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Bad Artist Statement #3: Holly Childs
Holly Childs and I speak about their new album Gnarled Roots, conspiracy theories, working remotely, parties, and artistic collaboration.
Holly Childs is a writer and artist from Adelaide, Australia. She is the author of two experimental novels, No Limit and Danklands, both published in 2014, and is currently at work on a third.
Holly is one half of Holly Childs & Gediminas Žygus, a musical performance and collaboration series with Lithuanian producer Gediminas Žygus. Their first album, Hydrangea, came out last year and was notably a backing track to the Chanel 2020/21 Le Chateau Des Dames runway show. Their latest album, Gnarled Roots, was released this September.
We spoke on Instagram chat, both in lockdown, separated by only a few kilometres, about their new album, conspiracy theories, working remotely, parties, and artistic collaboration.
Paul Dalla Rosa: Okay, I’m set up. Are you good to go?
Holly Childs: One sec. I just roasted a purple potato.
PDR: That’s good. It will give you energy for the interview.
HC: Complex carbohydrates. I’m ready to go now.
PDR: Exactly. Okay, so the new album, Gnarled Roots, is a project that’s not difficult to describe but is interesting, almost high concept 9/11 truther rave music. Though it’s not quite that. How would you describe it?
HC: I think we called it club adjacent chamber music or “psychedelic sci-fi folk that isn’t retro at all” in the press release. We made it as a way to process our observations about 9/11 and post-9/11 media and cultures.
PDR: And Gnarled Roots is sort of the sister album to last year’s Hydrangea?
PDR: The two works are connected. Or it’s sort of like different things germinating and replicating. Do you ever listen to Oneohtrix Point Never?
HC: Yeah I sometimes listen to Oneohtrix Point Never.
PDR: Actually, they were in the Chanel show too. He had two albums in close succession R Plus Seven and Garden of Delete. And R Plus Seven is very ethereal and has these harmonies that feel like floating in the sky and then Garden of Delete is almost like filthy hard electro-metal. It has a similar quality to what’s mentioned in your press release of Hydrangea being the atmosphere and Gnarled Roots being the earth.
HC: Hydrangea was floating in the ether and Gnarled Roots is basically below the ground.
PDR: The Twin Towers are the metal of the earth.
HC: Yeah, grounded. The other thing too is that Gnarled Roots is far more "pop" than Hydrangea.
PDR: Yeah I think so. I really love the album. I’m not just being nice. I was really into it. It was sort of surreal the first time I was listening to the lead single “Turns to Dust.” We’d spoken about it before, but I didn’t really know what it was about, and then, as the voice-over was happening, I recognised Judy Wood lines and then her name.
HC: Right… “where did the buildings go?” is a reference to Judy Wood’s book Where Did the Towers Go? Which I haven’t read. But I have read some diagrams on her website and watched some of her lectures.
PDR: Yeah and “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams.” I haven’t read the book either, but I used to listen to her lectures while going to sleep.
HC: Oh, is she the first person who said “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams”?
PDR: I don’t know if she’s the first person to say it, I could be misremembering but I think she does reference it talking about energy weapons, electrons becoming unstable, molecules disintegrating. What she calls, “Dustification.”
HC: Did her lectures help you to sleep? Why were you listening to them?
PDR: Yes they would. I would intend to listen to them and try to listen, but I’d put them on at 1 am lying in bed and then I’d fall asleep or sort of go in and out. I think I was listening to them because Tao Lin was posting about them a lot and I was curious.
HC: Yeah Tao Lin was also my entry point.
PDR: I often listen to lectures at night on, not counterfactual things, but just weird things; esoterica, four-dimensional shapes, ufos, stuff like that.
HC: K Allado-McDowell has a really good lecture on higher-dimensional space at the end of a Christie’s auction house AI convention 6 hour YouTube vid. Have you ever listened to Michael Sealey sleep hypnosis videos?
PDR: No what’s that?
HC: Michael Sealey has like an Anglo-Australian accent and does sleep hypnosis videos, some of them are pretty straightforward, and others are more tweaked, like you’re in a spaceship, or you’re watching letters and numbers slide around a chalkboard. I used to listen to them a lot in like 2016 but haven’t since then. I wonder if or how he’s progressed.
PDR: I’ll try one tonight. I was trying to describe something I was listening to lately to my partner involving hypnosis and MK Ultra and my partner was like, this is all just whackos. But idk I find something interesting about it all.
