Acid Monasticism: Holly Herndon at the Barbican

Where to start with a night like last night at the Barbican?

“This is totally normal” was Aya’s comment as she made her way onto the stage to begin proceedings for a night that could not have been more perfectly ill-fitting for the Barbican’s main hall. For anyone who had any inkling of what they were in for, “normal” got checked in at the cloak room downstairs. This was going to be something else.

Anyone who has seen Aya perform before will be familiar with her open commentary on her performances. She treats the DJ booth like an MC treats their trestle table down your local pub’s queer karaoke night — and I must emphasise that this is a very welcome addition to any occasion.

In a small space like a bar or club, this makes perfect sense. Aya creates an atmosphere that is immediately communal. She is effortlessly entertaining. She runs the show but all whilst letting us in on what she’s doing. In the Barbican, I was anxious to see how this would translate. Her approach is familiar but also challenges whatever space she is performing in. Even the Barbican? Even the Barbican. It’s like when Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize — I’m not sure why this is the reference that comes to mind but it’s early in the morning and, to be honest, Aya has left a thousand things flying around my skull overnight. She turns a DJ set into a tombola of affects. It’s surreal to see life documented in this way, so frankly and so irreverently in spaces of high cultural capital, and it calls into question what is normal and what is radical, challenging perceptions of what can take place in bedrooms and clubs and concert halls, turning all spaces and their temporalities on their heads.

There was an interview I remember reading with Mark Fell once where he commented on why he wore a flat cap and backpack whilst doing a Boiler Room night: to give the impression to all the loitering cool kids behind him that this dog walker couldn’t stay long, sorry, but thanks. It’s a brand of Northern irreverence that always goes down well with me but is too often absent from our main cultural spaces. The first season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK comes to mind, critiqued repeatedly for sanitising a UK drag scene that is a lot edgier than the BBC and Ru Paul’s American formatting is capable of representing. Aya’s style of performance is like this. Brazenly endearing. Cheeky and caring. Criminally underrepresented. As such, she insists on making an impression. It is a way of performing that pulls people in, making you feel welcome, in on the joke, and part of an intimate experience.

It is a testament to Aya’s chops that this sort of approach carries over into a space as large as the Barbican’s main hall.

At first, walking out onto the stage, the self-deprecation started almost immediately, as she took her position on stage behind a heavily stickered laptop, calling out to the sound guy about a dodgy RCA cable, wryly commenting “it’s all part of the show, folks — I’ll buy you a drink after if you help me out”. There was an anxiety underpinning the whole affair and at first I wondered how she would win over this unusually (for her) seated crowd. But Aya brought us into her sphere soon enough.

Interestingly, despite the insane size of the venue, her performance that evening felt even more intimate than usual.

Previously, Aya’s sets have always felt self-reflective and in-the-moment, commenting on her performance as she goes, praising and deriding herself with a self-criticality that, rather than undermining what she does, only helps to suspend her audience’s sense of judgement and open themselves up to the new. This was all the more necessary on Wednesday as her set took an even deeper look into her process — of music making and being, of gender and artistic transition — than any previous performance of hers that I’ve seen.

She is a singular artist who nonetheless wants to share herself openly. There is no cloistered and protective reflex regarding her own scenic novelty. She makes the gaps in dance music’s mainstream more apparent by filling them entirely and it makes her openness on stage breathtaking. At first presenting herself as if picking tracks and A/V works from a sonic scrapbook before laying herself completely bare before an audience already in the palm of her hand as her folded skin and ball sack streams past on the enormous projection screen behind her, reciting poems, lip-syncing to Lady Sovereign edits and with a Pulp Fiction-sampling skit about “deconstructed club” thrown in for good measure.

Later, the word “unseen” dominates the screen and her vocal track. It’s hard to know what this is referring to — is there anything left unseen? It doesn’t feel like it. But, in truth, there always is. As Aya scrapes off her makeup, which has contorted her face into a Gazelle Twin-esque goblin visage, inner experience is loud in its absence. Aya has brought us together in her stand-offish vulnerability but there is so much left unsaid. In a space this large, that is obvious. She may have been successful in reducing the size of the hall, bringing us in close, but in the end we’re left all the more aware of the distance between ourselves, and left with the challenge to sustain the intimacy she has demonstrated to us once its all over.

It’s an inspired strategy. As she walks off stage and the hall returns to its normal size, the desire to remain down Aya’s rabbit hole is palpable. (An analogy that feels unavoidably sexual in the context of this performance but that’s fine.) She ends by reciting a poem on gender dysphoria and bathroom politics and the alienating inner experience of our split selves but after 40 minutes of collective joy the distance between inner and collective experience seems marginal. She leaves open a space of infinite possibilities.

As the supporting act, Aya set the stage perfectly for what is to come.

In watching Holly Herndon and her ensemble walk across the stage after an interval — during which I saw so many familiar faces and friends: it truly felt like everyone in that theatre already knew each other — Aya still reverberating in my ears, I was reminded of Pepper Labeija in Paris is Burning describing the house scene in the 1980s, explaining how a house is like a family for people who don’t have families. A different sort of family. Not a nuclear family but a grouping of “people in a mutual bond.”

Aya’s shape-throwing and on-stage sensibilities are only a short distance from this much-adored subculture but the Herndon ensemble were a welcome contrast to Aya’s solitary performance. What she left open was occupied by this group of seven who embody those nascent possibilities so absolutely — on and off stage.

And yet, watching the Herndon ensemble almost feels voyeuristic. It is immediately clear that on stage is not a band but a family and we’ve all gathered to watch them hang out.

