Nightclubbing with Claire Tolan - Art Collector

Claire Tolan, Ascending Affirmations, 2015. Video-projection still, performance. Courtesy: the artist

By Joel Mu

German cult club Berghain was the unlikely context to find Claire Tolan's recent artwork Ascending Affirmations, a performance inspired by online videos and live data-visualisation of Berlin nightclubbers. The piece lasted one hour and aside from being very engaging and witty (like Berghain-inspired acrylic nails), Tolan's performance went a step further by exceeding the expectations of nightclub-hosted art with an insight about the social relevance of current digital art. Since my interview with Tolan, I have wondered if we require a theory of multi-presence to understand the multi social-relevance of digital art? Looking at Tolan's artwork, this criteria for a more layered understanding seems appropriate, as the artist's work clearly illustrates a pattern of appearing easily and simultaneously across digital platforms, field-recorders, community radio, nightclubs, artists and AI collaborations, online fashion and activist NGOs. It would seem that like a crowd in a nightclub the internet, and by extension art derived from it is both known to us and unknown to us, and perhaps the sooner theories of art reflects these states the better.

I know you studied literature and poetry, and for a short time you were interested in becoming an archivist before skilling-up with computer programming. We've previously talked about the idea of archive as form – how does this play out in your artistic process?

On the surface it means that I back-up my files obsessively, maintain a very logical folder structure (where it matters) and implement good file-naming protocols. The last two points are vital because I’m dealing with tens of sound files of fingernails tapping on different dates on different objects in different rooms.

But of course there are much subtler ways in which my years of archival employment and study come back to inform my sound work. I think much of my fascination with archives began with the richness of taxonomic schemes – logical, illogical, professional, and personal manners of organising information. These schemes are sparked by the perspective of the compiler, the context. My work with ASMR has been concerned with moving the sounds and culture out of their original context – first by breaking the link between the sonic and visual on my radio show, and now by reimagining the typical space of the hyper-personal and hyper-mediated ASMR experience for live performance. I’m interested in how the constraints of YouTube, the platform on which the majority of ASMR videos exist, regulate the content of the videos. I mean this both in terms of practical features of video (metadata, captions, sound quality) and in terms of how the design of YouTube’s interface allows community members to manifest/define themselves – as ASMRtists and as viewers.

ASMR digital-file management (screenshot). Courtesy: the artist

The sonic and visual is definitely a key characteristic of Ascending Affirmations. How did the Berghain invitation come about?

I was invited to perform at Berghain because of my collaboration with Holly Herndon. We co-wrote, and I recorded sounds and voice on Lonely at the Top, the ASMR role play on Holly's new album Platform. Holly is working to extend the platform of Platform beyond the production of the record, and this Berghain night, through the graces of the CTM Festival and transmediale, was one such gesture.

Earlier you mentioned ASMR and you're often described as an ASMR expert, so what’s an ASMRtist?

For the uninitiated, ASMR is an acronym for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a pleasant tingling sensation in the scalp and spine provoked by soft sounds such as whispering, nail tapping, and hair brushing. The phenomenon was christened in an online forum around 2008 and has since sparked a huge community of people making videos to trigger this tingling sensation on YouTube. The video creators are dubbed ASMRtists.

I suppose I am often identified ASMR expert, instead of an ASMRtist, because I am working with the sounds and culture in an atypical way. My engagement began via a radio show,
You're Worth It, on the wonderful Berlin Community Radio, and has since expanded into performance and other forms, including an ongoing pseudo-theory writing project para ASMR. However, I am not making ASMR videos on YouTube (and I have relatively little interest in doing this). My fascination with the phenomenon is not primarily the tingling sensation, but rather the ways in which the ASMR community functions as a fringe community of healing for the ills of the contemporary (anxiety, depression, insomnia). I am also invested in exploring what it means to be a host in the context of ASMR, that is, how to welcome, name, and care for strangers. So I suppose these ulterior motives trigger the expert designation. I would say that I am both ASMxpert and ASMRtist.