HC: I like conspiracy as a mode of storytelling. Like adjacent to “reality”, playing with reality, which of course has become more dangerous in the social media/information siloed era.
PDR: Exactly the conspiracy as a mode of storytelling or myth-making. Even with Judy Wood or Gnarled Roots it reminded me of a thing in a Dean Kissick column last year.
HC: Oh I don’t know if I read that Dean Kissick piece.
PDR: I think it was just maybe a paragraph in one of the Downward Spiral columns, which kind of turned into a COVID diary, but in in it Kissick was talking about 5G conspiracists pulling down and burning cell towers. He talks about how that maybe the science isn’t correct or questionable, but there’s something metaphorically correct about it. Symbolically. That the information age can act as a contaminant and make us all lose our minds.
HC: Yes. I feel like the 5G protesters are expressing something “correct” but they don’t have the right resources to understand the exact modes and methods of the brainwashing that they are both trying to explain and are absorbed within.
HC: Like having the right sentiment but you’re so far inside of what you fear that you don’t know the actual shape of it, which is probably more like Cambridge Analytica-style psyops than microchips inside COVID vaccines.
PDR: I think there’s that element and then in the information age everything sort of becomes legion. So I’m never confident enough to say that I exist outside a similar warped mirror. How did those ideas of conspiracies as storytelling fold into the album?
HC: Gediminas and I were studying at Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, but we were sort of virtually squatting an information architecture course that Troy Conrad Thierren was running at an Ivy League school, as all the materials were online. We were thinking about the late 90s and early 00s, and the changes that took place around that time: Francis Fukuyama calling the end of history, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the initiation of parts of the war on terror being justified through this fairly obviously false claim of the production of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So we were in these buildings, and a kind of forest setting, the forest being the setting of a lot of post-Soviet action in the 90s, as far as I understand as a westerner.
PDR: As in you were making it there or thinking about that location?
HC: We were making it all over the place: in Amsterdam, at a residency in what had been a Soviet spa town called Druskininkai in Lithuania (that’s where we started thinking about forests, as we were walking through forests to get everywhere), and at Rupert in Vilnius, also surrounded by forests. Actually, one of the tracks in Gnarled Roots is set in Carlton Gardens, where we were the other week. And also in Sydney, we had a residency at Firstdraft. That’s where we showed the first version of Gnarled Roots, which was then called “Gnarled Roots of a Creation Theory,” which was the alleged name of a PhD thesis in theology by a somewhat disgraced Australian computer scientist who claims to be Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto. But the University through which he claims to have written the thesis has no record of him studying there.
PDR: Does the thesis exist? Or is it like a missing manuscript in an Umberto Eco novel?
HC: The alleged author of the thesis refers to it but it doesn’t seem to exist outside of his self-spin.
PDR: I was really excited listening to the album because I think it’s very conceptually ambitious. You can feel all of these different contexts and concepts folded into it in a way that I think a lot of work now doesn’t. Or maybe did in the past but has sort of shifted. It made me think of, have you heard of chaoides?
HC: I haven't heard of chaoides.
PDR: So it’s a thing written about in Felix Guattari’s Chaosmosis and then Franco Berardi “Bifo” writes about them in a few of his books. I hunted for the exact quote this morning. This one’s from Bifo’s Heroes:
“…chaoides, that is, tools for the conceptual elaboration both of the surrounding and of the internalized chaos.
A chaoide is a form of annunciation (artistic, poetic, political, scientific) which is able to open the linguistic flows to different rhythms and to different frames of interpretation.”
I was thinking of that listening to the album and, specifically, certain lines, like in “Forking.” You know, “Find a truth and smash it.” Then the album made me want to find more chaoides or be more ambitious in my own work. Do you find you need to kind of make these leaps in a work? They’re never just simple or mimetic.
HC: What kinds of leaps?
PDR: Having more than one concept or dealing with a multitude.
HC: Yeah, by default I have frequently seen things as chaotic webs, puzzles or knots. But lately I've been trying to do the opposite, like cut the knot instead of untangling it, don't do the puzzle, make things simple instead of complicated.
PDR: Does Gnarled Roots cut the knot or untangle it?
HC: It's untangling it to a degree. Gediminas does a lot of the work untangling the knots.
PDR: I remember doing the Next Wave residency that you were running years ago, and a lot of that was about incorporating more contexts or bringing more in, allowing work to do more.
