James Ferraro and Mall Aesthetics

A Conversation with the Electronic Musician Who Mirrors the Powers of Consumer Culture and Reveals a Crumbling Image of the American Dream

  • Text: Robert Grunenberg
  • Photography: Elsa Henderson

An average coffee shop at an average mall. I am about to interview James Ferraro. My phone buzzes—Ferraro writes he will be ready in a few minutes. The shopping alley of the mall is a perfumed space with pop-up cubicles, sashimi bars, and frozen yogurt stations. The sound of bouncy minimal music and people ordering pumpkin spice soy lattes fills the air. I ask Siri to activate the Voice Memo app to record the interview. Susan Bennett, the American female version of the IOS voice-over, replies, “I didn’t understand,” forcing me to open the app myself. When Ferraro calls me on my Google Hangout, we start talking about all the mainstream products, sounds, and rituals that surround me—all of them representative of our hyper-synthetic globalized world of communication and consumption, and the same material that Ferraro references in his musical experiments. I wonder, in what way is this inspirational?

“When I make my music, I think about a CEO of a huge corporation, about the environment of shopping malls, organic supermarkets, elevators, and the musical sounds that were designed to have a certain effect within theses spaces on the audience. When you replicate that, you work with the psychological framework that was built into it. This muzak is threatening and sinister, distanced and dehumanized, but at the same time seductive. It functions as a social lube for capitalistic transactions,” says Ferraro, who turned 30 this year. In his conceptual music, he recycles the sounds that we encounter everyday, whether we are aware of them or not. If there was a soundtrack of consumer culture of the 21st century, then James Ferraro composed it. His music sounds avant-garde and futuristic, yet all of it steers from the present. Then again, the shelf life of electronic audio rarely surpasses that of your average milk carton. And so, his compilations become a nostalgic sound archive of the near-past: TV jingles, ringtones, or the beeping of an ATM machine. These sounds are the communicational tools between individuals and computer systems, informing, warning, or pleasing us. As much as we are living under the dominance of our visual culture, we are greatly affected by the powers of our audio culture as well.

With more than 15 solo records and many more collaborations over the past 10 years, Ferraro has created a vast musical archive echoing the sounds of the globalized world. By refining the audio junk of the profane, his music transcends into a contemplative, nearly prophetical dimension, revealing a dark prospect on the western world and his homeland, the United States. Ferraro explains the element of nostalgia that hails from the near-past audio as a symbol of “the decline of American prosperity, a ghost of a once-superpower that is dying.”

These ideas surfaced boldly on his record Far Side Virtual from 2011, which introduced his music to a wider audience. Critics referred to it as one of this decade’s most polarizing records, marking a shift from Ferraro’s lo-fi tunes to a more conceptual approach to electronic aesthetics. The sharpness with which Ferraro approached the record makes it hard to tell whether he celebrates or rejects the forces of global hyper-capitalism. Is it a satirical commentary, a huge fucking joke, or an homage to the dark glamour of hedonistic consumption? “I don’t think it is a bad thing that culture is being swallowed up, commercialized, and commodified by the market. The scary part of the commodifying dynamic is how it is being applied. Let’s take the referential nature of advertisements, something like Gatorade, and how it is presented as a masculine juice. There is this weird aura of athleticism and masculinity created by marketers. If you strip everything away, what is left? A flavored sugary drink in plastic. Once we reach a level of commodification and commercialization where ideas are being distorted and twisted, it becomes crazy.” The perverted branding of nostalgia in music, art, and consumer products, is one of the concepts on Ferraro’s mind: “A lot of people in the US, especially the diminishing middle class, ask for nostalgic things, to connect back to a time of more stability and affluence. It’s cherrypicking from each decade and smashing them together to new weird nostalgic hybrids. It’s this Frankenstein thing, like corporate consumer fetishism mixed with American nostalgia. What comes to the foreground in all of this is a national consciousness.”

Ferraro is not merely interested in the symbols and audio of our media-driven age. He looks for the infrastructures and systems that are at play. He doesn’t simply reuse lounge music—he goes back to those places, installs and plays them where they originate from: “People adapt to the system they live in. I like to go into these infrastructures to create awareness. In a way, to see how the system works and how we operate in it, and also to consider its malfunctions. This kind of civic art is the future." In his much acclaimed museum show 100% at MoMA PS1 in 2014, Ferraro composed the piece “Saint Prius”—on-hold music specifically for MoMA PS1’s phone system. The two minute work is now a long-term installation and can be experienced by calling the number +1 (718) 784-2084 during museum hours. In addition to “Saint Prius,” the exhibition included “Dubai Dream Tone,” an 18-minute work made for MoMA PS1’s elevator, and “Eco-Savage Suite,” a group of 18 ringtones available for download on a special page of the museum’s website.

Ferraro’s work has been compared to the cultural theories of Jean Baudrillard who claimed that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs and that human experience is only a simulation of reality. Others draw lines to the grotesque videos of artist Ryan Trecartin, who deals with information overload and excessive commercialism. The idea of accelerationism is also present here—a concept in which capitalism is destroyed by accelerating all market transactions until it collapses, ultimately enabling a radical social change. Ferraro’s work polarizes and many people have tried to put a label on it. It has been called “vaporwave,” “hypnagogic pop,” or referred to as a mixture of established genres—something that Ferraro objects to as problematic: “I understand the desire or the urge to call something ‘tribal,’ ‘minimalistic,’ or ‘vaporwave,’ but it is not relevant for me because it doesn't reflect the adaptive nature of aesthetics and art. I personally believe that art is meant to create temporary beings of reality and that its aesthetics bring new ideas into the world. It is unfair to say that my music is RnB mixed with this and that. My music is still emerging and ambiguous right now. There is no real vocabulary to explain what it is.“

A lot of people in the US, especially the diminishing middle class, ask for nostalgic things, to connect back to a time of more stability and affluence.

