Laurel Halo is our highlight in the Discover series today. She was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is a pioneering electronic artist influenced by the music of Detroit and Berlin. Her first ever release was the King Felix EP in 2010 and hinted a themes such as post-humanism, technology, star-crossed lovers, and cyborgs. Borrowing concepts from physics and mathematics, the EP formally introduced the world to an artist who has ever since been inspired by technological and scientific advancements. Chartow has collaborated with other avant-garde acts such as Julia Holter and Kuedo, worked on a Hatsune Miku tribute song, and provided the OST for Metahaven’s Possessed, a docufiction exploring notions such as large-scale warfare, introspection of the inner self, and alienation in the age of social media.
Many individuals are feeling cynical at the news of any large technological reveal after Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta announcement from last year. Even millennials are beginning to question how many conveniences offered by exciting new technology are encroaching on their privacy. As teenagers, millennials were perhaps the first to grow into a new world of technology with cell phones and Internet access for all. They embraced new digital frontiers with a sense of awe – and dreams of what the future would hold. With the future upon them, many find themselves anxious and uncertain of the amount of control that Big Tech has over their personal lives.
The definition of “posthumanism” is a deceptively simple one: the evolution of mankind in order to reach a state of “beyond human,” which would mean: increased lifespan, increased capacity for knowledge, increased speed of thinking, increased capacity to feel. Needless to say, the implications (such as immortality, infinite knowledge and an elevated level of discourse) are endless. In 1985, Donna Harraway wrote “A Cyborg Manifesto,” dubbed “an ironic dream for women inside the integrated circuit,” which many now consider to be the founding work of cyberfeminism. Harraway and her predecessors dreamed of improving women’s lives through technology and moving from a reality in which feminine identity is tied to child birth. However, the Manifesto was criticized for promoting an “aesthetic of disability” and erasing disabled people, for caricaturizing feminism, waving away race and gender and for its utopian vision of cyberspace. An analysis of the 2014 reboot of RoboCop argues that life as a cyborg is “a life not worth living“. Where The Cyborg Manifesto criticizes identity politics and argues that it is strategically desirable to confuse identities and ideally make an individual androgynous, the rise of Detroit techno, which happened around the same time, was seen as the African-American response to racial antagonism and oppression in a postmodern America.
The website Critical Posthumanism defines cyberpunk as “a subgenre of science fiction which explores posthuman identities primarily through the representation of close relationships between human subjectivity and artificial intelligence or computer hardware“. William Gibson, known for being the “grandfather” of cyberpunk, wrote Neuromancer in 1984, and the entire cyberpunk genre popularized the idea of the “megacorporation“: an entity with unlimited power, money and reach which often battled other megacorps for total control. If Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta announcement and his transition to a “metaverse” is inspired from another seminal cyberpunk novel, “Snow Crash”, it fits Gibson’s vision of a fraught future to a tee, and this is a worrying sign.
With every bit of an Internet user’s online activity stored and moved between third-party companies in order for them to turn a profit, it’s easy to get lost in a way of thinking in which everyone is out to get you, with the world being one huge conspiracy, a scam. This is one of the themes which permeates the writings of Philip K. Dick, one of the most celebrated science-fiction authors of the last century. George Orwell’s 1984 and many of the dystopian novels and tv shows taking jabs at communism also have the capacity to make you think twice about “perfect worlds” offered through technological advancements. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series in particular feels like a gigantic warning for how things can go horribly wrong with advanced technology offering things that are meant to better our lives.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (one of the most obvious pathways towards post-humanism) has seen leaps and bounds when it comes to language. A clear sign of AI being much better equipped to emulate language in our current reality is the evolution of Google Translate through the use of language models like the GPT-3. Just try to translate a large document using Google Translate and you might be shocked to see that, other than having problems with inferring the subject of a phrase, Google’s ability to produce an almost human-like translation between most languages is uncanny. GPT-3 is able to brainstorm ideas for stories, generate art and text from input, respond to questions and emulate “writing styles,” but most scientists agree that it is not self-aware. (However, if you ask a GPT-3 model if it is “alive,” “conscious,” or self-aware in conversation, there is a possibility that the answer will be a “yes.” A small number of scientists have interpreted this as signs of true consciousness emerging, and there have been interesting philosophical debates on GPT-3.)
