Voices for a Virtual Age: Spirituality, Technology and Art in PROTO and Remotes x Quantum
by Sheryl Gwee
PROTO and Remotes x Quantum. The two titles conjure parallel universes, where technotopic experiments unfold in the hallowed halls of a laboratory and subatomic particles ripple across the delicate fabric of space-time.
With their futuristic, science-fictional overtones, both works seem, at first glance, to chafe against the theme for this year’s festival, The Anatomy of Performance — Ritual. Ritual isn’t something we associate with cutting-edge technology, but rather, with tradition, myth and the sacred, trickle-down remnants of the past. And in a world of machines and bionic cyber-beings, “anatomy”, which speaks to the gross physicality of flesh and blood, doesn’t seem to sit quite right either.
The two performances, however, trade in a much more expansive understanding of ritual and the body. Repeated gestures and artefacts, the visible components of ritual, have always been conduits to different, invisible planes of existence. In a way, technology serves the same functions. To imagine technology and spirituality as antithetical forces is to ignore these connections, and to deny that some essential part of humanity has always and will always exist outside of sensory, perceptible things, be it in the realms of religious worship, or digital daydreams.
Between Holly Herndon’s experimental AI music, and John Torres and Eleanor Wong’s daring blend of film, installation, poetry, and theatre, unfolds a world where we cede control over our bodies, transmuting our humanity into virtual spaces. What do we make of spirituality in an age of cybernation? Where do our voices come from, and where do they go? How might the making and the viewing of art itself be a sort of ritual? Without offering simplistic answers to these questions, the two productions open up generative spaces for imagining and questioning the “human”.
SPIRITUALITY, RITUAL, TECHNOLOGY
Berlin-based electronic composer and sound artist Holly Herndon’s performance of PROTO, her third album, involves none of the usual “instruments”. Instead, an unassuming computer takes the stage as the fifth member of Herdon’s choral ensemble. Besides being, in Herndon’s words, “the most personal instrument that the world has ever seen,” the computer is also the medium for Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst’s AI “baby”, Spawn.
Spawn is a prodigious “baby”. Trained on samples of Herndon’s voice and various other musicians’, she uses neural networks to warble, multiply, splinter, and transfigure human voices, live. The result? A resplendent, intensely invigorating swell of both human and synthetic voices, which moves between dense, layered choral harmonies and the rhythms of dance music.
“When you’re training a nascent intelligence, it makes you think about where our intelligence came from,” Herndon explained during the post-show talk. “We were thinking a lot about choral styles, and human brain development through ritual, entrainment and singing, and all of that went into the research behind the show.”
If we think of singing as a kind of technology that mediates human coordination and interaction, then we might imagine machine learning – which in Spawn’s case aggregates human voices, allowing one performer to sing in the timbre of another’s – in the line of this long tradition, rather than as a sort of violent, anti-humanistic rupture in the development of civilisation. “Song may have been an original coordination mechanism,” Herndon writes on Twitter. “AI is just a new coordination mechanism in the legacy of human coordination systems” — a category to which ritual and spirituality belong too.
Machine learning and Sacred Harp singing – an a capella tradition that grew out of Protestant communities in New England and the American South – come to a heady mix in PROTO. And Christian allusions surface not just in Herndon’s music, but also in the evocative visual backdrop that she performs against, where gleaming, futuristic satellite-like structures morph, undulate and pulse. In the penultimate scene, columns of white light sear through a glass structure reminiscent of the Crystal Palace or a cathedral.
That biblical references and cyborg imagery intermingle in Herndon's performance is no surprise. The artist grew up singing in a church choir in Tennessee, and later completed her PhD at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.
But Herndon doesn’t just deal with the intersections between spirituality and technology on the level of content or subject matter. “The music can speak explicitly about it, but I don’t want to rely on lyrics or language. I want the process to be dealing with the object of critique,” she said in an interview. By relying on a production method that virtually agglomerates actual human voices, Herndon illuminates the tenebrous question of what it means to be human — and to transcend that humanity.
Transcendence is a theme that threads through Remotes x Quantum too. This ambitious multidisciplinary film, installation and theatre piece was born out of a collaboration between Filipino filmmaker John Torres and Singaporean playwright and poet Eleanor Wong. The performance unfurls across three “acts” in three separate spaces, plunging the audience into a radically ambiguous virtual-textual reality.
In the first filmic segment, Torres weaves a hallucinatory sequence of vignettes into two parallel narratives. We see Gill, a young woman grappling with the death of her mother, a religious fanatic who bound her daughter with belts so she would speak in tongues. Gill sleepwalks, much like the unnamed motorcyclist who finds himself in a hit-and-run accident. Later, two police officers assigned to the case discover that the biker was commanded to run over his victim by a disembodied voice; the same voice hypnotises a group of smartphone addicts who mill around aimlessly in a room.
