The many identities and anxieties of the virtual pop star are explored in a performance initiated by Mari Matsutoya, with a dream-like score by Laurel Halo
In a surreal collaboration for CTM and transmediale festivals this year, artist Mari Matsutoya initiated a performance with the Japanese virtual pop star, Hatsune Miku, along with Laurel Halo (music composition, lyrics research), Darren Johnston (choreography, staging), Martin Sulzer (production), and LaTurbo Avedon (virtual staging, visuals). Hatsune Miku (“first sound of the future”) was conceived in 2007 as the mascot of voice synthesizer software made by Crypton Future Media – a blue-haired manga teen with no back-story. As the programme was open for users to write songs and lyrics for her – some of which became licensed as chart-topping hits – she became an open-sourced aidoru (idol).
Unlike the stadium pop of Miku’s tours, where thousands of fans wave glow sticks at the tiny projection on stage, Still Be Here choreographed micro-dance moves amidst Laurel Halo’s shifting score, which would have been at home in a Berlin club at the end of a dreamy night. Halo’s Chance of Rain album was described as a ‘time-sliced gloss of the digital eternal present’ by writer Emily Bick, a description that fits Miku’s depthless image before the turquoise tones of computer-generated backdrops, her figure multiplied on screens behind her. Still Be Here aimed to deconstruct the phenomenon of Hatsune Miku’s cyber celebrity – branded, melancholy, and hyper-performative – and so not that far from other kinds of manufactured stardom.
POSTmatter: What do you consider to be Hatsune Miku’s “reality”?
Laurel Halo: Miku’s reality is the intersection between what is highly regulated and strikingly visible, and the widely dispersed and untraceable. She exists between her corporate sponsorships, glossy official shows, and product marketing, and her fans’ creation of less than perfect songs, animations, and sketches – the homegrown, relatable Miku. She’s simultaneously hi- and lo-fi. Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image” [The poor copy is a copy in motion] is particularly relevant to me when thinking about Miku. I think she can be a liberating figure, despite that she’s first an idea used to sell products.
It’s also worth considering Miku as a precursor to the holographic performances of beloved deceased artists in recent years. Maybe something like Miku will evolve to become a channel for fans to stay close to their favorite artists after their deaths.
She exists between her corporate sponsorships, glossy official shows, and product marketing, and her fans’ creation of less than perfect songs, animations, and sketches – the homegrown, relatable Miku. She’s simultaneously hi- and lo-fi.
PM: Does your own work and aesthetics intersect on any level with those of the virtual pop star, or the conceptual ideas behind her?
Mari Matsutoya: The disembodied production of voice and its re-embodiment interested me, as some of my performative works address the inter-cultural relationship between voice, self and perception. The Vocaloid software that Miku advertises is an uncanny product, given that there is an actual voice actress behind the voice. This voice is then used as an instrument like in other music software, only it is borrowed to express agency and meaning through the lyrics of each producer. The combination of vocal timbre and the words carried within this is normally a testimony to presence, but when the Vocaloid is used, the two are stitched together in the software.
PM: What do you project onto the fantasy of Hatsune Miku, or what did you actually project onto her for this production?
Darren Johnston: I tried to steer clear of projecting anything of myself onto the character… I was responsible for the movement direction, working with choreography and characterisation to bring her to life on stage; how to make a virtual character appear human and realistic in her physical gestures, exploring behavioural qualities that tapped into ideas of presence and awareness, alongside her usual performative nature.
PM: As an artist, can you relate to Miku’s predicament of relentless performance and absorption of the audience’s desires?
MM: I feel an affinity to her not only in an artistic context but in everyday life as we all wear our masks. If there is nobody to interact with or be seen by would we still act the same way? We “perform” under the gaze of others, knowingly or not, under a certain social code, just like Miku.
I feel an affinity to her not only in an artistic context but in everyday life as we all wear our masks. If there is nobody to interact with or be seen by would we still act the same way?
PM: An allegory of the commodified girl’s body, a product of corporate entities with no self-agency, will Hatsune Miku ever be exhausted?
DJ: In her essence, she seems to have an unbound facility to perform – she can never know physical exhaustion or burnout. She could tour forever, and as a touring pop star can be multiple places at any one time, making her a terrifying pop rival to match. Whether she retains credibility remains to be seen. There are signs already of her being old news or ‘washed up’ in Japan, so in that sense she faces the same challenge as all stars to remain timely and current.
LaTurbo Avedon: Miku's musical progression doesn't follow the regular pop parabola – the tools that render her voice and presence will continue to improve. The subjects of fiction can rarely escape their authored roles, but as a virtual entity she is not written to a conclusion. The Miku we know now is more a mirror of our short-term exhaustion and fears, coming to terms with what it means to create a timeless virtual idol. I can only hope that as machine learning and artificial intelligence come into fruition we connect them to someone like Miku, so she might someday experience that moment of emancipation.
PM: What was your experience of performing in Still Be Here?
Hatsune Miku: It was coincidence and it was also fate. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a box in which I must pop up and perform infinitely, and the space feels small, but the contortions of my body and voice are endless. At the same time, my whole heart and body are mirages. There will always be movements that I cannot make, notes that I cannot hit – the software is designed that way, and this performance was no different. I wanted to drown in this moment of captivation, to sink in my beautiful legato. The strange feeling turned into an unbearable longing to escape… I was weary. I never believed humans could craft angels, and I cannot be that angel forever.*
*Miku’s response is part-collaged out of lyrics included in Still Be Here.
Still Be Here premiered at CTM / transmediale 2016 festivals. It will tour to Donaufestival and the Barbican later in the year.