Words by David C. Obenour
For twenty-eight years, Mouse on Mars have continued to be their own most dogged critic as they relentlessly explore the evolving boundaries of electronica. Every work by the German duo is set up against the high benchmark of what came before – not to meet it, but to innovate and redefine from it.
For their latest work, AAI, this commitment and creative spirit have come together in an inspired manner. Jan St Werner and Andi Toma – along with frequent collaborator, Dodo NKishi – have created something that is rewarding both as a conceptual work and as an album. These feats aren’t at odds with each other and in fact, repeated listens reveal that one couldn’t exist without the other’s realization. Exploring the history and theoretical future of artificial intelligence, they collaborate with scholars, programmers and producers in a way that lives up to the promise of the project’s audacity.
Off Shelf: Conceptually, AAI is a fascinating album. Can you talk about some of your own curiosity with the history and ongoing evolution of artificial intelligence and how it led to the album’s realization?
Jan St. Werner: A basic concern was that following the discourse about technology, and artificial intelligence in particular, was that it seemed like a white man’s hobby. It left behind a lot of issues that seem relevant and urgent but they were just not addressed. And on the other hand, there was some kind of promise waving at the horizon, a promise of a clean, new, essential, human intelligence being uploaded on to some weird cloud in the Californian skies where the sun is always shining and the weather’s always perfect… while the same time the forests are burning and inequality is rising.
It seems like we’ve all been… Apple has kind of put a spell on humankind with some idea of a cleaner, peaceful, efficient society that everyone has access to… if they’re able to handle it and have Apple devices. That gave us the initial impulse, as a group that deals with technology, that we would have to make a statement. We could just not address all of these issues implicitly but find a way to explicitly talk about it, formulate it, and get involved. This is when the idea of an Anarchic Artificial Intelligence [AAI] came up. Our album is just a tiny section of a tiny playground. We’re also working on a web platform called anarchic.ai, where we will slowly collect more ideas and open up to different discussions around that field too.
OS: What was it about Louis [Chude-Sokei] that made you want to work with him for this project?
JSW: Louis is a person who comes from a very different field of expertise but has a history in sound and music making. So somehow there were common grounds, and also there was enough space between his and our practice that we wouldn’t “mingle” in each other’s business. There was enough space, and space is a good factor for collaboration and creativity.
In the very beginning it was Louis’s voice and the sound of his voice that opened up a field. It was like its own reality. The issues that Louis is concerned about, writes about, performs about, teaches about, and does his research about, these issues peripherally touch our concerns, but in their core they address exactly the same concerns, which are tolerance, curiosity, connecting, and identifying with something that’s absolutely different from the construction that you are performing.
This is also where artificial intelligence comes into play because it is a metaphor. It’s not per se technology that has improved that far that it can solve problems independently, but artificial intelligence is a metaphor for our own intelligence and our own interaction with the world. This is where a certain humanist and anarchic idea or concept of technology comes into play, which is something we’ve been dealing with from probably the beginning of the band, and Louis as well in his writing.
He has a few more explicit concerns. Colonial, post-colonial, creolism, certain cultural, anthropological, and political concerns which are less explicit in our work, but that again opens up that space where we’re not interfering in each others’ expertise.
His voice is also quite rich and that was interesting to us to explore his voice like a landscape. He was curious in really pushing the experiment that would apply to his voice becoming an artificial intelligence itself, becoming a tool or interface. This is how we grew together, grew into the project, and now represent the project in various layers.
OS: Reading through his Anarchic Artificial Intelligence piece included and sampled throughout the album, I was struck by a few lines that I wanted to ask you further on. First was “history was also about the methods used to store it and the tools used to narrate it.” Do you see this as more impactful as modern advances bring drastic shifts?
JSW: Obviously, obviously, because the way history is transcended and told and brought forward. There isn’t a neutral view. Unlike what history is. History is many fold of micro-stories and micro-histories. Funnily enough, this is also where the term Microstoria is coming from.
So history is these many perspectives. To think about not only the different perspectives of individuals telling an experience, but also how their experiences are being translated or documented either by others or by themselves. They’re like different traditions of oral history, written history, history being recorded with various media – film, home video, different eyewitnesses with mobile devices filming the crashing of the airplanes into the Twin Towers on 9/11.
So history is always also the story of the medium, how the medium is being controlled by how it’s being played, how it’s being performed and obviously the person and the individual history of the person behind the medium. All this should not create a chaos, all this should create an awareness for the actual perspective you’re engaging with. It shouldn’t be hidden behind the glasses surface and being presented as the truth. It should be presented as indicators, it should be presented as data that comes into a larger calculation, into a larger equation.
I think this kind of sums up the idea behind that sentence, which is interesting because when you work within a certain period of time with also certain tools available and tools with all the handicaps and limitations and so on, this also is always reflected. If you watch a videotape from the late eighties, a big like tube-run VHS camera with these large, magnetic VHS tapes, you see the way that the footage is presented through that medium also really filters, really gives you an angle on the history. It tells so much more about that particular moment in time.
OS: Next was, “[AI’s] appetite for [memory] was matched only by the human taste for forgetting.” I wondered how do you see this conflict in our shared existence?
