Amnesia Scanner

Interview by
New Models
From Issue 34 – SS 2019

Typically associated with labels such as “deconstructed club” or “apocalyptic sound,” Berlin-based electronic music duo Amnesia Scanner are actually more interested in structure and the present. Here, they chat with another Berlin-based duo, New Models, about distortion, algorithms, architecture, intuition versus theory, and the cybernetic loops that occur between ideas and their market base.

@LILINTERNET  A lot of the journalism around Amnesia Scanner has fallen into this trap of calling it “apocalyptic” or “dystopian future”-related. But you’ve refuted that, saying no, it’s actually reflecting the present. When we think of how the situation around music has changed since 2008-09, when you guys started working under the moniker of Renaissance Man, can we see it as something that begins as sort of straightforward club music and then slowly gets pulled apart, distorted as if reflecting a greater sense of economic decay in the break-up of culture in the online space?

MARTTI KALLIALA (AS)  It’s true, when we started Renaissance Man, optimism was the defining mood and online music blogs were big. Pretty quickly—and in part because of how the music industry itself was changing—people pivoted to fit the more established house and techno circuit. But if you take this route, suddenly you’re no longer part of the culture industry, you’re part of the alcohol industry. And that wasn’t interesting to us.

VILLE HAIMALA (AS)  So we started Amnesia Scanner as a side project, an anonymous alias where our personal identities were totally absent from the equation. We wanted to create a world from scratch, so we built a website and let it be a proxy for a new online community.

MK  Of course, this transition period was also relatively utopian, a time of the Internet when we felt technologies like SoundCloud would somehow liberate us from the need for industry support or even the club. It was concurrent to how the post-Internet moment imagined that galleries would become obsolete.

CAROLINE BUSTA  Well, to a certain extent, post-net wasn’t wrong. But regarding the anonymity factor, I imagine that actually helped focus your potential fan base? Also, with the aesthetics of Amnesia Scanner—both the sonic and visual aspects—there’s this sense of compression that feels distinct, standing in contrast to everything being super HD, as is the case with so much media now.

LI  There’s literally noise in the tracks, distortion. But distortion, like anonymity, creates a barrier of entry, which is something undergrounds have always needed. My feeling is that around the late ‘00s, that barrier of entry in music, even in the more independent blog-driven scene we’re talking about, was eroded as commercial press outlets were figuring out social media, spreading “cool” but also removing context and homogenizing it. I wonder, was the decision to mix really abrasive tracks with more pop-structured work strategic? It feels like a distinguishing difference between AS and Renaissance Man.

MK  I wish I could say yes, especially since this more tactical approach has been something central to AS from the beginning, but the aesthetics were actually just very intuitive. Even our website, which has this seemingly encrypted feel, ended up working as—I mean, this is extremely corny, but—guerilla marketing. If these elements were barriers, they very effectively generated a subculture that worked in our favor.

LI  In the piece Fader ran on you, they called the AS sound “dark euphoria.” This sounds very punk to me, and with the punk patches in the “AS A.W.O.L.” video, how much does “punk” play into your ethos?

MK  The new record has this kind of teenage rage, which in terms of affect is similar to punk’s nonspecific anger towards the status quos. But in terms of a musical ethos, ours is more a move away from punk. To us, it felt like so much stuff coming out of our corner of the music world had lost a sense of structure and arrangement. So we became really interested in re-skilling. For this last album, we adopted an almost Max Martin style of pop writing [e.g., Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”], which is so much about the built-in phonetic power of certain words.

VH  Our feeling was that a lot of this “deconstructed club music” had become extremely self-serious and also a bit lazy, disrespectful of listeners’ time. So we wanted to condense its “collage and sound design” effect down and give it structure.

MK  Our hope was that if we backed it up into this meme, the pop song as format…

CB  …that the memetic strength of the music’s structure would give it more traveling power?

LI  With so much talk of “deconstructed club,” maybe it marks a shift right now into a time of “re-constructed club?”

MK  I feel like “deconstructed club” is like post-Internet art, or porn. You know it when you see it, but no one wants to associate themselves with the term itself.

CB  (laughs) Well, in terms of structures we can speak about then: Martti, in your Flash Art article from a couple of years ago, you wrote that “club culture cannot escape the architecture hardwired into its DNA.” I’m curious, if club culture can’t escape its foundational venue, can music? And to your mind, what is the architecture of music now, or at least the architecture of AS’s music?

