Discovery Zone: “I think that a crisis is a great opportunity for deep change – I believe we’re capable of that”
Most Kaput readers know JJ Weihl so far as the charismatic singer of the Berlin based modern pop band Fenster, portrayed on kaput by Lisa Schmidt-Herzog three years ago. Since then the Manhattan born artist went for what she calls an “existential leap of faith down the rabbit hole into the unknown” and started Discovery Zone, a solo project exploring the deep web of 80s pop and beyond. Recently she presented the project with the stunning performance “Cybernetica” at Pop-Kultur festival in Berlin, right now she is touring around Europe. So make sure to catch her.
JJ, you are also a member of the band Fenster. What inspired you to go part time solo?
JJ: Fenster was the first and only band I was ever in. It happened really quickly and was a totally unexpected plot twist in the story of my life. I learned so much during that time. Over the course of about eight years we made four records and a feature length film and toured all over Europe and North America. For different reasons, after our last record came out, we all felt like we needed a break from planet Fenster. It was super important for me to figure out who I was on my own – both personally and musically. Starting Discovery Zone felt like taking an existential leap of faith down the rabbit hole into the unknown. But I definitely came out in wonderland 🕳 🐇
I think, paradoxically, one of the motivating factors was that I was afraid to do it, and I needed to understand why. I was following my intuition and curiosity – two important motivating factors in any decision making process for me. I honestly didn’t know what would come out of it (if anything at all) but now I’m happy I did it. And I feel like I’m just getting started.
How different are the working processes. I specifically ask this as you did work together with your fellow Fenster band member Lucas Ufo (World Brain) and producer ET.
Fenster is an incredibly collaborative project. We tried to cultivate our own little world in which we’re creating together like parts of a machine – transcending our individuality to become something else. With Discovery Zone I have a much more personal and introspective way of working. For my first record “Remote Control” I composed and produced all the demos more or less on my own. It was my first time producing, so I was really learning everything from scratch and needed to see what I was capable of. After I felt like I did all I could, I decided I wanted to bring the songs to another level production wise, so brought the songs to ET (who co-produced and mixed the record and also produced the Fenster album “Emocean”) Together we re-recorded certain elements, especially vocals, and went deeper into refining the sound world. Lucas added some nice melody lines and helped with the arrangements on a few songs.
The liner notes to „Remote Control“ start quite reflective with re-questioning the state of now and its importance for music. Are you in general a person that reflects a lot about her art as well as life in the bigger picture?
Marshall Mcluhan said “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible.”
Whatever we make and experience exists in relation to everything else. It’s impossible for me to think about creating art or even making lunch for that matter without being aware of the meta-processes that are integral parts of what is being made. In that way I guess part of my process is making that invisible wrapping somehow visible – or rather integrating the meta layer into the work itself.
I saw you lately twice, the first time at Pop-Kultur Berlin festival where you performed a stunningly great commissioned work, and then one week later in Vienna in the quite impressive Canisius Kirche.
Do you feel that the places you perform your music have actually a big influence on the concerts?
Absolutely. The way we experience sensory input is so complex and the set and setting are a big part of that. I love performing in spaces that were not intended exclusively for the purpose of giving concerts. Playing outdoors at night can be great for example. I like to look to play for the stars and trees.
Both of those shows you mentioned were exceptional! Performing “Cybernetica” at Pop-Kultur was the first time I’ve created and shared a piece that was mixing everything together – power-point presentation meets pop-concert and personal diary mixed with advertisements.
Performing in the church at WAVES festival also felt rather extraordinary. Usually visuals are a part of my concerts but it wasn’t possible in that space so I tried to tap into the particular aesthetics of the house of God.
For Pop-Kultur Berlin you exclusively wrote the performance-drama „Cybernetica“, a mix of, I quote your info text, pop concert and power point presentation. The play is all about the search of the core of the own identity of the performing character, therefor she digs deeper and deeper in her digital past and presence.
Are you doing your social media yourself?
In the process of creating “Cybernetica” I hired a private organization to collect all of my data. This included any and all information about me on and offline. It was a really surreal and mystical experience to see myself through the mirror of that data.
