into how these communities were formed in direct opposition to the predominant distribution channels, the dominant infrastructure of the time. The same process needs to happen today, but not necessarily worrying about record stores. It's worrying about Facebook. It's worrying about Google."
Herndon and Dryhurst often discuss a book by Keller Easterling, titled Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure and Space. One of the big points in the book is about the contemporary understanding of the left, and contemporary modes of protest, Dryhurst explains. "The enemies we characterize were determined in different times. The divison of labor is very different today. If we are to amass any kind of impactful protest, we need to update and recalibrate our targets, and reacilbrate our understanding of what it means to resist. Because in a way, protesting like people did in the 80s is like throwing a softball to the people who you think you're fighting."
Dryhurst points to activists like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Jacob Appelbaum. "They are operating in a very specific context, but that is a new face of political protest," he says. "You may disagree with some of it, but one thing you can't say is that these people aren't using contemporary tools and contemporary contexts to find new ways to fight things. And I think that can happen on all levels in a number of different contexts."
Projects like Platform and Saga suggest that this sort of recalibration should also filter our perspective on platforms for culture. If zines were created to make oppositional alternatives to mainstream media, if the punk labels of the 80s were created to make oppositional alternatives to the major-label system, what oppositional alternatives are we going to create to the centralized online platforms we find ourselves seemingly beholden to today?
Herndon and Dryhurst are offering an urgent call to action, challenging us to rethink the ways we resist with music, art, media, DIY, live shows, the internet. Their crusade to reclaim and rethink platforms feels like the digital equivalent of fighting for physical space on one's own terms in a world that is increasingly corporate, closed off, private. It is a plea to resist psychic death on the internet; to abandon feelings of powerlessness. "We are in the early days," Holly says. "It's going to get so much more wild."