the preset, the generic, and an ambivalent politics of non-productionrichard b. keys
Thomas Smith, Topoi Koinoi (2018). Performance. 20 minutes. Presented at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, for the Beijing Media Art Biennale (5–24 September 2018). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Gao Ningyan.
As cultural production has been increasingly subsumed into digital and networked platforms in recent decades, it has become over-coded by processes of automation and standardisation that remain largely opaque to the user. The complex algorithmic processes underlying the graphical user interfaces that we (the non-technical user, the end-user) interact with are simplified and made legible to us as “presets.” Thomas Smith is a Melbourne-based artist, electronic musician, and researcher whose work explores these processes and the increasingly uncanny position we find ourselves in as subjects enmeshed in ever-present networks of control. Employing his notion of the preset as a departure point, I sat down with Tom to discuss his work and how it explores the broader socio-technological tensions at play within contemporary networked capitalism.
Richard B. Keys: Part of the preset’s significance as an analogy seems to be in how it articulates the process whereby social and technical knowledge is incorporated into machinic assemblages and automated.1 How does the preset, as a syntax that over-codes cultural production in particular, help us understand the general mode of production that is characteristic of networked capitalist society at large?
Thomas Smith: Presets are programmed objects that contain information from across a range of social, technical, and aesthetic realms. In music production, presets condense very complicated processes into an option that the user can simply choose, or not choose. We interact with many technologies and interfaces in this way; just as a musician often doesn’t understand what is going on inside the machine they use, we generally don’t have access to or understand the technical systems we’re forced to use if we want to socialise, work, access entertainment, and so on.
For me, the concept of the preset is useful as a metaphor for understanding how software and interfaces constrain the horizons for thought in the same way they have delimited musical aesthetics. It is impossible to imagine music as it is without Roland drum machines, Auto-Tune, samplers, digital audio workstations (DAWs), and many other products. Going a step further, it is the presets inside these machines that have defined the way music sounds. Of course music would exist without them, but it would certainly be different. Once I began thinking about presets in this way, I started to look at all culture like this, which is a bit paranoid perhaps. But as you suggest, the preset is useful for conceptualising the way we can increasingly only customise the machines that structure our living in limited and predetermined ways.
RBK: In providing a working definition of the preset you have previously referred to the Yamaha DX7 synth, which is both incredibly complex to program and yet is one of the best-selling synthesisers of all time. Could you contextualise the DX7’s functions and its broader cultural impact?
TS: Historically, commercial hardware synthesis broadly went down two paths. The Euro-American path involves mostly subtractive synthesis (machines like the Korg MS-20); the Japanese path employed FM Synthesis (machines like the DX72). FM synthesis is more complicated, and the resulting sounds vary wildly depending on minor programming changes. It wouldn’t work commercially to have all the parameters available to users, who mostly just want to make a musical sound.
The DX7’s concise list of presets simplifies its complex internal programming into a minimal user interface that allows people to actually use the machine, which (apart from playing, of course) largely involves choosing from a range of pre-programmed sounds. Some of those presets became generic and easily recognisable sounds (E.PIANO 1 in particular),3 and it’s not an exaggeration to say the DX7 created the “’80s sound.” The success of the DX7 demonstrates how user interfaces are often drastically simplified to make products more saleable, resulting in tools that are standardised by nature.
RBK: Electronic music has a relationship to “the new” and the generic that is distinct in important ways from other domains of art and music. You explore this in your use of sample packs in your performance work The New Spirit (2015), where you contextualised a series of tracks you made as part of a broader inquiry into aesthetic standardisation and digital labour. Can you comment on the role these forms of standardisation play within electronic music and how, drawing on these influences, you have tried to negotiate the relationship between sameness and difference through your work?
TS: While making that work I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a piece of music adhere to a given genre, or generic to a certain grouping, and tried to understand how these categories emerge and are commodified or reified. Genre occurs in all mediums, but electronic music provides perhaps the clearest case study for understanding it on a technical level.
The 808 drum machine is an obvious example of a technologically determined genericism in music. It is a set of commercially produced circuits that wasn’t very popular initially, but through patterns of use and re-use is now everywhere.4 Billions of songs share its sounds, and while not necessarily of the same genre, they’re all generic to one another at the production level. This happens repeatedly—standardised tools produce an enormous array of music that is in one sense diverse while on a structural level remains generic. DAWs like Ableton Live take this further in that they are perhaps the most efficient appropriation machines available—they make almost all musical standards reproducible.
