Crowd-Sourced Stardom: Mari Matsutoya and Hatsune Miku

Sound Artist Mari Matsutoya on the Holographic Pop Star and the Synthesized Voice

  • Interview: Charlie Robin Jones
  • Photography: Haw-Lin Services
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Mari Matsutoya

“There was a music journalist who said that musical revolutions happen every 20 years. In 1967 was Woodstock, the hippie summer of love, and then rave in 1987, and then in 2007, there's another euphoria of creation. This one had no drugs involved, it was internet-based, and its energy was viral.”

Berlin-based sound artist Mari Matsutoya is telling me about the birth of the first truly enormous virtual pop star: Hatsune Miku, the humanized, holographic form of a vocal synthesis technology called Vocaloid. Matsutoya’s fascination with Hatsune Miku guided Still Be Here, a collaboration with musician Laurel Halo, choreographer Darren Johnston, visual artist LaTurbo Avedon, and 3D artist Martin Sulzer. It’s an amazing series of videos and live (well, live-ish) performances, supported with essays and more, about Miku confronting herself through her own songs. (Its final performance is scheduled for September 22 at TodaysArtFestival in The Hague.)

“I use the voice as a starting point because it's truthful. You control it – but [sometimes] it gives you away,” Matsutoya explains about her work. “It’s two-fold: the projection of what you want to sound like, and the actual thing that you are.”

Matsutoya’s projects previous to Still Be Here all worked in a middle space between digital amplification and what the human voice reveals and conceals. She has turned a circle of evaporating water into a volume switch, built a cyborg wig that triggers samples of her own voice to speak “man-machine generated poetry unattached to meaning,” and written a children’s song played at a frequency inaudible to adults. She’ll continue exploring this terrain with a new show on Berlin’s Cashmere Radio focused on communicative potential of the synthesized voice. “The use of avatars both visual and aural allows us the freedom to move outside of our perceived boundaries, and at the same time works to dissolve the over-significance of the elevated artist,” she says. The mask she is wearing in these photographs approaches the same dynamic from a different angle: “It’s an exercise in ‘becoming,’ moving in the space between the real and the imagined. Cosplay and karaoke are prime examples of this exercise.”

Matsutoya’s fascination with how the voice can be decoupled from its usual speaking-hearing physical relationship leads us nicely to Hatsune Miku. Miku could be the most successful native advertisement in history: a piece of branded content distilled into an animated frame who is an indisputably successful pop star in her own right. In her 3D holographic form, Miku has played concerts around the world and appeared on more than 100,000 songs. That number is no misprint: Miku’s music is created by her millions of fans under Creative Commons.

But she is neither as post-human nor as post-capitalist as she might seem. Created by the Sapporo-based Crypton Future Media, Inc., Miku was debuted 10 years ago to advertise the company’s Vocaloid software, an instrument that is to singing what the Roland 808 drum machine is to a drum kit. Her name means "the first sound from the future,” yet in 2017, she appears almost archaic. Her moment in the sun in the West was brief but bright, including a collaboration with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton in 2013, opening for Lady Gaga in 2014, and a performance on David Letterman’s show later the same year. There’s something very ancient, very us about Miku. In truth, she belongs less to the possibilities of a post-human world, and more to the ancestral conception of a shared totem: a personality created by, and in service of, a community.

How did you come to make the work about the Hatsune Miku?

In my practice, I use the voice as a starting point. I worked a lot with the organic, “real” voice, and then I started getting into the automated voice, or the synthesized voice. The company behind Hatsune Miku takes an actress' voice, splices it into tiny little grains, and synthesizes it, to make it possible to put these parts back together and make her sing. You type in lyrics and melodies and then it puts them together into a sung piece of music. The voice hadn't been synthesized before — you had synthesizers that could play the strings section, the wind section, whatever, but up until now, there wasn't really anything for the voice.

So, these pieces exist only as melody — in effect, it’s harder to get Hatsune to speak than sing?

Yes, she's a singing-only Vocaloid. If I wanted her to have a monologue, it would have a sort of Brechtian quality.

It's all intensely Brechtian, isn't it?

Well, it’s a performance, isn't it? She's always used by you as a performance, and she's also absolutely “the other.” You make her up and you pretend that she has her own agency, but it’s a total reflection of what you are.

There’s an enormous Hatsune fan culture out there, isn’t there? How did your work interact with that?

There's this whole world out there! That's basically where her whole image is created, by fans. There’s all these files with backgrounds and movements where she's dancing, all under Creative Commons. We used some already-existing elements from these, but then of course LaTurbo Avedon uploaded her own creations, too.

There’s two sides to how people relate to her. They sometimes impose this dystopian master-slave relationship onto her, where she has this digitized soul that's trapped in a disembodied body, but nowadays she’s also just used as another instrument. Even her creator said in an interview that he considers her an instrument, and doesn't have any sort of emotional attachment her. So, it’s either very fantastical, or it's very matter-of-fact.

