Clouds, Fiction Magic and the Speculation of Holly Herndon

Fabian Stark Kontent 2017

Clouds, Fiction Magic and the Speculation of Holly Herndon

About the author

Emile Frankel was born 1993 in Melbourne (Australia), and completed a Master’s of Music at The Royal Conservatoire of the Netherlands. His work has been performed around Australia and Holland; his research explores the changing conditions of post-internet listening, and the construction of speculative-fiction in sound – representational music projecting towards a haunted future.

Science Fiction Prayer 22.08.2017

Holly Herndon speaking at Fuchsbau Festival 2017
Photographer: Helge Mundt

I type on Reddit a prayer to an artificial intelligence:
@ symbol “Remindmebot”
> Remindme! 1/1/2050
„Give me a reality truer than fiction.“

This text dissipates upwards into that Cloud Computed space extending above us – ready to be called down some time in the future. The internet, the cloud is always in a state of becoming. Think of those invisible wires extending up from your device, and to that skyward non-physical location where data goes to reside: you begin to place all manner of associations and imaginings up there. The cloud as a nomination becomes magical. It extends our notion of an ecosystem or of big N Nature to become a clot of future speculation. On crytptocurrency forums, investors pray to their gods of micro-transaction and the magic of a graphic-card stack mining invisible number ore. Like loops of economic fluctuation, the two-way movement of both inferred mediation, and the act of being mediated, is the process being explored and enacted in this text. I see the cloud as the space in which music today ripples and is shaped within, and in turn influences the very space itself. And in that sense, this short text is not just a hearing of the interactions of data passing above us, but also a hearing of the political interactions occurring in the very fiction of it.

Data dormant in the flats of Nevada lies frozen, waiting for an incoming ‚thaw‘ message. Further to the north, a crack appears in the ice long enough to encircle Great Britain. Human intervention in geophysical systems results in the creation of a whole new geological era (1) – dust and decomposition, mass extinction concomitant to that furious dot dot dot incoming text message bubble.

Late at night, alone, in front of my browser window, I’m caught in a political argument on an image board with six IP addresses all called „anonymous“. On 4chan, users fashion meaning out of the identification digits which frame their online posts. In a bionetwork which strips user identification to a string of numbers, the community look for arcane-signs in their interactions, inferring significance from posts which end in double (dubs) or triple (trips) numbers. In certain cases, decision-making on a board can be determined by ‚rolling‘ for these patterns. It is not possible to predict whether you will ‚GET‘ a ‚dub‘ or ‚trip‘ on a busy board like /pol/, so when a user speculates that they will be graced by a lucky ‚roll‘, and they achieve it, the community praises the chaos magic of the cloud. A certain meta-belief, or faith in the magic of speculation – of tuning your mind towards the future and trying to grasp it, to pull your desires from the chaos. The cloud is future oriented. It is oracular. On June 19th 2016 one user posts: “Trump will win.” The ID is 77777777. The luckiest of all numbers.

Holly Herndon’s spectacular 2015 album, Platform, predated a lot of recent analysis into ‚platform capitalism‚ in effect today (thus the reason why I revisit the significance of Herndon’s message). In our age mediated by truly giant cloud driven services, or ‚platforms‘, communication, thought, and ‚truth‘ itself is shaped by social media of all kinds: not just FB and Twitter, but also 4chan and Reddit. Herndon recognised the changing conditions of future-speculation brought about by our online environment.

Today, the act of speculation is radically levelled as hierarchies disappear between respected journalist, politician, and a regular dude with a script for DDoSing a left-wing blog, and 100 fake profiles on social media. In this newly flattened information space, our ‚post-truth‘ society gives new agency to magic and the power of the imagination. As truth and fiction become increasingly inseparable, art forms like SF literature, film, and music suddenly have renewed political clout (2). Instrumental music always was and will always be ‚post-truth‘.

On „Unequal“, the third track of Platform, Herndon sings in counterpoint with Mat Dryhurst a lamenting prayer for the future:

„Honesty, sing prayer to save the human form. Dignity cannot be broken. Our language is power, the action we’ve chose. Refuse, repose. Honesty. Fight for each other. For one, as one… To change the shape of our future, to be unafraid, to break away. Dignity, Identity, why are we? A louder fight, a harder fight. For one, as one.“

Clawing out of a seabed of fragmented vocal sound, Herndon’s voice here is the clearest it will ever be. The message, crystal, as in interview – reclaim the rights to the future; „fix the future“ (3) – place in music technes of togetherness, narratives of togetherness.

