Creased Up: Jennifer Walshe interviewed

Ahead of her appearance at NEXT festival, artist, writer, composer and improvisor Jennifer Walshe talks to Jennifer Lucy Allan about entropy, absurdity, and improvising with GRANNMA

Portrait by Blackie Bouffant

Jennifer Walshe performs at the NEXT festival in Bratislava on 28 November

“I’ll tell you the version that I tell the audience and then I’ll tell you what’s really happening,” says Jennifer Walshe, when I ask about her piece IS IT COOL TO TRY NOW? She tells me that she opens the piece by announcing that what she is about to perform is generated using an artificial intelligence that she has trained on different types of neural networks: “Convolution neural networks, recurrent neural networks,” she explains, “so if you see .rnn or .cnn on the screen, that’s what it’s referring to.”

At the top of each ‘movement’, the video screen shows an explanation of what the network was trained on, which includes Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop newsletter; Reddit boards about robotics at the Museum of emerging technology in Tokyo, and her own childhood diaries. The piece sounds, and looks authentic, and uses accurate technical language from machine learning. “They say ‘this was epoch one’ or ‘epoch two’, and will train the network for maybe 40 epochs to get the model better and better,” explains Walshe. One epoch, for example, might be identified as having trouble distinguishing between screaming and laughing, and the next one addresses that problem. Walshe isn’t faking that knowledge and terminology – she’s done the research, well enough to fool a room of specialists.

One of the first times she performed the piece was to a crowd of machine learning and robotics scientists in Belfast. Afterwards, she said one of them approached her and said that for the first 15 minutes, “they thought ‘Fuck you, how did you get all this funding?’” as they knew what a non-specialist audience didn’t, and that was each movement was roughly equivalent to an entire research project and highly expensive. “Anything I’m making up is supported by a lot of real research,” she explains. “I’m not just making up total bullshit. I’m interested in this. I’m trying to learn about it all the time. So the research supports what I’d call the speculative AI.”

These ideas, of a sort of authentic speculative work, have been present in other projects by Walshe. Aisteach was an online archive of the Irish avant-garde, that featured the Guinness Dadaists and durational organ music by a nun called Sister Anselme O’Ceallaigh. She talked about it as real for a long time, and many people believed it. Its timing was perfect, made when the historical mining of avant-garde music was at its most aggressive, supplemented by a flourishing reissues market. But, as with IS IT COOL TO TRY NOW? the profiles were so fully developed, with biographies and audio recordings, that it hardly mattered that they weren’t real.

The project was not about duping an audience, but about prodding structures and establishments to ask about how histories of music are established. Aisteach made a point about the vagaries of these timelines – Walshe was somewhat invested in this through her friendship with Tony Conrad, who at the time had been largely written out of some versions of minimalism. She also said she couldn’t find an Irish avant-garde, that if it existed it hadn’t been recorded, and was certainly not networked. It was inspirational in making the point that linear narratives in music are often mostly a fiction anyway, for all the editing and obfuscation it requires. In which case, does it matter that her Goop AI isn’t real?

Walshe isn’t looking to cheat anyone – she’ll happily divulge the reality of IS IT COOL TO TRY NOW? if anyone asks. She is instead prodding these technologies as a composer and artist, and is interested in the sonic uncanny valley produced by these technologies and computing developments in their infancy. “I feel like my generation – maybe for the next 20 years – we’re the last people to get to really dream about it, or mess with it, or lie about it, or speculate,” she says. “Because pretty soon, particularly for genre-based music like pop music or film music, AI generated music is going to be indistinguishable. So what did you do then? What sort of art do you make about it then?”

More recently, Walshe has been able to develop her own AI, in a project called ULTRACHUNK with creative technologist Memo Akten. Akten built GRANNMA, a vocal improvising doppelganger of Walshe that is a real AI, requiring heavyweight computing power, and which was trained on hours and hours of her improvising into a webcam. She points out that while fiction writers like Ian McEwan and Jeanette Winterson are getting interested in AI, what’s happening in the real world is just as weird, if not weirder. We go on a long tangent about AI and porn, and she explains how one of the main makers of AI sex dolls, “is a kind of goth dude, purple shirts and thumbrings, you know the vibe… and when he first coded AI to put in the sex dolls, the robotics were all in the head on this lifeless body. When he came to pick a synthetic voice, he chose a female Scottish accent. I was killing myself. You’re seeing this doll that is like, Pamela Anderson times ten, but the voice is a wee Scottish lady. The guy says he just thought it was the nicest voice. In 20 years time, all that weirdness will have been ironed out and smoothed over.”

AI can also liberate or reinforce biases that already exist – Walshe points out that with current deep fakes if you’re Will Smith it’s great, you’re de-aged, but if you’re Alyssa Milano there’s a whole Reddit group committed to making deep fake porn with your face. In terms of music, pre-existing biases regarding the canon are also replicated, often aimed at reproducing masterworks by great male composers. “A lot of people are really interested in Bach chorals, and making deepBach,” she explains. “The composer is usually a man, and usually they’re from a time in history where there was a clear rule based compositional system”. Easily accessible material is also used to train networks, meaning that lots of networks are trained on The Bible as it is public domain and the right length.

