‘We woke up to a dystopian drama’: An interview with London digital art duo c / a
c / a is a South London-based progressive electronic music and performing arts duo with a keen interest in software programming, film, video games and internet. The project was initialised in 2018 with their first live A/V performance HYPER_HOLOGRAM and two major performances at Sonar Festival and TodaysArt. They are currently touring with their new performance ✰ ฿ Ł Ξ Ξ Ɖ I ₦ Ǥ Ξ Ɖ Ǥ Ξ 2 0 2 0 ✰, working on a new album, and pursuing relatively more self-indulgent projects such as M Ξ T A P L Ξ X, Private Piano Lessons and a small exhibition.
You are based in London. Most of Europe and other parts of the world are experiencing unprecedented times (for Western Europe at least, as other parts of the world have been through the likes of Zika, SARS, MERS, Ebola, etc) due to the Coronavirus pandemic, trying to defeat Covid-19, the “invisible enemy”. How are you getting by?
Well, for the past year or so we’ve been more of an indoor cat than usual, spending most of our time at home working on what we enjoy and going out quite selectively, so our daily lifestyle hasn’t changed that much, except we are slowly changing from feeling not that dreadful to a more morose point of view.
It just feels unreal to know that everyone else is also in their homes. We hope that for everyone, this period of time we have to live through will serve as a time for reconciliation, a time to consider how we utilise technology and the amount we intertwine it with our actual physical interactions by informing ourselves about past mistakes that were made and what battles still have to be fought to empower citizens rather than totalitarian surveillance regimes. Right now, at the time of crisis, our only hope seems to be science, which we all agree upon. But also, in a sense, we are living in a police state where you can be given a warning for doing something in a public park and forced to choose between privacy and health. Just look at mass media commercials on social media; almost glamourising staying at home and ‘still being connected’, they are repulsive and feel almost demonic.
We are simply waiting for this nightmare to end by doing what we love, and philosophy, art and magic are all we have on our side. But to be honest, most of our time is spent on working on or with technology, which is particularly a double-edged sword and we are not fully capable of handling its power due to the difference between the pace of technology’s development and our social structures. Every generation has lived through such discussions and we are living through ours. The image of crossed swords has been used excessively in the past few years but, besides the web3 and ETH association, for us it has served as both a metaphor for the technology itself and as a metaphor for our neutral stance to all of these technological advancements. In one of the last known interviews with Aaron Swartz he pointed out how ‘relatively’ positive and negative forces of tech improve one another. It is indicative of almost a battle, but also a true and evolutionary point of view. It feels as if, as an art act, we would like to stand in between both – pointing out a possible abysmal future but also celebrating certain advancements. So, we would like to regard our new work as both a warning and a hope-enriching monument/mark-in-time.
Your work BLEEDING EDGE 2020 somehow ominously predicts the future we are living now – with virtualised social spaces, raves in Second Life, etc. Can you describe this work and perhaps also its contextualisation in the present situation?
It is a live performance we have been working on for a while, the draft description text says;
×BLEEDING×EDGE×2020× is a study of the stance of humankind at a given mark in time from an individual to social level. topics such as loss of blood, non-verbal communication, an abysmal future vs. a hope for salvation, virtual rave culture, internet-spawned intelligent entities and the Renaissance intertwine in a network of ideas and stories to manifest in the form of a cinematic live A/V experience.
Sadly, by the time we were to premiere it in Gröningen on 11th April at the Clash festival, it was as if our work was curating the reality we live in and we woke up to a world where the future had arrived just a bit ‘too early’. It seemed as if there was this underlying, culminating burst of kinetic energy affecting the way we socially interact, altering the psychological states and sharpening the emotions by making people more dependent on short-term dopamine injections. It left most of us in a doomed psyche, forcing our lives to be ruled by a more psyche-driven state instead of one governed by intellect and properly handled emotions, and it all did burst out at once. We had to live through it on both a micro-personal level and a macro-social level and we were at the bleeding edge of both.
