Holly Herndon: a Platform against Folk Politics

This article is a review of Holly Herndon’s album Platform published by 4AD. In interviews and press releases around the release Holly Herndon explicitly placed her work amongst a creative and theoretical network of writers, designers and artists focussing on progressive politics, left accelerationism and post-capitalism. This article intends to critique the record against the literature which defines these theories in order to frame how the compositions contribute to the theoretical framework.

In 2013 Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek published #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO in order to address how left socialist projects could revitalise themselves after the financial crisis of 2008. Despite its Marxist background, accelerationism was originally politically neutral in an attempt to “accelerate the process” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1977, p. 240) of capitalism in order to enter a state of hypertrophy and imagine a political and economic order where capital could liberate itself from human labour. In opposition to neo-reactionary accelerationist Nick Land Williams and Srnicek use accelerationism as a speculative prescription for a neo-liberalism and the need to not only resist, but reimagine a future post-capitalism. In #ACCELERATE Srnicek and Williams register the left’s inability to break neoliberal hegemony due to its commitment to ‘folk politics’:

The former (folk politics) remains content with establishing small and temporary spaces of non-capitalist social relations, eschewing the real problems entailed in facing foes which are intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure. The failure of such politics has been built-in from the very beginning. By contrast, an accelerationist politics seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow. (2013)

Holly Herndon’s 2015 album Platform is intended as not only a collection of music, but part of a wider conversation on how art, design and politics can work together to move away from folk politics in order to shift towards a cultural mapping based on left accelerationist theory. According to creative partner Mat Dryhurst “Platform was a quite deliberate compliment to the left accelerationist approach, and we share a great many allies within that community… Critique is an important first step, and next comes the need to present alternatives, which is fucking hard.” (Stroot, 2015) Platform has its own aesthetics which highlight contemporary political issues by its lyrical and compositional content, and as a container for the community of artists and theorists to foreground their ideas to a wider audience.

The title Platform derives from Benedict Singleton’s elaboration on platforms as design narrative, deriving from ‘plot’ as a demarcated land, seen as “being constructed by some sort of unseen force directing events loops back round to the first meaning of plot… You could put up your fences and walls but the earth beneath is indifferent to those markers. What you have is a superficial demarcation of space, but… you’re already enclosing possible links to the outside which might erupt from within as an inside job that undoes all the hard work of marking something out.” (2015) With logic to what is termed as a platform in digital space, an ‘infrastructure that enables two or more groups to interact’ (Srnicek, 2016, p. 43) the album title plays both the interface to host extramusical ideas which Herndon intends to invite as well as a critique to the digital platforms it finds itself on. If a platform can be infiltrated as Singleton suggests, Herndon’s Platform intends to becomes a ‘Pop music container, because it can act as a Trojan horse’ (2015) on music services such as Spotify by containing pop music tropes (dance music rhythms, melody, the female voice) but also infiltrate a passive the listener’s experience. It is a piece of tactical media which also exploits the protocol of digital media.

The track ‘Locker Leak’ is a particular example of tactical media, in which both the interface and the user is complicit in its success for culture jamming. The text, by Spencer Longo, comments on “an industry that increasingly disguises self-gain and profit in ethical marketing campaigns around self-improvement, mentally and physically.” (Eede, 2015) According to Alexander Galloway tactical media is the ‘phenomena that are able to exploit flaws in the protocological and proprietary command and control, not to destroy technology, but to sculpt protocol and make it better suited to people’s real desires’ (2004, p. 176) ‘Locker Leak’ is a parody to interrupted music listening due to music streaming services which rely on generating revenue through designing undesirable protocol by hosting adverts which disrupt the music listening experience. In order to access uninterrupted listening users are encouraged to become subscribers, which draw in larger amounts of revenue, but with ‘Locker Leak’ the illusion of an advert creates a dissonance in the listening experience, particularly to the ad-free logic of the subscriber with Herndon’s voice mimicking. The textual content also critiques immaterial labour of late capitalism, where self-care and healthiness becomes becomes competitive capital (‘Be the first of your friend to like Greek yoghurt this summer!’). As mentioned as part of Herndon’s intentions ‘Locker Leak’ is a Trojan horse, defined by Galloway as ‘a program that appears to be doing something useful but also executes some piece of undesirable code hidden to the user.’ (2004, p. 177) Implicit to using art to infiltrate the logic of its platform there has to be both a strategy to enter the protocol with a gesture towards the audience; ‘Locker Leak’’s satirical critique on the health food industry would mean for Herndon’s audience to be similar to health brands in order to intervene on its logic.