Most large-scale research seems to have abandoned language models because of a simple reality: the amount of input required for training is too large to be able to be understood by a human and is also a potential dangerous avenue to explore. A GPT-3 powered medical chatbot told a user they should consider ending their life. Many research bots have reportedly written racist or sexist messages as a result of being constantly exposed to such messages in the first place, which further solidifies the idea that language is a tool of oppression. Identifying and tracing this oppression in language is still miles away, because nobody seems to be willing to allocate a sizeable budget to this type of research after the recent failures. There is not a diverse enough training dataset available, even for the English language – thus making language models a “false fantasy.” This harks back to criticism thrown at machine learning algorithms and their racial biases, and experts like Andrew Ng wrote that even an unbiased algorithm can result in a biased outcome.
Some of the research that IS, however, focused on language models, seems to stem from the philosophical idea that language can, if perfected, define the whole of reality, including consciousness. The major opponents of this idea argue that consciousness is, in fact, a “color” problem – a matter of qualia – and that researchers who propose understanding consciousness through language alone are “qualia-blind” (you can take an interesting survey in order to discover if you are qualia-blind here).
Going back to the King Felix EP, Chartow has posted statements like “Listen to music without someone’s breakable body in mind“, “Techno is a meditative force that can process darkness and remove problems…in their place, the ideal of a non-threatening, transcended, sexually charged headspace emerges,” or “I’m drawn to imagining the shapes of basic music idioms – domes, arcs, webs…,” and King Felix‘s major source on inspiration seems to be Philip K. Dick’s 1981 novel, VALIS. Valis, also featured in Dick’s earlier Radio Free Albemuth, is an artificial satellite capable of projecting thoughts in people’s minds. In a state of near-worship with the concept of Valis, Dick himself has written this thought-provoking line in his book, Exegesis:
Chartow’s approach to making music on this particular EP has been compared to that of French duo Air, Kate Bush, d’Eon and Hype WIlliams, with her style being, on one occasion, dubbed “electronic romanticism”. This links her to other artists from the “pastoral-electronic” movement: Julia Holter, Oneohtrix Point Never, Caroline Polachek in her Ramona Lisa mode and Gazelle Twin.
The first song from the EP is called Supersymmetry. In mathematics and physics, supersymmetry is a type of theory and a principle, where (in layman’s terms) if a particle is said to exist, there would be another particle called its “superpartner.” Indeed, in his Supersymmetry and Cosmology, Jonathan L. Feng states that “the basic prediction of supersymmetry is, then, that for every known particle there is another particle, its superpartner, with spin differing by 1/2,” and referring to the standard, “ambiguous” model of particle physics, “one may show that no particle of the standard model is the superpartner of another. Supersymmetry therefore predicts a plethora of superpartners, none of which has been discovered.”
The lyrics of Laurel Halo’s Supersymmetry play out like a lament from such a “particle” which knows that its partner is out there, but cannot discover it (“You turn and I always turn from you,” “You expend this control over me,” and “Hello, beautiful ally,” all are excellent signifiers of the idea of a star-crossed lovers romance).
