Super short-term ecstasy after super short-term collapse: An interview with Jessika Khazrik

Photo: Robert Sieg

Scavenging sounds from online and on-site detritus, trans-millennial compendia of healing, and militarised ads and technologies – Jessika Khazrik’s sonic scapes intimately investigate the ecological and techno-political premises of the economies we inhabit or forget. Often born out of vocoded collaborations with multi-modal neural networks skewed with incomputable Arabic rhythms, Khazrik festively uses spaces of congregation to search for locally entrenched universalisms that could collectively respond to the dystopias of our times. Khazrik’s indisciplinary practice as artist, writer, technologist, producer and DJ ranges from composition to machine learning, performance, visual art, ecotoxicology and the history of science and music.

You grew up in Lebanon’s Armenian jazz scene. It was there that your interest in music, technology, politics and literature was spurred. You also started performing in Beirut’s metal scene at a pretty young age. 

Music played several transformational roles in the life of my father,  who was a promoter of Armenian rock bands in the 60s-70s, a vocal jazz singer and a club manager in the 70s and 80s, in Beirut. He (pretty mysteriously) withdrew from performing a few years before I was born and opened a jazz venue in north-east Beirut. Most of the memories of the first eight years of my life happened there, in the familial company of jazz. Besides my dad’s programming and playlists, family gatherings played a huge role in diversifying my early exposure to music. My family comes from various places in Asia; Armenia, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and India, and many emigrated to Europe and America then came back, left again, stayed, etc.. . As is often the case with communities who have experienced several displacements, folk music is deeply cherished, remorphed and retained. So, in parallel with jazz, I grew up surrounded by Armenian, Chaldean/Iraqi, Syriac and Lebanese folk music. One can clearly feel the influence in my work with the voice and drums and in my hybrid/DJ sets. 

How have all these influences and environmental impulses impacted you in your work in music and technology?

The technological shifts of the 90s were deeply formative of my subjecthood. From a non-musical technological perspective, I underwent complex bone surgery at the age of six months, and as a follow-up, I had to be X-rayed over 35 times during the first 18 years of my life. X-ray rooms are so immersive, and I still retain very uncanny memories of how these biomedical imagery rooms and the technologies they contain developed, almost with every check-up. I remember well my feelings towards the disembodied voice of the medical operators in the dark, my body that was instructed to obey, the breath that you were ordered to hold so the machine could image clearly, the uncanniness of looking at the spectres of your bones against light, the potential risks that were pre-emptively probed with radiation, the deep gratitude I feel nevertheless towards radiation, etc… My first works in performance stemmed from this personal biomedical history, and recent projects like ‘Post-coronialism’(2020-ongoing) and ‘Pharmakopoeia’(2021-ongoing) implicitly echo that.

But also, before even knowing what a mix was and what I was doing, I began making my first mixtapes at the age of seven. It was with two CD players, two cassette players, a radio, and FM microphones. A few years later, thanks to LimeWire, Soulseek and online blogs, I began listening to everything that ineffably spoke to me; from ambient, to IDM, darkwave, No Wave, electro goth, etc… And when I was around 11 years old, I discovered SAPI 4.0 and began meddling with speech synthesis and haven’t stopped since. I was very active in online forums and proto-social media platforms from around that time, and that was where I discovered metal music. My first experiences playing live were with death metal and black metal bands. I was 14, but my bandmates were all five to eight years my senior. I’m still in close affinity with the metal community in Lebanon though I haven’t really played metal in the last 13 years. Metalheads are greatly discriminated against and violated by the security apparatus in Lebanon, and it is within this community that I first experienced as a teenager the need for solidarity outside of contexts related to racism and sexism. 

Jazz still feels like a deep, mathematical lullaby to me, it helps me focus. And I do feel a quaint echo of jazz all throughout my music, though I have never played it. It will always be there.

How have you perceived the profound technological changes since the 90s, and how have you started utilising and critically approaching technologies in your work?  

Super short-term ecstasy after super short-term collapse with so many casualties? Repeat x7365746384735 and make it proxy?

