At a time when our world faces an existential struggle against nature and advancing technology, it is all too common to sink into a murky soundtrack of Sturm und Drang. But last Friday evening at Berlin’s iconic Volksbühne, it was clear Holly Herndon’s belief in humanity is infectiously ever-optimistic.
Her performance of selections from Proto seemed to represent sharp, chiaroscuro contrasts. Despite being surrounded by a series of post-apocalyptic video backdrops – of austere landscapes littered with the blackened skeletons of civilisation, of cracked Macbook laptops that appear abandoned mid-Twitter scroll, and of Roman columns strangled by overgrowth—the experimental artist chose to dress completely in pure white. She breaks up her simulation of the end of the world with light, conversational comments to the audience. “Well that was fun! Sorry, I’m adjusting myself, let me get cozy for this one,” she says in between songs, perched on a table draped in white fabric. Throughout, her partner and co-conspirator Mat Dryhurst nods vigorously to each vertiginous crescendo while vaping.
Herndon may be foremost an electronic composer, but make no mistake about her affinity for the human voice. The performance swelled with sprawling, ambitious arrangements – highlights including Alienation and Eternal, punctuated by flashing strobe lights. However, it was those moments where the choir ensemble huddled together and sang through the dim in a capella, such as in the second half of Crawler, repeating “Why am I so lost?” in haunting clarity, that inspired the most reverence.
Unfortunately, Herndon’s Proto AI collaborator Spawn had to stay at home. It was due to her absence that we momentarily became part of the choir: artist Colin Self led an interactive call-and-response with the audience. “Safe in life/ Secure from all/ Our fears/ The sands will guide us while we sleep/ Emergent life,” we sang back at him in earnest. This section would be given to Spawn as a souvenir of the evening, to be eventually turned into a tailored vocal model of our unique Berlin communion.
Within an era steeped in dark anxiety for an imminent crisis, there exists a light in a collective solution. At the very last song Swim, Herndon ends on the same visuals from the very beginning: a group of human silhouettes staring at what could easily be interpreted as the smoking detritus of destruction or the opportunity to begin anew. Herdon adds to the strength of this message with the resonance of her five-member choir ensemble, all the while remaining a hopeful guide in this journey through the anthropocene.