Thursday, 3 October 2013

on the new OPN video

Your Internet Needs YOU

I guess I sort of missed the comment window on this one, but there's been a couple of things people have said, and a couple of things I've read on a similar theme lately. I have some reservations about the video that came out of Oneohtrix Point Never's new album, R Plus 7, the video for 'Still Life (Betamale)'. Watch it, if you must, here. I've never had the chance to address OPN's work directly, but I'm still a big fan, I think R Plus 7 is brilliant, full of previously unimaginable forms and abstractions, really good music, and hopefully I'll get into that on another occasion (and the 'Still Life (Excerpt)' video? one of the best things I've seen all year). I also know other work by Jon Rafman, and think it's often pretty cool (though not everyone likes the way he does it). This video is a more or less separate issue. To begin with, it's important to emphasise that the people who made this video and the people who really liked it probably had good intentions, are not scoundrels, and probably were not conscious of the wider contexts, and that's understandable.

Yeah so people really liked this video. Someone on Facebook said about it 'The truth is...things are grim, and people DON'T feel things, so feeling drawn to and repulsed by media like this says a lot about our state and less about our tastes.' A friend of mine called it 'provocative in a modern way.' Sean DeLanty on Ad Hoc said:
In the incredible clip... we see flashes of disgustingly dirty computers and keyboards, screenshots of anime pornography, live-action shots of furries and other online fetishists, and a variety of other NSFW, internet-enabled manifestations of human sexuality, violence, and general carnality-- all presented through a hallucinatory digital aesthetic.
The Warp website says:
'Still Life (Betamale)’ draws images from a range of online fetish sites, engaging with the theme of obsessive desire. The narrated version of the album track is immersed in the simultaneously captivating and disturbing world of internet subcultures.
Let's get something out the way - don't take this response as a sign that the video is controversial, shocking or envelope-pushing. I'm not critiquing this video because I'm too 'challenged' by it, because I think it's in poor taste or pornographic, because I can't handle the 'truth'. It's precisely because it reflects pre-conceived notions of taste in a sham-realist, sham-sociological exposé that it doesn't challenge me or frighten me enough.

I thought the beginning was atmospheric, and I liked its retro graphics. Then there are the images of computers in a state of physical neglect, portrayed in a forensic photography, crime-scene style, absent of people, like we've wandered into a house where someone's recently died. These are images of environments occupied by people who may or may not need some sort of help. Then there are images and videos from various alternative sexual subcultures. We're being invited to make the association, loud and clear, between the electronic world of these alternative sexualities and these sites of physical neglect. People have been praising it for this aspect, because it revels in the binary of the virtual and the physical, and the true alienation of the digital aesthetic and these modern times.

There's the heavy implication that these dirty computers are sites where dirty people have been practicing their dirty sexualities. Ew. You know the type. Ugh. Overweight, probably old, disgusting, wallowing in decomposing pizza, beating off to something fucked up. Yknow, internet-users. Cos, like, this is us. Well, not really, but basically. That's what's going happen to us when we use the internet too much. It's going to stop us being healthy and normal. Shit. Baudrillard or something. Koyaanisqatsi. Sad.

Nah. The video is policing sexuality and computer use, mapping them onto heightened constructions of a physical world ('IRL') vs an electronic world, unnatural excess in the one driving unnatural excess in the other and the whole thing turning into a cautionary tale of horror and disaster. Constructions? I mean to say that many of us have come to believe in a separation between 'real life' and 'electronic life,' and we constrain and tame the 'internet life' and all the troublingly relativising potential it represents by framing it as unimportant, trivial, unnatural, unreal, excessive, inauthentic, shameful, threatening, and often, as in this video, fearful.

If you survive the video, find it meaningful and feel the frisson, you're the lucky winner of a sort of 'reality patrol support officer' badge. The training was difficult (which enhances the sense of psychological reward and newfound cultural capital), but you've negotiated with genuine images (never mind the way they were framed) and discovered in them the valuable truth about The Way Things Are, that excessive internet usage, the inability to properly maintain that all-important boundary between 'real life' and 'the electronic world,' and 'normal sexuality' and 'fucked up sexuality' accordingly, is bad and a real problem with grave consequences. These ideas are generated somewhere between the video itself and the audience reaction.

('But all that stuff you said was true, there really IS a separation like that with all those characteristics.' If you believe in that, that's my point. It's like the separation between mind and body. It's not like your mind, your hard drive and the internet is floating beyond the boundary of some transcendental limbo dimension that's in some sort of hierarchy of existences whereby it doesn't properly exist or is situated above or beneath the physical somehow. In terms of 'existence,' the electronic world is ultimately nothing more or less than an extension of paper and pencil.)