MK  House and techno were both incubated in and associated with these canonical club spaces—Paradise Garage, Berghain, these ruins of post-industrial civilization—and they became the basis of the memeplex, the idealized setting in which these kinds of music were imagined to be consumed. With AS, I think there’s been a kind of hyperstition around hardstyle festivals during the heyday of EDM, when all of these things were peaking, around 2013–14. We were really interested in their seeming lack of nostalgia—particularly hardstyle, which featured spectacular “end shows” where there would be no one on stage; like, it was just the stage performing. And of course the mainstage at these festivals is the epicenter of this in-sane production. We were totally fascinated by the idea of doing live shows—with the humans removed.

VH  That “spectacle speaking to the tribe” voice you experience at hardstyle shows was the motivation for Oracle [Amnesia Scanner’s AI voice], which allows us to speak in this totally disembodied way.

CB  True, the body in Amnesia Scanner is conspicuously absent. Where, then, do you imagine the body to be?

MK  Liberated from any architectural frame of reference. We’re much more focused on the technologies required for producing spectacle, bombarding the body with all of this sound and strobes and smoke, regardless of the venue… Like a crude mechanical hallucinogenic. Relatedly, we’re also interested in is how the work can function elsewhere, how it could work on the Internet. If you take our first official release, AS LIVE, for example, our thinking behind it was that this would be a live recording replayed in a space and then re-recorded—like a live show that never happened.

LI  I have a question about the real bodies you collaborate with, like Pan Daijing, who’s a Chinese musician and artist. Some of the tracks she’s on, she sings in Mandarin. Meanwhile, your logo riffs on the Alibaba logo. Thinking about China’s society right now, which is a highly technological one, how much do you intend these legible references in your work to suggest a sense of place?

MK  Amnesia Scanner is definitely not a sinofuturist project. That’s never been a lead theme. As for the Alibaba logo, that was one of the first visual assets we produced. We were fascinated by what was, at the time, the total opaqueness of this giant e-commerce platform.

VH  But also with Tao Bao and Ali-Express [Alibaba’s regional and international B-to-C commerce platforms], we were interested in their relationship to authenticity and how, with Amnesia Scanner, it wasn’t clear if what we were releasing was really made by us or if it was a bootleg. We had an affinity for this marketplace that doesn’t distinguish between what’s “real” and what’s “fake.”

MK  And I think working with Pan, the decision to have the vocals in Mandarin… Personally, I’ve become more aware of “cultural imperialism” and the fact that we live this almost fully English-language existence—perma-ESL. And yet Amnesia Scanner is not an Anglo-Saxon project, so it was like, we might as well include another language—the world’s most widely spoken one—if it happens naturally.

LI  Right, of course. Going back to the Alibaba reference, though: I remember when Alibaba first showed up. It was almost like this blackbox market space where you didn’t even really understand its origin and you could order, like, literal barrels of research chemicals and fentanyl analogues. You didn’t know if it was legal or illegal, a scam or real. It was sort of a site of projection, in the same way that Amnesia Scanner’s wider aesthetic puzzle is for the viewer.

MK  Yeah, totally. And this was also the time when Silk Road was still up and the distribution of physical material goods on the Internet was still somewhat illegible. This definitely informed the ways in which we distributed our music.

CB  Is there anything regarding how these platforms are evolving that is particularly interesting to you now?

VH  In terms of distributing music, there hasn’t been a more depressing time. In part this is because people’s relationship with music is being changed by platforms like Spotify, which condition people to think of it as something that should be this tame, functional thing that plays in the background to boost whatever you want to do—”work” or “chill” or “relax”— and that’s kind of like… I mean, if house and techno are rigid, that’s really rigid. If you listen to the most popular tracks on Spotify and compare them to like a hardcore sound, they’re actually a really strange kind music. Or at least they’re tracks that aren’t from…

CB  …humans?

VH  Yeah, exactly. It’s like, who is this whispery, white voice that sings these tame EDM ballads? And how did we come to this? Is this what the algorithm thinks is the most unifying music? Or what people actually enjoy? It’s kind of fascinating and scary at the same time.