Claire Tolan, Always Here For You, 2015. Installation. Courtesy: the artist

I think it’s interesting that you've developed this interest for the online ASMR community. Some would say this fascination with Youtube and various meme videos is banal and not serious, and that the internet is a waste of time. I know you have an alternative view based on "different genres of wasting time" – what do you mean?

I draw a pretty clear distinction between the frenetic refreshing/scrolling of feeds on ~4 websites and apps (Instagram, Twitter, etcetera) and a less frantic wandering through the web. I find that the latter often feels spooky in its tendency to suggest connections that become important in different contexts or that solve existing problems. I’m not convinced that this kind of browsing is so different from what one could do aimlessly engaging with a library/archive/bookstore/streetscape. Importantly, neither of the above mechanisms is productive, and this refusal of productivity is really appealing to me right now, perhaps only because I’m overworked. I’m interested in ASMR as an almost perfect refusal of productivity. ASMR demands the user’s attention; the sounds – especially in combination with video – are hypnotic. Work stops when the video begins. This is a gross simplification of a much larger theory, but I think it’s important to think about different behaviours on the Internet and how they relate to the flow of ideas. I’m not so interested in optimisation of my Internet habits, but I am interested in how they change in response to different interfaces and stimuli.

In July you start an artist residency at The White Building in London. What's planned? It's a continuation of your ASMR research, right?

Yes! I’m off to London for a three-month residency. In addition to strategising a bit about what I want live ASMR performances to look like and about what a large, cohesive ASMR work could be, I’m planning to finally flex my web development skills in the service of ASMR. I’m going to build a website that presents about a dozen multiple choice quizzes, each of which will hopefully represent a collaboration with a different writer/musician/poet/artist/librarian/nurse/hacker/mother/computer/dog/whatever. Each multiple choice answer will be linked to short video clip; upon completion of a quiz, the quizee will be presented with a customized ASMR video, tailored to her responses. I’ve been fascinated with the quiz-as-form (or quiz-as-service, or quiz poetics) for a while. I’m especially hooked on the conceit that only a certain quantity of material can be accessed at a time, and always strung together in a random pattern. We’ll see how it goes; I think it will be fun.

Back to the Berghain performance – Can you describe the scene a little and did it turn out like you wanted?

The performance was executed in collaboration with my friend Gabi. For those unfamiliar with the Berghain, the main dance floor is on the second level. I stood at the entrance on the first level, greeting people as they entered. I said hello, welcome, wow you look fantastic. I often greeted those I knew by name. My voice was piped up to the dance floor, where Gabi was stationed in the DJ booth. Throughout the performance, I fed her statistics about people entering after I greeted them, remarking on clothing color, mood (a checklist mostly taken from this legendary y2k dress), and whether or not I knew them. Gabi entered this data into a series of projected, real-time data visualisations that I had programmed.

An ASMR soundscape played in the background during the set, and throughout the evening, Gabi triggered whispered samples of hacker pick-up lines; quips about data, privacy, and surveillance; and various compliments and welcoming sentiments recorded by our friend Inger. Near the end of the performance, Gabi and I closed the research; I came upstairs and stood on a platform above the audience; we performed a karaoke version of
Lonely at the Top, the ASMR track from Holly's Platform.

The Berghain night was one of my first experiments with live performance. I do not consider myself a performer, but I quite like the role of host on my radio program. I've been trying to figure out how I can extend this host role into performance, thereby skirting some of my performer ambivalence while simultaneously interrogating one of the most fascinating aspects of ASMR videos, which is the weird system of address and recognition utilised by the ASMRtist to greet her audience. Overall, I was very happy with the evening, and it generated a lot of questions I hope to address in future events.

Claire Tolan, Ascending Affirmations, 2015. Video-projection still, performance. Courtesy: the artist

During the night's performances, I thought it was interesting how the apparatus of your work was repeated by AGF, Amnesia Scanner and Holly Herndon. How do you understand the boundaries of art and music today?

