Sonic Ecofiction: Electronica Re-joins the Real World

William Morris / CC0
William Morris / CC0

Description: Miss Anthropocene vs. The World

The decade’s most influential works of experimental electronic music weren’t just distributed online. True to Marshall McLuhan’s theory of medium as message, many producers spent the better part of the ‘10s creating work arising precisely from being online, manipulating and remixing the fragments of the internet’s collective memory. Youtube rips of slow-jams and elevator music were stretched into vaporwave mixes. The plasticine kitsch of eurodance found a second, more critically-acclaimed life as PC Music, inventing a musical analog to the uncanny valley.

Lumped into the broader concept of “post-internet” art with creators like Ryan Trecartin or Katja Novitskova, these genres demonstrated the symbiotic nature of users of the internet and the media they consume on it. Decades or centuries worth of recorded content are hosted for free or downloadable for users to consume, and users respond by giving it new life as a reaction .gif, mashup, or meme.

But post-internet music and its adjacent aesthetics were neither a prophecy of a distant future or a mere throwback to the translucent futurism of the early ‘00s. The work the movement produced was more immediately descriptive than its adherents may have realized, dating itself in recent years as it became often indistinguishable from the rhetoric and tastes of Silicon Valley’s feudal patriarchs.

As Rafael Lubner points out in his essay “Against the Post-Internet,” this “crisis of the internet” is typified in Grimes’ recent heel-turn towards technofascism. While her early works illustrated and celebrated the cyborgian union between human and machine, the lead-up to her upcoming record Miss Anthropocene has embraced the latter at the expense of the former. On an episode of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast published in November, she put forward a prediction of the nearing obsolescence of live music, claiming that “people are actually just gravitating toward the clean, finished, fake world. Everyone wants to be in a simulation.”

She expounded on this statement in a tweet, directing readers to Max Tegmark’s book Life 3.0 while suggesting that “groundbreaking art” produced by artificial intelligence will be generated quickly enough to make it “very hard [for humans] to compete.”

It’s a refrain that Silicon Valley’s elite have hammered home in the latter half of the ‘10s — the rapid and purportedly paradigm-shifting advancement of AI is unstoppable; it’s inevitable that said paradigm shifts will cause massive job losses; and that it’s in our best interest to do something about the resulting underclass that capitalism’s inexorable pursuit of profit creates. We can herd them into the simulations we presume they’d rather be in. We implement universal basic income to subsist on in order to appease them. Or, as big tech so often suggests, they could grip their digital bootstraps and learn to code.

Or, we could take a suggestion from Grimes’ alter ego, the titular Miss Anthropocene: let global warming take its course and cut down the population.

Grimes has made it abundantly clear that her upcoming record and its promotional materials are written in the voice of a fictional character — one who she hopes can anthropomorphize climate change as a villain with a “Voldemort-like vibe,” though it remains unclear how directing our anger at an avatar draped in designer couture will make the sea levels cease to rise.

Instead, the Miss Anthropocene persona does more to shroud the woman behind it all. In an interview with Crack magazine in April, Grimes (vaguely) reveals her own political ideology:

“I thought people understood that I ultimately probably believe in an AI dictatorship,” she says. “I mean, I don’t think humanity is going to survive anyway. We’re fucked…I don’t think democracy really works. These are the kinds of things I think. I actually, for the short term, am a bit of a socialist, but not economically. I’m into free markets. What can I say? I think capitalism can solve some things.”

Not quite the foil to the Miss Anthropocene character that you’d expect.

Like Kanye West, Grimes has collaborated closely with visual/conceptual artist Ryder Ripps — one of the post-internet movement’s most visible influencers — whose oeuvre adds up to a viscerally descriptive simulation of web browsing. In the vein of Warhol and Koons, Ripps revels in corporate ephemera with a detachment that can register as irony or enthusiasm depending on the context — or the viewer’s own ironic capacities.

Acting as spiritual successors to Warhol’s 1982 video contribution to 66 Scenes from America — aka the Burger King video; in which the artist ritualistically unwraps a hamburger, tops it with ketchup, and eats it — Ripps’ mid-’10s works like “Ho” and “On Tinder” are necessary documents of our inconspicuous content™ consumption. He has also rightly criticized the tendency of internet users to rally around or against polarizing figures, though the cynical nature of his work often stops at amplifying or merely exhibiting their reaction, resigned to the idea that these tendencies are eternal and inescapable. His work is diagnostic, but it only helps prop up a status quo that cyclically asks participants in culture to project catharsis onto celebrities.

“Politics today exists within this silent hyperbole online, ultimately driven to sell ads,” Ripps told Vice in regards to a VR experience he created to simulate the slave labor employed by tech companies. “I have been making work about how the internet (basically modern society) favours the inflammatory and hyperbolic.”

As with Kanye’s embrace of the MAGA-sphere or Grimes’ embodiment of destruction, Ripps’ work is insubstantial bluster cosplaying as discourse. In an era so defined by such grift—so much so that it has determined the outcome of political elections—the works of these post-internet artists offer an apt diagnosis for society’s ills but see no merit in prescription. Even the movement’s less politically-oriented musical offshoots — for example, Holly Herndon’s PROTO, which was created in collaboration with her own AI program called Spawn — resemble tech demonstrations or TED Talks showing off the tools to make the masses obsolete.

The post-internet movement once sought to celebrate the virtual communities that made us feel less alone. Today, a more homogenous, corporatized digital landscape has rendered that feeling obsolete. We now only exist in digital space to produce monetizable content for corporations, who artists like Grimes and Ripps have aligned themselves with.

