Aesthetic: Holly Herndon
“I know that you know me better than I know me.”
Released in September 2014, Home by Holly Herndon is a love song of unbridled intimacy. The object of her affection and unerring trust, here, is a device – a phone, a laptop – blessed with a Wi-Fi connection. An intangible link to her centralised sense of self. The implication is that connectivity, the ability to access information, communication, data, functions in itself as Home.
Presented parallel to this is the vulnerability innate to such accessibility: the weakened sense of privacy and the potential for treachery of the most piercing kind. Because Home has a second subject – an imagined third party, monitoring her activity, accessing her data. The third element within Home’s audio/visual/sensory course is the concept of the avatar: the version of oneself projected online, tweaked via tagging and untagging, disclosure and retainment of information. A portrait, self-curated and written in information. “I don’t know which me to be”, Herndon’s voice pools and disperses.
Home was the first glimpse of Platform, Holly Herndon’s second album, her first for 4AD, and it acted as a marker in terms of holistic concept. Its video saw the Herndon we know – all pale skin and shock of orange hair – suddenly obscured in a deluge of icons, a waterfall of meaningless yet familiar data. The video was directed by Metahaven, the Dutch studio specialising in experimental digital design, key players in development a visual aesthetic for Platform that doesn’t so much complement its concept as embed itself deeply within it.
The subsequent singles, Chorus – paired to software visionary Akihiko Taniguchi’s imagining of real-time, 3D internet interaction – and the album’s stirring opening track Interference, also boasting a Metahaven-directed video, painted the album as an exercise in collaboration; of a solo artist conscious of the fundamental impossibility of communicating anything about collective experience when conducted in isolation.
Clasping these ideas, this Aesthetic shoot and interview with Herndon exists as a collaboration between Crack, photographer Dexter Lander, and Herndon’s process itself. Drawing inspiration from Home, the shoot approaches the idea of metadata in mobile photography; shot entirely on iPhone, it addresses the mass of information that can be gleaned from a single tap of the finger in terms of image recognition, geotagging, technological specificity.
The shoot further elaborates on the ideas of the digital self explored through Platform, a study in format and personal projection, as well as aesthetic and visual identity expressed through fashion- as-art. In her wardrobe specifications, Herndon – a doctoral candidate in composition at Stanford’s Centre for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) – became embodied as both an idea of the artist, and as a physical entity, someone who thinks about clothing in terms of shape, comfort and wearability.
It’s this dialogue which makes Platform such a startling piece of work. With the engrossing tapestries of Home and Chorus sitting alongside conceptual exercises like the narrative sound experiment Lonely At The Top, there’s no avoiding its status as a radical album. That Herndon’s presence is stirring dialogue about identity, technology, sound design, conceptual art, fashion and aesthetics is indispensable.
How do you feel your visual identity has developed from previous campaigns to Platform?
It has dramatically changed since working with Metahaven in that it feels much more deliberate. Metahaven are one of the most interesting contemporary design groups – and are distinct for their ability to apply their processes towards political objectives. We discussed Russian Constructivism a lot when working on the record, which is one of the few examples of the avant-garde paralleling and complimenting political shifts. We are both hugely concerned about issues of privacy, new technological alternatives and share a social and DIY attitude.
To what extent is your aesthetic shaped, or even dictated, by technological advancements?
This is something that I consciously have tried to integrate as seamlessly as possibly into my practice. I’m obviously interested in technology anyways, and topics pertaining to tech are often the conceptual driver behind my work, so it makes the most sense to me to use technology to talk about it. Not only does it give me a deeper understanding of my subject matter, but it also helps me to find aesthetics that do not rely on past expressions, and instead can respond to the problems we face today, in the language of today. New problems call for new strategies, and that is what Platform is all about.
What qualities do you look for in artists you’re interested in collaborating with?
As I mentioned before, I like to integrate subject matter into my work process. With Platform, I was interested in infrastructure and collective action, so the natural first place to start was with opening up my practice. All of my collaborators bring something unique to the table, but one unifying quality is that they are often engaged in multifaceted practices, where they are dealing with issues outside of music or art alone. This is something that has recently become important to me, as I am realising that music and art alone is hugely ineffective toward actual social or political change.
There is a dialogue in contemporary art right now around the dehumanisation and fetishisation of the female body observed via beauty advertising. Do you have any opinions on this side of the fashion industry?