The New Spirit was my earliest attempt at producing purely generic music. Of course I discovered it is basically impossible. I used a completely standardised set of tools and processes to make the music.5 That process was part of what made me question where the “new” portion of electronic music comes from, and wonder how much of it comes from me. There’s an unresolvable tension there, because even though I tend to think of newness as an artifact of whatever sounds, tools, and processes I’m using, my particular musical sensibilities inevitably leak into it. Cory Arcangel has talked about music production in a similar way—about how difficult it is to replicate anything perfectly, how the tiny differences that occur when you try to do so are in a sense the basis of pop music.6
RBK: These notions of the preset and the generic flag contradictions at play in subjectivity at large, as well as artistic practice and cultural production. As subjects in late capitalism we seem to have an ideological demand on us to be “different,” to “express ourselves,” while also being inherently over-determined and constrained by the socio-technological systems we inhabit. Do you think we are starting to see broader cultural responses to these contradictory demands?
TS: I think we are. My performances and some of the curatorial projects I conceived around 2016 were about this ambiguity, and the tension between standardisation and difference that networks, software, and computers seem to produce. I use the word “ambivalence” to describe the affective experience of participating in these systems you’re talking about. For instance, when I scroll through Instagram I sometimes feel that I myself am a preset, that someone might choose or not choose me based on how I frame my images, the colours I choose, my ethnicity. On that platform you have to be different, but only certain axes of differentiation are permitted, and those differences are transmitted through very standardised channels. It’s thrilling to be chosen, valorised, and accepted, but there’s also anxiety because quite often we are not selected. The ambivalence at the core of that experience can be extrapolated to experiences of mass-computation in general, where we don’t quite know when we’re being “ourselves” and when we’re being pre-determined.
Platforms like Netflix or Spotify also make presets out of people. Users are apprehended as a bundle of measurable preferences, interests, and tendencies, around which the platform modulates itself to turn them into efficient watching and/or listening machines. There is a certain freedom in infinite streams of content, and yet I’m not really in control of the feed, and I know that I’m participating in a platform that only makes sense commercially to those at the very top. Many people experience these ambivalences, and that is being flagged in my kind of work, political meme culture, and art about surveillance, interfaces, data collection, machine learning, and so on.7
RBK: In works such as VLC, Transaction, Image (2016), where you re-perform various everyday digital routines, there is a peculiar intimacy that is evoked by your engagement with the mundane gestures of networked capitalist society that we as users perform every day, from switching between windows to doing Google searches, playing audio files on VLC, and paying your rent. Holly Herndon’s statement that the computer is the most personal instrument ever comes to mind.8
TS: After performances people often say that there’s something uncanny about seeing those things performed publicly. People think it’s funny sometimes, but there’s also a sadness to it. I like to sing through autotune in certain scales to give these seemingly neutral interfaces an emotional hue. That’s probably a major theme of my work: a certain tragedy that for me is a feature of software interfaces, which always contain ideological biases and disadvantage certain groups. I often imagine the billions of hours spent using software interfaces and how they capture people who were born into them. There’s something horrifying about them, about the way people are forced to modulate themselves through them, and how people imagine themselves to be productive or to be changing the world as they do so.
I’m not trying to be a virtuoso, demonstrate some special skill, or even create a novel experience necessarily—it’s more about performing the manner in which humans use and are apprehended by software, platforms, and other control apparatuses. I’m exploring what it means to be “basic” in a way, to be an average user, which is what the vast majority of us are. I’m exploring very banal computational experiences—ways of operating in the world that are so normalised and mandatory that we no longer see them.
Thinking about online banking in particular, the mass adoption of computation has led to a situation where we develop similar behaviours in relation to generic platforms, and yet, despite a sameness in the way many people use computers, those gestures are deeply personal and individualised, or at least they feel that way. For instance, when I do the rent-paying ritual publicly, people can see my banking interface, how much money I have, and what I’ve spent money on. Once I was behind on my rent and paid several thousand dollars—all my savings. People who are likely to see my performances have perhaps had similar experiences, but would rarely witness someone else doing these things. Doing it in public was a way to broach this contradiction, which perhaps boils down to the paradoxically communal aspects of capitalist infrastructure.9
RBK: In your writing you have critiqued the fetishisation of the new within contemporary art and culture, which can be seen as a hangover from the modernist notion of the avant-garde. This mode of artistic production is arguably no longer a viable strategy aesthetico-politically, in that late-capitalism has become adept at subsuming these gestures into its circuits of valorisation and exchange.