(And if you think that the sexualities and other images represented in the video are uniquely contemporary, 'internet-enabled' and 'digital-aesthetic' try visiting a fanzine archive, or this exhibition at the admittedly culturally marginal British Museum, or a cave painting. If you think the position or the argument about grim, icky, contemporary alienation is uniquely Internet Age, look at Videodrome, Alban Berg, Egon Schiele, William Dean Howells, dark satanic mills etc. I have an academic friend who argues that the monstrous Caliban in The Tempest, for example, represents seventeenth-century anxieties about the new environments and possibilities of oceans, which trade and exploration were opening up at the time. If you want some contemporary-times / new-electronic-world satire that actually might be complex, illuminating and thought-provoking, watch Black Mirror.)

'Modern,' 'internet-enabled,' 'digital aesthetic.'
Now there's definitely a case to be made that some of the sexual images in the video are or were harmful to people / animals and harmful representations of people / animals, and that this does need to be brought to wider attention via for example this video. Strangling, distress, etc. (nb, BDSM is a lifestyle which observes rules and safety procedures, but yeah), there is certainly room for debate here, the same way that pornography has been debated in feminism, I won't go into that here. Is there an element of misogyny in the pictures worth being genuinely concerned about? Definitely, yes. Rape culture? Non-consenting sexual violence? Absolutely - big, big potential danger being hinted at in the video. But does the video make a clear, unambiguous argument about how these images function harmfully (other than to make the stupid association with hygienic neglect) and what we might do about it? No. Does it differentiate between a whole bunch of alternative sexualities? No. There is at least one element in there - furry fandom and other costumes - that probably needn't be included in the parade as harmful or worryingly freakish. I don't see how people doing that is inherently dodgy. But the multifaceted bucket o' freaky perversions it goes through before your appalled normative eyes is not unlike its equivalent a hundred years ago which included, yes, paedophilia, but also, of course, homosexuality and inter-racial sex taboos. Fifty years from now will we look back and think 'yeah, that that drowning furry-costumed person someone found on the internet really nailed the dark, fucked-up, unnatural place we were at as a culture?' Or will we feel an uncomfortable sense of phobia, gaze and exploitation about the whole thing?

If you were under the impression that furries are freaks or digital-age deviations, PLEASE watch this video. Not so weird and dark, huh.

(And a side-point here, as I can't count myself as a card-carrying representative of any of the alternative sexualities in the video, but I do know we don't have to worry about the ethics of using the images and videos and what these communities think about they way they've been represented and their potentially sensitive material used in the video. Because I know that whoever made the 'Still Life (Betamale)' video has long been involved with alternative sexual communities and knew that the representation in the video was appropriate. I know that whoever made the video was in an open and equal dialogue with the people who made and use those images and videos and got their consent and input. And during this dialogue, there must have been the conclusion that it was fine that those communities and their imagery be conflated with extremes of domestic and hygienic neglect. Because I know that whoever compiled those images wouldn't just have wandered into an online culture and just taken what worked the most for them because they believed that everything in culture and on the internet is free of context and free to use for whatever purpose they want. And even if they didn't, it would be very different from someone taking sensitive items of non-Western culture and putting them in Western museums and galleries for Westerners to gawp at and misinterpret. Thankfully we don't have to worry about these things, because the people who make videos for major independent labels are fair, responsible and scrupulous.)

Harmful or otherwise, there's no denying that these subcultures (as well as people who have one way or another unfortunately neglected on hygiene, a completely different category) are being objectified in the video for the amusement, terror and fascination of us normal, right-thinking people. It might be different if these people were deliberately objectifying themselves directly, for their own purposes and under their own control (as some of them might have been doing in the original videos), but that ultimately might not be the case here because those videos and images have been re-purposed and reframed. So it becomes the contemporary manifestation of the nineteenth-century freak show, really. You remember the way the bodies of women of colour were (as said e.g. here) used as props in recent widely publicised pop performances. And Warp have commissioned videos that ogle anomalous bodies before, particularly Chris Cunningham videos such as Rubber Johnny. He was dancing to the music of Aphex Twin in a potentially empowering way, but the opening and the depiction of him in the dark amped up the horrifying aspect as much as it could, just like 'Still Life (Betamale)'. Then there's the photography of Diane Arbus, pictures of people with all sorts of sexualities, disabilities and othernesses (disability activist David Hevey calls it 'enfreakment' and that's a great word for the 'Still Life (Betamale)' video) which in themselves are one thing, but Arbus and indeed Susan Sontag also explicitly drew connections between the subjects / objects in the photography and a supposed condition of alienation. Then there's Frank Zappa, who considered himself (and his fans still believe it today) to be an 'anthropologist' and sociologist of the seedy side of American life as he was recording a mentally ill person for his Bizarre label, and making music that reflected perceptions of bad taste in all its varieties. His fans say his music is tough, provocative and challenging, but fun, true and a genuine, important reflection of the way things are, and they say that he sticks it to the man, and that they know all this makes them the special chosen few.

