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Escape Velocity

An Order Of Crisis: J.G. Biberkopf Interviewed
Karl Smith , January 12th, 2017 07:02

Taking in science fiction and science fact, Karl Smith speaks to the Lithuanian producer, one of SHAPE Platform's selected artists for 2017, about false distinctions between the digital and natural words and the cyclical homogenisation of art

In our present predicament the decision to call your latest album Ecologies is a bold move by any stretch: name-checking engagement with an issue likely to effect, if not already effecting, the entire 7,000,000,000-person population of our planet in one way or another implies a certain level of intellectual and emotional extroversion difficult to match in practice. Calling it Ecologies II, then, presents an added challenge – to demonstrate not just a worthwhile interjection on those universal considerations, but also a progression of thought.

Enter Lithuanian producer J.G. Biberkopf, whose latest release is a sonic document of our relationship with the environment – but also with art, and with ourselves – heard through a glass darkly. Released late in 2016 – the year scientists were able to agree, after years of debate, that the time of the Holocene had finally come to end and left us living in an age of Human influence – Ecologies II takes apart our understanding of the world around us as a single entity, breaking it down, as with the music itself, into parts and layers; into humming objects and palpitating organisms; thick screens and translucent membranes.

It's a record that, in other hands, could easily have been a cold and dissolute 41 minutes of abstract musing and morbid ruminations. Instead, what Biberkopf has produced is 13 tracks suited more to reflection and, while the methodology may be Deconstructionist, the result is sprawling and immersive – both familiar and uncanny, its rhythms reassuringly circadian and disconcertingly alien.

I’m interested what you were hoping to achieve with the record – in terms of what you want the listener to take away or to feel while they’re listening? There’s a lot going on and it’s quite heavily deconstructed, but it does feel like there’s a “mood” of sorts running through.

J.G. Biberkopf: There is so much in the record, I don’t know where to start - I made it quite some time ago now and I lost a lot of the feeling. At this point I guess I can only speculate and fictionalise.

Recently I started reading B. Bratton’s The Stack and I thought that the direction of the book - the way it thinks about the planetary scale and the interactions between different layers of it - is something that would have possibly put an end to my desire to make the record. The way I rationalise the record to myself, on a conceptual level, is positioned somewhere between Timothy Morton’s concept of Hyperobjects, and Bratton’s Stack, both of which, in my view, are poetical ambitions to interpret current energy dynamics on the macro scale. The record comes out as a reaction to thinking about the entanglement of ecosystems, infrastructures, global politics, desires and psychology of the user of these structures in a particular state of transition. I could probably draw a map of how i see the interactions and dependencies of these layers at this point.

On a more emotional level, the moment I realised that I need to make some kind of a statement of what i’m doing, I was in complete dread about where things are going – you could sense a transition for the worse via the influence of changing climate conditions: I realised that a new form of collective, societal order will emerge out of this – an order of crisis. Initially, I wanted them to be these songs of mourning, something like Burial’s music, maybe having some kind of a prozacy effect in reaction to this traumatising futurity. But it ended up quite different in the end. I think the mood of the record is a bit ‘accidental’ and is defined a lot by what made musical sense for the format of the album. Knives had a huge curatorial influence on the album’s tracklist.

Even if that’s a fictionalisation, it’s one that makes sense when you layer it on to the work. But even the idea of fictionalisation is interesting in relation the record: you made it so long ago you have to try and retro-fit ideas to it - but people coming to it new will fill it with their own fictions. Before they ever read or hear you explain it, they’ll project their own anxieties and narratives and truths onto it and - because of the way the music is structured - it seems there’s a lot of scope to allow or even encourage that.

JGB: Yes, of course. It’s a controlled territory, a certain space, a semantic cloud filled with triggers. I’m attracted to these notions of theatre of spaces – memories of sensations of spaces and objects creating an experience, rather than an experience created through relating to the human body, human expression and language. I am very much interested in how abstract protocols define human behaviour.

With Ecologies II, I spent a lot of time speaking with people about how they relate to the tracks – their experience of it. I think the process of writing the record was very ‘conversational’ in general. I was really interested to hear what other people think: I wanted them to help me name what it is I’m getting at, and actually releasing the record is part of the same process: a way of situating ideas in the world, getting feedback – of seeing how out there these dynamics actually are.

In the end, doing this via the medium of music is a thing of limited access – ideally I would want to work with these ideas in theatre spaces.

As much as the music draws from flowing and almost convulsive ambient states - which are like the reciprocal conversation you’ve had with people listening to the album - it also retreats into abstraction and disjointedness occasionally – a mix of introspection and a sort of reaching quality, it feels like it either wants something from you or wants you to know something.

JGB: I think there is much to get from the effort to engage with abstraction, in the sense you use the word here. It can be a way of learning and unlearning – transcending. For me, in the context of this record, the move towards abstraction has this dramatic gesture – confrontation with the traumatic noise of otherness and of unknown – forcing one to engage with it and its fluctuations.

One thing I found listening to Ecologies II, was that while texture and ambience and structure are all very clear pieces of and influences on the album, more conventional external factors like the influence of other artists aren’t quite as clear.

