18+ Trust

[Houndstooth; 2014]

Styles: gallery, R&B singers/producers, confessional
Others: Linden Lab, Judith Butler, Anaïs Nin

“We’ve instinctively begun integrating our own bodies and our own lives into the visual elements of 18+.”
– 18+, in an interview with TMT

“The virtuals, encircling the actual, perpetually renew themselves by emitting yet others, with which they are in turn surrounded and which go on in turn to react upon the actual…”
– Gilles Deleuze

“A high school DJ exhaustively Deleuze-shames a middle school DJ about the PDF he read last week…”
– Brad Troemel

All Deleuze/DJ jokes aside, any disassociation of the “virtual” from the “real” is an easy mistake that fits nicely into a history of false Western dichotomies and ideological fallacies: man/woman, civilized/uncivilized, white/black, etc. The conceptual and aesthetic focus of 18+’s M1XTA23 universe spoke to this disassociation; the duo’s “virtual” avatars served as cold, decoy personas coded by (potentially) “real,” damaged personal histories. Anonymity provided a space where sexual experimentation and taboo, rendered raw by robotic vocal delivery, are encouraged due to the avatar’s sentinel-like protection of the user’s privacy. Yet, doesn’t the initial impulse that pushes the organic, embodied human into virtual extension suggest cohesion between the two? Even the virtual simulation world Second Life, a key visual concept carrier for the music of 18+, is necessitated by the initial human drive for the creation of the avatar, the alternate identity. Avatar construction expresses desire for a simulacra-tic environment tied to psychological escapism — transcendence from the banality and limitations of everyday social/political/sexual experience, the classic Faust-ian desire for power and permanence.

The move to virtual identity may stem from the notion that the “realness” of physical identification can beget bareness, nakedness — unwanted subtext of a conscripted bodily identity or history that was not chosen. Conversely, the move to online representation allows control, clarity, freedom, curation. Yet, rather than dichotomic, why couldn’t there be continuum between avatar and user? With Trust, we see “Boy” and “Sis” engaged in the act of exchangeably self-appropriating physical and digital identities, the act of “becoming” rather than “being” what’s curated, the act of treating bodily history as simultaneously truth and lie. In fact, Trust treats the virtual/physical binary as altogether false; rather, it deconstructs the avatar/user opposition into continuum in order to analyze their difference and eternal interplay.

The disclosure of 18+’s physical bodies and lives into their art has complicated their commentary on both anonymity and privacy. Given that Trust features tracks exclusively culled from their mixtape cycle, the album’s design demands recontextualization. If at first this disappoints, closer listening allows the album’s compiled, verbatim tracks to imply a solely conceptual “character-shift” as “Boy” and “Sis” transition back/forward into “Justin” and “Samia.” And we do see them, front in center on the album cover — faces nearly wooden by a stoicism that matches well with their once disembodied voices. Now, the damaged beats, lyrics, and narratives from previous mixtapes are all physically represented by two gendered bodies. This visibility is really the only difference between their previous work and debut record. As a result, the fantastic surrealism that was afforded by digital anonymity — represented in the sickly, uncomfortably off-the-cuff lyrics of “Drawl” or “Dry” — become evidence of the actual psychological ability to “slip into” the attitude of the avatar. Their curatorial role in creating their own deformed archetypes emphasize the malleability of their original identity and the complete reciprocity between “character” and “actor”: the hidden characteristics of the user freely manifest themselves in the “bad behavior” of the avatar. After all, the gallery-ready, bad-boy/-girl characters of “Boy” and “Sis” had to have originated in some experience-based germ within their creators. The line between the two is nuanced, blurred, containing varying levels of integration between the curator and art-character. Such, aside from some subtle remastering, the only thing Trust “does” is to push the character-driven surrealism of MIXTAP3 into the original embodied surreality of character-less personhood.

The apparent reciprocity between the user and avatar is suggested solely by virtue that we are connecting their faces with the strange narratives that were once disembodied, anonymous. My first experience with Trust prompted me to consider the album as the total objectification of 18+’s work into something tidy, good-sounding, accessible, and “whole.” The initial move to sacrifice anonymity can easily be read as an act of artistically “selling-out” — to trade the inherently difficult and alienating aspects of their work with fashion-conscious physical bodies that will sell the product. Yet, whereas Trust basically is an objectification of 18+, it is an intentional decision that enhances the dimensionality of their original commentary. The original MIXTAP3 cut of “Almostleaving” had an unabashed sentimentality that, given anonymity, seemed strangely alien, haunting, and wrong. The yearning for physicality expressed in the track felt malevolent due to the lack of identifiable humanity; especially when compared to the raunchy swag expressed in “Dry,” the xx-like sweet-nothings of “Almostleaving” seemed nearly tongue-in-cheek. Yet, on Trust, the track is imbued with a simultaneously sicker and sweeter commentary. For one, we have a face attached to the lyric “How about a little bit of me in your taste?” that visually genders the expressed desire; but, the voice is still detached, monotone, cold. The result is a complicated emotional wallop, where any question of “sincerity” might as well be thrown out altogether. Instead, try and stomach a simultaneously visceral and completely academic response to “I’m your summer, but you need spring/ You could be my broken wing/ La-da-dada-da-da.”

To see the put-on “objectification” of 18+ as negative or fitting into some punk-rock idea of authenticity is not productive, or even applicable to the duo’s project. Giving up anonymity may very well be a logical decision to better represent the contemporary, sexual content/semio-text they’re dealing with. After all, is anonymity even possible? Weren’t we just filling in the blank-faces of “Boy” and “Sis” with real bodies anyway? Now we’re given the opportunity to visualize the proxy between body and image — perhaps it’s the human drive to press the spacebar before a stream-of-consciousness vocal take. The session may have pulled out something dark, sticky, weird, and deformed, but it came from somewhere; and now that original internal material can be appropriated, stylized, rendered into the next-outfit adorned by the ever-changing, consuming virtual identity. At the end of “Crow,” you can hear just that — the sound of an isolated spacebar hit in that liminal moment in between “Samia” and “Sis” — the moment where she leaves the state of mind responsible for the strange, verbal swill that’s now recorded (captured) and now floating on-screen. The ghostly voice was captured, and its reality is nuanced in the intersection between Samia as a user with intention, a subject, and the object of her exaggerated character. It came from somewhere… “real.”

Technology, then, isn’t the protective, dividing wall that enables the rampant conceptual “freedom” of the user. The user achieves no redemption in escaping into the object-hood of the avatar; rather, if any liberation exists, it’s by recognizing the struggle to reconcile meaning with malleability. Considering the extended sexual metaphors throughout Trust and throughout 18+’s entire body of work, we must consider these dualities (male/female, user/avatar) as power struggles not constrained to binary opposition, but to the struggle of where to “sit” on continuum. It takes a lot to wonder how much of “yourself” you’ve lost to “another” in the context of a relationship. Similarly, how much have you “lost” of yourself to the power struggle of virtual identification? But, then again, there’s always been a strange democracy between “Boy” and “Sis” that has never seemed like a power struggle; despite all that they “put-on,” the struggle exists elsewhere. On Trust, their equilibrium comes across as powerful, confident, demonstrating an ownership of their incredible ability to “build worlds of mystique” as well as the realistic strangeness of their music. If they’ve objectified their music into a semi-accessible “compilation” of mixtape cuts, it’s by design a loaded affair, one that suggests the possibility for synthesis between the “physical face” and the “omni-face” of virtual capability.

Links: 18+ - Houndstooth

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