The mixture of growing up in the 90s, surrounded by promises of reconstruction of the built environment in post-war Lebanon on one hand, and of the self on the internet on the other, has stirred an unquenchable curiosity in me to delve into both the past and the future to probe what has led us to this very dystopic, neoliberal and asinine actualisation of ‘reconstruction’. This curiosity and discontent, paralleled with my own experience of targeted+mass surveillance, have spurred me to initiate research-based projects, multi-generational conversations and reading groups around the political economy and history of computation and AI. 

These projects range across several media. They include, among others, the techno-feminist radio project ‘I Hate the Past but it Seduces Me’(2015), the bi-lingual reading group ‘قراءة الحواسيب Reading Computers’(2017-18) where we read as many texts from the 10th-12th centuries as we did from the 21st, the ML composition and print made with videos I took of my friends ‘Artificial Intelligence Is Work عمل الذكاء الاصطناعي’(2018), the seminar ‘That There Is Counter-Information: Art, Cryptography and the Meta-Datification of Discourse’(2018) that I curated upon the invitation of the late Bernard Stiegler, may we collectively remember him and his work today. Also, for several reasons that we might arrive at later, not all of my work in technology is made publicly nor is it attributed under my official name, or even, under any name. 

Differently and convergently in different projects, I show how we cannot look at this history only from the lens of the 20th and 21st centuries or from one geography; it stretches way before and beyond. To seemingly return to the 90s and swiftly move in and out of them, a book that has taught me profusely about the underlying politics of that particular period in internet history is Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s ‘Control and Freedom’. In this book, the trenchant Chun shows how the concept of cyberspace pre-dates ArpaNet or any actualisation of the internet. I think it is the same with rave culture. It has multiple older roots, though it was spurred into electronic actualisation in the 90s, and it continues. That said, both rave culture and the internet are still in their infancy, and this gives me hope. 

What role does voice have in your work and its deconstruction / vocodorisation, its transformation by technology? (you also use neural networks to alter the voice etc)

For me, voice is the life force that conjoins the body with the environment. It is the first testimony of their interdependence, and our desire to exit and to return. As the instantiation of the vibration of matter in space, voice is the antithesis of a vacuum. For some philosophical traditions, voice is the primordial carrier of the ultimate lie or anti-virtue by being occupied by the medium of falsification, language, or the body’s most extensive medium of healing.  For others, voice is what makes us political beings. I learn from and play with all of that. My work is very much centred around resuscitating, studying and re-setting voice as a very intimate, ecological and techno-political medium of proximity, transmission, distanciation and desire. This is usually channelled through exercises in inter-breathing and collective vocalisation, speech synthesis in machine learning, linear predictive coding and more traditional forms of vocoding coupled with vocal encryption and voice coding. At other times, I try to simply channel this corporeal, technological and political fascination with voice through the medium of writing with different modes of address and a multiplicity of voices.

You’ve been critical of certain technological platforms (techno-capitalism) and platform capitalism as such, though it is the primary tool of creation for many artists these days. You also utilise it in your work. How do you as an artist who is aware of the modus operandi of digital corporations approach this issue in your work? (also, as an alumna of MIT)

In parallel with my practice in music, visuals and writing, I have been for the past six years working as a technologist and technological advisor in projects concerning the techno-politics of ‘AI’, the public accessibility to knowledge/whistleblowing, and counter-surveillance/digital security. It all started with my political advocacy in Lebanon, particularly the need to protect our communication channels, and my academic work in computational linguistics and the history of cryptography prior to continuing my studies at MIT. My experience at MIT was very transformative as I ended up studying and engaging with different labs and research groups, from the very feminist Science Technology Society (STS) department, to the Urban Research labs, and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Labs (CSAIL). During my time there, I became very active in the anti-DRM protests and organised work lobbying the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that was, at that time, moving towards a drastic change in their policies by pushing for a proprietary privatisation of electronic media, both online and offline. I also learnt about the militarised history of today’s disciplinary organisation of knowledge (and ignorance), which became the subject of my theoretical research. 