The world we live in is ambiguous and there is not a single, final truth. This postmodern doubt is at the core of Ferraro’s approach: All established things, institutions, genres, or labels act has half-truths, because everything is constantly moving and changing faster than ever through the power of globalization, digitalization, and perpetually new technologies. Ferraro’s work is best understood by looking at how he made it instead of what he made. His playful alchemistic attitude towards music started way before Skype or iPhones even existed. With a radio DJ and heavy metal musician for a father and a folk singer for a mother, he was exposed to a variety of musical concepts and grew up between New York and Los Angeles. He taught himself to play the French horn and wrote songs ever since he was a child, experimenting with audio in different ways. “I had one of these little hand hip recorders, and a friend showed me how to remove the magnet. What happens is, when you record something on it, it sets the layer of sound. You pretty much create these collages of different sounds. I was obsessed with that. Just going around recording different sounds and layering them. I tried to create these weird kind of fake stories.”

Making these odd tones from scratch is still the way Ferraro works. Whether cooperating with the American record label Hippos in Tanks—which has also worked with musicians like Grimes, Arca, and Dean Blunt—or producing projects on his own, it has not affected his creative output. He hardly uses samples of the muzak sounds. Most of it is made freehand—no MIDI, no quotation. While his music has changed constantly ever since he started recording and publishing in the mid-2000s, this experimental element has remained a driving energy in his work. It can be heard on his first record Multitopia, an album made as a response to the 9/11 attacks. The same applies for his record NYC, Hell 3;00 AM, an apocalyptical footnote on contemporary RnB that deals with the fetishization of luxury items, youth-oriented lotions, and artificial beauty—a powerful kind of narcissism. The records Far Side Virtual or Skid Row revolve around Los Angeles. When asked why he moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to record Far Side Virtual, he responds: “I wanted to be connected to the epicenter of the media universe. The semiotic nature of L.A. is interesting. You get a taste of the madness of civilization. It is dismal and charming. It is progressive, yet it seems like an assimilation of the world ending. It is the collapse of modern society, but it still functions. It is thriving. It is expanding. It is a delicate place. In L.A. you can be whatever you want. Within that, I see all the implosions of humankind.”

All four records are devoted to the alluring myths and horrors of these two iconic metropolitan cities, which span across the American landscape like massive power poles. An inspiration for Far Side Virtual was the American artist Thomas Kinkade, a painter who died in 2012. Kinkade’s landscape paintings are pure kitsch, not liked by the institutional art world, but very popular among more conservative American families. “I find him a significant character in the history of America. He makes these abstruse, almost sociopathic projections of Americana with these weird isolated American ideals. It is a Disneyland idea of America.”

Kinkade’s art was licensed by housing and real estate developers and used as ready-made art in suburban cookie cutter housing communities. It has been estimated that one in every 20 American homes owns a copy of one of his paintings. A commodified symbol of the American dream to put on your walls. When the real estate and housing market in 2008 collapsed, this symbolism was turned upside down. Kinkade’s art was based on an industry that made money through false credits. Then it all crashed. Now, no one lives in the pristine house, but the paintings are still there. They have become an allegory of greed and a sign of the decay of the American dream.

Art is meant to create temporary beings of reality and that its aesthetics bring new ideas into the world.

This toxic energy of the neoliberal markets and the power it holds over human desires is crucial to Ferraro: “Marketers and corporate researchers use a limited set of semiotics to advertise and sell products. They reach a certain limit and then they start to create these weird, often contradictory products, like a pumpkin spiced latte, which operates in a global way, decentralized from its local origin, without meaning.” Ferraro looks for the flaws these systems generate: “With HD films, it is hard to maintain the suspension of disbelief, accepting the illusion and fiction of a film, that one is entertained by. TV screens have become so HD that you can actually see the actor’s make-up and the imperfections on their skin. It reveals too much to maintain the aura of romanticism. It is absurd because it disrupts the Hollywood machine.“

Ferraro likes to play around with these mechanisms that deconstruct the American illusion of glamor, beauty, and happiness. To sketch out the framework for his latest record Human Story 3, he used the concept of schizophasia. The programmatically chosen song titles like “Immanent Cloud,” “Security Broker,” or “Plastic Ocean” create word salads, semiotic structures where the meaning of words are jumbled, swallowed, and consumed by each other to evoke new messages. A song like “10 Songs for Humanity” sounds delicious, elegant, and insane, recalling Philipp Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach”. The song foregrounds through it’s twisted repetitious composition: angelic choral voices, nervous bells, and computer generated speech. It comes across hopefully utopian, but underneath it is pitch dark. His schizophasia acts like a deconstructing element that reveals the flaws and disorders of our operating systems, aiming to create awareness: “It would be interesting to have a self-referential society on a global level. That way, there would be a certain kind of understanding about the world we live in and also about the limits of capitalism or any economic system,” Ferraro explains. ”The dark and melancholic elements you can feel in my music, the problems that I am outlining with society, come from the sadness that human beings are not living up to what I think they are capable of.”

All of this sounds like the end is near—an endless death chime of your outdated Macintosh. How should we deal with the complexity of the world? How do we vocalize and express ourselves within it? Ferraro has the answer: “Be bold. Risk is a catalyst, a chemical reaction, and things happen from there. If you are trying to be relatable, why would you deserve a voice? You’re not saying anything differently. Everyone has a unique experience. When you find your own thoughts without fear of judgment, that’s when you escape. Once you start doing that—it sets you free.”

  • Text: Robert Grunenberg
  • Photography: Elsa Henderson