SPOILER ALERT HERE >
The show was to start with a long text born of a nightmarish yet personally poetic vision of abandoned central London streets, empty office-spaces and McDonald’s trash flying around. A few weeks ago, these were all real on a Saturday night out. The proposed work had various topics such as the role of non-verbal communication [e.g. proxemics, haptics and chronemics].
Today, in our daily lives these elements have turned into a major topic of discussion on a more down-to-earth level and we found ourselves actively working on and contributing to the so-called ‘virtual raves’. At the centre of the show, there was a battle which concluded with the self-sacrifice of the third party [the internet-spawned intelligent entity] and a series of insanely abstracted environments/monoliths spread around the world wide web, all practiced as a method of procreation by the same entity that was meant to conclude the era. Also, the show would end with some sort of a naive reminder of possible threats to humankind and a rip-off poem.
If not very openly, its nature was such that you could not be sure if it was a depiction of the future or of now. For example, within the storyline you would get hints of scenes/situations of an individual who for some reason could not go outside [today we have a word for it which wasn’t in our vocabulary before now; lockdown]. She tries to access a banned painting in a hidden, deep-web virtual museum, clicks on a wrong hyperlink and is directed to a webpage created by the so-called ARCHANGEL named THE ESSENCE OF LAUGHTER [sorry, enough of angels, butterflies and knives already, but still…] including notes about Proxemics. After an obsessive search, we are introduced to a website which studies these through infinitely complex metaphors and environments.
One bland example would be the study of time and bodily interaction in virtual raves where all the early mythological figures of the Internet meet. So, it was an environment crafted by the model itself to practice social, bodily interaction and which invited all its friends from the Internet, like Poppy, dpr, Chelsea, Julian and Edward to c / a DJ set event. Also, rather ironically in relation to the situation we are in right now, on one of them there was this note; Touch is the most sophisticated and intimate of the six senses. Touch or haptics, from the ancient Greek word haptikos is extremely important for communication; it is vital for survival.
SPOILER ENDS HERE >
Now, such fantastical elements, or symbolic imagery sitting somewhere between arcane and modern technology, feel somewhat off-putting because today, with the COVID-19 situation, it seemed to many as if we had shifted to an alternate reality, we mean in a literal sense, we woke up to a dystopian drama. Even to us, it felt like some decision we had made had altered our destiny. We two are very powerful conjurers and, even if rarely, sometimes strong emotions or our long-lasting meditated thoughts do have a direct effect on people’s perceived lives and realities, but even we are not powerful enough to create such a distinct diversion. People should question the origin of this more. And the strangest part of it all is that when we talk about this issue with people, almost all of them can identify a single point in their recent past which might have caused such a shift, almost like a falling point from an edge or a very strong choice.
With regard to BLEEDING EDGE 2020, we decided to publish the work on the very same day it would have been performed at the Clash festival [with the title BLEEDING EDGE 2020: THE BROADCAST] and also do as many live streams as possible. One personal and minor reason for that is that we felt that we weren’t enjoying these topics as much as before simply because when they were unreal, fantasies or jokes they were fun. And also, we want to get the work out there as soon as possible.
Lastly, we also made an EP with the same title, which is available here.
Can you talk about your utilisation of AI/machine learning within the context of audiovisual performances and its developments over the years?
When we first started working on our first project, it basically was a sketchbook and all the ideas were thrown into a live A/V performance called HYPER_HOLOGRAM. You could even see this modus operandi on the visuals where things such as the imagined layout of the stage [even the strobe placement] were displayed. One of those elements was the open source machine learning stuff such as Google Magenta and there were quite a lot of experiments both in the visual and audio domains. One example could be the track we made by creating a model based on Aphex Twin MIDI files.
Here is an alternative mix of the track.