For all the above reasons, and due to problems relating to time and the desire to remain uncontainable, I am basically not really on social media and not at all as an artist.  In the last two years, I began collectively developing web media platforms that push for a different techno-political genealogy based on anonymity through collectivity and collectivity through anonymity, care as an anti-capitalist strategy, transclusion as a hyper open-access tool for the transmission of knowledge+desire and peer-to-peer economies. We are now in the last testing phase of one of two, and I can’t wait to share them with you! It’s all peer-to-peer and doesn’t require any personal information, not even an e-mail or a phone number. It’s a bit like the experience of the multitude in a rave, which I find deeply endearing and healing. 

Your project Pharmakopoeia قرابادين explores the common origins and futures of remedies and media, as well as the notion of healing in a “post-coronial” world. What role does healing have in your work? 

My life and work tend to be very transclusive and inter-referential, without ends in sight and with many returns. And I think we are all eternally searching for healing… Healing from time, from first-hand or second-hand memories and trauma, from disease, from the toxicities that capitalism produces and agnotologically circulate, or even simply, the senescence of our bodies and stimuli… So far, I have personally experienced a lot of healing ruptures in my life through music, media, non-human and more than human vessels that wouldn’t necessarily call themselves healing practitioners. I am deeply seduced by altruisms and collective action. I am committed to that in ways that transcend my teleological understanding. 

To give a tangible example, a few years ago, when investigating the disposal of toxic waste in my hometown, I stumbled upon the body of work and personal archive of one of the earliest environmental activists in Lebanon, Pierre Malychef (1925-2014) who was an ecotoxicologist and herbal pharmacologist. I have been archiving, learning from and circulating his work since then – making sure his work is constantly resuscitated. This was many years before ‘I officially’ launched ‘Pharmakopoeia قرابادين’, but I really think it has always been there. Also, one of the main goals of ‘Pharmakopoeia قرابادين’ is to challenge contemporary politics of attribution as well as the organisation of knowledge and experience.  Parallel to that, I have experienced a lot of collective loss and grief through the violence of capitalism, militarisation, the political assassination of friends, etc.. I feel I can tackle all of the above in different orchestrations and combinations under the umbrella of this long-term search.

As for ‘Post-coronialism’,  I very serendipitously started the open collective study, solidarity, and strategy group without even intending to a few days into the first lockdown. It began with very amicably inviting two friends to join an informal conversation on the 12th of March 2020, around the very immense question of how we can make, together, a non-militarised emergency response in this sickening world economy/ecology. My friends ended up inviting two of their friends, and very quickly we began meeting online for three hours every Thursday, over eight different time zones!

To tell you more about the open group, we all commonly work on/for the urgent spread of indisciplinary care, the demilitarisation of the health, education and labour sectors and the ecological, systematic and agnotological comorbidity of Capital. In this worldly terror, I do think we need to aspire big and topple what presents itself as inevitable. In the past year, our work as ‘post-coronialism’ has been centred more towards online community and tool building through the collective development of one of the web platforms I mentioned above.

You also mentioned DJing as an important part of your practice. How do you approach it? Are you more of a selector, or do you rather create certain sonic energy flows?

DJing teaches me a lot about the power of concurrence, the multitude and intuitive knowledge. For me, it is about bringing together multiple frames of reference that rarely meet. I am clearly very interested in combinatorial approaches in all the whole of medicine, music-making, machine learning, etc.. And, I’m very grateful that through DJing, I can conjoin all of the above. It is so endearing to make bodies move or just accompany them with music without perennially transforming space. It is so humble and it has the potential to ephemerally subvert the predominant politics of attribution of our age. Of course, depending on what you are doing, where, how, etc.. 

In the last four years, all of my DJ sets have been hybrid sets, so there is a lot of my voice, production, and edits in there. I also use a lot of machine learning for my edits, and two years ago, I figured out how to use machine learning live, in real time, while mixing. My usual setup for mixing live is three CDJs, any 4-channel mixer, one or two drum machines, one or two vocal processors, an external FX pedal and an iPad. So yeah, it is very much about being multiple, concurrent and moving super fast or super slow.

What currently occupies your mind?

Transformation, the health of my parents and friends in Beirut and in this world, my debut LP…

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

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