The future is now! Or maybe the way we envision it is just a memory from the past anyway. In the weird year of Covid-19 artists are facing questions like these on a regular basis and JJ Weihl even made an entire album around it. The multidisciplinary American artist who has been a vital part of the Berlin underground scene for a decade now with her acclaimed main band Fenster recent released her pretty great debut solo album Remote Control under her Discovery Zone alias. It’s a shimmering piece of dreamy synthpop, inspired by retro-futuristic sound vibes and the difficult relationship between mankind and technology. If you happen to love dreamy analogue synth-patterns, drum computer love, claps, chimes and reverbed vocals then this is your record.
But besides the interesting sound design, Remote Control also comes with an interesting concept in terms of story and aesthetics, one that manifests pretty well in the record’s closing track Tru Nature and the music video for it. Today, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION not only premieres that music video but also delivers an extended and insightful chat with JJ Weihl about the state of the artist in these times, humanity’s weird relationship with media as well as the troubled one with Mother Nature. A lot is going on here, so happily invite you to dive deep into the Discovery Zone right here.
Shimmering beach scenes, nightly forests, animated doves and other superficial animation tricks – there’s a lot happening in “Tru Nature” … tell us a bit about the clip, JJ.
“Life is but a dream, within a dream” – William Shakespeare
“Life is but a screen within a screen” – Discovery Zone
Tru Nature is the last song on my album Remote Control and it was written on a hot day when I was stuck inside, sick in the summertime last year. I was laying on my living room floor playing around on my old trusty Yamaha synth and as day faded into night, I recorded all the parts of the demo before falling asleep and dreaming of the ocean.
The track opens with the sound of waves crashing, and the chatter of WaveNet speech, which is an AI algorithm for generating raw audio of any kind, including music and human speech. Floating above this idyllic landscape, the disembodied voices of our creations are speaking in a language we helped create, but do not understand. I think I was channeling the static joy of loneliness in paradise. The pointed modern phenomenon of being watched and watching others in a space of artificial intimacy.
The video is an imaginary beach vacation commercial that becomes increasingly indistinguishable from a computer game. There is only one character in the game. Trying to hold on to her Tru Nature as it slips away, we watch as she cross-dissolves into a virtual world. Sometimes, when you see a figure walking in the distance, it’s hard to tell if it’s coming closer or moving further away. It was shot by my dear friend Olivia Katz one summer on Fire Island. I re-discovered the footage and edited it together during quarantine of 2020.
The visual aspect of Remote Control is quite fascinating. To me it got a very “early 90s” look and feel in terms of the visual aesthetics – what inspired you to go this way?
Wow interesting. I never really thought of it that way myself, haha. BUT now that you’ve brought it up … I did grow up watching a lot of television alone in my bedroom in the 1990s. I think that the aesthetic of commercials and of course music, films, computer games, news and sitcoms from that time had a big impact on my psyche. To quote Marshall Mcluhan “Advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century.” It’s impossible to truly know oneself, why one does the things they do, etc, but I can make an educated guess that MTV, the Lifetime network, public access programming, and infomercials have taken up a large portion of the real estate in my subconscious mind.
The visual aesthetic of the record is definitely a reflection of the incongruity of the digital age, a wild mix of curated content that stems from my specific slice of life growing up in New York at the end of the 20th century. I am sort of a sucker for nostalgia, and I do believe that content and aesthetic are two sides of the same hypercube. The hologram on the record cover was a long-time dream of mine and I hope a nice metaphor for grasping at some of the concepts behind Remote Control that transcend the decades.
“Never underestimate the power of the ZOOM”
The connection between humanity and machines plays an important role in the story of your debut album – what defines the “tru nature” of mankind in your eyes?
Upon consulting the internet, I discover that Tru Nature is in fact a juice bar located in Long Beach California. This piece of information is the first thing that comes up in a google search. If a being from another planet were to come to earth right now and ask the internet about “true nature”, they might think it’s just another thing that’s for sale. They might also lose hope about intelligent life on other planets. But they also might try and ditch the advertisement driven, data mining internet oracle and see for themselves.
I think the idea that there even is such a thing as “tru nature” is in and of itself a paradox. When we create stories and concepts about who we are and identify with them too strongly, they are bound to become untrue. Tru nature is flexible and changing. We only exist in relation to other things, to our own perceptions.
What makes us human is the carefully constructed chaos of having come into being in the first place, the origins of which are pure mystery. I think we can also learn a lot about ourselves from what we create.