What do you think is more creepy?


I mean, which side of the uncanny valley are we on here? You have someone who is a real pop star who happens not to have a body. You also have the opposite extreme: simply a string of code, an instrument. She exists as both simultaneously. She sings about being a puppet, and her father calls her a string of code.

It's very revealing about us, isn't it? Because that's how you see her, and you can watch how we want her to behave. It's about the fans, as well, who are in the end the people who decide what's allowed and what's not allowed with her. This policing aspect is very interesting. There was one version you could download where she was pregnant, but a week later it'd been taken down. And in another one, she was wearing a wedding dress, which got a lot of attention because fans were asking,“Who is she getting married to?” They call her our Miku. When we, as artists, came and tried to use her in a different way, that was also quite a controversial thing to do. You don't want to upset the core fans.

“It's also a transformative thing: people have this desire to become something else, because society is so closed.”

That's the first rule of any creative endeavor: don't fuck with the nerds. But to wade into the fight, one of the uncomfortable things is about believing she is our Miku is that it triggers an idea of possession, of domination of another being. Which is terrible, apart from the fact she’s not another being — she’s a piece of code.

So, there's no one coming into harm, right? If it's just a depiction, and if she has no emotions, no human empathy, she's just a piece of code or a drawing. But I don't want to say she doesn't exist, because I think she exists. She’s just not physically a person. So, is it wrong then to treat her in a debasing way when there's no actual victim involved? I don't have the answer to that.

When you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people all singing through a 16-year-old schoolgirl, it kind of dissolves the self, right? This reminds me of some of your other work – for example, when you performed your cyborg singing

Cyborg singing is just completely taking the self, the voice, outside of the body. It’s an extension or an augmentation of how the human body works. I had a wig, and some white gloves, and self-made instruments. There was an accelerometer inside the wig and sensors in the gloves that would trigger samples of my voice. The sound itself was a selection of pre-recorded phonemes, so it’s somewhere between Hatsune, the cut-and-paste of William Burroughs, and a Ouija board, because the output was a mixture of things that might form a word, or might form something that sounds like another word. It goes to the audience to decide what they hear.

The voice is becoming this main interface with technology, but what does this actually mean for the society we’re building? It's very telling that we gender Siri and Alexa as women.

I was surprised because I thought Siri had a female voice but, for me, when I downloaded it, it was a male voice. I think it's designed to make it more appealing to the audience. And I think that's also what's happening with Hatsune: it’s just what’s demanded in that particular capitalist society. In Japan, schoolgirls sell, so Hatsune has a school uniform on.

The fact that it’s so community-constructed, and community-enforced, seems like an almost post-capitalist form of creativity. Or is that too simple?

It's community-created, but in the end, it’s set up to sell the branded Vocaloid software. It’s a massive advertising campaign, even her image. When they first started out with the Vocaloids, they just had a woman's lips, but they later built a character around that. The fact that it’s a manga image of her, not a realistic depiction of a person, is quite particular to Japan. You have that everywhere – even bikes are endorsed by some small mushroom character, or some manga tiger. It's also a transformative thing: people have this desire to become something else, because society is so closed.

Interesting. So, it’s not just animation, but an identification of self?

People relate it also to animism, and the fact that they have a god for lots of different things.

In Shintoism, everything has a soul.

It's very usual for people to personify things. That's why it's easier for people to take Hatsune as a real person. There were these reactionary YouTubes from American and European people that were like, "Oh my god, what? Why would people believe that? Why are there so many people paying loads of money to go to see her in concert hall?" Of course they know she's not a real person, but this knowledge that she's not really real becomes less relevant when all the fans are there: it connects them, and forces them to become even more of a community. I've never actually been to a concert, but I really want to. I've heard the energy is phenomenal.

“It's very revealing about us, isn't it?”

It’s the perfect pop star: great tunes, and she doesn't have to obey the laws of physics.

The Japanese entertainment pop system is so controlled that it also makes complete sense to have her replaceable. A non-real person works exactly as well. She can also be in two places at once. The thing about Hatsune is that even though she could be a superhuman, without all the personal issues pop stars have, she still goes through crises and breakdowns. Of course, they're mostly created. There was a time when she was everywhere, from 2007 to about 2012, but now it's beginning to wane. She’s almost past her prime.

The most human thing about her is the prospect of her being washed up.

I think that law applies to everything, even an immortal virtual being. There was another virtual idol project before Hatsune Miku, and the only trace left of her is this super-old website, and some fan comments, but there are less and less. That was in the 90s — the technology wasn't available to do holographic projections, but she made music videos and was popular for a while. Then faded away.

That's sad.

It’s quite sad, but it's the same the human trajectory, right? Five minutes of fame. We're never going to be in the limelight forever.

  • Interview: Charlie Robin Jones
  • Photography: Haw-Lin Services
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Mari Matsutoya