2015: The Neofuturist Aesthetic Technology and counterfuture in the electronic avant-garde

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Through this section, multiple events occur that interrupt the seeming progress of the track. For the first (the chorus that follows the climactic acceleration), the audience expects something to occur; the forward motion of the track feels too overclocked as it reaches its maximum speed. But what actually occurs in the event feels utterly novel. First-time listeners would have no way of expecting a sentimental, alien-fronted rock chorus to result from that acceleration (unlike, say, the bass drop on Rustie’s “Coral Castlez,” from this year’s candy-coated EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE, which is apparent as soon as an ascending lead synth enters the track). The second event, the fractalizing of that chorus, fails even to signal its coming. It manifests unanticipated; the audience has barely processed the last major event, and our ears have barely adjusted to the radical shift in continuity. This instability, this absence of solidity, suggests a new reading of the future, in which the progressive incursion of technology offers neither predictable consequences nor even the opportunity to decipher successive, novel events.

Continuity-rupturing events, used frequently, can produce works of heterogeneous texture and complex form. Using a variety of singular or unpredictably repeating elements, a strange new structure can emerge. Through their use of a range of explosive sound-masses, streams of spoken text, and triggered samples, Rabit and Chino Amobi form the architecture of their epic mix THE GREAT GAME: FREEDOM FROM MENTAL POISONING. By packing such a massive variety of events occurring over the vector of time, they make identifying a central motif or rhythmic basis impossible. Even the massive synth explosions and frantic strings that occur most frequently can’t form a reliable reference point in the miasma of the mix. Although not lacking in coherence, THE GREAT GAME offers as its structure only an unstable background formed from elements of The Art of Noises playbook, but the structure’s instability actually undermines the hegemony of the industrial and military technology it mimics. The voices that alternately rise out of and interrupt the noise are equally heterogeneous. They don’t offer progress, but they do exhibit changes over the course of the work in the ways they claim authority, taunt the audience, and offer critique from the margin, their words working alternately as alarms and manifestos.

The violence that characterizes the explosive event does not always suggest a political agenda on the part of the artists, though their works are themselves violent ruptures in the continuity of musical aesthetics. The events these works depict, some of which do exhibit short-term continuity and progress, constitute a neutral but malleable unit-structure for neofuturist aesthetics. This unit-structure offers a perhaps more nuanced reading of the way time moves, in that it can accommodate a wider range of occurrences and outcomes than models of continuity and progress. The drone strike and the black-swan innovation, the unprecedented storm and the record-breaking drought, the zero-day exploit and the passing of the Turing test, the suicide bombing and the revolution: all are potential breaches in the continuity of history. Subjects can introduce new events into the temporal landscape, but potential actors are equally capable of becoming victims of these explosions. Even as they rupture the continuity of musical time, the artists of the neofuturist aesthetic cast a cold eye on the events within their works, attempting instead to locate a space for the life, thought, and acts of the individual subject amidst the state of emergency, hyperviolence, and systematic alienation that continue to unfold as the future arrives.

Deep Dreams: Liminal Zones in the Mutating Mass
The Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Of course, neofuturism does not merely orient itself against other futurisms. It refashions the tools of futurism to orient itself toward the actual future, against the forces of stasis and status quo that organize the present (note that not all artists working in neofuturist modes endorse programs that are expressly political — orientation toward the future can take many forms, and each work offers its own problematic of the present). Arguably, technocratic futurism represents a capitalistic, reified form of the explosive post-industrial Futurism that engendered the term, and so it too represents a kind of stasis even in its desire for change and technical progress. It too is an aspect of the changeless, monolithic, one-dimensional consciousness that asserts its dominance in the ideology of the present. By contrast, the neofuturist aesthetic posits alternative spaces and processes that operate within the fissures and convulsions of the monolithic structure of capitalistic consumption and technological singularity. These spaces and processes mark the emergence of new possibility: for change, resistance, and liberation.