Soon enough, though, they welcome us into the fold as well. Watching Mat Dryhurst in particular, dressed in all black, in stark contrast to the rest of the ensemble’s “technofishwife cyber-Amish electroecclesiastical Hildegardian Mad Max babushkacore” (as Sarah Shin magnificently put it), he stands out, visibly ecstatic to be there and documenting everything like a proud Dad, lurking in the background, vaping and photographing and grinning ear to ear. You immediately feel like you are watching something special — for us and for them.

Colin Self is also a stand out presence within the group, their physical affection for the rest of the ensemble leaking out from the stage.

Sharing a cuddle with different members of the group during the intervals between full ensemble performances is so touching to see. Between songs, where each singer seemingly has their mark, they are quick to dismantle the structured professionalism of a well-rehearsed performance.

And it is well-rehearsed. They demonstrate a collective voice like no other. Each of the voices on stage is a powerhouse in their own right but it is frequently difficult to distinguish what sounds are coming from which person, and which are coming from or being processed by the laptops behind them. They are one and they are many.

Later, when members of London Sacred Harp choir are revealed to be scattered around the audience to take part in one choral piece, the desire to just hug the person next to me became quite hard to ignore. (I resisted.)

Later Holly asks if we will all join Colin in a “call and response” exercise — or “Colin response”, as they put it — so that Herndon’s AI baby Spawn can make an aural map of the audience. She doesn’t have to ask us twice. Everyone around me sings and it is beautiful. I don’t hear a single bum note in the house. Spawn may absorb our voices to map us but we have already absorbed the group on stage and are ready to sing back to them with relish.

It is a show full of details and set pieces. There is a temptation to comment on them all in turn, but it is the overall feeling with which the show left its audience that feels the most important and most difficult thing to define.

After the show, my friend Col Self — her shared name with Colin was an immediate topic of conversation — who I had not seen properly for almost a year, saw me from across the Barbican’s foyer space and launched immediately into a hug. It was the most obvious greeting after an experience such as that.

We went for drinks afterwards in a bar down the road and our conversation turned to magic, “the poetics of the occult”, ritual, the power of radical anti-capitalist unreason in the 21st century, and talk of projects and collaborations abound from there. There was a sense that everyone was deeply inspired by what they’d seen: to hang out, create and be together.

I was reminded of an old essay I wrote for school back in late 2016, “Monastic Vampirism” — an attempt to explore the gothic potentials found within monastic practices, drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s research that suggests early monasteries, before being subsumed into the Catholic Church as a globe-trotting institution, were proto-communist before their forced democratisation.

Herndon’s ensemble does not chime with the gothic image painted previously but they nonetheless seem to be drawing on a rich history of communal ways of life. This sort of thing is often spoken about in the past tense, as a by-gone and extinct way of being, practised only by neofeudalist hippies or anarcho-primitivists, but the ensemble are evidently aiming for something very different to the ways of old.

Leslie Fielder once argues that psychedelia — rather than being a bright, vibrant, tripped-out aesthetic — is instead the opposite of nostalgia. In our present moment, capitalist realism has reduced all alternative ways of life to nostalgic dreams of simpler times but the radicality of the Herndon ensemble’s presentation is that their way of living is adamantly future-oriented. Its nods to past forms feel like nods to the choral ensembles that Herndon has long been fascinated by, a reference to history that is not allowed to languish in the past. Song is inherently communal. Too often the hierarchy of performer and audience makes us forget this. But this is not a reminder — it’s a dream of future versions of ourselves that sing to love and heal.

As our conversation in the pub continued on, Col would insist she wasn’t high, despite her sudden enthusiasm for life, but the show itself was intoxicating. It is an acid monasticism, hallucinating new ways of communal existence, beyond the realms of capitalist normality, that can adapt to the technologies of the present and future.

Before heading home our conversation turned to Extinction Rebellion and the question of why this movement has caught on and changed the conversation but Occupy did not, despite its hype.

“There’s such a thing as the right idea at the wrong time”, said @body_drift, who I was also so happy to see. And that’s certainly true. The immanent threat of the climate emergency is hard to ignore but beyond its strong nostalgic undercurrent of hippie organising there is a sense that we are going through a shift in consciousness that is incredibly timely.

We talked about Ballard’s Drowned World and Kerans’ feeling that he’s not showing the early signs of mental illness but of a cognitive transformation for a new world around him. For him, however, this is brought on by an already irreversible climate disaster. For us, it feels different. The threat is making us prepare ourselves for something new, ahead of time.

This is to say that protesting within the bounds of the system in order to change it is one thing but the work of Holly Herndon and her crew seems to represent something else — something outside the headline-grabbing but nonetheless necessary organising; something that is in tune with the same affects that are fuelling XR’s movement but channelling them into alternative forms of life. This is to say that they represent a kind of mutual bond that is beyond street protest, that is more immediately domestic and attainable, that is already in reach and necessary to replicate. It skewers what Mark Fisher called capitalism’s “mandatory individualism” as one of the major mental obstacles to the futures we desire and it gives us a glimpse of a future that it is hard not to want once it has been demonstrated before us. It’s the sort of life-affirming performance that makes you want to hold all your friends and loved ones at once.

Beyond the songs and the spectacle, that is what I am left with after seeing this tour. The harmony of collective experience, nature and technology in productive harmony. Not just on stage but as a challenge for us afterwards. This tour is something to carry with you. The performance itself feels like only half the story.


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