Today, though, a greater part of us is almost repulsed by the generic machine learning art out there. We certainly are not art historians and don’t want to sound/look too bold but our personal take is that it almost seems to be the least expressive or moving work ever created by mankind. We are saying this because it is presented as art and the result of a tedious imaginative process. We are not moved by the ‘We trained a GAN on x, added [or not] some particle effects and here we present it to you on a mock-up [or not]’. To us, those works simply don’t hit you or move you in any kind of way, either emotionally, intellectually or aesthetically. The tech and idea behind latent space interpolations seem more poetic and artful to study instead of training a GAN every week and posting it with more or less the same text below it. When we use the same tech, usually it is us practicing some code or ‘attempting’ to re-create certain stuff out there but ending up fucking around. Then, somehow they usually end up contextualised in the storyline of the show.
On BLEEDING EDGE 2020, musically and visually, there are still some experiments using machine learning but they are utilised within the requirements of the context and story instead of being there for the sake of the medium. Therefore, we are trying to avoid presenting it as being created with AI. While we do not need or are inspired to tell people what tools we use, people provide such introductions and to us it feels like they instantly undermine the work itself. We want to be impressed by how much can be achieved with the most banal tool and not by the fact that ‘AI has been utilised to make this’. There seem to be two publicly favoured perspectives on this, one more fantastical and one more research-oriented. From another, third perspective, both seem to mean terminal boredom. Those who use and present such art seem almost abusive of the myth they pathetically create in the process. We would prefer to see something done using the same technology already available out there and not be able to figure out how on earth it has been done. Now the only thing that is amazing to witness is the access they have and how many interns they have to collect and pre-process the data.
We can imagine that growing up with LPs provided a degree of myth – you could not find any information about a particular band/artist on the Internet and this would have added some kind of mystery and magic or myth to it. So perhaps for many, the utilisation of such technologies serves as an attractive myth because they do not know how they work; if they knew, just like with a simple magic trick. the appeal would be lost. Probably the human and machine creative processes would be much more interesting if these people vanished. We would not wake up one morning and say, ‘let’s train a GAN on images of nature and post the result online as a glorious work of art’ unless the context of the work went beyond how it was made.
Your other work, the art experiment/game called M Ξ T A P L Ξ X, is a virtual environment, a shopping mall and a network of these virtual spaces, utilising the Ethereum cryptocurrency. Can you describe it in detail?
It feels rather challenging to pigeon-hole what it actually is but from our perspective it is a project born out of a few interests such as game design, web development and the need for a self-indulgent + self-educational platform. However these endeavours might manifest themselves today or in the future, M Ξ T A P L Ξ X is a domain that can bend and grow or continue serving as a self-indulgent playground.
When we first started working on it, one of us was getting into game development while the other was a bit more into blockchain-oriented web programming and we also had this mini project file where we created a virtual version of our show. Later on, all these snippets of various kinds of endeavours were brought together. Basically, at the time of writing this, M Ξ T A P L Ξ X has this virtual mall which serves as the headquarters by hosting a hall for temporary exhibits, and various portals and stores that sell keys/tokens, by opening up new tabs in your browser which are mostly dedicated to other constructs. But, technically, it is made in Unity and literally is in the form of an abandoned mall standing on a plain surrounded by a preset skybox.
Some might ask why cryptocurrency is used at all, but for us the answer is that we can program it to our needs, even if not very successfully right now. For example, one system we currently have utilises cryptocurrency in a way that is Construct A.I.F.X, the ETH tokens basically serve as a gateway file. In this way you can create different sorts of membership tokens and single entry tokens to a website.
Here are the purchasable keys;
Such a system could possibly be developed using any other currency, but it’s just simpler and more fun to create/participate when you buy a token using a digital wallet, such as Metamask, and the web script simply checks if you have it or not to allow access. Later on, those can be traded or sold as well, almost like being stakeholders in the virtual environment or having an indefinite digital membership card. Currently, the construct is free to access over here.
there is a series of tokenised, purchasable, machine
learning-generated paintings [anotherRealiti].