Prescription: Occupy Reality

As we transition into the ‘20s, we have seen — and will continue to see — artists take a prescriptive stance against the impending singularity, carving out niches in which individuals or affinity groups can once again exist online without sacrificing their identity and sense of physical place.

In the world of electronic music, record labels like Portugal’s Príncipe Discos, South Africa’s Gqom Oh! and Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Tapes have built cult online followings while limiting their output to regional/local music scenes and clubs. Using the internet as a springboard, these imprints allow their artists to share their domestic dance music on their own terms.

Other labels, such as Psalmus Diuersae, 7FORM, and Daddypower Records exist solely online, but entirely outside of the social media monoculture. They play with the ephemeral, now-decaying qualities of the early internet, eschewing streaming services to distribute their music in the form of .ZIP files hosted on HTML-coded websites. Their use of vintage web-hosting services like Neocities (a re-boot of Yahoo’s long-defunct Geocities platform) isn’t just for nostalgic purposes. It’s an intentional effort to remove their work from the streamlined conformity of Spotify and Apple Music, where harsh or lengthy music has little space to fit into algorithmically-arranged study playlists. Veteran artists like composer/synthesist Wendy Carlos and polymath Terre Thaemlitz could be considered early influences on the movement — hosting veritable libraries of audio and ephemera on their personal websites. Such artists are currently few, but the longer artists choose to work within the parameters set by their streaming overlords, the easier it will be for them to be replaced by artificial intelligence — the same fate Grimes encourages them to accept.

Maintaining space for free musical expression and artistic identity in the ‘20s may require artists and listeners to take back the means of production, which likely means sacrificing the scope and variety offered by streaming services in favor of purchasing albums and actually downloading audio files. Even the imagined “space” one curates in an iTunes or Foobar library is a direct affront to the Spotify paradigm, which shares your streaming activity to your friends and encourages listeners to broadcast their end-of-the-year listening data on social media each December. Why can’t we enjoy something that’s private — intrinsically our own?

I also foresee ecological themes and aesthetics flourishing in electronic music over the next few years. On the material front, there’s a need to contend with the impact that consuming music has on the environment. Physical media is largely produced using petrochemical plastics, which pollute the oceans and release greenhouse gases as they decompose. And yet, streaming music has only intensified the industry’s contribution to climate change, according to a study conducted by the University of Glasgow. Artists like Coldplay and Tame Impala have even begun to weigh the financial benefits of touring with its ecological downsides.

Ideologically, the effects of climate change will become impossible to ignore, if they aren’t already. The postmodern pageantry and cynicism of Miss Anthropocene is insufficient to address the urgency of our climate crisis. If some of the most interesting work of 2019 is any indication, the music of the ‘20s will likely be explicitly environmentalist, spiritually attuned to the natural world, and probably, to some, cringe-inducingly sincere.

Essaka Hoisa, the latest LP by WaqWaq Kingdom, is the best embodiment of these values to date. Combining the digital rhythms of Chicagoan footwork music with gagaku — traditional Japanese court music — the duo protests food waste and pollution, directing attention to the spiritual disconnect between humans and the living things they consume.

“Behind every food, there is death/ people just ignore, they are closing their eyes to it,sings front-woman Kiki Hitomi on “Itadakimasu (Thank You for the Food).”

In tying the concept of life and death to food, Hitomi shows how dire the consequences of waste are. We aren’t just polluting the planet when we’re mindless about our consumption. To her, waste is an affront to the soul.

Veteran electronic duo Matmos have found their own way of making the environmental crisis concrete. 2019’s Plastic Anniversary derives its sound from recycled materials like breast implants, riot shields and lego bricks — objects that will likely outlive the listener by hundreds of years, bobbing on the surface of the ocean or making their way through digestive tracts. The resilience of plastic was also explored last year in Nicolò & emamouse’s collaborative effort titled Desolation, which uses brittle, crackling textures to imagine a post-apocalyptic landscape littered with plastic bags.

Plastic Anniversary’s sound is one that appears to construct itself in real-time. The crinkles of single-use plastic bags and clattering of billiard balls are divorced from their original purpose, gravitationally pulled into a landfill-like mound of noises by synthesized drones. While many of these samples land in the more pleasant or goofy stretches of the sonic spectrum, the sum of these springy, malleable noises is an impending mass — one that’s growing out of control.

There’s also Russ Waterhouse’s 1 Minute 2 Midnight, an ominous ambient record sourced from field recordings taken from Virginia’s Appomattox and James Rivers, the site of a 1975 ecological disaster in which 200,000 pounds of pesticides were illegally dumped, hospitalizing 30 workers.

Like Plastic Anniversary, the Waterhouse record builds abstract soundscapes around the structures of club music. In this case, 1 Minute 2 Midnight uses a lumbering deep house bassline as the foundation for layers of insect chirps and groaning industrial scrapes. There’s little beat to dance to, so its low end serves as the stand-in for humanity’s own elevated heartbeat and anxiety amidst widespread destruction. While nature samples tend to signify placidity in ambient/electronic music, here they illustrate fear — especially when Waterhouse manipulates birdsongs into screeching mock synth tones against growling bass.

The artists listed above do more than villainize our current environmental crisis. They come face to face with impending doom, integrating it into their work as concretely as it affects our own lives. When the stakes are this dire, we can’t afford to even play with the idea of embracing destruction, especially when the first to be affected will be citizens of countries with “the least level of economic development.” Silicon Valley’s suggestion that we can all escape into virtual realms in the meantime is a testament to its willful ignorance and ethnocentrism.



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