It might sound like I’m sketching the plot of a convoluted sci-fi flick, but that’s not the tenor of Torres’ piece at all. Remotes x Quantum feels more like a dream or a dusty memory filtered through a melancholy colour palette and the grainy aesthetic of analogue cinema. Torres relies less on explanation, and more on the evocation of emotional hue — just enough to suggest a dystopia where people have surrendered their bodies to a mysterious app that commands via an unintelligible stream of otherworldly language.
An astonishing transition bridges the first and second segments. While snippets of an extradiegetic voice punctuate the film, Remotes x Quantum boldly breaks the fourth wall when a flesh-and-blood actress stands up from the first row of seats in the screening room, and walks forward to the darkened screen, her head framed by a halo of white light. Torres’ voice resounds in the darkness: “I need you to trust me. Turn around slowly. Look at them. The film is about their country. Turn and look at the exit. Walk slowly and go.” Prompted by ushers, the audience tentatively stands and follows the actress out into the halls of the Arts House.
Like Gill and the motorcyclist, we sleepwalk through the building, passing broken chairs that look like they’re sinking into the ground. The boundaries between fiction and reality, between our real bodies and the virtual bodies on screen, soften and are made permeable in the liminal light of a neon-orange stairwell.
Set against the intimate backdrop of a well-furnished home, the second segment of the performance centres around Aunty E, a peripheral character in the later part of Torres’ film and a semi-autobiographical shadow of Wong’s persona. Like the playwright, Aunty E is a legal professional, teacher, and poet. She’s picked up her niece’s phone by accident and surrendered her body to the same app, seeking release from all the tasks due Friday, 5pm. Friday, 5pm. The refrain gains density, as Aunty E moves in an electrified state of possession, dancing, leaping, thrashing through the quantum of space, to a voice-over of Wong’s deftly-woven, alternating poetic and narrative passages.
As in the first segment, possession doesn’t just figure in spiritual terms here, but also in the social and technological anatomies that structure our lives. Wong wryly quotes dictionary definitions, passages from a local newspaper, and exacting, yet – when prattled aloud – arbitrary Covid-19 regulations, nodding to the ways in which we’ve seen an extension of state control over the course of the pandemic.
Possession and transcendence are held in tension as the performance culminates in a lyrical third act set in the chamber of the Arts House. Flanked on both sides by rows of parliamentary seats is a four-poster bed. The diaphanous lace curtains draped over its frame sway to the caresses of an unseen hand, while a projected image of a sleeping woman within – Gill? Aunty E? – flits in and out of visibility. Blue lights strobe as the woman floats into the air, yielding every last shred of control over her body to a deluge of sound.
Walking out of Torres’ and Wong’s piece felt like waking from a dream — lingering afterimages, no easy answers. While I left Herndon’s performance feeling more or less hopeful that technology could be a humanistic medium for something like spiritual transcendence, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what Remotes x Quantum “meant”.
But perhaps that was the point. For one, the problem of transcendence – of surrendering bodily agency, of speaking mutely, or being spoken for – was treated with deliberate ambivalence. While the motorcyclist’s loss of control results in a morbid tragedy, Aunty E seems to want nothing more than to “disappear” from the crushing pressures of life and love.
Is the voice of the enigmatic app an instrument of good or evil? Are its commands, issued in an unintelligible tongue, divine or diabolic? The show’s tensions run deep, coursing through the spellbinding voice at the centre of it all.
“When I was making the film I was also trying to compare how a tender voice [...] could be likened into, somehow, this other voice of the state that is so violent,” Torres explained, alluding, on the one hand, to the warm voice of his mother, who passed on during the pandemic; and on the other, to the government’s commands during the War on Drugs in the Philippines.
The mystery and magic of the voice – who possesses, and is possessed by it – similarly lies at the heart of Herndon’s PROTO. Much as Remotes x Quantum toys with the idea of surrendering one’s body to the consciousness of an unknown Other, so too does Herndon’s practice engage in this sort of “identity play”.
In 2021, Herndon released Holly+, a “custom voice instrument” that allows anyone on the web to upload audio files which will then be sung back in Herndon’s processed voice. (The name of the model is a nod to the logo of the transhumanist movement, h+, which advocates overcoming the biological limits of the human body through technology.)
A couple of lucky audience members had the chance to test Holly+ out during the post-show talk. Holly+ struggles a little with real-time processing, but what she can do is astonishing, as Herndon and Dryhurst proved when they played Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, but in Herndon’s processed voice. To my relatively untrained ear, Holly+’s rendition was smooth, polished, and strangely, humanly, expressive. Holly+ also has perfect pitch, and never runs out of breath.