There is the art of fashion design and there is industry. I am curious and hopeful about viable alternatives to this predicament. Fashion design can be hugely transformative, in the way that we view our bodies and our own value. I find inspiration in designers like Amber Halford, of Perfect 69, who makes clothes for all bodies, regardless of size, shape or age. But of course that is the minority, the majority of the industry is about profit margins, and making someone feel beholden to a brand for their sense of self is an effective way of turning a profit. It’s a missed opportunity really – the human body as canvas could be so much more interesting, empowering, and inclusive than the dominant discourse currently allows.
This shoot interrogates the idea of metadata in mobile photography – the amount of information that can be gleaned from a single shot. While some find this unsettling, is it fair to say you embrace, even encourage, this level of technological intimacy?
This level of detail can be frightening, and I think it’s important to acknowledge and educate ourselves about the dangers implicit to these new capabilities. Then again, I don’t have a nostalgia for a simpler, disconnected time. Our notions of what is natural and intimate shift as our tools evolve, and I’m interested in finding the benefits of these technologies, as well as the pitfalls. A collaborator, Mat Dryhurst, just started a science fiction series where the stories are written from listener’s data, and I think it’s interesting to assess both the pros and cons of this level of personalisation and exposure. He argues that it is a new raw material.
There’s an increasing idealisation towards tactile, physical formats such as vinyl, or film photography, in conscious friction with the digitalisation of art and information; the ephemerality of an iPhone photo sits at the opposite extreme to a developed film photo. Do you see these two things as completely different entities, or versions of the same form?
I see it as a continuum, and there will always be someone claiming that one is less real than the other, or that digital work doesn’t contain the artist’s aura. I find it quite boring, to be honest, and it’s a pretty fallible argument as often times people use prior technologies to somehow delegitimise newer technologies, as if the 1970s or whatever were some special moment in time where the balance was just right. In music I think it’s funny, as I study with many people who pioneered digital technology and are so grateful at the ease in which they can create and share their work now. John Chowning, who discovered digital FM synthesis and founded CCRMA, was horrified when he heard that we are still sharing music in vinyl format. He is in his 80s and couldn’t fathom why we would be so retro!
I’m extremely mobile, in fact I don’t have a permanent residence at the moment, so being able to travel with the ideas embedded in records and books stored on a hard drive is huge for me. There’s something quite liberating about not needing a lot of stuff; it helps me to re-evaluate my priorities and make fast decisions.
You’ve embraced, even promoted, the capacity of the laptop as a tool of creative expression. Do you feel a similar level of connection to your iPhone? Do you feel indebted to it as a means of contributing to your life? Or does its capacity for transferring intimate information at such speed contribute to ‘avatar anxiety’?
It’s both, of course. I do feel extremely intimate with my phone, in fact that was what inspired me to write Home. I felt as long as I could find Wi-Fi and my phone was charged, I could be home in my inbox, regardless of where I was physically. This trust is of course betrayed when that home isn’t secure or private. I don’t have a lot of avatar anxiety in terms of FOMO. I don’t use social media often enough to experience that and when I do, I tend to feel energised by the activity.
You collaborated with Mat Dryhurst on Recruit, commissioned for Cottweiler’s Autumn/Winter line. What factors did you need to bear in mind when producing the piece? What did you view as its ‘function’, so to speak?
Cottweiler sent me a mood board and described the installation setting. This was hugely helpful and really enough to get the ball rolling. I knew I wanted to make two separate parts, one for each room, beginning in a vacuous dripping warehouse, then opening the door to a vast desert with unknown mechanical insects and unusual swarms in the distance. Once this was in place, Mat and I filled the landscape with the material. It was extremely visual and very narrative driven, a direction that I am moving in more and more. The idea of recruitment was loosely inspired by the ways in which digital media files are shared to entice people to travel to the desert, on both sides of an ideological war that is being waged at the moment. This synced well with ideas shared by Reza Negarestani, who we have collaborated with in the past.
You specified Yamamoto and Miyake as designers whose clothes you enjoy wearing. What appeals to you about these designers?
I love the tailoring of both. Sometimes when designs are not classically feminine I can look bulky, because I’m not super tall, but the clean lines and tailoring, create a wonderful silhouette without relying on tired notions of the feminine. Also I’m a comfort freak. If it’s not comfortable, I know I won’t wear it, so with these designers, I can wear flat shoes, and comfortable cuts, without looking like a slob. Comfort and mobility to me communicate empowerment. Clothing and shoes that don’t allow me to walk or move, communicate that movement and work is not a priority. Mobility and the ability to explore are the most important freedoms for me.
Photography: Dexter Lander
Stylist: Adam McKee
Photo Assistant: Samantha Rubinstein
Hair: Joel Benjamin
Graphics: Joshua Wiley
Words: Geraint Davies
Platform is released 18 May via 4AD