The seventh full-length record by British electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham, known as Actress, released on July 16.
The record, titled “88″, builds upon the cybernetic framework laid out in his previous record, “AZD” and provides a post-humanist glimpse of a world wrought by a pandemic. “88” is a soundtrack to an urban landscape at war with its own terrestrial forces while the inhabitants confront their cybernetic pitfalls—all done while expertly circumnavigating myopic cliches scattered across futurist productions.
First and foremost, the record initially not available on any streaming platform. The first release could only be heard through Actress’s website, and the record itself is password-protected. A cryptic Easter egg in the liner notes of a previous release will grant access. Or, for many others, including myself, a little bit of digging on Twitter will turn up some answers.
Not only is the delivery of the album fairly unconventional, but other elements of this record also stand out, in contrast, to digitally released music. The first notable feature was that it was released as one, nearly-49-minute track. The release also comes with a tracklist, though not for this album—it’s for the next album he has slated to drop in October 2020. Roughly a day after releasing “88″, Actress tweeted out this tracklist.
Even that became a puzzle, but then again it also served as a structural challenge to the very notion of a tracklist. Clearly, this record was meant to be listened to as one cohesive work, so does it really matter what each track—which all sound like individual movements within a musical suite—is called?
In classical music, the names of each movement inform the listener of the tempo and placement within the suite. The name demonstrates both the temporal placement as well as the temporal distance the movement spans across–both quantifiers of the movement’s name relative to time. The challenge Actress presents to listeners with regards to the relationship between time and sound seems like the driving theme of “88”.
The record plays with time in the tracks themselves as well, collapsing sounds into a fast, rhythmic pace in some cases like a sudden burst of energy. More often, though, Actress stretches out the frequencies, the wavelengths themselves deconstructed over the span of time to expose and bring into question the very medium of sound itself.
In a similar fashion, the current pandemic has forced people all across this planet to slow down. To question the very structure of our realities. Luxury office spaces sit empty, gathering dust. We’ve started to recognize that essential work takes place in grocery stores, not banks. Long stretches of isolation only broken by hollow virtual replications of intimacy make us more aware of touch, physical interactions and our longing for them.
In the letter “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter writes, “This fallacy….of supraculturalism mistakes our present local culture’s representation-of-the-human-as-a-natural organism as if it were the human-in-itself, mistakes the representation for the reality, the map for the territory.” Like the vast stretches of silence that bring each sound into even greater prominence throughout the record, the deepening gulf bisecting and pushing the class divide even further apart has been thrown into stark relief under the piercing, startling stagnation of the automated machinations of an accelerated global society being forced to a grinding halt. We’ve built a world of technology that would function perfectly as we would want it to if we ourselves didn’t stand in the way of it. For example, the limitations of production are set by the limitations of labor, and humans as that conduit of labor; us being inherently biological makes us prone to fatigue, injury and illness which disrupts the system we have built. Recognizing the inherently absurd reality we’ve spent the last several centuries building toward, “88” is the auditory accompaniment to a collective confrontation that the last levy standing in the way of the technocratic utopia we’ve envisioned for the future is us humans.
That “88” is notably slower and feels more alienated than “AZD” is no coincidence. The album cycles back to a fuzzy, melancholic haze, an anchor. The haunting isolation remains a lingering constant in the background at all times. Some tracks chug along at a comforting 105 bpm, with muffled and heavy basslines, like a train leaving the station just beginning to pick up momentum. Then the next track comes on, floating untethered in a sea of distorted keys and bit-crushers absent of any discernible beat. Like the itching desire to return even to the tasks we hate, we start to pick up some speed as we reopen. Then, a new wave of outbreaks crops up again, shutting it all back down. We return to our isolation, back to lurking in the streets and dark alleyways of our minds.
In a time when the paradoxical arms of capitalism struggle to claw onward—where continuing to drill for oil is more cost-efficient than grounding planes, and scarred lungs wheeze into corporate video chats. Entire national banking systems collapse while we snack on quick bites of short-form sitcoms. The thick veil of smog shrouding the Kathmandu valley lifted for the first time in half a century as nature itself brings industry to a grinding halt. Streets and businesses close, and mass graves are captured on satellite images. This album creates a soundtrack to the eerie, stifling silence falling upon cityscape after cityscape.
Writer and Iraq war veteran Roy Scranton in his book, “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene” defines the Anthropocene as the geological epoch of humans as not a biological species but as a geological force upon this earth. According to Scranton, as humans, we instill order amongst ourselves and as a way of taming our surroundings. Domination is conditional to our species. Scranton also points out that the leap from human as species to human as geological force happened when humans no longer relied on our own energy outputs, such as burning the amount of wood we could carry in our own arms or tilling fields with our own hands. It was when we built engines that could burn millions of years of compacted carbon.
Environmentalist David Orr pointed out in a 1990 commencement address that the blame for the ecological catastrophe we’ve inflicted upon the earth lies with our “best and brightest” minds. Orr argues that to move into a habitable and equitable future, we have to first confront what it means to be biological, rather than aim to erase it through domination.
The title of the record is in reference to codes developed by telegraph operators in the 19th century to express common phrases, with “88” representing the phrase “love and kisses.” The desire for physical, visceral expressions of affection, through kisses. The urgent plea for love tapped out in Morse code aptly represents the fantastical clash between the virtual and telekinetic realities and the carnal, biological reality that we’ve come to straddle. We have the extraordinary capacity to be both humanists and post-humanists simultaneously, to create artificial realities that have no place for us in them, and Actress captures this self-imposed technocratic alienation perfectly in “88″.
Actress himself has dissected what it means to be biological in his own body of work, both through the deconstruction of the biological body that signifies the end of humans as a biological being and the beginning of humanity as something larger than itself and in the concept of the “best and brightest minds” by expanding beyond the limitations of the biological body. To create the last record, he bought synthesizers and other pieces of hardware that he would piece together into the form of a body, a robot as he would refer to it as in an interview with Fader. This reconstruction of a body with completely electronic components helps illustrate this deep-seated drive for human connection, whether through an electronic reconstruction of a body or tapping out codes of affection in Morse.
In 2018, Actress collaborated with an artificial intelligence program named Young Paint to create a mini-album he describes as exploring “gradients of learning from a humanist perspective, investigating the vacant soul of computer language, determination and logic at its most basic natural level.” This embodiment of expansion of the mind beyond the limit of its own biological casing is a consistent theme throughout Actress’s work, and “88” is the newest iteration of what that might mean.
Many thought Actress retired after releasing “Ghettoville,” in 2014. As a result, he approached 2017’s “AZD” as a complete rebirth of his artistic identity. Describing his “Young Paint” release as “reimagining [simplicity] as a sort of sonic paint with splats, sprays, splashes, dots in an Impressionistic fashion,” shows the evolution in his work. If “AZD” was Actress’s Renaissance, and “Young Paint” was his Impressionist movement, then dropping “88” seemingly from a quiet void is Actress’ Post-Impressionist shift into the abstract of the future—the weird, rippling, vivid coloring of surrealism and slow but sure extraction from all things familiar.