HC: Oh yeah, I definitely was always trying to fold loads of different things in, which reads to me now as very "undiagnosed ADHD," but I think I just wanted there to be a lot of spaces and contexts for people to try, share, bring and learn. While Gediminas and I were developing Hydrangea and Gnarled Roots, a mentor pointed out that I tend to "see secret plots in things," and I feel like with that feedback I was able to chill on that and stop deep dreaming into everything.
PDR: I think bringing secret plots to things is a good thing.
HC: I think bringing secret plots to things is good too, but I’m really happy that I can choose to do it or not now.
PDR: I was going to ask about working with Gediminas. So now obviously remotely but wasn’t always remotely.
HC: Yeah, it wasn't always remote but it very much is now.
PDR: How do you find the difference?
HC: As I said we studied together in Amsterdam, and for some of that time we also shared a one-room studio apartment. It's funny because at first it seemed that working in the same space would make things easier or faster, but it didn’t always. It was super hard for both of us to work in that context. We didn't have enough space to each do our own things for a while and in response to the weirdness of our semi-legal accommodation and the fact that we had to share one set of very technical and uncopyable keys, my work became solely about security systems in Amsterdam student housing blocks. That's what my Masters thesis is on. I think my misguided belief that compressing the space of a collaboration in order to be swift and immersed was a mistake/legacy/hangover from studying at Strelka Institute in 2017, where I was one of 30 cohort members working across two small rooms every day for 5 months. But at Strelka, and in G and I’s studio, there wasn’t any air to breathe. We’re not just computers but also bodies, and we need to emote and have privacy. But now that Gediminas is in Europe and I'm in Australia, I can work on stuff in the morning, then G wakes up and we can work on stuff together, do admin and chat and stuff and then Gediminas can work on music, etc. when I’ve gone to sleep, and send me new drafts and TikToks that I wake up to the next morning.
To clarify, the Australian borders are closed at the moment and it's been illegal for Australian citizens and permanent residents to leave Australia since March 2020, so it hasn't been possible for G and I to work in the same country for like 18+ months. Being in different places makes physical things hard though, like a couple weeks ago, we presented The Double, a performance in a former bear enclosure in Berlin, and I couldn’t be there to help install, to perform, to meet people, to do any of the on-the-ground things and like I was asleep before the performances even started. I woke up 4 hours later and got the rundown from Gediminas and yeah, a few Instagram stories from other people.
PDR: It’s difficult being stuck here. I actually like working more remotely too or aspects of it. I’m going to switch to a voicemail. I live in a helicopter flight path so you might hear the helicopter.
HC: Oh, I can also hear a helicopter outside my window. It's probably the same one.
PDR: I like aspects of being remote like my agent is in the States and a lot of editors or whatever are in New York or London. I find that there’s a fun aspect because I’ll only ever really get important emails either really late at night or early in the morning.
HC: I wake up to a lot of good emails too.
PDR: I find I have a problem that I should do the smart thing, which is you know turn your phone off or leave it out of the bedroom, but there’s something thrilling about waking up and then having something that I have to deal with and then I’m in a charged creative state, whether that’s talking about covers or edits or whatever. Or in the past, I’ve been out at a club and had to do urgent copy edits in a toilet stall because something is going to print three continents away. And I just have a different energy and sometimes that’s actually fun.
HC: I love that, work at the club. Working across continents can really make sleep hygiene fly out the window. I had a lot of lucid dreams about getting into Strelka before I got into Strelka. Because all the emails I got from Strelka arrived at 2 am. I'd dream of looking at my phone and seeing that I'd been offered an interview, but then I'd wake up again and see that it had been a dream. But then the next night it would happen for real.
PDR: Oh I get that. I’ve had that before.
HC: I got asked back for a second interview when I was in a basement club on Oxford Street in Sydney. I got the acceptance email at the pub after a night swim in Woolloomooloo. My friend bought me a rosé. It was surreal, like this email said I’m moving to Russia, but right then it was 3 am in the middle of summer.
PDR: There’s I think this fun quality of being in the antipodes where everything that happens takes place in the night almost as a dream.
HC: Yes definitely. And it's a dream that no one else cares about. Like no one in the space you're in has access to it and the people who are sending you the dream emails have no idea how it hits in the middle of the night. Most of the time they don't even bother thinking about the time difference.
PDR: I think my partner finds it really irritating because sometimes I’ll get an email that’s something exciting and I’ll get a rush of energy reading it, so I’ll have this rush and like run out onto the street and do a lap of the block under streetlights. Sometimes that’s just working on a story though.
