Oneohtrix Point Never In Conversation With Cult Artist Jim Shaw

On AI And Algorithms, “Sour Registers,” And The Nightmare On Elm Street

  • Interview: Jim Shaw
  • Photography: Heather Sten

Daniel Lopatin—the award-winning musician, composer, and producer—is Oneohtrix Point Never. Or rather, OPN is Lopatin’s compulsively digressive, sonic idea bank. An ever-mutable project that reveals the artist’s attraction to tangents: connecting, or even coerced by his innumerable and refractive references (like cartoons, AI, horror, Robin Williams, Earth and alien life, future dread, and our collective addiction to the internet). It’s these seemingly unrelated detours that converge and make Lopatin an ideal collaborator. He’s worked with a number of artists, including Kelsey Lu, David Byrne, Nine Inch Nails, FKA Twigs, to name some, and last year, scored Josh and Benny Safdie’s critically acclaimed Good Time. Earlier this summer, Lopatin released Age Of (Warp Records), an album with an operatic structure that’s best described as living outside the limits of classification, satisfying instead the benefits of not always seeking satisfaction. Discomfort has its virtues and Age Of is just that: sore, in a good way. Oblique. Stirring. Scary. Machine-like, and eerily motored by harpsichord. In May, Lopatin premiered a sold-out multimedia concert, MYRIAD, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, and later, a sold-out performance at The Barbican in London. In October, MYRIAD will travel to Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Age Of will have its live West Coast premiere.

The album’s art was designed by David Rudnick, employing an image by American cult artist, Jim Shaw, titled, “The Great Whatsit.” The union is perfect, combining both artists’ pull towards dystopia; what’s strange, bodily, and atrophied about the world and the future. Even the titles, Age Of and “The Great Whatsit” share a similar sense of fatigue. How we’re all hurtling towards wordlessness and feeling, in general, a communal and claustrophobic sense of loss. Here, Shaw whose oeuvre includes inventing the imaginary religion, O-ism, as well as being a member of Destroy All Monsters, an “anti-rock” Detroit band with the late Mike Kelley, is in conversation with Lopatin. The two meander. It gets weird. And why not.

Cover image
Jim Shaw
The Great Whatsit, 2017
acrylic on muslin
53 x 48 inches (134.6 x 121.9 cm)

Dan Lopatin

Jim Shaw

I thought you would get a kick out of this. My friend Ronnie [Bronstein]—he's a writer—he's been working on this compendium of Robert Crumb's Dream Diaries. Have you heard anything about this?

No.

Okay. So Robert Crumb's been keeping his dream diaries for many years, and somehow Ronnie got involved with him and they're combing through all of this stuff, and putting a book together. I was searching for the right entry to read you.

I had to sort of stop dreaming while my daughter was going through school because I have to get up too early to have time to think through the dream, and remember it, and all that, but she's graduating. Thank God.

Oh, congrats. That's awesome. I don't dream at all. I don't know what it is about my chemistry or whatever. I just can't remember them, so I’m really envious of anyone that has elucidation regarding their dreams. Which brings me to your work and O-ism. I'm not super deep on O-ism, though.

Neither am I. I'm still working on [it].

I started thinking about how your work kind of rounds back a lot to this idea of a powerful persuader, and even in Crumb’s stories there’s this persuader. There’s this individual that tries to manipulate a collective body of people. For me there’s this sadness I can’t get around. Even though I’m interested in so many other possible, vital ways to think about things, I always end up thinking, “Well yeah, but that’s also just me kind of being interested in things.” An imagined fissure between my dreams and my meatbag prison. I was just really curious about how you relate to this on a personal level.

To the schism? Well, to me, the schism is the mind-body split. I realized at a certain point that I'm either a schizoid or have Asperger's. Something that removes me from the realm of humanity to some level. I think a lot of the people I admire have that, too, because they devote themselves so heavily to their art. I do feel inevitably drawn to a negative interpretation of the future. It's hard for me to imagine the world my daughter is going to be living in. It's like Donald Trump came along and announced that we were going through this American carnage, and it was like by saying that he willed it into being. We’re going to see so much displacement from what had traditionally been things that gave people value, like working for a living. It's going to stop existing if you're not somebody who knows how to run computers.

Or you're just somehow autonomously connected to some kind of severe digital slate that just gives you pleasant dreams all day while other machines go do your work, and then you actually just atrophy at home. That's the one thing I keep coming back to. I just imagine an entire nation of atrophied bodies in these cells. Well, that would be like a great hospice version of the post-Trump American landscape. It's like, "Okay. Well, you're fucked, but we're going to just kind of put you in this hospice care where you can atrophy in peace and dream all day like a dog, and then your body will grow kind of wretched, but you actually won't see it, so that's okay because you'll be wearing these cool sunglasses."

Kind of like WALL-E combined with the Matrix? I think the machines are already using us, and now the algorithms are determining who we're going to vote for, and what we're going to buy.

It's so psychotic in music, especially. We’re allowing this algorithm to place you on a playlist that people may or may not listen to. And even if they do, it's in context with a bunch of other things that may or may not have anything to do with you.

I wish I was someone who was savvy enough to just post things on the Internet because that's what the extreme right wing fringes are good at. Like in the 60s, you had underground newspapers that were spreading all these crazy ideas, and they've got websites spreading their crazy ideas, except they actually act on them and they own a lot of guns.

It does really come back to this insane ability to persuade people with images and forgettable ideas, just one after the other in a sequence that adds up to a massive glut. It's so frightening to me that that could just potentially be my life if I don't correct it.

I was reading somewhere that what you remember are the traumatic things. I mean, of all the concerts and things that I saw in the 60s, mostly I just remember whatever Iggy did because it was so counter. It was so counter to everything that was going on.

