Designer Michael Oswell on creating the artwork for Holly Herndon’s PROTO album

Courtesy of Michael Oswell

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In March this year it was announced that Holly Herndon would be releasing the follow-up to 2015’s Platform. Entitled PROTO, the album builds upon her previous releases by broadening her sound to include not just her own vocals, but an entire choral ensemble. Crucially, Herndon revealed the LP would make use of an AI ‘baby’ named Spawn; a “nascent machine intelligence”. In line with her sound, the use of artificial intelligence extends to her visuals, with the video for her lead single, Eternal, featuring constructed footage processed by an intelligent machine that had searched and tried to pinpoint a human face.

The album cover art appears to be of a similar nature. Designed by Michael Oswell, the main subject of the artwork is a face that’s blurred around the edges; its layered composition and shadowy backdrop lending the portrait a vague and ghostly appearance. An animated version sees the forehead of the portrait wrinkle with the movement of its eyebrows, eyes rove independently of one another, cheeks stretch while the tongue sticks out.

It’s certainly a striking cover for one of the year’s most exciting albums so far. So, we caught up with designer and art director Michael Oswell to discuss how he made the artwork, what it was like working with Herndon and how the visuals link to her sound.

How did you first connect with Holly Herndon?

As with most of my clients and collaborators, we’d been orbiting one another’s worlds for a while. I’d been working at Metahaven when they began their collaboration with Holly, and some time after that 4AD commissioned me to make proposals to renew their identity. Sadly that project never came to fruition, but as part of my research I met up with Holly and her partner Mat [Dryhurst] to chat about the day-to-day banalities of working with a record label. And of course, parallel to all this, we’d been following each other on the Terrible Hell Site That Binds Us All, Twitter dot com.

Can you walk us through the concept of the PROTO artwork? How did you go about making it?

It’s tricky to pin down a particular coherent concept, because I’m against design that functions on the basis of what my tutor Nic Hughes referred to as “the click” – an “aha!” moment that reduces the design process to a setup and punchline. Record sleeves accommodate ambiguity more readily than almost any other mass produced design object, and when they incorporate their themes as “aha!” moments it feels like a missed opportunity. Of course there are themes, visual references and allusions, but in comparison to a lot of my other projects, PROTO is not overtly conceptual.

This was my first ever record sleeve commission in six years of working as an independent designer, so I no doubt brought a kind of naive self-consciousness to the proceedings. But I should stress that, like the album, the sleeve is the result of a close collaboration – in this case between Holly, Mat and myself.

“Record sleeves accommodate ambiguity more readily than almost any other mass produced design object”

We began with a few initial wide-ranging conversations, discussed the album’s themes and looked at visual cues and images they were interested in using. These conversations often led to YouTube binges encompassing Pet Shop Boys’ videos, clips from the classic 1990s TV show Bugs and 2012’s Dredd.

Mat created several composite portraits from photographs taken by Daniel Costa Neves. After going through several iterations the one we ended up choosing was perfect. I see it as a post-post-apocalyptic solarpunk wayfaring stranger, an egalitarian spin on the Leviathan frontispiece.

PROTO is a gift of a title, and the album represents a dramatic shift in scale from Holly’s previous work. I immediately took that as a pretext, however flimsy, to be informed by the typography of death metal. The title evokes the start of something; basic elemental shapes – line, triangle, square, circle, etc – and I was into the idea of doing “Master of Puppets via Muriel Cooper”. Unfortunately, these imposing type sketches drowned out the image, and that was the point at which the idea came to render the title by stretching and warping the image itself.

Thereafter: lots of coffee, lots of time spent trying to figure out 3D software, lots of agonisingly slow re-renders and apologetic emails.

Was AI involved in the making of the cover at all?

The artwork, you may be disappointed to hear, is the exclusive result of human labour and lamentably non-automated!