For my work, and for the work of many friends, I find that the boundaries between these worlds are arbitrary and imposed mostly by institutional mandates and differing funding structures. I'm flying to Basel as I write this to host an evening at a gallery, some parts of which will look exactly like what I did at Berghain, what I did at an art museum in Hannover a few days ago and what I regularly do on the radio. I think my ASMR experiments can fit in a club as they can fit in a gallery or on the radio, but I am uninterested in making work that does not in some way acknowledge or play with the space in which it is happening. How can I code my hosting to the specific ceremonies of an event's enveloping culture?

Tangentially, many of my friends who are working as artists, musicians, or writers are not trained for the media that they've found success in, or the form that they've come to privilege. It is the same for me. Though I fear sometimes the onset of eternal dilettantism, I think that there is something to be said for initiating a practice in a new form when you have matured enough to gain perspective on your first bout of training.

I'm quite certain that none of this fluidity of practice is new to my generation, but it's interesting to see how it plays out across contemporary culture, especially in the use and re-purposing of online production and community platforms.

During the night there were references to Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning – why do you think political activism was an issue that night?

The evening at the Berghain was a benefit for Chelsea Manning's defense fund. Jacob Applebaum, a prominent technologist and Tor developer, delivered a short political monologue during Holly's set. Holly is quite explicitly working to bring political statements and sentiments into the club.

For me, much of my professional work for the past several years has involved political activism around issues relating to human rights abuses, information freedom, and privacy advocacy. I work as a web developer/programmer, and I once trained as an archivist, and so these hacking/activism/information freedom discourses touch me in many ways.

I value practices that alter the imagination and models that we have for structuring and understanding information. This work can be done with art, and it can be done with many other lines of inquiry. This is hacking, which merely means altering the given structure of a platform, tool, or narrative to endow it with a different functionality. This is the work undertaken by Wikileaks (and Manning as part of that) and by Snowden. It was the work of Aaron Swartz prior to his persecution by the United States government. As technologies become increasingly black-boxed, obscuring the power structures that shaped and continue to shape them, I would say that it is the work of everyone, and especially of the artist, to ask why, how, so-what, what-else, and what-now.

I think it's interesting how some artists are socially relevant in ways that has little or nothing to do with art. You also do this – can you elaborate some more about your projects with the Tactical Technology Collective and PENG Collective?

I moved to Berlin to work as a web developer with the Tactical Technology Collective (TTC), an NGO that helps activists and human rights defenders and advocacy groups manage and manipulate information. This means everything from digital security trainings to guides about the effective use of infographics in campaigning. As a developer, I’ve played an infrastructural role in many of their projects. Because I come from a verbal, non-technical background, and because I love teaching, the organisation has allowed me to often take on the role of translator, turning complex technical concepts into outputs for non-technical audiences. Being a techie at a highly networked political technology organisation means that I’ve been rapidly introduced to European free and open source software and hardware culture, digital security tactics, privacy discourses, etc. A month after I began working with TTC, the first Snowden leaks appeared, and Berlin has become sort of a hub for the fallout. It’s been a very interesting two years.

The PENG Collective is a group of activists in Berlin who run humorous, awareness-raising campaigns. They’re perhaps best known for their introduction of Google Nest at re:publica, a technology conference in Berlin, last year. This past spring they launched an anti-trolling Twitter campaign. For a week, a horde of bots scraped Twitter, located people who fit a certain troll profile (because of harassing other users), and enrolled these trolls in a five-step rehabilitation program, ZeroTrollerance. The mysterious hacker Jenny Mainframe and I coded this ridiculous, overwrought botnet, which was quite a difficult task because we wanted to send a massive number of messages every day while playing by the quite restrictive rules of the Twitter API (the interface that allows third-party apps, or bots to interact with Twitter). Of course, there were some issues with the campaign, including a high number of false-positives enrolled, but for a beta-botnet, it was fairly successful. Next time, though, we might need to flex our 2.0 hacker skills so we can more efficiently and effectively rehabilitate the trolls.

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