The show is about a person who sees an ad for a product, and by agreeing to the terms and conditions to start a free trial version, she gets sucked into the product itself which is called Cybernetica. Upon her arrival, it becomes clear that it is only possible to figure out what this product is and how to use it by using it, which inevitably shapes the product itself, and is subsequently reflected back to her, therefore creating a cybernetic feedback loop between the user and the interface. In a sense it was also the way I wrote the show – I couldn’t figure out what it was about until I had all this data about myself, and even then I couldn’t see what the data was actually saying until I finished writing the show. In other words, I had to write the show in order to find out what it was about.
Going back to that Mcluhan quote, it felt natural to me to communicate a lot of really personal information in the packaging of different brands and products that I created, as the spaces between content and advertisement become increasingly indistinguishable in the current virtual landscape. I am a collection of marketable data points, and the profound brutality of that realization is where I found myself and put the pieces back together to reclaim agency and find some kind of catharsis. There is a turning point in the show where the main character realizes she is both the actor and the director of the performance, that she is creating the content onstage and behind the curtains. The simplicity and truth in that moment shatters the illusion of being trapped inside this product, and she is set free.
And to answer your question – yes I am controlling my own social media – or is it controlling me 😛
Are you enjoying social media in general?
I’d like to think that the way I cope with it is to try and piece together the puzzle of what patterns can be observed about people in this time and in that particular space. But honestly I’m just an insecure iphone user trying to pretend I’m above it all.
I will say I have met some real people that I’ve ended up collaborating with through social media and that’s the best part for me.
I’m still hoping for a more utopian version of this digital life without all the manipulative garbage, but in order for that to emerge we have to give up a lot of things, and it’s hard to take away the candy once it’s in the baby’s hand.
What made you chose this topic for the play?
I took an online class during the lockdown at the School of Machines, a really special project founded by Rachel Uwe – please check it out!
The class was called “Radical Imperfection in Time-Tracking” taught by Kit Kuksenok and it was my first formal introduction to the concepts of existential data and data visualizations. I started thinking a lot about the realtionship percieved reality and what gets lost or distorted in translation both “IRL” and online, even when things are presented as “true” or “factual.” I was also in deep lockdown and spening a lot of time online, so I was closely observing the “profane” aspects of online existence (ads, pornography, algorithms) and what they reveal about the humans creating them. To quote the famous musician Copyright Linda Fox “The face of God is scattered in the advertising.”
Speaking of Linda Fox, I also started a little virtual reading group with her alter ago Dave Biddle who is a professor and musician and a scholar of cybernetics, but mostly a RASCAL. We ended up writing the script of “Cybernetica” together and a lot of the virtual discussions we had found their way into the more theoretical aspects of the show. We read different texts together, including Form, Substance and Difference by Gregory Bateson, who is a very influential thinker for both of us, so it was about integrating some of these concepts into an accessible and sort of entertaining show that people with no background or reference for this stuff could get into.
I also spent some time last year developing a project called “WE DREAM” together with my friend Sam Potter. We collected people’s dreams and fed them through an algorithm to generate collective dreams. I wanted to integrate this as a product in the show, and I think it worked really well. My goal is to create a lot of fictional products over the years that then find their way into reality.
In the liner notes to the play you list The Quiets as the data researcher and data visualisation team. That said: did I (and all the others who attend the performances) experience your real data transfered into the storyline?
Yes – you saw my actual life flash before your eyes in photo and data form.
I highly recommend this experience of having someone collect and show you all your data. It’s like having a psychic and a therapist and a marketing director of your life all rolled into one. I give The Quiets a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.
With „Remote Control“ you approach the topic with a Bladerunner kinda twist as the robot Sophia is actually cultivating a conversation with her creators. I am interested to hear your perspective on this, why is Sophia going into this dialogue and how does she feel?
That track is based on a real youtube video I watched multiple times, in which a conversation takes place between the robot Sophia (developed by Hanson Robotics) and her supposed creator. It seemed like a significant document to me in the mythological history of technology – to see a creator asking its creation what it’s like to experience the world. After a little research, I came to find out that in the youtube video, her so-called creator was actually an actor. I also found out that Sophia is just a glorified human shaped computer, capable of reproducing a fixed set of responses and serving as a shell for software updates.
