Interview: Holly Herndon on ‘PROTO’ and averting dystopia in the Protocol Era
May 13th 2019
CREDIT: Boris Camaca
Holly Herndon is a heavyweight. An artist, academic and passionate advocate for the humanistic potential of technology, she has fused together these wires of her identity on towering new work PROTO. Have a chat with Holly below about ethics in the Protocol Era, process and her magnificent 3rd album.
The lightning speed of technological advancement forces us to reckon with our humanity; with what we truly cherish so that we can instil these values in the systems we increasingly give ourselves over to. With the advent of AI this reckoning has become even more urgent, and this is the main preoccupation of Herndon’s research and her new record.
PROTO is the product of Herndon’s collaboration with an ensemble of artists and Spawn, an artificial intelligence built and developed by Herndon herself, her partner artist Mat Dryhurst, and software developer Jules LaPlace. We were first introduced to Spawn late last year on the eerie apoplectic J-Lin collab Godmother, a composition produced entirely by the AI.
On PROTO though, where Spawn begins and Holly ends is much less discernible. Fed on the vocals of over 300 performers including Herndon and Dryhurst, Spawn becomes a true collaborator within the ensemble. At the same time it embodies Herndon’s vision for how a conscious, proactive approach to tech can prevent apocalyptic visions of the Singularity from coming to pass, and pave the way for a deeply humanistic future for our technology.
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Holly, you push back against dystopian visions of technological advancement preferring to think of human/machine collaboration as an opportunity to reconsider who we are. Could you dive down a bit more into what you mean by that?
Is there adequate accessibility across society to have that sort of agency when it comes to technological development?
PROTO refers to “the Protocol Era” and this idea of agency seems to feed directly into that right?
With your second record Platform, you really embraced collaboration, and you spoke a lot about the value of transparency of process – you want transparency in the political realm and you want to bring that into your practice. I was wondering how working with AI on this record, which involves obscure algorithmic decision making processes, squares with an ethic of transparency?
You say that’s one reason, are there other reasons why you’ve made the human voice so central to your work?
I’m interested in how you see Spawn. You talk about using technology to transcend the limitations of your voice. Is Spawn a tool you use or is it something autonomous? Is it a part of you, is it separate to you? Or is there more of a parent-child relationship?
The parent/child analogy really locks in with the concept of the Protocol Era.
PROTO does a really good job of being both cerebral and emotional – you clearly want people to engage with the ideas raised by how it was made and the intention behind it, but listening with that in mind still doesn’t circumscribe the experience.
Is there anything positive then that you did to strike that balance, to not be overly didactic but still get people to grapple with the issues?
How did the compositions come together on this record?
For the people in your ensemble who maybe weren’t as intimately involved with Spawn’s development, were there any sort of practical or ideological challenges to them getting used to the process?
It felt like there was a religious dimension to a lot of the record. I don’t know if there’s anything intentional to that. It sort of brought to mind ideas of surrendering to not knowing, which felt right in the context of PROTO’s other-worldliness.
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