They don't see what all this is, the dubiously celebrative and undeconstructive gaze of the normality police masquerading as new and meaningful commentary.

'In times of socio-cultural stress, when the need for positive self-definition asserts itself but no compelling criterion of self-identification appears, it is always possible to say something like: 'I may not know the precise content of my own felt humanity, but I am most certainly not like that,' and simply point to something in the landscape that is manifestly different from oneself' - Hayden White, 'The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea', in Dudley and Novak (eds.), The Wild Man Within: An Image of Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism.

'Modernism' has a long and ugly history of using Others and 'deviants' to say what it wants to say about a confusing, changing world quickly and easily and with the greatest impact. Progressive weirdness and depictions of modernity, don't have to - and shouldn't - involve things that are actually part of actual people's actual lives and turn them into objects that represent, enforce and amplify constructions and alienations that we already brought to the table.

This is precisely what I was going on about in the latest Pattern Recognition, about how online music is in danger of being confined to a set of easily recognisable characteristics that serve to maintain a reductive sense of 'internetness'. If the central focus of underground new culture is going to move online - and this is an exciting prospect - it should not proceed by objectifying, reducing and colonising what it finds there into a series of ostensibly edgy symbols that only serve to shore up its own prejudices in a facile postmodernist Seth-MacFarlane-come-Douglas-Coupland-come-Frank-Zappa way. The internet and the digital world are not pathologies, the cultures that develop there are not symptoms to be gazed at, to titillate us and make us feel both in the know, bravely in touch with the challenging truth, and superior to the freaks. Call it the IRL gaze. Call it the Internet Other. I shudder to think that the positive reaction to this video reflects the way people have been listening to other artists who have been associated, tenuously (as many are) or otherwise, with internet culture or internetness, or that this is what people think the potential of the internet is.

And, problems of inter-cultural art-making aside, I hate to think that this video is supposed to be what relevancy and modernity, or truth and satire, are today. Really? This? A confirmation of the ugly suspicions of people who are freaked out by the new technology blaring as subtly as an eighteen-wheeler airhorn? Next we'll have a music video about that baby you heard about that thought a book was an iPad, or people who say 'hashtag' out loud (why do people hate that? Cos it violates that precious physical / electronic boundary), or about how there are too many albums to listen to now and how horrible that is, or a terrifying video about how someone spent more than half an hour looking at jpegs of cats and they had no idea it had been that long. And people will be all like Yes. This. This is What The World Is Coming To, never suspecting that the very pleasure and ease with which they accept all this represents and stems from the fact that they're not moving on, not adapting, not discovering anything or seeing the new structures openly, but keeping them in their place, at arm's length.
The Matrix claims its latest victim
And if you're thinking, 'But the internet really is evil, we have to bear this in mind!' I'm not disagreeing that there are drawbacks to the rise of the digital world. Again, watch Black Mirror. Or, as I said, to certain sorts of sexual imagery on it. But even as a cause for genuine concern, I don't agree that parading objectifying representations of its deviancy in an atmosphere of horror and the grotesque is fair or helpful, and certainly not a great artistic statement we can be proud of.

Again, I don't mean to say that anyone who made this or liked this is did so deliberately or maliciously, and if people who made it and liked it are not aware of critical perspectives like these that are admittedly not well-known or well-developed, that's hardly their fault. And God knows I've been guilty of approaching all the stuff I've moaned about above in some of my writing, but my perspective has been changing and I hope it will continue to do so - I'm feeling that new music has more to offer than this.


  1. Well said. The multiplicity of sexualities and tastes and their multiplying channels online, are a huge and exciting cultural shift. They are ,for me, something to be celebrated and engaged with, hopefully critically( I'm re reading Dworkin and Mary Daly and contemporary feminist bloggers and pornographers and looking for more that speak to this. The video goes the dirty weirdos/alien wankers route which chimes with new Victorians Cameron et al and their mucky internet blocking plans. In fact it could be used by them as a cautionary ad. Contra that! Viva Internet pornography and wanking cultures! It's a whole new ball game. (signed Superhero Porn)

  2. I made it about a quarter through before disgust at the bs you're spouting and sheer boredom overcame me. This is the best music video I've seen in years. The only cop here is you. Your turgid inconsequential theory wank wants to keep things bland and unlike the opn vid is just humourless narcissism. Why do you think anyone outside your peer group would want to read any of this?