In employing processes that undermine changeless stasis, the neofuturist aesthetic subverts dominant paradigms of the shape of the future. While one primary method is the unexpected, explosive event, it also takes other shapes. Some of these artists use techniques that preserve temporal and rhythmic continuity but transform it into mutant, alien forms. Appropriately, Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Mutant Standard” exhibits this quality repeatedly over its eight-plus minute runtime. It begins with a thumping, pulsing bass sound, which creates a foundational motif for the track as it unfolds through the many shifts it undergoes. As it intensifies, more elements seep into the mix and brief ambient sounds sometimes take over space. When it returns, the bass track has morphed into an arpeggiated lead line, which continually mutates through different amplitude envelopes, eventually shifting again into a rhythmically continuous vocal synth cutup, and finally expending itself into a feedback-laden reverb cavern. This process models shifts in a current of events, offering neither climactic peaks nor constancy. It merely changes, never favoring one direction over any other, while still emerging in forms more and more alien to its origin. Operating on a simple rhythmic theme, Oneothrix Point Never uses these mutations to reveal the multidimensional possibilities inherent in its form. The track’s inability to remain still signals the impossibility of stasis, the necessity of change in the shifting sands of time.

Mutation can also work on the architecture of a piece (as opposed to working on a melody or theme within it). Full of strange and unexpected events, Lotic’s “Banished,” from the late-breaking Agitations, features a consistent vocal sample throughout its short runtime. Lotic manipulates the sample into alien, amorphous rhythmic structures that preserve little of the qualities of the original sample except for its stuttering intensity. A kind of continuity exists on “Banished,” in that similar sounds emerge in the recurrence of the shredded sample; however, the form that Lotic gives to the track renders the source unrecognizable, twisted into a new form. “Banished” represents its mutations as a kind of trauma, a forcible binding of the subject into tortuous, impossible forms. These mutations reveal the underlying violence in technological motion and monolithic culture, the subject’s cries mediated by the synthetic apparatus that confines it. The sheer chaos and complexity of “Banished” mock simplistic visions of progress. Lotic does not search for salvation in the glow of the machine; he seeks the subject hidden within the cybernetic mass.

This subject often finds itself banished to the margins, somehow both within and outside the mutating monolith. Artists in the neofuturist aesthetic have sought to expand this liminal space, de-emphasizing the central basis of a track (where such a foundation is even present) in favor of the elements that surround it, moving away from club music’s fixation on bass and lead lines. Holly Herndon’s “Interference,” from Platform, released in May, features a system of overlapping events, some recurring, some constant, some singular. With so many undercurrents and incidents in the track, it’s often difficult to follow the central, stuttering rhythm track. This heterogeneous mixture of rhythms, timbres, and other sonic elements undermines the track’s status as a use-value; by covering and corroding the dance-ready elements, and by including a multitude of liminal particles, Herndon offers a plurality of experiences to the listener, favoring no one over any other. De-centering the mix allows her chopped, vocoded vocals to occupy their own space, a liminal zone that emerges out of the seething, mutating mass; it’s neither axial nor hidden, but present, a voice whose language just barely touches the ear, a voice offering words with unknown but potential significance.

Image created by Deep Dream Generator

On Amnesia Scanner’s early 2015 release AS ANGELS RIG HOOK, this concern with decentralization extends to language itself (similar effects appear in the poem on the title track of Elysia Crampton’s American Drift). Jaakko Pallasvuo’s poetry running throughout the track follows no single stream of meaning, fracturing into a polyphony of voices and consciousnesses, offering vague prophecies of the future: a slag-grey ocean, “a stream of more-or-less violent crime,” augmented reality contacts, drone-powered wi-fi, hyperreal body modification, thunderdomes; “This could be us, but you’re playing,” a voice offers: your dreams and nightmares are not only possible, but also in your reach. Within the the liminal zone of poetry, here far from the spatially-distant rhythmic mass of the track, the dream can reach a tenuous reality in its status as art. Not merely a catalog of futuristic curiosities, these abortive but predictive snatches of poetry each create, in their brief passage across the cerebrum, a bubble-universe of futural possibility.