This, of course, raises the question — if anyone can sing like Holly Herndon through her digital twin, wouldn’t that render the flesh-and-blood singer obsolete? Are we not approaching a world where AI renders human art obsolete, as Grimes warns?
It would be all too easy to despair of a world saturated with generic jingles and commercial film scores made by AI bots, rather than paid human creators. But Herndon remains convinced that technology can be used to augment, rather than devalue human uniqueness, to advocate for creativity as an ecosystem of mutual, consensual possession.
“Vocal deepfakes are here to stay,” says Herndon in a statement on Holly+. The possibility of “synthesising singer-a-likes” by sampling their voices and potentially profiting off them is all too real, and it could pose serious threats to an artist’s livelihood and identity.
Holly+ is a bold experiment in finding a balance between protecting artists, and encouraging people to experiment with a new and exciting technology. The musical output of Herndon’s digital twin is governed by a DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organization) model of stewardship. DAO approves “the best artworks and license opportunities,” and channels those royalties back into research and development, as the artist’s website explains. It’s a nuanced, forward-thinking endeavour to map out the tricky ethical terrain surrounding intellectual property and vocal sovereignty.
What does it really mean to have a voice in this digital age? Herndon, Torres and Wong’s performances complicate this deceptively simple question.
COLLABORATIVE RITUALS OF ARTMAKING
A cornerstone of Herndon’s artistic philosophy is interdependence and communal ownership – over the voice, over art – in the face of the staunch individualism that’s such a big part of capitalist culture. “AI is just us, in aggregate. That is a powerful metaphor and responsibility,” Herndon wrote in a Twitter post.
“We’re collaborating on a scale that's never been possible before, with so much input from so many people from the past and from today. And that's really psychedelic and exciting,” said Herndon during the post-show talk. “What we try to emphasise on this stage is this kind of human exchange of ideas and expression.”
PROTO is an experiment in aestheticising the glitch, in pushing the limits of technological tools while, crucially, acknowledging the immense collective labour that they’re built on. By recording the audience’s singing during the interactive segment of her performance, Herndon made visible the invisible human contributions that form the backbone of Spawn’s machine intelligence.
Reflections on the whys and hows of artmaking are built into the anatomies of both PROTO and Remotes x Quantum. Torres and Wong’s production, which slides effortlessly between various media, is intensely self-reflexive.
Torres’s film was stitched together from peripheral spaces and film sets that he documented for a short “window” of about three hours daily from 2016 to 2017, when he was caring for his infant daughter. By distilling cinematic tropes, enmeshing documentary and fiction, Torres introspectively probes the relationships between reality and its mediation through art.
In fact, representation emerges as a kind of ritual in Remotes x Quantum. Inverse images of Singapore are projected over the walls of Aunty E’s apartment, as the world telescopes in through the pinhole eye of a camera obscura. This is the perfect place to write, Aunty E muses.
“What is the relevant unit of experience?” asks Torres’ voice. In other words, what is the measure of our humanness? How can we even begin to capture it? Seizing a camera, Aunty E photographs the objects in her room – statues of multi-armed Hindu deities suspended in cosmic dance, framed wayang kulit figures – before turning the mechanical eye on herself in a state of frenzy. Images multiply and splinter like forking paths in this quantum metaverse. Aunty E sits down for a Zoom meeting but her actions in real-time quickly diverge from the video we see on the television screen.
In this “COVID piece”, written from “the perspective of distance”, as Wong puts it in her discussion with Torres, the ritual of representation becomes its very subject. And in this case, it’s a collaborative one. Bits of conversation between Torres and Aunty E are interspersed throughout the second segment. Wong playfully slips in a metatheatrical reference when Aunty E mentions that “Nat pitched it to me,” pointing to festival director Natalie Hennedige’s role in bringing Wong and Torres together on this journey of collaboration.
THE RITUAL EXPERIENCE OF ART
Thinking of the x in Remotes x Quantum as a mathematical unknown, and a crossover space – voices crossing from one country to another, between planes of existence, between art and life – makes me wonder if experiencing art might be a sort of ritual too.
There certainly was something almost holy in the atmosphere of Herndon’s performance — the beatific light and smoke as she knelt on the table beside the computer, her AI-enhanced voice streaking through the theatre in a rapturously high register.
Or maybe it was, too, the joy of being in an actual, physical audience after two long years of Covid, congregating around something that we had all chosen to treat as magical, even if for a moment. Perhaps the kind of intense attention that is demanded of us, in a space that’s decidedly real yet somehow bracketed off from mundane reality, creates a special site of encounter between artist and audience, where everything might be cast in a different light. In these futuristic fever dreams, art endures and redeems.