    Also Baudrillard was an infinitely superior writer and the dip shitted strain of left hipster twitter marxists that never read him but know how cool it is to derisively name drop him would be making fools of themselves if anyone but them was paying attention.

  3. Its clear that the only point of this smug little uni grad zero books clique is self aggrandizing. You all police culture like your petty little incoherent screeds are remotely interesting to anyone. You whinge and criticise culture so any trace of anything that cant be used to support your liberal discourse is made 'problematic'. You just hate anything that reminds you of people with actual talent producing stuff that revels in the dark mire that is peoples actual life under 'late' capitalism. It reminds you too much of all the fun people who don't sit and passively aggressively snipe at each other actually have. None of you can cone up with anything anyone who isn't you would give a shit about and the jealously when you have to listen to each other speak is hilarious.

    Do you really think anyone gives a fuck about what ever subject you've decised you're 'thinking about' today? Is it supposed to be funny because thought is the last thing you're actually doing? People like horror and the grotesque because those of us not rich enough to write about neo liberalism face it all the time. We also don't bother whining about it since the idea that you guys are gonna do anymore than fuck all to help us with it wouldn't even occur. Art like the opn video gives people a sense of sanity because for once its not trying to deny that reality actually looks like that. Please don't pretend you'll ever come up with a single positive value from any art cos that would make you feel too self conscious. Fuck all of you and your stupid fucking liberal 'art crit' which does NOTHING for any of the groups you're constantly pretending to defend.

  4. You're right to challenge the position from which I speak, but you're proving my argument pretty well, both in points like 'reality actually looks like that' and in the extent to which you're lashing out.

  5. My lashing out is far more cathartic and honest than your passive aggression. But I guess ita no way to go about getting a zero books release. You talk of relevancy and modernity like we're supposed to think these things aren't redundant and moronic. Do you think people don't get how blatantly your disgust at the 'bad taste' of recording mentally ill people is disguised disgust at these people existing at all? They only exist to be protected by your compassionate condescension. You can't make liberal modernist subjects out of them so they must be censored into silence. Its your bs politics that art exists to confirm and if it doesn't you'll smugly whine because you are just so superior.

    1. No, I said it would be better if people who are different were able to make art on their own terms rather than be exploited as freaks by other people (e.g. Rafman, Cunningham, Arbus, Zappa) who claim or are claimed to be making challenging, cutting-edge statements in doing so. That was the context in which I brought up and questioned 'relevancy' and 'modernity.' You a Zappa fan?

  6. "I made it about a quarter through before disgust at the bs you're spouting and sheer boredom overcame me. ........ Why do you think anyone outside your peer group would want to read any of this? "

    Yeah I really liked your vaporwave and hauntology stuff but i could not read this post.

    3 thumbs down

    1. Thanks - sorry about this one, I hope to get my points across clearly - any feedback on what stopped you?

  7. A bit long winded, but I agree with you. It feels like people are supporting this video to appear thoughtful or to latch onto what they perceive as something thoughtful. Really the only way this video could be successful is if it was self consciously being an absolutely naive and banal expose on modern age depravity. But I don't think that's the intention.

  8. I thought your recent writings were getting quite dull, but this one is totally on the mark.
    Part of the purpose of saying the internet is evil is to help people keep using the internet. The guilt of a drug addict feeds the prophet's popularity. That's this video in a nutshell. The first few moments had a decent "distancing effect" but not enough to get the viewer to step away from the screen and THINK. It's a load of sensationalistic pap designed to garner likes, the modern mode of cultural expression.
    also xxxxxxox is a troll in case you didn't know

  9. I enjoyed it Adam, good work.

  10. I also agree with Anonymous, the first stage in rehab is re-lapse.

  11. Cheers guys :) really good point on addicts, anon

  12. Hi Adam,

    I'm with you here - disappointing to see such hamhanded 'IRL vs Digital' themes in a OPN/Warp release and their frankly exploitative use of alternative sexualities. Love the reference to Koyaanisqatsi.

    1. Hey Blake! Cheers. Yeah I quite like Koyaanisqatsi but the OPN video drove the slide-show-with-(potentially)-moral-subtext thing too hard.