TS: If we’re always changing, innovating, undermining, and disrupting, the process of destabilisation becomes the culture itself. Classic texts like Joseph Schumpeter on creative destruction, Karl Marx’s maxim “all that is solid melts into air,” or even Max Weber on the Protestant work ethic are instructive; these have become internalised modes of being.10 To my mind, European/Anglo-American modes of artistic innovation like the avant-garde are in line with that logic. As is the Californian Ideology: Silicon Valley is the avant-garde, start-ups are the avant-garde—they use the same language to describe what they do.
In some of my work I have tried to broach this fetishisation of the new by making things that are completely generic, that might be un-subsumable because they contain no innovation whatsoever. As I said, it’s impossible because some kind of novel difference is always produced; it’s an artefact of virtually any process, and socio-contextual differences further accumulate around an object once it enters the world, even if it’s just a file on SoundCloud. Artistic production is always linked to this kind of automatic newness, which is maybe another way of saying newness is generic in and of itself. So with some of my works I have tried to problematise the new as a cultural value by highlighting a structural genericity, or at least the aesthetic continuity between products that the market might consider unique because of extrinsic factors.
I’m interested in the idea of a culture that might become so standardised in its modes of artistic production that there will be no new—not in an apocalyptic way as someone like Mark Fisher has imagined,11 or in a postmodern pastiche way, but in a liberatory way that relieves us of the tyranny of novelty and of the obligation to constantly produce it. I’m not saying musical expression isn’t valuable or that people shouldn’t bother trying to make exciting new things; I’m interested in the idea of a culture where newness is decoupled from its fetishisation, where it is not captured as reproducible commodity.
Electronic music is a good example again for understanding how newness works culturally, because so many people use the same sounds, software, and techniques. There are aeons worth of music that sounds similar, and yet these products’ marketing involves a pretense of innovation and requires a hierarchy among its producers. On the other end of that scale, new genres and sounds (or at least ones that are new to a broad audience) enter the market and are rapidly subsumed into a range of reproducible templates. There’s a parallel discussion to be had about how culture becomes repeatable information in computerised societies, and the implications in terms of cultural appropriation, aesthetic hierarchies, and who profits from culture.
RBK: Do you think the gestures embodied in your approach can be seen to offer means to acknowledge and critically negotiate these contradictions? And to what degree do you think this ambiguous approach runs the risk of being complicit in these systems of exploitation and oppression, rather than a mode of immanent critique?
TS: I hope I am being critical rather than complicit, but I can’t really say. If I’m performing very banal online routines, which are basically indistinguishable from non-manual labour in our economy, I can never really know which one it is I’m doing.
Stiob was a late-soviet genre where artists over-identified with and reproduced state discourse to such an absurd degree that it wasn’t clear if they were towing party lines or parodying them. After the USSR’s collapse, Stiob works made sense as critique because the hyper-normalised systems they were reproducing had broken down and people had openly stopped believing in them.12
I’m doing something along the lines of Stiob, but in Western societies the hyper-normalised systems we live in have not yet broken down. Although many of us don’t believe that accumulating capital or propagating ourselves as brands is socially constructive, we still do these things. So, as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak argues, our period is in some ways similar to the late-soviet one, where this simultaneity of complicity and critique is part of everyday living. This tension has in itself become a very normal mode.
1 Here I am alluding to the notion of “the general intellect,” which was developed in Italian post-operaismo tradition from the so-called “Fragment on Machines” section of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse (first published in 1939). For a nuanced history of this concept’s development see Matteo Pasquinelli, “On the origins of Marx’s general intellect,” Radical Philosophy 2.6 (Winter 2019).
2 Yamaha licensed technology developed at Stanford University to produce the DX7. The license has been very lucrative for Stanford; as of 1994 “The chip and its derivatives form the bedrock of a fast-growing business that is currently worth about $300 million in annual sales to the company.” Robert Johnstone, The Sound of One Chip Clapping: Yamaha and FM Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Japan Program, 1994), 1. See also Andrew J. Nelson, The Sound of Innovation: Stanford and the Computer Music Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
3 As utilised in Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” (1985). See Whitney Houston, “Whitney Houston—Greatest Love Of All (Official Video),” YouTube, 27 September 2010.
6 Stefan Goldmann, Presets: Digital Shortcuts to Sound (London: The Bookworm, 2015), 187.
8 Mark Baynham, “Speaking in code: Holly Herndon explains why the laptop is the most personal instrument the world has ever known,” FACT, 15 November 2012.
10 Joseph A. Schumpeter, “The Process of Creative Destruction,” Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008), 81–86; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 2002); and Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002).
11 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: O Books, 2009).
12 Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). See also Dominic Boyer & Alexei Yurchak, “American Stiob: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in The West,” Cultural Anthropology 25.2 (April 2010), 179–221.