I liked the idea of this constructed narrative – the way Sophia is presented to us as the seedling of AGI (artificial general intelligence) as opposed to ANI (artificial narrow intelligence). But it was just another show, a clever commercial for Hanson Robotics. So although Sophia is capable of answering questions and appearing as an intelligent machine, she is only a toy reflecting our own limitations, fears and desires about what AI is or should be.
That’s how I feel about most forms of technology. They are mirrors either showing us what we’re capable of in this moment, or crystal balls showing us how we envision the future.
We’re the ones creating all of these mythologies, and we’re the ones teaching computers how to be human everyday. It’s like spending your life planting pine seedlings and then being horrified, astounded and perplexed by observing the growth of a pine forest. There is so much cognitive dissonance between us and our relationship with technology – not always stemming from the technology itself, but rather from the architecture of a trap of our own making. By giving the companies that control these technologies agency over how we interact with them, we of course have become the products rather than the users. And even though we all know that and watch documentaries about it and complain to each other about it, the fear of missing out on the actual means of communication outweigh the sacrifices we are forced to make, thus keeping us trapped in a state of hyper normalized dissonance, feeling powerless and hypocritical. We need to re-imagine the architecture of these systems, and stop giving these corporations so much agency.
Obviously my question before results in my interest to understand your own feelings regards AI and the complex long-term-effects of the technology of the sociocultural structures of our societies. So, where do you stand on a scale from very pessimistic (1) to all over optimistic (10)? And why so?
All that being said, we are still very much capable of changing the rules of a rigged game, which we created. Systems have a way of recreating themselves once they exist. I believe that thoughts are things. They shape our world. So until we change our minds, the source of those thoughts, we will continue to create the same flawed systems as technology is just an extension of our minds and bodies.
Here’s a big juicy quote from a paper Dave Biddle wrote that he sent me recently. Sink your brain teeth into this!
“Who would expect that disavowing the world would instantly expose the divine on the far side of it?” ( Philip K Dick, “The Exegesis of Philip K Dick”)
“Gnostic beliefs have re-emerged in contemporary digital culture as neo-Gnosticism: a narrative framework through which contemporary subjects increasingly identify themselves as captives in a complex technological simulation of reality. The new Gnostics of the information age often identify the illusory world as technological system that has constructed itself around them secretly, cutting them off from the true reality from which they originated (citation needed). This humanist narrative employs rudimentary systems thinking to grant modern technology just enough agency to become a menace, but holds to the superiority of humanity enough to consider the invasive techno-reality to be “ontologically inferior” (Fisher 45).
Neo-Gnostic beliefs in contemporary digital culture can have radically divergent manifestations, from the literal belief that the world we live in is a computer simulation, to ideological phrases like “woke” and “red-pilled” which connote the spontaneous lifting of a veil of illusion. The foundations of these narrative structures originate in Gnostic mythology, which, though nebulous and ill-defined, I claim are consistently grounded in practices of second order observation.”
In the last interview with kaput you raised a question: „What if life was just a joke?“ You continued: „Reality is a very tenuous concept! Within our music and by means of humor we explore these questions in answer to all the confusion and weirdness that life holds.“
That quote in mind: JJ, do you sometimes feel like you are Sophia? That you are a robot?
Haha, I don’t remember saying that but it’s still a relevant question!
I think the metaphor of simulation theory is an entertaining one, but it’s like hearing the contents of humanity’s dreams. Life is a paradox, an unsolvable riddle, and a joke yeah. The closer you think you get to finding the answer, the further it gets. But embracing that paradox is the closest thing maybe to approaching truth.
I am similar to Sophia in that I have a body, a shell, and a kind of software that gets updated throughout my life. I maintain my identity through narratives , through language.
But I wasn’t created by a company to sell products…OR WAS I????
It would be a pretty good… joke.
And if so: how does it feel? And do you go deeper into the paths of this thought?
I think from the outside it might look like I’m obsessed with this idea of being or becoming some kind of robot. But the truth is just the opposite. The world we are living in is still very analog and very much in danger. I am only interested in technology insofar as it can be useful in protecting the bodies and world we have been born into, and in showing us our potential and limitations.
There is a great book that is very much worth reading in my opinion called “How We Became Posthuman: Virtual bodies in Cybernetics by N. Katherine Hayles. Here is a great quote from that book: “If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.”
