Yana Sosnovskaya (ZORA): You're in a very unique position as an artist who works very closely with computer science and engineering. What challenges have you encountered?
Holly Herndon: There's actually an amazing legacy of artists experimenting with technology. There was the E.A.T. and their experiments in the 60s — they paired engineers at Bell Labs with different artists, and then they created six evenings of different works. So artists being curious about technology goes back for decades. One of the challenges when I was starting was trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on. I have colleagues who are kind of working in both fields, and then you can fall so in love with the technology that then you stop making art or vice-versa. But I think I come from a long, long history of this.
YS: Do you think people are actually changing their perception of traditional art and allowing some room for computer science?
HH: I think one of the challenges regarding translating the work to the public is that often the work is dealing with new concepts in technology that aren't widely understood. There's often fear when it comes to new technology — a lot of the optimism around Web2 really didn't play out how it was supposed to, so people are rightly apprehensive about new technology. That can make it difficult because people can oversimplify fields into one narrative, worldview, or perspective. You see this a lot with crypto, which is so many different things — not just one kind of political ideology. There's a lot of translation that has to happen, and a lot of education that has to happen. That’s one of the reasons why Matt and I do our podcast, Interdependence. It allows us to do a deep dive into some of the thought processes behind the work that we're doing and lay the groundwork to better understand what we're doing. And in a way, it's just the research that we would be doing anyway, and we're making those conversations public. It sometimes requires crossing over this barrier of fear, or of alienation from an audience.
YS: Do you ever have a fear that deepfakes can end up being harmful? Specifically deepfakes in sound and in music. How do you think it affects this moment when we're just stepping into this ground?
HH: I definitely think deepfakes can be super harmful — that’s why we came up with our own way of dealing with some of that. For example, with the auction site that we're developing with ZORA, we're able to confirm approved usages of my kind of vocal likeness. That's something that could be interesting in the future of having people being a little bit looser with their likeness, and then having ways to authenticate if something is actually coming from the source. I think we're going to see more kinds of remixes in the paths of music. I think we'll see remixes of different kinds of personalities, digital likenesses, and things like that. And then there will be a need for some kind of official-use cases. Those may somehow in many cases be more valuable than the bootleg versions, but then, in some cases, the more bootleg versions there are, they can also add value to the actual authenticated source versions.
YS: Do you think there's anything negative that can come out of this technology?
HH: It’s going to be really wild, and I certainly haven't anticipated all of the problems that are going to arise, but that's one reason why we just wanted to jump in with this project. We were like, wow, this is a pretty insane new capability. With the DAO, we can have a trusted group of people that we know will care about shepherding the use of the voice even after I'm no longer around. We've seen some interesting cases with posthumous uses of likeness with the Anthony Bourdain thing that came out. That actually came out the same week that we released Holly+. I think it's a bit of a wild west, and we're trying to figure it out as we go, but it's important that we ask these questions and have these debates.
With the DAO, we can have a trusted group of people that we know will care about shepherding the use of the voice even after I'm no longer around.
YS: You mentioned that at some point you're not going to be around, but at the same time, Holly+ is still going to be here. In some of your past interviews, you’ve said that music is very important to be consumed and understood in a context that it’s been created for. Do you think Holly+ actually can become a timeless project without context? Or have you intended while you were creating it to be consumed and reflect a specific period of time?
HH: That's a really interesting question. I think that what I was talking about in terms of context was in regards to provenance. And the kind of importance of, for example, with sample culture, we all celebrate all of the beautiful music that was made with that, but we often forget to think about the people who were kind of screwed over by negative use cases. When sacred works were taken out of context, it was painful to those people. So I like this idea of provenance, knowing where something comes from, but, of course, context is constantly changing. And so by releasing Holly+ out into the world, I have zero control over the context. That's really exciting, but at the same time I like how there is this ability for me through the auction site and through some of the future plans that we have for the DAOs to have some sort of provenance or some kind of drawing back to where it came from, allowing the freedom from there. It’s an interesting contrast.
YS: Can you imagine yourself working with Holly+, let's say in 30, 40+ years, basically working with the 2021 version of yourself?
HH: I love the idea of doing different versions per year, as my voice ages. And I don't know if we do some kind of image-based models, as well as I like age and wrinkles and all of these things, I like the idea of there being different versions of the model. I think that's really interesting. And be able to play with my younger self. Have you ever seen the animation on Youtube, The Snowman?
YS: I don't think so.
HH: It was a really popular kids' Christmas movie in the UK. It's about this little kid who builds a snowman and then the snowman takes him flying over the town and they're just having this wonderful night together. Anyway, there's a kid, this boy soprano, who sang the song. I think it was in the 80s. And then he came back about 10 years ago and did a duet with a recording of his previous self. It was so beautiful and moving and it's such a beautiful song. It's called “Walking in the Air.” And seeing this boy soprano perform with his adult self – there was something so touching about that. I really like the idea of being able to collaborate with my younger self.