HC: I love this night email energy you describe. I put my phone on airplane mode before I go to sleep so the emails only arrive when I wake up in the morning.
PDR: And, to clarify, if it’s stuff for admin or business, or like a student email, whatever, and it’s 1 am, I’ll hate it. But I find it can be very invigorating when working on something and the email is about that thing. I might be making this up, but I remember years ago you did an interview for No Limit where you described writing it in a month in which you didn’t sleep. You just worked on it.
HC: Lol no way, that's Grimes and her album Visions. I definitely slept, I slept loads but the only other thing I did other than sleep was write.
PDR: Hahaha no I have such a memory of this. A fake memory.
HC: I love that. I stopped eating sugar in that period and I think I was only using the internet for 1 hour a day, 3-4 pm. Which is kind of like not sleeping I guess. I love that you have that false memory.
PDR: I did an interview the other week with a writer and they told me that we’d actually met at a party years ago and it was sort of embarrassing that I didn’t remember meeting them. And then afterwards I had this half-formed memory of them but I couldn’t tell if I was making it up. And then I was like fuck it I’ll email them and said “were you at this party and had two loaves of bread in a paper bag?” And my partner was like don’t email them you sound unhinged.
PDR: And then she emailed back and was like yes I did.
HC: Parties seem mythical at this point.
PDR: Yeah they do. Completely mythical.
HC: I'm like "Woah did people bring bread to parties?!"
PDR: People could bring anything. That was the fun.
HC: One of my favourite party-ish interactions was in the bathroom at Artspace in Auckland. Someone who I wasn't friends with yet, but who I later became friends with, entered wearing training gear and joggers, like she'd just been on a run and popped into this opening. I was like... oh I didn't realise that you could have a life around parties and art openings. I think that's something I really want to bring to parties if parties ever happen again. Party as a step along a path of activity, as opposed to the ultimate destination.
PDR: You should.
HC: An “on the way to somewhere else” quality.
PDR: I think what I miss most about parties or clubs was that they would have an energy where anything could happen, even though maybe not a lot always would happen. And it isn’t even a sense of getting material or something like that, but I found it very helpful for writing, this sort of chaotic and random energy that would enthuse me for living.
HC: Oh that's nice. I feel like with the pandemic and the lockdowns it’s hard. It's funny, in South Australia they banned singing for a couple of weeks.
PDR: Singing in particular?
HC: Yeah, because of the projection of... spit? Air?
PDR: Oh okay. Lol. Were there a lot of parties in SA?
HC: I have no idea. If there were, I didn't go to any of them. Wait I went to some nice dinner parties but mostly I just walked around the hills by myself.
PDR: Dinner parties were good in the pandemic. I feel like they became a bigger thing which I enjoyed.
HC: Do you have memories of a "favourite" party?
PDR: I remember a dance party I really enjoyed but I probably won’t publish details online. It was like a queer rave kind of circuit party thing. Do you have a favourite party?
HC: I went to a warehouse rave with my first twitter friend in Brooklyn in 2013 maybe. That was fun, but it sounds like a total cliche. I went to a bush doof with my sister when I was 13. That changed everything for me.
PDR: What changed?
HC: What changed... it was foggy on the drive up to the doof and there were lights shining into the sky illuminating the clouds as we got closer to the spot. There was a bouncy castle with Teletubbies googing out on it.
PDR: I like that. I remember when we were walking in Carlton Gardens you sort of spoke about being back in Melbourne and sort of searching for an artistic community here, which I imagine has been curtailed by lockdown, but I wanted to ask about artistic communities because they seem informative to your work, whether that’s Strelka or Amsterdam or Next Wave or whatever. Or if you find a difference between IRL and online.
HC: Yeah I love artistic communities... or like... friends. I think most of my friends/community I know in real life, or I’m about to know in real life. Like we're already IRL even if we're only talking online. We’re real. Wait what’s the question?
PDR: That makes sense. I guess how they inform your work or how you find finding them now that you’re back in Melbourne?
HC: I think I might have to think about how community informs my work more to answer the other parts of the question and the Melbourne artistic community thing for me is kind of just that I'm intrigued by what appears from the outside to be a unified “literary scene” in Melbourne that I've only rarely had access to. It seems pretty cliquey, but that I imagine from the inside feels completely different.