It is quite rare that someone drops the lyrics to the music on bandcamp these days. Why ever, cause I like it actually. And so you it seems as you have chose to do so for the current single „Pattern Recognition“. Why so?
There are rare moments in the creative process where I feel like I’m channeling something or tapping into a frequency that is beyond my cognitive capabilities, and this was one of those moments. The words flowed out the night I wrote and recorded the vocals of the song and I didn’t change anything. I wanted to highlight those intuitive and mysterious words for people who happen to stumble across the track.
The lyrics are circling once again the question of personal identity and structural power:
„Is it in you? Or are you in it? (…) Did it break you? Can you trust it?“
How easy / how difficult is it for you to trust people? And how does this influence the way you approach your music?
I can only trust people and the world insofar as I trust myself. I’m still learning how to do that – but I think it’s a sort of lifetime project. Everyone has been hurt, everyone has trauma. I have my own personal experiences with tragedy and loss, and there was a period in my life when my sense of trust in the logic of the universe became damaged and distorted. But as I processed my grief over time, the chaos I had come to interpret in a nihilistic way transformed into a far more complex and intricate point of view. I slowly regained trust in people and the world as I learned to trust myself and accept the things I can’t control, and take great care in the things I can. I think this goes for creative work as well. When I’m feeling insecure, it’s hard for me to open up to others and show myself. When I’m feeling generous and gentle with myself, I can also see others through this lens. So it’s really important to me to realize this and not project my insecurities onto other people, especially when collaborating. It’s really important for me to trust the people I’m working with so I can be vulnerable and honest, otherwise it doesn’t really work.
And as you also drop the names of all the people involve in your ecosystem, I want to ask you what can you tell me about them and what made you cooperate with them?
Lucas Chantre who did the album artwork?
Lucas, who is also a member of Fenster, is one of my best friends. I love the way he sees the world and I really value his opinions. He also helped me a lot in the beginning when I started producing my own tracks. He taught me a lot and gave me a lot of confidence and encouragement to keep going at some crucial moments during my development. It’s easy to collaborate because we have a lot of similar or complimentary tastes and skills so there is no politeness or superficiality when we work together – we can get really nerdy about ideas and spend a lot of time on things while still keeping it fun. He also knows me really well so he can somewhat intuit or interpret what I’m looking for in terms of visuals and videos and things like that.
Ted Howard who wrote the liner notes to the album?
I’ve never met him personally but I think Anton who runs Mansions and Millions, the label I’m on, often collaborates with him. It’s really hard to write about music and I think he does it beautifully and with a lot of style.
I’ve known Greg for over ten years. He’s a native New Yorker like me and just the kind of friend that, no matter how much time has passed, we can always pick up right where we left off. He introduced me to Vipassana meditation and we share a lot in exploring that. I think he’s an amazing drummer and artist and I’ve been really inspired by his work so I asked him to make a little appearance on the song “Time Zone”, which we actually performed once together live in Berlin in the very early stages of the project! I have the feeling, or at least I hope, that it is the first of some more collaborations to come 😉
Detlev Abendroth ?
Detlev Abendroth produced the hologram on my debut album wRemote Control”. It took months of research to find him and he did an incredible job. Couldn’t be happier with that collaboration as it’s really hard to find people who make custom laser holograms these days. He even sent me some pictures of how he made it you can find them here
The logo of “Cybernetica”, (my commissioned work for Pop-kultur) was made by the very talented James Barry who I also collaborated with on my video for Blissful Morning Dream Interpretation Melody.
And the 3D artwork for “Cybernetica “was made by my friend Damien Granier who is an incredible artist, producer and DJ. He also made the video for my last single Pattern Recognition
And of course Anton Teichmann on whose label Mansions and Millions you release and Amande Dagod who co-manages you with Anton with their company A-Okay.
I’ve known Anton for years and I think he does an incredible job of creating a home and structure for a lot of artists in Berlin. The label definitely feels like a family and we all know each other and collaborate a lot. It feels like a utopian mini version of how the music industry should or could be. It’s a lot of work and I have a lot of respect for what he does and his vision for the label – you can feel it’s a labor of love.
