N. Zhu aka bod [包家巷] on their album Music for Self Esteem, fallacies of both ego and arts and the embodiment of sound.
Earlier this year, Berlin-based multidisciplinary artist Zhu added a milestone to their musical project bod [包家巷]: »Music for Self Esteem«, their longest record so far, came out via the Swedish label Year 0001 in March and is a captivating, genre-defying journey. The sonic experience is accompanied by writings and visuals (see musicforselfesteem.com). Over one and a half hours in length, it features song titles from philosophical aphorisms and dedications to introspective statements and cryptic notes and reinforces Zhu’s role as forward-thinking, challenging voice. In conversation, they give insights in their profound entanglement of critique, theory and practice.
Musically as well as conceptually, »Music for Self Esteem« is a vast assemblage of different genres and moods, very distinct, yet interwoven hypnotically. How did the record come into being and to what extent was the process shaped by your theoretical rejection of classic dichotomies and categories?
The record is an accumulative greater-than-its summation. I have to repeat myself often: discard categories in favor of contexts. Delinearize the act of understanding,balance the linear with the multi-dimensional. Disregard and pray to time itself.
When I was less intelligent, the typical formula »(maybe-)concept + labor = art« was a solution I believed would characterize my work, an avoidance of the Sisyphean crisis of repeating the same craft over and over again. In the last couple weeks I’ve become a little more practical, skilled, and self-protective. Sisyphus merely counts the times he rolls the rock. The sequence is additive and thus sustainably eternal.
Recently you live-streamed listening to music and playing an online ego shooter on Instagram – a good example for not separating arts and life? Many of your Instagram posts envision future realities, in speculative, yet stylistically often in rather factual, even chronicling manner. What are your thoughts about the near and not-so-near future? How do you think violence will (co-)evolve?
I’ve said this before: The historical trend of art in the West begins with a complete separation of art from the soul of humanity, then continues with a telescoping development of categorical evolution/extinction, before it stagnates in an ever-descending drift of semantic collapse induced by the over-saturation of categories. Self-centered craftsmen toil their mediums, muttering to themselves about research-based practices, while their objects seek immortality in the architectures of the canon, stained with bourgeois fetish, fear and denial and the blood of the poor.
Eventually, the history of European art is the desolation of being left with too many questions, not enough answers, and genres that don’t even apply anymore. This virus is with us forever, whether we display the symptoms or not.
I am not a historian. I am not a »_topian« speculator. I am not an escapist and I will provide no means to escape. I am unsure of speculation as a valid practice in art – not necessarily theory – because the very act of speculation generates the reality spectacle, the representation of itself as real. This makes the creation of fictions relatively irresponsible and frankly dangerous in the kinds of intellectual assumptions it carries with it. I collect, yes. I distribute, yes. I engineer, I maintain, and I destroy… But to give myself the power of »creating« something new is a fallacy of ego. To think that I was the one who wrote this music, I was the one who painted the picture, is just a vestige of a hierarchical academic tradition: supporting personality cults formed around a humble self-absorption of craft, based on a linear timescale of the life and value of the artist. I was here as it happened and I’m working to make sure it doesn’t stop. I am not a God. I play a role in a society and I am still learning to perform this role. Every day I wake up to the hardest intellectual work I’ve ever done in my life. My opinion of co-violence I already tweeted before: history shows that the people who were the most afraid of fighting started all the fights.
If Warp doesn’t sign you, you might still gain fame with your visual work. Do you prefer music as your main career? Either way, you seem to reclaim to be very open about wanting to be famous – is fame an emotional or an economic desire, or both/neither?
If I stopped making music, wouldn’t the very movements of my body be still an organization of sound and silence? Is the music distinct from me or not? Why are these fundamental axioms left unquestioned? If my body is not sold to one client then I will sell it to another. If I don’t make money I die. This has been the case and will be the case. I am not afraid, and I will not let myself die.
I will not pretend to be »building a community« to isolate a target audience. I will not pretend to be a »grassroots activist artist« as a disguise for being inept at theory. I will not use my pronouns as a marketing strategy. I will not identify myself as an act of power, but as an act that is a strict affirmation of my right to exist as I always have. Somewhat invisible, silent except when screaming, ignored until impossible to avoid.
Fame is both economic and emotional. I want the money so I can fucking live for once in my life. I want the adoration so I can convince myself I’m worthy of being loved.
The photos you provided for this interview were created with the help of a neural network. Would you collaborate with an A.I. music production-wise?
I’m here to learn a bit and challenge people on their ignorance when I know they are getting too much credit for not knowing enough. My work will be integrated with various aspects of A.I. as I continue to integrate into the mutual non-distinction between what is an artifice and what is natural.
Laura Ibanez is the person who is doing the actual GAN work (Generative Adversarial Network, editor’s note). I find it funny that people talk a lot about A.I. as if it’s some kind of magic or technological marvel, when it’s actually just people working on their computers. Most of the time people don’t even know which kind of A.I. they are even talking about.
In 2016 I wrote a thesis on the role of magic as a historical context for technological development in the arts and everyone I came into contact with – until Laura – still expressed the same kind of ignorance of the technical work in favor of the aesthetics of neural networks (and technology in general). You want to talk about Terminator? Let’s talk about the IBM brain simulator and Christianity as a cultural subconscious. You want to talk about A.I. in art? Then talk to the technicians who make the actual art.
Staying faithful to your theoretical convictions, you shouldn’t be too worried about a replacement of humans by non-humans, when it comes to making art?
Why is it assumed that we are being replaced? This sounds… genocidal? I wouldn’t want to speak that into existence… And why is it that a replacement should be assumed to be non-human? Where does the definition of human begin and end? Is it useful to even attempt to define humanity in the context of the current sentient prosthetic deliverance of cybernetic power structures in the world? What are you calling A.I. anyway? This is an ambiguous term that refers to many different kinds of technologies, most of which existed in the purest definition of what »biohacking« really is, the technology of biochemical information that predates life itself. Language, one of our favorite technologies, is a functioning network of retroviral genetics that conditions and thinks, breathes with each breath we take, and feels the weight of us lying to ourselves. A GAN isn’t sentient without a transmaterial redefinition of what a GAN is. What is sentient? The fucking internet. Mycelia. Human cities. The distribution of energy and matter in the visible universe. The center of the sun. Everything is a fucking brain. I’ve said this before.