As the track continues, Amnesia Scanner slice language into grains, and these bursting, liminal bubbles cast off their particular significance into the void of potentiality, reabsorbed and yet separate from the mutant mass of the track. Invading the liminal zone, the synthesis engine has captured these bubble-worlds; in its attempt to assimilate the poetry deeper into the rhythmic mass of the track, it obliterates the language’s value as a world-generating force. What is left is a ghostly relic of meaning, a mute hologram of a subject cut off from its ability to critique and its ability to desire, a subject bound to the mutations of the mass, propelled into the future by a volition other than its own. Liminal zones are by their nature transitional and temporary, which renders them at once creatively powerful and extraordinarily fragile.

It’s precisely this power and this transience that make the zone beyond the technologized mass the ideal space for the neofuturist subject — the subject who seeks refuge from shattering events or who desires to create new worlds. This space operates both within the matrix of technology but also beyond it, in spaces that technology struggles to imitate and infiltrate: the natural world, the home, the human body. Encroaching into these spaces, the technocratic futurists seek to organize and data-mine all available resources to render them into use-values, at least insofar as the potential for draining more resources isn’t fully compromised (and often beyond that point, especially in so-called “developing” areas; see Rabit and Chino Amobi’s “New Age Chinese Drone Surveillance,” for instance). With respect to the subject, this is what Heidegger warned about in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology”: the opportunity to rescue the human race that technology possesses is precisely also the greatest danger to humanity, because in order to do so, the human race must itself become the object of organization by technology. In other words, the development of technology binds the human subject to a cybernetic structure, transforming humans into an order of resources controlled by the technical apparatus itself. This organizing gaze threatens/offers to infiltrate life so thoroughly that the full truth of the subject’s being will become known, compiled, and set in its appropriate place inside a matrix of data.

The achievement of this telos is the horizon of the transhumanists (and according to them, an inevitability). But the neofuturist aesthetic resists this model, even as the artists depict its encroachment. In this resistance, new horizons emerge.

The Man in the Dead Machine: Technology and Resistance
Azaz Syria during the Syrian Civil War

Where the Futurists concerned themselves with the beauty of technology as a raw, powerful force, neofuturist artists seek rather to investigate relationships between humans and the devices that surround them, however benign or sinister their influence. The neofuturist aesthetic derives beauty not from the form of technology itself but rather from the struggle of the human being that is fascinated or trapped within that form. It’s crucial to note that these artists are not mere Luddites; technology is not only crucial to their projects in the form of the DAW and VST plugins, but potentially also as a liberating force. The neofuturist critique of technology focuses on control and cybernetics, undermining the alienating, martial, penal, and seductive elements of technology in favor of values such as connection, liberation, resistance, and distance. In the music, these values most apparently manifest through the artists’ manipulation of the human voice. Although the harsh, digital texture of the neofuturist aesthetic is one of its defining elements, the voice plays a surprisingly crucial role in many of the works within it. The voice easily encodes a human subject, which, juxtaposed with the various other sonic elements, can allow the artist to swiftly locate a consciousness in their work.

The neofuturist aesthetic derives beauty not from the form of technology itself but rather from the struggle of the human being that is fascinated or trapped within that form.

Rabit and Chino Amobi’s THE GREAT GAME displays a polyphony of human voices, but the most central — emerging, as SCVSCV describes so vividly in his review, out of “explosive dust, mech-fire, and a sudden, surprisingly serene ambience” — is James Baldwin’s, reading his poem “Staggerlee Wonders.” Baldwin’s voice insists: “Manifest destiny is a hymn to madness/ feeding on itself, ending/ (when it ends) in madness:/ the action is blindness and pain,/ pain bringing a torpor so deep/ that every act is willed, is desperately forced…” Unlike many of the other voices that appear in the vast structure of THE GREAT GAME, Amobi and Rabit allow Baldwin to speak unironized as he details the torpor of pain that shoots through both the colonist and the colonized. Amidst the flames of a global hell dominated by a sense of its own destiny, the mad, pain-stricken destroyers burn the globe out of fear of their own destruction. The torpid pain that inhibits action against the madness of manifest destiny is a crucial aspect of the difficulty of resistance; it renders all action in the language of violence, of explosion.