The autonomous sensory meridian response-lead track ‘Lonely At The Top’ exists symbiotically to ‘Locker Leak’; on the other side of the interface it comments on privilege and isolation. Collaborator Claire Tolan recalls Herndon envisioning the composition as “a kind of “therapy for the 1%,” an anxiety-relieving ASMR track that instructs the wealthy not to worry about it” (2015) ASMR has recently become popularised by the democratisation of media content, with many videos uploaded onto YouTube by amateur sound artists. Similarly there is a political critique on self care and privilege, where Tolan speaks softly to the listener in a spa, reaffirming the hard work and the deserving entitlement of the subject. The content of the composition departs from the the protest song format against the wealthy by inviting the listener into an auditory virtual reality. ‘Lonely At The Top’ seeks to tell a story through empathy in order for their listener to understand the guilt and anxiety in wealth that Herndon perceives (Džuverović, 2016, p. 93). Similarly to ‘Locker Leak’ the composition positions the listener into the the uncanny, playing on the spatiality of headphones which is recommended for ASMR and commenting on the isolation of the private listening experience.

A key political theme for Platform is global surveillance and private data issues. As noted by Benjamin Bratton the complicity of the digital platforms, notably Google, to cybersurveillance is a pertinent topic to discussing the future of liberty online. (2015, p. 34-36) In the song ‘Chorus’ Herndon employs a technique devised by Mat Dryhurst called sousveillance, a self-observation by recording to collage processed textures as private artefacts embedded in the composition. According to Lina Džuverović this act is “an acute reminder of the present political moment; it not only points to the delicate dance between surveillance and its counter narratives, but also to the hitherto impossible witnessing now enabled by technology” (2016, p.97) in order to frames the art around contemporary progressive issues. As Platform expands into audiovisual digital media the accompanying videos to ‘Chorus’ and ‘Home’ also refer to privacy issues through cascading NSA logos and an exploration of Herndon’s 3D-mapped bedroom to highlight the intrusive elements of the digital interface (from the computer interface to the centralised cloud). The works created as part of the Platform project intend to engage with contemporary politics through contemporary technology and aesthetics, which brings into question the radical nature of art and its ability to enable counterhegemonic action.

Taking Fredric Jameson’s theory on cognitive mapping as a point of departure Nick Srnicek asserts that art can contribute to mapping contemporary capitalism through mediating its vast ontological nature into “an intelligible, tractable plane of consistency.” (2015) By assembling interfaces, from digital technologies to compositional form, with an infrastructure favouring collaborative processes it is then the left can “begin to navigate the conceptual and practical world of neoliberalism,” (ibid) citing Chile’s distributed control system Cybersyn as an example of an aestheticised communist interface for goods distribution. Clearly Platform does not intend to perform such a radical task as to overhaul the distributive hegemony of the music industry with which its economic value is exchanged. Rather as a collection of compositions using a protocological format (an album of mp3s on a mainstream streaming service) that seeks to disrupt its narrative logic:

If we think of the container, as the form of the piece, it holds smaller complex cells with complex relationships to the other cells. A sharp ear could be able to recognize these relationships and gain an aesthetic experience from that understanding… For example, the politics of choosing a specific drum pattern with a specific drum kit; this is a dialog within dance music communities, which would not be placed on the same level as the dialog of timbre and pitch class in academic circles. (Herndon, 2016)