We wanted to avoid cartoonishly framing PROTO as Artificial Intelligence – Das Album!, not least because despite its unique presence, Spawn is a member of an ensemble. Spawn is housed in an incredibly swish LED-lit 2Fast2Furious gamer PC, and of course that could have made one hell of a visual, but reducing the album’s USP to “The One Where the Robot Child Sings” would hardly be fair to the many musicians involved in realising Holly’s vision.

Similarly, we ruled out overtly using of-the-moment AI-based image production techniques, such as GANs, because they would time-lock the album into the late-2010s. In the early versions of Mat’s band portrait, a facial recognition algorithm was used to align multiple images around a focal point – in this case, the eyes. You can see the same algorithm used elsewhere, in press photos and music videos – but the final image was pieced together manually. So perhaps it feels algorithmic without actually being algorithmic.

One concession to the tropes of AI/code was the use of Wei Huang’s typeface, Pantasia, which reads like a monospaced version of Times, the typeface used on Platform.

What was it like collaborating with Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst?

It was a very close and rewarding collaboration. While neither are specifically visual artists, Holly and Mat are both extremely visually literate, sharp and wide-ranging in their references – opinionated but open-minded. The timeline for the project was shorter than we would have liked, but it gave a sense of urgency and purpose to proceedings. 10/10 great client, 5/5 Yelp review, A++++.

How does the artwork connect with the album’s sound?

The cover is a composite portrait of every musician involved! Less flippantly, the artwork attempts to be imposing and monumental on the one hand, light and crystalline on the other.

On my first visit to her studio, Holly played me more or less the whole album, but that was all I heard until release day – I’m still acquainting myself with the album now! I was much happier to engage with Holly on her own terms, rather than pursue my own interpretation of the album’s sound. Aside from one or two font in-jokes on the back cover.

Where do you see technology and AI going in regards to design?

Now, I admit that my overall opinion on AI changed a bit after I had a psychedelic epiphany at a club having binge-read every Wikipedia article I could find about Iain M Banks’ Culture series. I sort of wonder if this is how humanitarian disasters like Elon Musk happened. But…

Firstly, I’m pretty tech-ambivalent. I think any technology only becomes interesting once it becomes mundane. For example, as miraculous as Photoshop’s new machine-learning driven features will be, it’s tiny in comparison to something as banal as, say, the effect the internet has had in blurring the lines between written language versus spoken language. Given that design is about language and image, that’s huge.

More broadly, it’s important not to neglect the implications for design as a form of labour. Emerging technologies, automation and AI/machine-learning will all no doubt impact on design as a profession. You can safely bet, however, that without a wholesale transformation of the organisation of society, those changes will be used to drive worker productivity, rather than reducing working hours. Juniors and interns will continue to work longer and longer hours for little to no pay. We will all die miserable and poor and anxious.

A few days ago I saw a great talk by Tamar Shafrir about algorithms and emotions, that dove deep into how they actually work, showing diagrams from software patents and so on. There’s a lot of mystification around algorithms and their nefarious doings, but it’s all really basic and often ridiculous. All this stuff is a tool and it’s a question of who holds it, how it’s developed. This connects directly back to Holly’s ideas regarding Spawn. Tech is a tool, it’s neither good nor bad.

Pursuant to the above, a utopian post-scarcity pleasure society administered by hyper-intelligent omnibenevolent AIs, as a long-term goal, doesn’t sound half bad to me. Post-scarcity AI-administered pleasure society or barbarism!

What’s next for you?

At the moment I’m gearing up to roll out the identity for Warp’s 30th anniversary, which attempts to deal with the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ by manically mining and re-contextualising the label’s visual history and projecting it into A Beautiful Purple Future. I’m also starting work on a strange and abject book for the artist Jesse Darling. Shit, actually I’m meant to be designing some merch for Holly too… thanks for the reminder.

Photography: Daniel Costa Neves
Composite portrait: Mat Dryhurst

CTM present Holly Herndon: PROTO at Volksbühne Berlin, on 14 June

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