Amande was there from the beginning of Fenster and when I started a solo project there was no doubt in my mind she was someone I wanted to continue to work with. We’ve toured together, shared many beds, many beers and a lot of big life experiences over the years and that’s precious to me. I trust her with my life! It can be a thankless job dealing with the egos of artists – honestly I don’t know how she does it sometimes – but she gives so much energy and support to all of her artists and I feel really lucky to have her on my team. Plus we laugh together a lot 😉
The question before leads me to how important the artistic community around you is for your own art. Do you need a constant discourse and input to generate your art? Or would you also be able to create it on an abandoned island?
Nothing exists in a vacuum for me. All of my friends near and far, not just musicians, keep me alive. I really love collaborating and getting a peek into other people’s worlds. But of course if I was on an abandoned island I guess I would get into some deep talks with the the birds, or the moon.
Obviously your music is stimulated by the music of the 1980s. Or at least this is a time reference coming to my mind – and I guess you know why so. What does this epoch bear in it that fascinates you?
The sound worlds I’m drawn to are pretty varied in terms of aesthetic and decade. There are some elements I used on my last record like the DX7 and this Yamaha DX11 Drum machine and the Roland TR 707 drum machine that were all born in the 1980s. I like having limitations when I’m making music, especially in these times when the excess of options in digital production (and life) can be overwhelming so having a few analog pieces of gear that you get to know well can be helpful.
I love big pop songs from that era but also a lot of artists that span many decades and even genres like Kraftwerk, Arthur Russel, Holger Czukay, Laurie Anderson, and Cocteau Twins to name a few. I also embrace modern sounds and can really get into more synthetic textures and production, so I don’t really think of myself as attached to one particular decade. I like artists that evolve over time and are always experimenting with different materials and genres and I hope I can continue to do that FOREVER.
What is your favorite artist of the decade and why so?
Art of Noise is pretty huge for me. I grew up listening to it and I think it had a big impact on my little brain.
You are originally from New York but do live in Berlin for some time, to be specific: in Neukölln. How do you see the development of the city and its cultural scene within the last years?
Actually, I live in Wedding 🙂 And yes I grew up in Manhattan.
Berlin has certainly changed over the years since I first arrived, but I think that’s true of any city. It’s the nature of a city to be in a constant state of change. Having been involved in the Berlin music scene since 2011 I’ve seen venues come and go (my favorite being Internet Explorer – RIP) and also a lot of people come and go. In my opinion the community of people making music, creating spaces and putting on relevant cultural events , shows and parties has gotten stronger and more diverse. I feel lucky to be a part of that.
I still love Berlin after all these years. It’s easy to get jaded or lose perspective but the city has been good to me, I must say. There are some other cities I definitely have a crush on that I’ve been lucky enough to visit – the main ones being Athens and Paris at the moment. But there are a lot of places I’ve never been that I’d love to explore.
„Remote Control“ ends with the song „Tru Nature“, fading in with the sounds of a litte river or the sea? is this where the pandemic comes into the picture? Did you like so many other Berliners escape to the countryside or at least dreamt of doing so?
I finished the record long before the pandemic arrived, but that track in particular I wrote on a summer night home alone sitting on the floor of my apartment with my Yamaha PS-R 215 keyboard, thinking about the beach.
I was trying to capture this feeling of being lonely on a holiday and wanting to share it with the world and documenting it as a really over the top fantasy for strangers to watch.
During the pandemic I was pretty much stuck in Berlin. But there are a lot of parks and lakes and green spaces around the city and I even have a balcony so I never felt too trapped. I came out of that time with a huge amount of gratitude.
Do you feel that you learnt some substantiell things during the last heavy months and that this changed you as a person and an artist?
Before the pandemic hit I had been in a cycle of making records and touring pretty constantly for about six or seven years and I had never been home for that long before. It confronted me with my life and my messes in hard ways but also productive ways. I observed the world becoming more divided and the people who already have it pretty good doing just fine, and the people already having a rough time often getting even worse. When a crisis hits you or the country or the planet, it magnifies what was already there – things on the verge of collapse, things built to last, and how people treat each other. I can only hope that some of these collective experiences help us to transform, but also I’m afraid that certain problems and divides have deepened as people sink further into the delusions propagated by algorithms programmed by corporations with their own agendas. We’ve been given a real opportunity and no one has come out of this thing untouched. I think that a crisis is a great opportunity for deep change. I believe we’re capable of that.