It was a project dedicated to the exploration of a software
technology through the medium of an arbitrary reconstruct; Realiti, a
track/music video by a pop star.
Here are some examples from anotherRealiti;
More can be seen here;
In the following months, we hope to improve it to a multiplayer environment with chat rooms, record stores, temporary and permanent exhibits, games and concerts, all built together and tied in various smart contracts. We also want to bring a system of economics to it so hopefully we can provide artists or curators with a platform of income. If anyone is interested in contributing or collaborating in the project, they can join the Discord channel here;
Do you think virtual environments can gradually replace real ones in the future – especially in the face of future cataclysms, be it environmental disasters (like the one we saw earlier this year in Australia) and global warming, pandemics (as we are seeing right now), etc. Will people be forced to minimise face-to-face meetings and social interactions? How can underground/independent music scenes adapt/evolve?
If not replaced, perhaps they could develop to the degree that they will be advanced enough to be simpler alternatives. People do all sorts of things online together, why not gather and enjoy music. too. It’s just that going outside brings so much stuff together, high volume music, fresh air, lights, face-to-face meetings and social interactions and everything is a part of the experience. Currently, we feel rather saddened and also hopeful to see such events springing up but we’ve always been into such concepts and theories. Last year, the very term ‘virtual rave’ was in no-one’s vocabulary but now it’s in every other Instagram post.
Not sure how to put this or if it might sound awkward, but there is this small part of us wondering if there should even be people trying to manipulate this in order to serve their purpose in the greater scheme of crafting how society functions. Again, it is great that these things are happening and perfectly understandable that people are cherishing technology that keeps us connected and informed, but it feels as if there should be more warnings out there.
Thinking about it, if beforehand we had not been into such ideas, we possibly would not have contributed to any such event or started a webcam to play music that we created or done DJ sets. Instead, we would actively work on more social projects and in our spare time maybe just lie in a park, make music at home, read books and ride a bike all day till this nightmare is over. If you feel an unbridgeable distance from the rest anyhow and have no desire to be entertained, why bother? Just today we realised how much we miss going out, having a few beers on the bus on the way to an actual rave or a club, meeting a few friends and getting drunk, flirting, dancing etc…
We were just watching a talk by Slavoj Žižek about the virus and he said something like “even this stream [the one he is doing the interview on] is hosted and handled by a company called Zoom and it can be turned off at any given time by someone”. Even our last, and so far only, live stream concert was hosted via Zoom and it feels weird, doesn’t it? It is totally understandable at times like these that we act urgently and pre-built systems are the sole tool, but sometimes those too have to be decentralised and anonymisable streaming services utilised. This is even a problem in cryptocurrencies but there are many initiatives such as z.cash introducing privacy to cryptocurrency. Especially given the nature of a ‘rave’ this feels more relevant, too.
Imagine 9/11 being legitimised by the NSA to create an unimaginable force of mass surveillance. Now we are on the brink of surveillance reaching an under-the-skin level and that is an abysmal thought. So, a part of us is just happy about the glimpse of connection we feel through the Internet and part of us is worried at the same time. We’ve always admired the rawness and communal force of those early days of the Internet and thankfully, there seems to be a glimpse of that even nowadays, which serves as the counterpart in the sword analogy. It is just too beautiful when you host an abstracted image of the sea or oceans or waves on deep/uncharted web via a self-hosted Raspberry Pi attached to a modem that no one will see… Or simply see someone from Italy via a webcam dancing to the same music. There is something very pop about how DIY Internet can be utilised today and we hope to help realise that.
Looking at history, take the US for example, the psyche fight between the rational and irrational has always been abused by those who are in charge. If I were a body of power whose intention was to disconnect people’s feet from the soil, I would be pleased to witness such virtual components being voluntarily generated by people themselves.