King Felix’s genre can, if we’re reaching, be called “synth-pop”, but also – more simply put – just “synthetic”. It feels like a perfect mix of artificial and human life. By 2009, synthetic biology – a field which proposed the re-engineering of life itself, to redesign living systems as if they were machines – was being challenged by artists and scientists alike, with the main arguments being that the technology touted by synthetic biology does not exist, and “only people design”, with the values intrinsic to this design being subject to bias. If the production style on King Felix relies heavily on synth work, the compositional style sometimes recalls Baroque music, with Chartow making use of the counterpoint technique (having multiple harmonically-similar musical lines operate independently). Counterpoint itself is related to polyphony, as the website study.com states in the following paragraph:
Polyphonic texture is a musical texture that contains many different harmonies within the music. The texture of music has to do with the different layers of music, from the instrumental accompaniment (including what type of instrumental accompaniment) to the number of harmonies found in the music. The origin of the word polyphonic comes from the Greek word poluphonia, with polu meaning many, and phone meaning sound. Polyphonic music will always have two or more melodies. Something very interesting about polyphonic texture is how it usually operates based on counterpoint — which is harmonies and melodies that are interdependent on each other, and yet separate.
You can hear examples of counterpoint and polyphony throughout King Felix’s four songs, and later on, Laurel Halo has collaborated with David Borden, another contemporary artist who uses counterpoint in his music.
Metal Confection, the EP’s second track, once again features multiple harmonies, arpeggiated synths and a bleak crescendo together with a haunting chorus, perhaps signifying the aforementioned idea that “a cyborg life is not a life worth living.” The lyrics, which repeat the words “never tire” and “she would never drown/die” (looking up the lyrics for this EP is a futile endeavour, with at least half of them being wrong), seem to be a direct reference to the female cyborg of Harraway’s manifesto. If the word “confection” isn’t enough of an indicator, the song implies that a cyborg architecture also comes with memory loss and being uprooted from one’s own history. The mention of Los Angeles and that line about memory seem to also be a direct references to VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth.
Both Supersymmetry and the third track, Embassy, have been compared to anime series opening songs (OPs). Embassy seems like the most Romantic song out of the whole bunch, endlessly teasing, but sidestepping perfect cadences and having a lengthy interlude. The lyrics, fuzzy as they are, could refer to the natural world and its beauty that is almost mathematical. Taking in this beauty and creating new movements within it, but also being subjugated by it, is an extremely Romantic ideal.Laurel Halo – Coriolis
The final track, Coriolis, is definitely the most choral song off the EP. The lyrics on genius.com almost make it seem as if they were interpreted by faulty speech-to-text technology, with the only portion of the song that seems to match the lyrics being the ending (“Can I always meet you there?“). Coriolis has a real, tangible love story apparently being told (“You and I in this space/place“). However, it is still rooted in science with the concept of the Coriolis force. It’s easier to just explain the Coriolis effect through the following two images:
The Coriolis effect being absent at the Equator is perhaps just the thing needed for truly deciphering the meaning behind the song, and the two red lines in the second image indicate a possible point of intersection if two bodies are “launched” together.
With just four tracks and a remix of Metal Confection by Oneohtrix Point Never (which falls outside of the scope of this article), the King Felix EP is a true masterpiece, a mind-expanding work filled with so many themes and sonic avenues that it instantly put Laurel Halo at the forefront of experimental electronic artists, a reputation which she has constantly lived up to, but also toyed with. After the release of this EP, she has released another one, Spring, taking the alias of King Felix – a more masculine-sounding name. Her subsequent albums, released under the Hyperdub label, have veered more into techno and are much more rhytmic in nature, but her work with the Hippos in Tanks label – including her Hour Logic EP – has maintained the harmonic approach found in the King Felix EP (you can hear the title track, Hour Logic, below)
About the artist (source: daisyginsberg.com)
Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is an artist examining our fraught relationships with nature and technology. Through artworks, writing, and curatorial projects, Daisy’s work explores subjects as diverse as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, conservation, biodiversity, and evolution, as she investigates the human impulse to “better” the world.
Watch Machine Auguries below:
Other works by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg:
Reading Material: Philip K. Dick and his visions related to VALIS
Bonus Reading material: The Synthetic Kingdom: A Natural History of the Synthetic Future