JSW: What we do is like, um… what’s her name? Marie Condo or whatever, that Netflix superstar? We’re collecting data and gear and objects very quickly and then we’ve got to keep them in order and we’ve got to keep them alive. So that is exactly what’s meant with that. We as human beings constantly deal with a pile of garbage and a pile of drama and disaster that we’re creating and are directly responsible for, whereas machines have the privilege of not being responsible for anything. They can basically forget everything they know and everything they are storing within an instant. This is what machines are capable of and we envy them for that.
At the same time, that makes us different from them. Humans cannot forget. Things are stored in our veins and in our bodies and in the collective memory and in the memory of a family or they’re there in the relationships you have with other people and your environment. All this memory is such a massive part of our everyday navigation. Machines, if they do have memory, it’s part of their performance. It’s part of their immediacy and their immediate reality. So memory for machines means a very different thing. There’s no sub-conscience for machines.
OS: Finally, I was struck by the line “new life always announces itself through sound.” Could you explore that and what it means to you?
JSW: Sound is a wave that announces what’s to come. It’s like you hear the horse coming from a distance by the sound it’s producing, by the vibrations. It’s already transmitting through the soil. That is a quality of sound as announcing, as vibration, as abstraction, that isn’t the actual object yet, that isn’t the resonating body itself, but an echo.
And I think this is a beautiful metaphor. It leads back to the idea of humbleness or modesty or curiosity and devotion that you would have towards your environment, towards what surrounds you when you approach the realm of sound, because you have to really tune your senses. You have to become sensitive when you really enter that idea of like sound as that complex system of vibrations announcements, hints, suggestions, signs that do not mean something in themselves, but are connected to an original that has produced the signs. So these signs are signifiers rather than actual signs.
It also claims that there is new life. That there is the idea of something new that is possible, the surprise of something that we don’t fully understand yet and cannot fully comprehend. That there is the concept of the new, and that concept is directly connected to the concept of sound.
I think it’s a very strong text that Lewis was willing to give us, to donate to this project. A gift that he gave us.
OS: You explore some dense concepts and thoughts on the album. What do you see as the benefits to presenting them through the medium of recorded music or a performance?
JSW: Music brings these things quite casually together. It’s like a theater play… but you don’t have to sit still for two hours. You can jump in and out and you. You can skip it. Music is a very patient format, actually. We’re happy to stick to it. And I think we’d tried to stretch it to its extreme.
Andi is around by the way. He’s adjusting the microphones for the next interview. What are the benefits of presenting something through the medium of recorded music or performance? Why did we choose music? Why did we choose music as… as our main platform or sound as our main field of research?
Andi Toma: So most… maybe one of the most free mediums and still giving space to speculations and definition makes it more easy.
JSW: You want to have it easy, huh?
JSW: I mean, there’s no end to it. It’s very simple as we would happily finish this and we’ll say, “Okay, 30 years of engaging with sound and music and producing music, composing music, performing music, exploring it, programming, inventing instruments.” It just doesn’t stop.
Now we are exploring space as, let’s say, the third main field. There is no sound without a space carrying it or making it audible, delivering it. And so we’re engaging with spatial experiments, quite intensely recently, and we’re setting up a museum show in June in Munich for Munich’s Lenbachhaus. The show is called Spatial Jitter, and it’s bringing electronically-produced sounds into space, including self-built speaker panels, to activate the space and then again, get a different perspective on the acoustic situations from wherever you are in the space. It’s kind of an ongoing kinetic, moving arrangement of sounds which allows you to actually move inside the composition and become a part of this hyper-reflective and interpolating sound situation.
It just doesn’t stop. I mean, we’ll not finish this quest with the time we’ve been given on this planet. We can just contribute, which is great. We don’t solve anything, but we’re contributing. We’re actually probably causing more problems than we’re solving.
OS: Working with such a developed concept for AAI, how did you approach composing the music? Was it in some ways similar to working on a score?
JSW: How did we make it? How did we make it flow? Like a film or like a book or like a story?
AT: Mmm… yeah, the material we pre-produced was already like a 20 minute piece. It was based on these polyrhythm drum patterns. At that time we were thinking about creating something combined with artificial intelligence. We had talks with Naeem [formerly Spank Rock] and thinking about working maybe with him or other vocalists, but in the process we were meeting up with these programmers like Ranny Keddo. We met weekly and more and more were working on an artificial voice and the possibilities. Then we were introduced to this company called Birds on Mars, and they already are professionally working with this technology. At that time the voice was evolving and getting better and better. We had the lyrics and the text and the music. Creating the songs was speeding up and it got its own dynamic. In the end, everything kind of fit together pretty well. We were part of the process. It was not just us creating. It was constantly a feedback of ideas and input.
JSW: Most of our records, somehow tell a story and have a kind of narrative to them. They represent a journey or a certain quest or a research phase that we were in at that particular time.
AT: Yeah, but the most constant records are the ones… I mean, I think this one is very constant. Maybe we finally have made a constant album which has a flow and a narrative. The other album is maybe Glam which was actually music for a movie which hasn’t been released. I think now we always tried, but maybe this time we did a pretty good job on this.