From before 2015 to now a growing and twisted imaginary has claimed the rights to a dark and chaotic technological future. Trump’s former key advisor Steve Bannon spouts in interview: „Darkness is good.“ Darkness is seductive. The kind of exciting, dystopian hyper-capitalist fantasy found in 90s SF and genres of furious dance music have become inseparable from the imaginary found in the new Alt-Right and Neoreactionary Movement (NRx). Writing of our time of crisis, Benajmin Noys contends: „Apocalyptic desires are ambiguous: at once consolatory fantasies, deferred hopes, and, potentially, spurs to radical re-orderings“ (4). In the chaos of dystopia (or the stratification of feudalism), the fantasy of a distinctly white male Hollywood heroism emerges. A future transhumanist American dream. A prayer that techno-enhancement will grant the body unbridled rationality. Fallout, a lonely masculine survivor wanders the decomposing landscape – dust becoming beautiful in the nitro-sunset, a female-form on the horizon silhouetted for rescue. Forget the emboldening of identity politics in experimental techno-futures, this community paradoxically twists transhumanism into a cis-gender unifying process, a last-ditch hope that the ‚traditional‘ male–female dynamic will re-emerge under conditions of apocalypse and survival of the fittest (5).

On Platform, Herndon’s sonic material is one of fused bodily fluid, tissue and metal, yet also social interaction bonded to a corporate platform: the „fleshy side of technology.“ While transhumanism may have been consumed by the right, and despite the aesthetic connotations this materiality brings with it, Herndon affirms this movement’s origins in the utopic thought of Donna Haraway, among others. Platform maintains a clear anti-corporate, anti-transphobic discourse around this speculation (Herndon has been a vigorous supporter of Chelsea Manning).

Turning to the method of musical construction, Dryhurst and Herndon’s technique of ‚Net Concrete‘ is a confronting actual representation of what it is like to hear and experience the cloud. A sonification of the chaos, crisis, yet paradoxical liquidity of online experience. Two fingers gliding across a wall to wall glass bezel, the sound of a blindingly glossy bust of plastic. Yet beneath, the presence of a brittle tension – that the music and the plastic could shatter into fragments at any moment. Herndon’s vocal treatment and the frequent use of granulation (cutting and rearranging a sound into tiny parts) correspondingly represents the kind of microtransaction ‚Network Time‘ of the flickering browser-window.

However, with passing time, representational sound can lose its associative origins. Today aesthetics of fragmentation have a more recent and unfortunate association to the Alt-Right and NRx philosophical figurehead Nick Land. While Herndon is decidedly anti-fascist, Nick Land’s political message echoes: ‚progress is fragmentation.‘ In this sense, the kind of dark fragmented hyper-capitalist future found in the imaginary of the Alt-Right, or found in dystopian films like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, imbues the sound of a fragmented (granulated) human voice with a highly problematic affect.

Land coined the term ‚Hyperstition‘ to describe in part the way fictional art can enact very real changes in the future. A performative cause and effect. If we take Land’s Hyperstition to be a true and active force in shaping the future, then music suddenly becomes imbued with the very real potential to help define future politics. On this assumption, does the creation of crisis-ridden music create a future in crisis? Or does it simply represent (reflect) the crisis of today?

I have discussed Herndon’s music because it embodies this potential, and her message, to take responsibility in the future, acknowledges the necessity for the left to adopt its own hyperstitional methods.

A company hires Holly Herndon to design the sounds of their future electronic cars. The dark and raining trans-humanist city in 90s cyberpunk anime becomes the very Real political vision of a 2017 neo-fascist movement. (6)

The collective Metahaven write: “The speculative present is replacing the speculative future… Whistle-blowers are the ghost-writers of the future.” (7) Other recent attempts of musical critique have resorted to irony (see PC Music), transgression (see Oneohtrix Point Never), yet in Herndon’s approach – rather than a reflection or an exacerbation of the problematic imaginary entwined with the Alt-Right, Herndon opts for an honest negation and rejection. Despite the sonic chaos and fragmentation of Platform, the wriggling is always resigned to the background. Above, in front Herndon sings clearly and sincerely. And with this Herndon presents a brand new imaginary, a speculation which one hopes can reverse the thawing of a reactionary and seductive darkness.

This article draws from Emile Frankel’s upcoming book, „Hearing the Cloud“ published 2018 by Zer0 Books.


(1) Timothy Morton, „Frankenstein and Ecocriticism“, The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, Ed. Andrew Smith, (Cambridge University Press: 2016), 145.
(2) See „Alt-Woke Manifesto“.
(3) Phillip Sherburne and Holly Herndon, „Fix the Future: Holly Herndon’s Collective Vision“, Pitchfork 2015, accessed 08 August 2017
(4) Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (Zero Books: 2014), 63.
(5) I’m reminded of a tweet by @KommaChameleon, „If your cyberpunk isn’t punk (anti-corporate, ant-war, anti-sexist, anti-racist) then it’s just cybershit.“
(6) Two examples of hyperstition which altered the future/present.
(7) Metahaven, Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (Sternberg Press: 2015), 25.