Technology is just a big mirror for where we’re at as a species. What we create and how we create it is not inherently good or bad and everything we make is an opportunity for self-reflection. When we are developing technology or artificial intelligence, we are dreaming and we are expanding the potential for innovation, but we are also creating products in the context of a capitalist society where invention is driven by economic gain. That isn’t to say that technological advancement doesn’t originate from a deep curiosity of human kind, but the framework in which it is being created must also be taken into account.
Here is a book I highly recommend reading: The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, and a little tasty morsel to chew on
“Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated “building blocks,” but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way. The human observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational processes, and the properties of any atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer.”
Never underestimate the power of the ZOOM. In and out, both great functions of a camera and/or human mind. Studying the quantum reality is valuable, but not without the realisation that no matter how much we can know or observe, the essence of life is mystery. And therein lies the paradox. In order to find true nature, you must empty the mind. Once you try to name things, they can lose their meaning. I think our tru nature can be found in breaking free from concepts, breaking free from the ego. It’s a force that underlies everything that we can tap into and are a part of. It’s definitely not for sale. Unless you’re talking about that juice place in which case it is indeed for sale.
What I really enjoyed about the record is not just the great sound (lovin those late 80s early 90s vibes) but also a more utopian approach towards the whole technology aspect. What gives you hope here that we’re gonna turn things around?
The way I see it, everything that has ever been created on this planet by a person started with an idea. Everything happening right now, every political system, every song, every car, every building every piece of hardware and software is a translation from neuronal activity to physical or virtual reality. What this means to me is, aside from the natural world and the things that we do not control, we are living in a projection of our own making. We must get our minds right. In order to manifest the best world possible, our priorities have to be better for all people.
I think we have lost touch with an important ability to tune to the frequency of the natural world. I don’t say that to idealise nature. It is a complex system full of beauty and cruelty and everything in between. And we are part of it.
When we deny death, when we deny decay, ageing, and paradox we lose touch with nature and therefore with ourselves. I think capitalism filled a big void in society where God used to be. I think we confuse image with essence all the time and that’s in large part due to capitalism and propaganda about the individual and what makes us “who we are” that has been sold to us.
Of a broken system and the need for drastic change
I also think that cyberspace is magic. It is limitless and exists outside of time and space. To me, the dystopian elements of technological advancement are tied up in capitalism and inequality. The utopian elements exist in the limitless potential of the human mind, and the ways in which technology could be used as an extension of human creativity. We have the potential to create a utopian world where everyone shares access to this magic. But I also think that in the context of capitalism and exploitation, technology will only magnify the divide of those that have access to knowledge and resources and those that do not. The rules of the game must change. We cannot continue to make minor changes within a broken system. Not to be dramatic but…I’m BEING DRAMATIC BECAUSE IT IS DRAMATIC AND change is essential to our collective survival. And change starts from within.
Here is a last little Marshall McLuhan quote for the road “In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” I think the potential of technology is really exciting, and I myself am endlessly fascinated with the mind and all the things it is capable of. But it is important not to get lost in the world of the mind alone. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. I think that it is really important to stay critical in terms of what technology can offer us, and also the cost of “optimisation.” What are we giving up by becoming more “efficient?”
What are our goals here on this planet? I think hope lives in unexpected places. Here we are, in a world that has undergone a lot of crazy and painful transformation this year. Maybe all of this unrest is a sign that we are changing, and the veil is beginning to lifted. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is stable. But that shouldn’t scare us. That should free us.
You’ve been a restless figure in the Berlin creative scene for the past decade and the times are quite tough and hard to predict, still: I have to ask – what’s next for you, Discovery Zone, Fenster or other projects?
Fenster has been a big part of my life for years and we will definitely be releasing some music again at some point. It also just so happens to be the 5 year anniversary of our album and feature film EMOCEAN. In the movie, the band gets trapped in another dimension where emoceans are forbidden and the citizens wear grey suits and consume green NRG drinks and the cops look like hippies. I think it’s one of the things I’m most proud of making together with the band. A nice reminder not to get caught up in the superficial. Always search for truth and don’t stop feeling stuff.
I’ve recently been learning about language models and algorithms and have been experimenting in the cross-section of art, music and technology. My focus right now is on expanding my practice, educating myself, studying philosophy, history, science and politics, and of course always making music and videos. I’m hoping to collaborate with machines and people across these disciplines in new ways. I’m always interested and open to collaborations! Don’t hesitate to get in touch. Oh and I actually have a live show coming up at Reeperbahn Festival on September 19th. And some other exciting things which I can’t announce yet but stay tuned.
The fabulous Remote Control by Discovery Zone is out now via Mansions And Millions.