We often see this torpor manifest directly in the vocal elements of the neo-futurist aesthetic. Throughout Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete, the “voice” (actually a voice-synthesis engine) of a fictional alien known as Ezra sings the melody. Ezra, pubescent, mutating, with “an abject cluster of slime stuck behind his tonsils [that] made it difficult to make out what he is saying.” His single facial expression makes it impossible to pinpoint what he is feeling, though it is clearly some sort of pain. Struggling against the condition of his melting, alien body, Ezra fails to communicate, unable to signify. In the album, his technologized voice slips into the texture of the digital sounds, cut up, granulated, hidden, with his lyrical content, his emotion, his language buried under the veneer of DSP and production techniques. Ezra’s infinite loop of pubescent pain, hidden in the matrix of digital data, mirrors the inescapable torpor of alienation in a world where technology mediates the very possibility of expression and communication. Words slip into the void; and, far beyond Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who struggles to say just what he means, the alienated voice struggles for an audience that can even understand him. Flattened into data, the subject craves empathy, externalizing its inner life into the digital medium in hopes that someone might decode it, in hopes of an effective transmission of his pain, a single, efficient action, however transient, across the digital divide.

The same clipped, fragmented, and often vocoded vocal sounds appear on Holly Herndon’s Platform (see especially “Chorus” and “DAO”). However, apart from the ASMR-whispering pleasure dome attendant on “Lonely at the Top” (who modulates her voice in order to provide a pleasurable service climate, communicating only empty platitudes about success), one of the places where Herndon gives the clearest freedom to the voice is on “Morning Sun,” a bubbling celebration of dawn. Amidst half-uttered phrases, imperatives to wake up, and melodic snippets, Herndon’s speaker admits vulnerability, but stakes her freedom on the rising sun: “In the morning sun I will be gone.” The rising sun, as always, represents both future and possibility, but here it represents a kind of freedom at the cost of comfort and dreams. The speaker, cold but awake, steps out of the bedroom, beyond the liminal plane and toward a concrete possibility: the horizon of autonomy. Although not all of the artists working in the neofuturist aesthetic offer such an explicit image of what exists beyond the liminal zone, it’s clear that hope relies on awakening — that is, a mutation within human consciousness. But it also relies on the coldness before sunrise — in discomfort, but also in self determination. The possibility of love that waits on the horizon can’t be reached by force or by resting comfortably in dreams: it can only be reached by choice.

Returning to THE GREAT GAME, the mix’s latter pieces now come into focus. The “geopolitical explosions” scattered across its runtime have coalesced into an unreadable pattern of violence; the mutating, technical monolith has reabsorbed the bubbles of liminal space that have chanced to occur; and the subject, running/fleeing/charging across the cinematic backdrop of these events arising and collapsing, now appears in the gaze of the robotic narrator: “Nine out of ten doctors recommend never coming for me in your life. Yet you still tried it.” Having repeatedly warned the listener-subject that “the stakes are high,” the authoritative voice affirms the courage of the subject under her gaze. No longer warning the narrator against the dangers of playing the game, the narrator launches a new program: “Rules must be broken… We must act very soon or the window of opportunity will close. Most of you have never tasted freedom in your lifetimes. We still do have a chance to change that.” We should question the voice’s emphasis on purification and its conspiratorial stance, but such an alliance with technology may be necessary to achieve effective resistance, to mutate the vector of the future so that it touches a new horizon, so that the telos of history emerges as liberation and not domination.