I'm sure you've been asked a million times, but another sort of touchstone of your work for me that just hits home and feels like a welcoming place is that you stylistically shift—you have a sense that it would be irresponsible not to. You embrace these external triggers. Do you have a personal way of thinking about that? How did you make this discovery?

When I was younger back in the 70s, and I was in and out of art school. There was a lot of pattern painting going on. It wasn't anything I was interested in. Then I saw this Rothko retrospective in which I saw his work evolve. For me, this was more interesting than just getting to that final point and staying there. I also knew that I wasn't innately tasteful because I have friends who are innately tasteful, and so I wasn't going to be. I knew I couldn't force it on myself. I could also recognize that I had ADD before I knew what the term was. That I had done bodies of work that went from relatively minor distortions of things or simple expressionist airbrushing to more grotesque and extreme. Then I'd move onto something else. I kind of realized that it would be dumb of me to try and be a signature artist, but I also know that those are the people who make all the money.

Speaking of, there’s song on Age Of called “Toys 2.” It was specifically a proof-of-concept-type piece that I made because for the last couple of years I've been working in this way where I'm trying to find different ways to make a living. I'm profoundly freaked out by the music industry and everything that's happening in it, and I don't actually feel at home there. I'm like, "Oh, man. It would be really nice to score a children's film.” I don't even watch them, so this is what I mean. I just have these weird ideas of how things are. On the news there was this report about Robin Williams in his last will and testament. He was like, "You can't use my likeness in CGI things." He specifically stated that in his will, and I thought it was—

He was prescient.

Absolutely, and it kind of solidified his genius. Not just as a comedian, but somehow, I don't know…He just seemed more connected. But long story short, in homage, I composed this piece called “Toys 2” because I really have very few memories of Toys with Robin Williams, but I thought, "Okay. This will be my proof of concept for Robin Williams’ posthumous CGI return, which will break his request in the will, and it will be a controversial item, and it's going to be this big moment in culture. I'll just make the music now." I had this strange kind of kazoo sound and it's playing this strange lullaby on top of these other things that somehow quoted Céline Dion. I’m thinking we must be reaching the end of a harmonic epoch. There's only so many permutations of the chromatism left to uncover.

Yeah. Most of the ones that haven't been used are ones that aren't pleasant, like things that go beyond. Like, a melody that jumps into different registers is kind of weird.

I call them sour registers.

Things that don't repeat.

You were good at that in [Destroy All Monsters]. For me, I’m always missing that. There needs to be like a little Disney fairy dust sprinkled on everything. I know that you worked in visual effects and special effects when you moved out to California, but you said you worked on Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Is that true?

Yeah. I was the animation director. I supervised animating things that somebody else had set up. It was like Renny Harlin's first American film, I think. It was shot and rushed through production because they wanted to get it out in the summertime rather than release it at Halloween. So they were just making up things as they were going.

Do you ever pang for more practical effects in these Hollywood films? There's really a pasteurized sense of fantasy, now. All these Marvel movies—they all look the same.

When I was a kid, you had to wait a couple of years for a Ray Harryhausen film to come around. You couldn't watch things over and over again because you didn't have tapes or DVDs or the Internet, and that's where things would come alive. Fantasies would be there—real—like a dream come true. A giant chicken came running around or whatever, but once they had the ability to composite stuff digitally, et cetera, it was like everything's possible. But that ended up often being very homogenizing.

Oneohtrix Point Never - We'll Take It youtube

One note, yeah. Last night, I was thinking about AI and how algorithms work, and I remember when Google Deep Dream first appeared in the press. There was a very long dissertation on the technology behind it, and they showed the first experiments they did. I remember how amazingly messed up it was. They basically said, "Okay. We've tried to teach this algorithm about a weight, like the ones you would lift to get strong." He was like, "Okay. We wanted this machine to know what a weight looks like based on this pool of images. Basically Google images—that we all contribute to—and all of our pictures that we post. All of our detritus is feeding this algorithm.” Then it starts learning what weights look like and then it's like, "Okay. Calculating, calculating, calculating. Here's a weight." And it was a weight. It was a silvery gray mass. It looked kind of like steel, but then connected to it, was this pasty, pale arm, fleshy thing—this white arm— essentially was connected to it. I thought that was highly amusing because while it did the job, it kind of just combed through, and said, "Okay. Based on all of my inputs, this is probably what a weight looks like." But it also revealed something really, really skewed about what's on the Internet because it's all of these white bodies lifting these steel bars. I thought: this was how it's going to go down. This is the reality we're going to live in. This is the dystopia. It's not just a matter of being eaten alive by machines or being somehow engulfed in some sort of horrific war, but it's actually all of our accumulated fantasies of our self, and it's specific fantasies, and it's specific bodies, and all of this stuff. And that, to me, starts feeling kind of upsetting; kind of fascism.

It’d be interesting to see what pornography an algorithm would come up with.

Ask Pornhub for their data. Actually Pornhub has this crazy sense of humor about who they are, and what they do. They’re actually really transparent and will occasionally reveal these metrics. There was this incredible one that they put out focusing on an insane spike of activity at looking at porn immediately proceeding false reports of a nuclear attack. It was like a test message that went live probably. It just got sent out by accident, and then there was this insane spike in people looking at porn, immediately.

In Hawaii? Was that in Hawaii?

Yeah.

That would make sense. Well, you got to do what counts.

Yeah, give the species a chance to survive.

  • Interview: Jim Shaw
  • Photography: Heather Sten
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: the artist, Drew Gurian, Katharine Hayden and Metro Pictures, New York