The intention to act as a disruption, a Trojan horse and tactical media perhaps resonates more with the intention to accelerate a process, in an effort to usher in similar media that exploits protocol. Whilst this tactic does not redesign protocol, it participates in the activity of cognitive mapping in the sense that is demonstrates the logical failures of technologically driven capitalism. Expanded upon in Inventing The Future Srnicek and Williams believe that the failures of the left lie upon the doorstep of Folk Politics, explained through the widely accepted judgements that “small is beautiful, the local is ethical, simpler is better, permanence is oppressive, progress is over. These kinds of ideas are favoured over any counter-hegemonic project – a politics that might contend with capitalist power at the largest scales.” (2015, p. 46) Herndon’s thematic content, from the use of sousveillance recording to highlight privacy issues to the pervasive nature of capitalism in contemporary society by satirising digital marketing tropes, does not arrive at the conclusion prescribe to folk politics. However, neither do they necessarily offer “An Exit” (a song title on Platform inspired by Suhail Malik) from the logic of late capitalism. Malik does however offer encouragement from the compositions of Herndon:

“What’s really important in the work that Holly and Mat [Dryhurst] are doing, which carries through something of what Left accelerationism is proposing, is that the formation of a collective counterforce to the current overwhelming no-exit conditions of capitalist power is an attractive image of the future. This is what experimental music does really effectively: when you hear a sound or sonic structure that sounds like it really comes from the future and is happening before its time. Holly’s music and activity makes a direct and strong appeal to the future to get us out of the present, and this is a very different kind of political-collective action to making political claims on the basis of interests and established identities.” (2015)

Holly Herndon’s Platform highlights the agency currently on offer to music and sonic art, and if not to reach a utopian vision the album speculates on exploits and demands. It draws on accelerationism in terms of delivering aesthetical hypertrophies and invites cross-disciplinary participation from designers such as Benedict Singleton and economic and art philosophers concerned with the post-capitalist project in order to explore the possibilities of the album, the song and the artist as a Pop Container.

Bibliography

Bratton, B. (2015) The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty Cambridge: MIT Press

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1977) Anti-Oedipus London: Penguin

Džuverović, L. (2016) Holly Herndon: A Life Across Bits and Atoms Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 41, pp. 91-97

Eede, C. (2015) Hyper-Personal: Holly Herndon Interviewed [Online] Available from: http://thequietus.com/articles/17884-holly-herndon-interview [Accessed 24 May 2017]

Galloway, A. R. (2004) Protocol: How control exists after Decentralization Cambridge: MIT Press

Mackay, R. & Singleton, B. (2015) Yarncast: Plots, Platforms and Sinister Designs [Audio podcast] Available from https://www.urbanomic.com/podcast/yarncast-benedict-singleton-plots-platforms-and-sinister-designs/ [Accessed: 24 May 2017]

Saxelby, R. (2015) 10 Radical Ideas That Inspired Holly Herndon’s Platform [Online] Available from: http://www.thefader.com/2015/05/21/radical-ideas-that-inspired-holly-herndon-platform [Accessed 24 May 2017]

Srnicek, N. (2015) Navigating Neoliberalism :Political aesthetics in an age of crisis [Online] Available from: https://medium.com/after-us/navigating-neoliberalism-f9fae2405488 [Accessed 24 May 2017]

Srnicek, N. (2016) Platform Capitalism London: Polity

Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work London: Verso

Stroot, B. (2015) Interview with Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst [Online] Available from: http://www.maskmagazine.com/the-asylum-issue/work/holly-herndon-mat-dryhurst [Accessed 24 May 2017]

Williams, A., Herndon, H. & Dryhurst, M. (2016) ‘Re-Engineering Hegemony: Glass Bead in conversation with Mat Dryhurst, Holly Herndon and Alex Williams’ Glass Bead [Online] Site 0: Castalia, the Game of Ends and Means. Available from http://www.glassbead.org/wp-content/uploads/reengineeringhegemony_en.pdf [Accessed 24 May 2017]

Williams, A. & Srnicek, N. (2013) #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics [Online] Available from: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/ [Accessed: 24 May 2017]

 

Discography

Herndon, H. (2015) Platform [Album] London: 4AD records

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