    2. I should've specified that I loved YOUR reference to Koyaanisqatsi: I think the OPN video is fairly horrific.

  13. This is what you're bound to get when the goal seems to be creating music that "sounds like the internet". The internet itself, the one we think of, isn't this objective thing. It's culture going back and forth. It's the culmination of culture. Obviously then, you are going to get music that culminates culture.

    ADR seems to culminate just any culture. Yen Tech culminates popular culture. Vaporwave and Seapunk take from kitschy internet culture. A lot of EDM throws in popular internet culture. Onehotrix Point Never basically just took from fringe internet culture because it was interesting, and I agree that this is hardly profound, but still think it's valuable as an expression.

    If you want music that sounds like what the Internet really is -- telecommunications, electronics, programming -- then you've got it in some of the more ambient/experimental glitch and techno.

    To me, if you truly want music that takes advantage of computers and the Internet, then you must get past this idea of the recorded sound. The computers we're typing on now are basically forced to be dumb. They're forced to play the exact sequence of sounds we give them, over and over again. Try to imagine if your favourite song sounded fresh each time. Imagine if a song sounded different based on your mood. Imagine if a song sounded different based on certain input over the Internet. Can't you see the potential being missed? The computer is not the tool of the artist. The computer IS the artist. This is undeniably a new paradigm, but no one has done it properly. The vast majority of people can't see it for what it could be.

    This has been approached in musical academia for a while: computational composition, and computational improvisation. The problem is that these people have no vision.

    As a musician/programmer, I'm getting to work on this. The idea is to find a medium between the human as composer, and computer as improvisational performer. To have songs sounding different each time they're played, but not too different. To package it artistically and with a conceptual vision. To distribute it in a way that YouTube and iTunes can't handle, but can still be shared between people easily.

    The layman will see this kind of thing as cheesy until it is perfected, but that has always been the case with the layman. My biggest concern is that the artistic visionaries will be unable to see the future for what it could be. My concern is that they'll be stuck fucking with Ableton, thinking that algorithmic music is the joke of academia and not a world of artistic and possibilities waiting to be unleashed and experienced. I can't do this shit alone.

    1. Thanks Matt! Some really great ideas here and I agree, as do others, increasingly I think. I wrote a little bit more about what people think an 'internet music' might be like here and on the computational qualities of R Plus 7 here

    2. Allison - jonesallison8@gmail.com20 June 2014 at 18:05

      I am right on board with your insights here Adam, though a bit late to the conversation.

      Another aspect that might merit more discussion was the spoken narrative that was imposed on top of the track. One reason why I am so intrigued by R Plus 7 is it's lack of conventional sonic/narrative development. I love the way the abstract elements build and collapse and how the textures layer but then quickly shift contexts. R Plus 7, for me at least, avoided any simple A ---> B narrative procedure. For me the album provides an experience that renders new possibilities and imaginations of the future viable. When I listen to the album my senses feel refreshed - I look around me and feel like I see the textures of back-lit screens, rain hitting puddles, LED street lamps, glass architecture, and strings of numbers all the more clearly and newly. I feel like the album (except for the last song, which unfortunately tries to tidy up the spaces explored/exploded earlier) provided a wide and deep range of sounds and their juxtapositions for the inherent value in the these sonic details themselves. My experience of R Plus 7 is more modular and serial, less sequential and causal. Hence my apprehension at the spoken text layered on top of the track in the music video. It reduces the true potential of the abstract music to mere 'background music' to add overblown affect to a reductive and bad faithed take on culture. Rafman exploits beautiful and complex moments in "Still Life" for an emotionally pornographic narrative, all to underline a banally "shocking" exploitation.

      I am surprised OPN let Rafman release the video for the reasons you stated, Adam, but also for the mere fact that the video imposes narrative on the music (a long tradition in pop music videos, to be sure, but I stand by my view that R Plus 7 moves beyond verse-chord lyrical conventions into serial abstraction). The music video for "Boring Angel" falls into the category of imposed narrative too. It makes me wonder about OPN intends his videos to achieve, or if it is just the label making these very visible decisions. It's a shame for me to see this exciting music get packaged in such a way.

      I also agree with Matt Carroll, computational/algorithmic music holds a lot of promise and there is quite a bit being done with it already. It's not even new. Echoing back to your great insight, Adam, that electronics are a mere extension of pencil and paper: check out Kircher's 17th century computational/composition box:


    3. Thanks Allison! Really interesting thoughts and I totally agree. There's something really architectural about OPN's music. It's more than just a human expression as it's traditional understand and an environment for exploring the changing limits of the human in recent and future technocracies. Which is why it's disappointing that this video is built on horror. Cheers for the link - looking forward to reading that!