Neofuturism is not a political program. It is a set of shared values that, in their aim toward the future as becoming, manifest an ultimate intention toward liberation. Its use and critique of the vast applications of technology form a primary basis for these valuations; technology reflects its users and makers. However, these aesthetic, political, and cultural values do not fully encompass any individual work in the milieu. Countless variations exist, with different central issues: queerness, mystical communion, science fiction escapism, movement/dance, racism, violence, pure sound. Despite the variety of issues within the aesthetic, each of these possibilities unites with the rest in technical and metaphysical aspects.

Perhaps most primarily, each of the works within the neofuturist aesthetic aligns itself against the current, reified vision of the future, replacing it with a new possibility, a new hope, a potential dawn.

Conclusion: For the Sake of Future Days

What the neofuturist aesthetic offers is not a mere escape, but a counterfuture (though some works skew more towards an escapist option). By manifesting a variety of visions and by critiquing the images proposed by other futurisms, the artists working within this aesthetic reach toward new possibilities, both for avant-garde music and for the globe. Other forms of expression provide alternative approaches to similar problems, but they focus their energy in different directions. Noise artists, for instance, have often applied relentless and arresting critique to images of the present that suggest loss and decay; see for instance Prurient’s 2015 masterpiece Frozen Niagara Falls, where Fernow shouts “THE FIRE IS SLOWLY DYING.” Hip-hop, too, can take the form of a relentless critique, but its gaze typically focuses on past and present circumstances; however, see Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” from his masterful To Pimp a Butterfly for a glimpse of hip-hop’s gaze turned toward the future and revolutionary possibility. Many other artists use similar digital techniques as the neofuturists, but focus on club music, decidedly present-focused due to its need to provide a rhythm for the audience’s contemporaneous ecstatic motion; Jlin’s Dark Energy provides an excellent example of this technical link. And since, unlike the Futurists of the early 20th century, the artists working within the neofuturist aesthetic form ideas primarily as solo artists (who occasionally collaborate); some works align more directly with the values discussed here than others. Like any idea with a global scope, the neofuturist aesthetic manifests in many forms, some more paradigmatic than others.

What the neofuturist aesthetic offers is not a mere escape, but a counterfuture.

It seems crucial, however, that it has emerged now in 2015. While I wrote this article, the “geopolitical explosions” of the November 12 and 13 terrorist attacks unfolded in Beirut and Paris, committed by a group bent on a radical vision of their destiny: an apocalyptic Islamic state. Around the globe, people flocked to their devices to announce their views on the matter, Anonymous declared war on ISIS and hacked their Twitter accounts, bombs dropped on civilians and militants alike, and the world seemed to sink somehow deeper into a dystopian wonderland of violence and digitality, miscommunication and factioneering, war and videos of war. Meanwhile, virtual reality goggles will roll out in time for Christmas, Edward Snowden finally got a social media account, and we’re a month and a half past Back to the Future’s most distant vision of our potentiality. A critique of technology feels not merely timely, but utterly vital as a tool of orienting a culture with an unclear potential. Reclaiming the future and refiguring its shape is a pivotal stage in wresting liberation from those who would institute their vision of the future by force.

The counterfuture that the neofuturists offer is not a bright utopian response to the dystopian elements of the current global situation, but a nuanced approach to a future that dreams of liberation, glimpsing it as possibility. It’s no surprise that the artists working in this mode often tie their vision directly to consciousness and the sacred. The liminal zones where this work takes place already breathe with new spirit, an anarchic energy that affirms existence even in its denial of the present. Will we find our way back to the garden? Or do we march inexorably toward the birth of synthetic gods, intelligences that will rule like Gnostic archons over a blighted, post-industrial wasteworld? Time will tell. Whichever direction we pursue, visions of the future will guide us there. From distant horizons, they reflect back our potentiality, our dreams, our fears. If there is hope left for liberation, art presents an opportunity to discover it, amidst storm and strife, in the images that carry us beyond this world and into the next.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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