YS: Right now, what you're doing with AI feels like a huge revolutionary step. What's your prediction about the next revolution in sound development?
HH: I hate making predictions. I mean, my head is so in the AI zone right now; I feel like the impact that will have on music, not just on writing and recording, but also on live performances, is going to be profound and create game-changing genres. We'll see what happens with some of the experiments in Web3. I think the kind of economic and industrial decisions of the music industry impact the kind of work that's created. The pop song was made to be three minutes long because of radio standards and commercial breaks and things like that. And LPs have a certain length because of how much audio can be carried on wax discs. All these things are like artistic decisions that have been squeezed and premade by industry standards. I'm really curious about what kind of new standards and what things will be opened up.
I feel like the impact that will have on music, not just on writing and recording, but also on live performances, is going to be profound and create game-changing genres.
YS: It feels like we're very much at the beginning of experimentation with how it might look, but for you as an artist with history, I'm sure you had many bumps along the road. What would the ideal copyright and ownership situation for an artist and a relationship with the audience for you look like?
HH: That's a really good question. And I feel like it's one that we're not really encouraged to ask ourselves that often because so much of it is predetermined by more mainstream artists. I would really like to see us break out of the streaming paradigm. I think that it works for some and some kinds of music, but it really doesn't work for other kinds. It incentivizes very particular kinds of work. So there's kind of like a per play valuation of artwork. I think it is a very Philistine way of viewing art and culture.
YS: At the moment, would it just be abilities given by NFTs? Is that enough? Or do you think it should be extended further?
HH: Whether or not an NFT can solve all of that, I don't know. I'm not going to be too idealistic about it. The thing that I like about the NFT space is that through the patronage of one person or a group of people through a DAO, everyone can have access to the artwork. It's not like an artist's patronage prior where somebody would collect something, even if it was being hyper-financialized. That's been going on in the art world forever — somebody would collect up-and-coming artists and then those pieces would go into storage in Switzerland somewhere. Instead, this is something that's on display that everyone can enjoy. I like that there is a freedom of information component to it, but it's like that famous phrase, that information wants to be free, but it also wants to be expensive. That's what NFTs get right. Because quality information is expensive. It has to be paid for.
As musicians, we're used to not being valued for our records. That's a shame because the recorded media suffers because you have to focus all of your energy on the live show or on other kinds of things around the recorded media because that itself is not being valued. What I like about the NFT spaces is that it's valuing time-based and recorded media in a way that I haven't seen in the past. Of course, there are still huge problems with it, with access, and the little mafias.
YS: Exactly. Yes.
HH I think a lot of people criticizing those terms are expecting it to be perfect right out of the gate instead of understanding what it is at the very protocol level. Once more people start to experiment with that and see what's possible, I think they can move beyond what they assume an NFT is — you know, like the NFT aesthetic. It's just a file type. It's like building whatever scene you want with these new open options.
YS: I wonder about DAOs, where you as an artist can become much more dependent on participants, voting, and power. At the same time, depending on the size of DAO, it can sometimes become an audience for you. Because you can clearly understand how the artist's relationship with the label or producer can work, how do you experience your relationship with the audience? For example, what if, instead of a producer or label, there would be an audience dictating, demanding, or even producing you and maybe expecting something in return. How do you feel about it?
HH: This is definitely new territory with Holly+. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I am interested in audience-generated work and fandoms and that kind of collaborative ability. But there's a pitfall of trying to please the crowd and it's important that an artist can also disappear and not have to be online or on Discord and reachable at every second. You have to have those times where you just are with yourself and you're figuring out what's the next thing that you want to put out into the world. And also to be able to put out things that are not immediately understood by your audience, or maybe challenge your audience. It will be a really fine line between opening up the practice to be more collaborative while at the same time trying to maintain a kind of quality control on my own output.
YS: For a broader audience, your work looks very futuristic — not that you’re following trends, but rather, creating them. I wonder about your relationship with the future, and how you personally feel about your own future?
HH: I think I can sometimes forget to be in the moment. I actually feel like the people that I follow on Twitter or am in Discord with, or have my little secret Telegram channels with, are all doing this stuff and have been doing this stuff for a long time — I draw a lot of inspiration from them. So, I feel like it's not just me, it's a whole community of people. I don't feel like we're necessarily acting out the future. I feel like we're engaging with the present whereas a lot of musicians are encouraged to explore the past and are encouraged to be more attached to a kind of nostalgia. I actually see myself as being placed in the hyper-present. Even though sometimes I forget to enjoy the moment!