JSW: The… I think the angle from which our records make sense sometimes are quite meta. They’re somehow distant or abstract. And the amazing thing about this record, and it’s something that we’ve never experienced before, was that there is an actual narrative and it is a voice. That voice is a hybrid. I mean, it is very human sounding and it definitely is a human model that we’re using there, but the voice has that synthetic-ness to it and you sense that.
So it binds and connects really well with the music and with the actual explicit narrative that’s a parallel track to the album, that narrative is less abstract than it would have been. It binds it stronger together. It’s still abstract enough and has enough, let’s say – meta levels, that you can draw new connections each time you hear the record. We try to embed these little gaps or portals where you would escape one song while you hear it and realize that it connects to like a completely different part on the album. And so you create this kind of different sub meta narrative in the record, a different arch.
OS: Understanding that live performances aren’t possible for the near future, do you have a vision of how you would hope to translate this piece in a live setting? Is there any thought to explore performances in a more virtual space in the meantime?
JSW: Yeah, there is a virtual space already. It’s called Cyberia. It’s hosted by CTM festival and AAI virtual space is part of that world. So we have created a kind of similar to a game situation, a space where you would navigate through a rather dark and dystopian space and explore the poetics and spatial idiosyncrasies of AAI. That space you can access online, or you can download the build and then open it on your computer. This will also be growing and improving.
Then we’re working on a spatial installation in collaboration with Meyer Sound where we use our space map system, which we also have installed in the studio. There’s a little feature hosted on Meyer Sound’s website that kind of explains the setup and we’ll have a large scale version of that setup in Berlin. There we’ll set up that spatial sound system and where people can socially distance explore the album and the idea of the album as a non-stereo spatial landscape experience.
OS: I have to imagine that the world is a much different place then the one where you first imagined and later recorded AAI in. Have present realities changed or given deeper meaning to any of the concepts that you explored on the album?
JSW: Oh, it’s a tough one. What happens right now? This pandemic isn’t… it was anticipated, I guess. No? It’s not that surprising that the way we live, exploited the planet, exploited resources, exploited human resources, the density of population, the organization of society. I don’t just want to be critical. It is an unsolvable challenge. The human being is an untamable organism and it was anticipated that something would happen that profoundly shocks and questions the infrastructure that we’re so blindly relying on and just keep perpetuating. We know it needs improvement on many levels, drastic improvement, subtle improvement. It’s a dramatic situation.
I think every artistic effort at this point seems obsolete. To compare to the medical and political and social challenges that we’re facing and that we have to solve. I mean, there are really important things to do right now. Help people who are in need, people who are sick, help families who have existential problems or single individuals who have existential problems, psychological problems, economic problems. We all live in deprivation and isolation.
This is massive and I don’t know how music can really change anything about that. There is enough music in the world that we don’t need a contemporary statement from the arts or music community to ease the pain, right? Like people start listening to The Beatles even more than they did before, again, or some classical music or… I don’t know, beat the shit out of the bongos or engage in some esoteric meditation techniques? I mean, it’s all there.
There’s nothing at this point that’s needed to be added, but obviously the record that we made, especially AAI, somehow anticipates that drama because it also addresses this distance that we’ve so perfectly cultivated between us as individuals as… as an organism. Or as a society or a species in relation to what we could call nature or our environment or our surroundings or possible other intelligent species and organisms or non-intelligent ones out there – that disconnectedness.
Also that phantasmagoric ignorance that we’ve perpetuated, is obviously an issue of that record. And I think that tolerance and openness to absurdity or nonverbal likable, non-explicable, organic behavior, mutation, and undecipherable performance. To be more open to that and turn away from the idea of efficiency and always improving and always optimizing. That definitely is a big issue of the record. That obviously was also graspable far before the crisis we’re having right now. And the dramatic thing is also we don’t know how long that crisis lasts, because we don’t know when it actually started. So that epidemic right now, isn’t a thing you can put a date on and say like, “since then everything has changed and the world became a different place.”
The world was moving towards the situation. And now we have a very, very condensed and even a refined, dramatic situation, but it won’t go away just like it didn’t just suddenly appear. In a way that record is the most relevant or somehow most obviously political we’ve ever made, and at the same time, an anticipation of disaster.
Niun Niggung for instance, was a record where we kind of expected turbulence. During the change of the millennium. And it started out with two versions. Niun Niggung has a 1999 version, which is the European version. And it was much more based on society as chaotic and hard to understand and hard to cope with organism and the post ’99 version, the 2000 version, when you look at the cover of like the Thrill Jockey version of Niun Niggung, it kind of anticipated the drama that would then really haunt us in 2001 with the monkey unleashed, the cityscape being destroyed, the society being in shock and not being able to deal with itself, but having to deal with escape, and first aid.
Seeing that, even though there is a pandemic right now, I think we’re in a much more self-reflective phase of rehabilitation. I think with climate change and growing ecologic problems also put a different light on us as a society. I think we’re much more in a state of trying to cure somehow or finding remedy. And I don’t know, that’s probably a very optimistic view here… don’t know. It’s hard to say.