LI  I know you guys say that with Amnesia Scanner there “is no puzzle to solve,” and the project is just supposed to be an open space of engagement, almost like some virtual reality wherein everyone can find their own conclusion. At the same time, I can’t help but notice that this whole time you’ve been playing with a Rubik’s Cube, solving it almost subconsciously, and I wonder if, when it comes to the language and sounds of Amnesia Scanner, there’s not some game of pattern recognition that underpins it all? I’ll also say that now that we’ve shut off video in this interview, it’s unclear whether you’re playing with a Rubik’s Cube or loading bullets in a magazine…

MK  Yeah, well there was someone who was saying Amnesia Scanner sounds like “school shooter” music, whatever that means, so let’s go with that image of the Rubik’s Cube (laughs). But regarding intention and our process, it’s similar to how design practice has changed recently. In earlier times, theory was generally understood as driving praxis. For us, it’s the opposite—or rather, there is no theory. We make these intuitively driven aesthetic experiments, and then whatever sticks has become part of the project. Over the past six years, we’ve had very few conversations where we’ve conceptualized something first and then executed it. In a way, our albums are sort of these aesthetic gravity wells. I think the reason why so many Amnesia Scanner interviews are so disappointing is that there is no clear conceptual register that I think a lot of our other work so clearly has.

CB  No, I actually think this is precisely what makes Amnesia Scanner feel very much of our time. Not to drag fashion in here, but similarly with labels like Telfar and Vetements, you have the sense that they’re directed by just a couple of people with a strong intuitive feel for what’s visible and memetic and that they’re channeling this, building on the cybernetic loops that occur between their ideas and their market base, which in turn reinforces engagement within their market in an organic way. To me, this feels like a literally intelligent system.

LI  Especially in a time when everything can be defined so quickly, when everything can be Wiki’d.

MK  I mean, this mode of A/B testing culture is kind of approaching zero.

VH  Yes, what we do is not calculated at all, but rather fairly emotional. This is especially true of our next record, about which I won’t say more except that it’s coming out later this spring/summer.

MK  I mean, AS isn’t like an AI. But yeah, in a way, it evolves according to a kind of implicit rule set to which both we and PWR Studio adhere, which makes the whole thing a game that’s fairly easy to keep playing.

VH  And one that allows us to take more people onboard, which is fun. These other people can work on it without it changing too dramatically.

LI  Also, I mean, doing anything in a collective right now goes against the increasing
atomization that Web 2.0 platforms encourage; that and the ego-worship of the individual EDM DJ on the stage.

CB  And also just the power of forming a node right now. As part of the culture sector precariat, there’s a radical benefit to being part of something bigger than you that also remains in your community’s control. The motivation for Lil Internet and I forming New Models was our desire to have a place where we could freely collaborate with people that were interesting to us outside the logic of the dominant platforms. Like, how can we bring all of our precarious profiles together into temporary gangs, pirates sailing on this new cultural wave…

VH  For us, there are these online music communities where defining Amnesia Scanner has turned into a kind of meme itself. Like, whenever there’s a shitty robotic voice saying something, someone is like, “Hey, is that the new Amnesia Scanner?”

VH  But at the same time, the algorithm that PWR Studio made for the visual motif we’re currently using—these high-contrast black-and-white images—it’s set up to pull continuously from the Instagram streams of our followers, and so you get this feedback loop. In a sense, we bring in the algorithm here; it’s the algorithm that’s very directly creating the look of our culture.

CB  Right, so it’s driving toward some asymptotic point of all-noise. I’m curious where on the signal/structure/club-to-noise/formless/non-space spectrum your forthcoming album will be?

MK  I guess the best way to say it is that Amnesia Scanner is very much a live thing. It’s not club or anti-club…

VH  Yeah, the album explicitly contains a music for various different kinds of moments and different kinds of mental spaces. “Club” may be one, but it’s not AS’s central muse.

LI  It’s ironic how “industrial club” and “apocalypse” are the default coding for Berlin’s more underground electronic scene, because, for one, as you say, the more underground stuff doesn’t have a fixed architecture, but moreover, the real apocalypse is outside the club.

CB  (laughs) True clubs, in all their dark transgressive mythos and prohibition of shareable documentation, are now essentially “safe spaces”—at least in terms of refuge from the feed, from platcap and, as they always have been, from the pressures of contemporary life.

LI  In a way, the club is the safest space.

Amnesia Scanner is a Berlin-based music and performing arts duo founded in 2014 by Ville Haimala and Martti Kalliala.
Caroline Busta and @lilinternet work collaboratively as New Models, an independent journal and aggregator focusing on arts, politics and pop culture.
Images courtesy of Amnesia Scanner and PWR Studio.

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