She uses the AI generated sci-fi short film Sunspring as an example – while she enjoys the ‘texture’ of Hollywood actors committing to the bizarre script (which includes lines such as “You should see the boy and shut up – I was the one who was going to be 100 years old”) when she dug out the corpus on which it was trained, it was mostly films written and directed by men. “Even with Sunspring, it’s not insanely sexist stuff, it’s just run of the mill Hollywood.”

For Walshe, improvising into a video camera for hours a day, they also showed her own tics: “It’s like hearing yourself telling you telling the same joke at a dinner party,” she says. Her vocals are captured on recent album, ALL THE MANY PEOPLS, which comes off like a capella plunderphonics – there are samples and snippets in there, earworms from videos. She takes handbrake turns, there is uncomfortable panting, sniffing, screaming, cackling. It’s like channel hopping while simultaneously scrolling through Twitter with video sound on, while a radio skips through channels and white noise in the background. The references are dizzying – like the internet, if you can think of it, it’s probably there. In Drew Daniel’s sleevenotes for the record he writes: “Whether this sounds like a crawling, schizophrenic chaos or like a typical day online depends upon how you spend your time.” But I’d say it sounds like both – Walshe places herself as a sort of cipher for what sounds like a scrambled live stream from film, literature, video games, social media, philosophy, science fiction, pop music, message boards, and search engine ephemera. Daniel describes her accurately as a “one-woman roaratoria”.

As well as the various manifestations of her AI research, she is also performing her opera on about time at LCMF, which was written with philosopher Timothy Morton (originator of the term hyperobject, for his sins) for Bergen’s Borealis festival last year, and also features a cast of contributors and performers, including Matmos’ MC Schmidt. On their way in, the crowd will be given a 140million year old ammonite to hold (these are ethically sourced), asked to switch off their phones so they can’t see the time, and will be monitored using heat sensors. All these factors are meant to get people into the headspace of thinking about different time scales. The heat sensors effectively track entropy in the room, and the audience’s excitement, or lack of, both proves the passage of time and will inform how much time the performance takes. “When I was working on the piece, I was really trying to wrap my head around these massive, massive time scales,” she explains. “I went to the Natural History Museum constantly, just looked at the dinosaur bones, talked to the dinosaur guy there (who is really nice).”

Key to understanding Walshe’s work is humour – of a similar stripe to that of Matmos (as well as Daniels writing the sleevenotes for her record, Schmidt is part of the time opera). She’s not making jokes as such, although that’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in her work. It’s more about the creative potential of absurdity – it makes perfect sense when she tells me she was obsessed with Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out at school. There’s no cynicism in her humour, but is instead interested in the operations of language, and about what absurdity and humour can expose about culture, communication and expectation. “We would read the scripts from the Big Night Out book and quote them to one another at school,” she says, “so it’s a huge part of my life, huge. My sister also has an ongoing WhatsApp thread with my best friend from my childhood, where they make up jokes. So I woke up this morning and that was the first thing on WhatsApp. But for a lot of free improvisers, text can be sort of taboo, so for a long time, I never thought about using texts.”

This all changed when she was working with her close friend, the late Tony Conrad. “We were improvising together, and he said I don’t understand, your mother is a writer, you’re really into text, why the hell aren’t you talking and using the text in your work? So slowly I started feeling free to do that.”

Walshe started binding all the text she was using into volumes that appear to be titled Book Is Book, compiled from short verses, pleasing sentences scraped from the internet, things she’s written and things she’s found. They are sort of sourcebooks for her compositional practice. She is currently considering whether they exist as something outside of a musical project, and has recently contributed to the current edition of The Winter Papers, a journal for Irish arts. She opens one of the volumes on her desk and reads out the following: "I’m ready to replace that giant tub of pre-workout on top of my fridge." It’s to her taste she explains, and she flicks through these “like a DJ would flick through records”. But after noticing some members of the audience laughing at some of these sentences, she went and did proper research – attended open mic comedy nights, revisited Monty Python and Vic Reeves, read Stewart Lee, and became fascinated with performed comedy.

In all aspects of her work, Walshe has a joyful curiosity and is a gluttonous researcher. She has the capacity to inhale huge amounts of knowledge on culture and technology, exhaling operas, AIs, improvisations, texts, but remaining fascinated by how things are changing. “It’s about being able to play,” she explains. “I think culture is still going to develop and really weird ways that we can’t predict. It makes me really excited – I want to stick around and see what’s going to happen.”

Jennifer Walshe performs at the NEXT festival in Bratislava on 28 November. ALL THE MANY PEOPLS is out now on Migro

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