Holly Herndon talked to us through a TextEdit window projected onto a screen in an otherwise dark room. The words “nice to be here” flashed across the screen in real time, though it wasn’t Herndon who was typing them. She fired up her own equipment — a laptop with its brand marks blacked out, a glowing controller pad — while the guy in charge of her visuals typed out text from a script on his phone. It seemed as though Herndon had authored the greeting relayed to the audience at Constellation, but like many words seen through a computer screen, their source was never entirely clear.
Platform, Herndon’s latest album, has been out since May, and Herndon has been on tour across the world since its release. The introductory text, before any sound played, included nods to Ada Colou, Barcelona’s first female mayor who has publicly called for a more feminized version of democracy, and anti-fascist activists in the Czech Republic. Later in her performance, Herndon would return to the text screen to say that she’d met American journalists in exile in Europe and to offer “a healthy fuck you to the NSA.”
Herndon’s music is not explicitly political, but seeing her perform between these asides planted seeds of protest in her work. When the music started up, the onscreen visuals switched to a virtual space where an avatar in Herndon’s likeness stood in front of a blank screen. The venue’s name appeared on signs in the 3D room, where laptops, guitars, and vegetables would spawn and crash into each other. Two-dimensional photos of people floated around the space, as our gaze followed a computer cursor that seemed to manipulate both our viewpoint and the laws of physics. It was chaotic, like watching someone play Goat Simulator or Garry’s Mod, but with the subtle visual language of Herndon’s work in place of video game cliches.
Though she barely spoke to the audience, Herndon did have a microphone, and she did perform live vocals. She filtered her voice through her computer, glitching and fading it until it became part of the simulated landscape around us. She stood in front of the projection screen so that the visuals would flicker across her face, sporadically taking her out of shadow. Her songs sounded enormous in the space, hefty and beat-driven, inspiring movement that wasn’t entirely dancing — rows of collapsible chairs faced the screen, which stymied any impulse to interpret the venue as a dance floor.
Herndon’s recorded work hints at the complications embedded in hyperconnectivity, the dissolution of privacy, the stress of unchecked access to information. By addressing us silently through text on a Macbook screen about the ways people across the world are able to engineer resistence, she turned her live audience into more than passive receivers of her art. Most of us would go home to crack open the same tools she’s used to make her music, the same screens and the same keyboards that have enabled artists and activists for years. She implicated us. She handed us some agency.