JGB: There are quite a few references: there’s a take on Phillip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsti in ‘Transfigurations’ and there’s a take on Wishart’s Globalalia. There are a lot of indirect references to contemporary theory, too: I used concepts from Virillo, Negarestani, Keller Easterling, Joseph Nechvatal, etc., either as starting points to imagine a track or as a something to help situate the tracks after finishing them. But I have to say my usage of their work is pretty shallow most of the time - I take ideas, images that fascinate me, and see what they create together with the musical spaces. I really tend to overthink, so contemporary theory a lot of the time ends up being this pathological way of legitimising. A lot of the time maybe there’s isn’t even a proper reason, maybe its poetical – whatever that means.

As we ended up releasing the doomiest of the possible playlists – I suspect quite a bit of the humorous and human side was lost. But I think in other tracks there is a bit more slapstick: Chris Morris was quite an influence - making comedy for listeners who are half-awake, half-asleep – a kind of ambient comedy which expresses itself through pathological/hyperbolised forms. Excess is just great comic material in the end.

Also there’s Paul Laffoley. I really struggled to find anything to help visualise what I’m doing, which was unusual as I am used to thinking about music in very visual terms. At a very late stage I found Paul’s work – this visionary artist/architect who was creating these conceptual maps of basically everything. In retrospect, that resonated quite a lot with the process of making this record – a bit like locking yourself in a shed and producing these conspiratorial understandings, re-interpretations of everything.

Listening to the record, and having read you talk about landscapes (both sonic and physical) and the Anthropocene, there are a couple of things that strike me as interesting. The first is that since the first Ecologies was released it’s been agreed that we are now living in the Anthropocene – it’s a seismic shift that’s got surprisingly little coverage. Were you still making the record when information came out?

JGB: Well, yes, the Anthropocene discourse does only exist in certain fields at the moment, and it is not that mainstream. Although, in academia, art, and theory people have been building careers out of it for some time now. Ecologies II was pretty much finished by the time the news of the agreement was achieved. I think the first Ecologies was much more a reaction to the shock of how little information there was about it, or perhaps more how little I knew my self in contrast to how major it is. It was an effort to create knowledge around that. In the same way, Ecologies II is an effort to understand how ideology and ecosystems are interconnected and also to try to cut into the collective trauma of the contemporary future.

In terms of the natural environments of Ecologies, there’s an interesting contrast between being, obviously, very electronic music influenced by the club and the idea that these sounds could actually be recordings of things like glaciers or clouds of ash or the bottom of the ocean. Is the dichotomy of the electronic and the natural something you’re interested in? In exploring, bridging the gap or maybe even debunking the idea of a gap at all.

JGB: I don't think there's a gap in the first place. This dichotomy is a matter of cultural categorisation.

Although there was a dichotomy in my understanding before, I think I escaped it, and working with the Ecologies series was very much a process of bridging the gap – as you say. In the end they are the same materials and the same energy transformed and reshaped. It’s basic knowledge, but in order to binge watch YouTube or Netflix you need to excavate, reshape and transform certain materials and energy – in the end it's part of the same thing, although there’s a new layer built on top.

In that vein, as much as it sounds like these could be the sounds of our world they’re also incredibly unfamiliar – like an exercise in terraforming; like these are the natural sounds of a different kind of landscape – one that’s kind of uncanny in its familiarity.

JGB: It sometime can become sonic/science fiction in the sense; rewiring currently existing potentials, current landscapes into something speculative, something yet to exist – something that will possibly emerge from current structures. It is rewiring the existing into ‘fictional’ alien images/world that resonate with the current reality and amplify growing potentials.

You also mentioned, in an interview with FACT, about the assimilation and homogenisation of music – as with contemporary art: there’s a certain collaging in Ecologies that feels like a resistance against that?

JGB: I’m not sure if collaging could be said to be a direct resistance to it. Maybe at certain moments it is, I don’t know. For me, inventing one’s language is important, partly as a way of trying not to be directed by hip consumption – although ethical consumption probably isn’t possible where we’re at anyway – and having a language that is not instrumentalised.

There is a lot of potential in fashion and art interplay, but a lot of the time in the realm of fashionable art, or art as fashion – in a certain cycle of a trend – it ends up in a perverse situation, where it’s just certain tropes stuck together, naming certain discourses as way of staying current without any reason other than to target trendy consumption, which in my view can be easily manipulated by interests of brands and marketers, whose business is selling lifestyles, identities, and ideologies. It ends up in detachment, which ends up not being able to anticipate things like the dramatic end of neoliberalism. Contemporary art becomes completely impotent in anticipating.

I think while making this work I personally became very much aware of how homogenising forces act on a global level and saw them in action via architecture, infrastructure and etc. In the end I realised that contemporary art and music are just very much part of the same apparatus: they are not some utopian safe space for expression.

J.G. Biberkopf will feature alongside Anna Meredith and Waclaw Zimpel as part of SHAPE Platform's 2017 roster. Ecologies II is out now

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