Basically, when we did contribute to or help with these so-called virtual raves or gatherings, psychologically we did regard these as only temporary retreats and fun ways to spend our time at home but as we’ve said, we always had fun doing these sorts of things. It’s just a different situation when you can’t actually go to a club in a police state. So, today we want to be able to do everything we can to support such initiatives and really hope to play more of them.
Do you feel part of any scene in particular? Are specific scenes still important for a project like yours?
Not really, and we hope that we won’t in the future. We just want to do what we have fun with, but it seems that something about us makes quite a few business contacts around us feel unsure about what to do with us. So, possibly, the only scene we can inhabit is the scene of festivals such as those in SHAPE’s network and some channels via the Internet.
You actually do have a very beautiful face but sometimes you like to wear masks. Why is it that?
We think everybody wears masks.
Can you talk about your future plans and desires?
For c / a, we want to be the most significant art act of this decade. But first, we need more of a profile so booking agents and labels can take notice. Our music is not very interesting but still, it has its moments. Also, we need more followers on Instagram.
We are heavily inspired by an analogy to Andy Warhol’s work and it all being a silkscreen of realiti. Nowadays, it feels like we are all thinking about and creating the same stuff at any given time, so we don’t consider ourselves to be contextually original, but we still wish to propose a different point of view and present it as interestingly as possible with a certain degree of humour, cinema, a new layer of meta and technology used in as friendly a way as possible. When the pandemic hit, we were about to go out and perform our work and we were truly looking forward to witnessing our own creation in grander domains than our bedrooms. Now we are working on the BROADC҉A҉S҉T҉ and getting ready to publish the behemoth in all its entirety. To be honest, it means a lot to us doing it this way. If anyone is interested they can see it on our website www.cslasha.com on the 11th of April. It should also be streamed via a number of other platforms as well.
In our work, the term Renaissance is also thrown in but there is a desire which goes along with it as well. It is another popular keyword nowadays but most people tie it to the fast pace of developing technologies, whereas to us it is more about the idea of the ‘self’ and the hope of reflecting on this too. To us, it always felt weird that most people dismiss the fact that the mirror had such a deep effect on the human psyche in the Renaissance. For the first time, people could see themselves clearly and this possibly did have a very profound effect on how they created and perceived themselves. And the very idea of the ‘self’ is perhaps the most significant for this time due to the many issues related to permanent records and mass psychological lore. So, watching this work, born of two friends who got maybe excessively bored in order to create such nonsense, we hope that it will be some sort of a silkscreen of your realiti and maybe create the desire not to retreat into the digital but to go out for a walk and fight against every kind of attempt to put us into our homes, digitise and monetise our selves and our lives.
In the past two or three years there were lots of scrap projects we started and abandoned without fully realising them or helping them to reach their relatively full potential, for example the M Ξ T A P L Ξ X mentioned above. Nowadays, we are working on those and collaborating with friends online, which gives us an infinite amount of joy. And we also got back to studying some maths, philosophy and literature.
We have a new EP coming out in May via Eco Futurism Corporation. It currently is titled THE ONLY WAY WE KNOW TO HAVE FUN and we hope to finalise it during the next two weeks. It just is music with no context whatsoever.
Lastly, we made this playlist for you, bringing together some music which felt like it fits our world and the story of BLEEDING EDGE 2020. Just listen to Poppy’s ‘Don’t Go Outside’ [it’s genius how the entire album ends] or Pop Music [the world will be fine as long as there are songs like this, believe us], then some Queen [a true angel singing ‘there is no escape from realiti’], then Brian Wilson’s brill take on non-verbal communication, some death metal, Sever by Porcupine Tree [best song ever?], some divinity by Alice Coltrane and of course Aphex’s track to shed some tears to in the second half. Life is beautiful with music.
Now we will perform BLEEDING EDGE 2020 next year and it will be a retrospective, profoundly different than what we hoped it would be. A kiss to each and so we’ll end.
Thanks to Olof, Inken, and TodaysArt.
We hope for the best for humankind, much light and love 2 u all.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova