Somebody linked Holly Herndon’s Godmother on Twitter months ago, and I was an instant convert, sorry that I hadn’t found her before. Herndon recently finished her music PhD, and her sound is a kind of amalgam of vaguely recognizable traditional cultural forms of uncertain origin. It sounds weirdly familiar, but I can’t place specific influences.
There’s an emphasis on rhythm and voice. Herndon and her collaborators pile vocal tracks atop one another in a dizzying stack, though production remains remarkably unmuddied.
There’s also something disturbing, unnerving about both songs and video. Herndon uses programmed manipulation to chop up lines, in some cases letting a trained AI feed impressions back into songs. It’s all heady and fresh, and I’m very on board.
I recently latched onto an old memory of the band Brand X. Phil Collins was the drummer and co-founder of this jazz-rock fusion outfit, and his prodigious skill is on full display. He grooves, hammers, drills, and shreds in ways that would surprise most people who were only familiar with later work in Genesis and his solo career.
This is a valuable gem of the arts. A person whose most popular work is fairly straightforward, hiding the mastery of their craft. Discovering this phenomenon the first time is revelatory. We are astonished, perhaps, but tickled and abloom with joy to see someone really put their abilities through their paces.
But going back later can be unexpectedly delightful. It’s still a wonder, but now we have some familiarity with the work and can anticipate and appreciate nuance. When we find out a minimalist has painted intricate landscapes, or a detailed portrait artist makes enormous abstract sculptures, it’s like a twist ending. But introducing someone else to the lesser known bits or looking up the old piece is rewarding in a different way. It’s like your favorite grandparent’s story, that you revel in even when told it for the tenth time. Rediscovered surprise.
For a while, now, it’s become clear that what used to be obvious documentation of events is approaching a cliff. The edge is believability, and we’re all clustered at the precipice, some have fallen off, some are looking at the chasm. “It’s Photoshopped” was the death knell of images as proof of things. Soon, it’ll be video as well.
For smug tech nerds like me who believed we could spot fakes at least relatively quickly, it’s about time to wipe the smirks off. As the above video demonstrates, we are very close to being able—and by “we” I mean random people with easily downloaded apps and some time on their hands—to present any number of people in just about any real world situation. Fakes are becoming indistinguishable from reals.
The philosophical implications are big. It’s going to be a struggle to vet sources and establish trust. For art, this is a massive gate to new worlds opening up, but I think the sociological implications need to be acknowledged. In fact, this is something art can expose and illuminate very well.
Broken record time: when I feel like I’m not getting enough done, I sometimes slow down even further. I break ideas into smaller chunks to deal with. This is a way of doing something daily but still contributing to a big project.
One ant can’t haul much or dig a deep tunnel alone. Ten thousand ants can do huge jobs in hours. Ten thousand marks or paint strokes is an entire piece. It looks the same when it’s finished.
There will likely always be fads. We are social creatures, evolved to follow group aesthetics and patterns. It can be fun to get swept up in the wave of a thing lots of other people like.
As artists, we often walk a thin line between what is popular—or at least well-liked—and the strange, the avant garde, the dangerous. We want to take chances, to push boundaries, but we want to bring people along with us, to show them things we see and discover through our process. If we go too far into darkness or strangeness, we risk being irrelevant or obscure. If we go along with what’s popular, we can be boring.
I think the risk is more rewarding on the strange side. There will always be plenty of creators trying to ride the big wave. The hard part is finding one that suits your style and way of being, surfing just ahead of the break and between the rocks.
Fixing a Hole, from Sgt. Pepper’s, rang through my head this morning while I was becoming awake, and then shambling through my morning routines.
“It really doesn’t matter,” says Paul, and that’s true when you’re overthinking your work. I tend to do that. But in art, as in few other pursuits, you can be wrong and right at the same time.
You can defy expectations, and you can overturn everything you’ve done before. And you can also start done a path that millions have gone down before. You follow your heart and your hands. Sometimes they need to be free of the rain that gets in.
It’s a rather old story in internet terms, but in 2916, Wired published a long excerpt and many illustrations from Niemann’s monograph, Sunday Sketching. It touches on several aspects of what I talk about here, but offers a glimpse inside the insecurities and doubt that even successful artists harbor.
While working, I must be kind and forgiving with my fragile self. But sometimes I must try to look at my oeuvre with the eyes of an old and jaded misanthropic outsider (or a young and jaded misanthropic insider).
Twice today I had to admonish customers at my work for their antisocial behavior. This was completely unexpected and always makes me a bit anxious and upset. I thought back to when my main job was drawing and I hardly saw another human besides my co-creator—my cousin, working in the same room—for days at a stretch.
I don’t know which situation is weirder. Life is surprising in small ways, if we’re paying attention at all. I think that’s why I’ve spent so long here trying to encourage making art and continuing the work you’ve been doing or attempting. There will always be changes and surprising turns of existence, and you want to have a method of interpreting them.
I don’t think I’ve written about how much I love Budgie, but they formed an essential part of my musical identity as a young person. They were technically still a band when I discovered them, but only the bass player/vocalist remained, and the best stuff—in my opinion, of course—was behind them.
I bought Bandolier, which I consider their finest, on a whim at a Tower Records and it was the best blind music purchase I ever made. The title above comes from the opening track, “Breaking All the House Rules and Learning All the House Rules.” (Later shortened. Budgie were notorious for ridiculously long titles.)
I learned you could be both silly and serious from that band. That you could create with practice and precision but still be a little wild. They brought into sharper focus that the rules were good for structure, but now and then breaking them wasn’t so bad.
I’ve been re-evaluating my habits, including the daily posting here, and why I’m doing it. Considering what I’m working towards and the way I want to get there. This is advice I would give to artists: be disciplined, make your habit a daily practice.
And, also, don’t make me the arbiter of how you create. Break all the house rules now and then.
There’s some bad news from the Yogscast collective, and a couple of its members have deeply disappointed me as a viewer and fan, as well as hurt women involved in those men’s predation of them. Zoey Proasheck has a post on their subreddit that’s well worth a read. It’s a bit like Harlan Ellison’s “You Don’t Know Me, I Don’t Know You,” which is hard to find but also worth digesting.
It’s tough to draw a line between my image of heroes and beloved artists and the unknown reality that they actually are. My image of others is fuzzy at best, ghostly in most cases. It takes time and close contact to understand what someone is like, and even then people can fool you, or just be closed and obscure, a web so thick and knotted it’s very hard to see through.
But as painful as it can be to acknowledge someone disappointing you, sometimes you can’t run, at least not immediately. Someone has to take charge of situations like this and confront the bad actors and abusers of their position. It’s easy to say we should all maintain self-care and take time out when necessary, but there are times it isn’t possible.
In a sense, no one has to do anything. But often we trade on our reputations and ethics. I tend to believe in very few things, but one of them is that we are often stronger than we think. The important thing is that we keep moving ahead.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.