PDR: I have to say I don’t really know what the literary scene here is and I live in it. Like I know exactly what you mean, but I feel like when I interrogate that same thought or feeling I just don’t know what I’m referring to.
HC: I can't imagine being inside it. It feels really conditional like I’d have to win a prize, but then I'd have to keep winning prizes, and keep making validated social and professional moves in order to stay inside the shifting field of the imaginary "Melbourne literary scene."
PDR: Yes haha. I think there’s an element where me and my work is actually very solitary or disconnected sometimes from Melbourne. It’s me working alone and then sending stories to my agent.
HC: I mean writers generally work alone, right? I think that's part of why the literary scene feels weird, because it's like mainly arts workers or gatekeepers who I’m imagining when I think of what it is, and writers are maybe somewhat antisocial or shy.
PDR: That could be it. I remember when we were walking, I said that I didn’t really know the scene or didn’t know writers, but then when I thought about it I said that wasn’t true, because a lot of my friends actually are writers but when we socialise it isn’t about writing or a scene. I share a studio too, but it’s not just writers, it’s a lot of people doing totally different things.
HC: Oh yeah right you were saying, in the Nicholas building?
HC: What are they doing? Is this the same studio with Sally Olds and Daniel Jenatsch?
PDR: No but I helped Sally move in. We’re on different floors.
HC: Oh nice. That’s the literary community!
PDR: The people in mine; one is a writer, then another is a gallery curator. One artist I became close with but then she left was a PhD student and curator of Indonesian art. She’d tell me these incredible stories of like dressing up and going to the Hilton to have meetings with private collectors or staying in Indonesia and being told the house she was staying in was haunted and then her interactions with this spirit. Now we send each other book recommendations. And I think maybe that is real community, rather than the conception of a scene. I listened to your AQNB podcast interview and that sort of sounded like what you were describing at Strelka.
HC: I haven't listened back to that interview. I’d just woken up in Adelaide and Steph, who was interviewing me, was in NYC and because it was so loud she was recording in a cupboard. So it was completely dark and like midnight there so I couldn't see her. But I’m sure I would have talked about Strelka and how fun it was to be in a cohort with geniuses from different fields from all around the world. Then in Amsterdam, all the students I met across different disciplines were so great.
PDR: I think there’s a thing that can happen in Melbourne, where it can feel very isolated but actually there are all of these interesting people doing really cool work, it can just be hard to find them because they’re not a scene or they’re not talking at a festival. But actually, they’re everywhere.
HC: Yeah it's really true. I want to know how to find these not talking at a festival people.
PDR: Me too. Some you can only find on Twitter with alt accounts or sometimes I’ll be listening to a podcast and the guest will say they’re in Melbourne or something like that.
HC: I feel like the only way I would get access to some of those people is if I was like on dating apps.
PDR: That’s what I love about Grindr, which admittedly I don’t use much anymore. But it would be this thing where you could kind of jump through not temporalities but contexts. So you could meet someone doing something completely different to you. I remember in Bologna I met a man who had traveled to the States to work at Disney World and he worked in an Italian restaurant there and his managers kept giving him feedback that was just “be more Italian.”
HC: That's hyperreal.
PDR: Totally. And it’s like I never would have met this person if I wasn’t cruising at 1 am. And I think our life should be more like that. Less siloed, less career-oriented.
HC: More tenuous connections, please.
PDR: A lot of your work is very collaborative. And I feel like a lot of that comes from just meeting people and being interested in them, or a mutual interest occurring.
HC: The best collaborations come out of obsession I think. Obsession with each other or with something(s) outside of us.
PDR: Is it obsessive when it happens?
HC: I have a pretty weak work ethic so sometimes the collaborative connection replaces the work. I have to watch out for that when it happens and like slowly crawl back to the work.
PDR: I can see that being difficult. I don’t ever really work with people, like this interview series is the most collaborative thing I’ve done, so I find it interesting.
HC: Sometimes when Angela Goh and I have been in development for something we just talk for hours and construct huge red thread boards of "clues," then we have to consciously step away from each other to get anything done. The talking feels so much like it is the work! But it doesn’t translate beyond our conversation or we haven't found a vehicle just for that yet.
PDR: But I think that does show in your work. Because it’s a conversation between artists but the conversation, the transcript, is edited out. And that makes so much internal space in the works.
HC: I think the conversation is completely evident in Hydrangea, the first album Gediminas and I made. The album is the conversation Gediminas and I were having. The conversation is the work.