The US electronic star on how early websites and millennium aesthetics shaped his music under the Virtual Self moniker
Dazed Faves is the series where we talk all things online – that surreal meme account you’re obsessed with, weird conspiracy theory subreddits, ASMR YouTubes, or slime Instagrams.
Porter Robinson rose to fame during the initial rise of EDM in North America – but despite releasing singles with Skrillex’s label OWSLA, scoring top 10 hits with artists like Zedd, and remixing mainstream artists from Avicii to Lady Gaga, he always seemed averse to the scene’s more garish elements. When big money started to enter EDM, the music became increasingly brain-melting and chest-beating, and the live shows became bigger, louder, and more impersonal; Robinson, in response, released 2014’s Worlds, a debut album of misty-eyed, emotional electro pop.
For his latest project, Virtual Self, Robinson has once more found a totally new avenue to explore. Looking back to his childhood, he’s created a love letter to the sounds and aesthetics of Y2K that have since fallen out of fashion. Trance, jungle, progressive house, and the soundtracks of rhythm games are all earnestly brought together into Robinson’s sound design, while the project’s visual universe draws inspiration from cyberpunk animes, the ethereal atmospheres of Web 1.0 pages, and the maximalist digital art that found audiences on online forums and sites like DeviantArt. “That period is still somewhat undefined in popular culture,” Robinson says over the phone. “We have a really firm understand of what the 80s and 90s are, but I wanted to help define how the early 2000s would be remembered from my nerdy experience of that time and the memories that I really cherished.”
Though Virtual Self looks back in time, it isn’t ‘retro’. Robinson may use familiar sounds from the Y2K era, but his tracks aren’t accurate recreations of the style – instead, he uses the recent past to find echoes of the future, to discover the ghosts in these old machines. The cybernetic future envisioned in millennium-era internet culture never quite materialised, but Virtual Self locates the utopian impulse of the early, open web, before it was subsumed by monolithic data companies like Facebook and their tightly controlled user experiences.
“There are oftentimes that I miss the way that the internet was laid out then,” Robinson says. “This year was the first time in my life where I felt like the internet was no longer a source of joy for me. It became a source of a good deal of angst and anxiety and guilt and fear and worry… The anonymity of the internet has been completely abandoned – everything’s so tied to your identity and sense of self now. It’s hard for me to see that changing, but that’s why I wrote a love letter to something that once was.”
Given Virtual Self’s subject matter, we asked Robinson to take part in our Faves series, where artists tell us about their online browsing habits. He dug deep, finding early internet art collectives, the secret artistry of video game start screens, and online relics preserved since 2002.
FAVE WEBSITE: FAUUX.NEOCITIES.ORG
Visit here: https://fauux.neocities.org
Porter Robinson: One of the greatest influences on this project was the late 90s anime Serial Experiments Lain. It’s this transhumanist sci-fi. The premise is that this girl in middle school kills herself and all of her classmates start receiving messages from her on this pseudo-internet called the ‘Wired’. It’s quite pretty avant-garde and non-linear in the way that the story is told. This anime really inspired the look and feel of Virtual Self, and it also inspired a massive fandom. A lot of people have made Lain-related fansites, (like) this website, (which) was made by an artist named Fauux. It’s incredibly beautiful – I’m obsessed with the colour scheme.
I made some things surrounding Virtual Self that explored similar themes, sort of mysterious web stuff. Some people have tried to treat it like an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), but for me it was purely an atmospheric exercise. (On) the main Virtual Self site, you see the characters and you go into this Virtual Self universe, but if you click around the site enough you’ll find this locked webforum where it’s essentially just a bunch of of chatbots having these ethereal conversations with one another. I’m trying to recreate this feeling I had when I was younger of the internet being this vast, mysterious, user-hostile world that could never at one time be fully comprehended. I wanted to give people who are maybe younger than me that sort of sense when they first encountered Virtual Self: ‘What is this? What does this lead to? What does this mean?’
FAVE ONLINE ARCHIVE: DEPTHCORE
Visit here: http://depthcore.com
Porter Robinson: The stuff (by Depthcore) that’s most compelling to me is hyper-period-specific, from 2001 to 2003. (It’s) the most cyber, sci-fi, digital abstract art. What’s interesting to me is as I dove into the origins of this super maximalist style, it’s like artists were just getting Photoshop (for the first time) and were so excited to have these tools that they essentially said yes to every single effect. I remember being about 12 years old and trying to create this kind of stuff myself following Photoshop tutorials.
One of the things that makes these projects worthwhile is that it’s so hard to know what will define any given era when you’re living in it. When I was a kid in the early 2000s, this particular art style was just what was modern. I didn’t realise that it wasn’t going to be forever. I do spend a lot of time thinking about what today, 2018, will be remembered for, and what things we maybe take for granted that are actually quite specific to our era. Maybe there is something that’s being revolutionised that we just can’t see.
FAVE INTERNET ART COLLECTIVE: JODI
Visit here: wwwwwwwww.jodi.org
Porter Robinson: I went through a period, probably four or five years ago, where I got into ‘mysterious’ websites. It wasn’t this detective-y impulse of wanting to crack the code or figure it out, (it’s more that) there’s something really special about using a website as an art medium to express something. It’s very different to our relationship with websites now, (where) the site isn’t the art itself, it’s usually something that’s quite neutral. You’re confined to the constraints of these websites that are used to deliver little nuggets of content, rather than being the content in and of themselves. I love the idea of web design that maximises expressiveness over functionality. A site like Jodi is just so interesting – right down to the URL, with several w’s.
Jodi is an art collective. One thing that really surprised me is that they won an award for net art in 1999, which really blew me away because I don’t think I heard the term ‘net art’ until at least 2010, when I started encountering that sort of look on sites like Tumblr. I just love the atmosphere of Jodi.
FAVE ONLINE RABBITHOLE: LAIN ANGELIC TRUST
Visit here: http://lain.angelic-trust.net
Porter Robinson: I included this site because it actually is from 2002. As much as early 2000s aesthetics are something I was pining for and very much love, I would occasionally struggle to find one singular image or one singular site that summed up all of my memories really well. One thing I love about this Lain Angelic Trust website is that it’s kind of all there for me. The colour scheme is there, the maximalist art style is there, the atmospheric and glitchy text is there, Lain is there. It almost feels like somebody today trying to create an homage to that time period – but it’s actually authentically from that time period.
There was a fansite that was similar to this that I found in probably 2003 that was just a website dedicated to the theme song of Lain, and I’ve never been able to find it again. It had a guestbook you could sign, and I think I signed it. I’ve never found it again. (The internet) is one of the most fleeting ways that we’ve ever stored information. I’m so grateful for archives like Wayback Machine, who for 15 years have been creating snapshots of almost the entire web. I should probably make a donation! (laughs)
FAVE VIDEO: BEATMANIA INTROS
Porter Robinson: One of the first things I did for this project, as I mentioned before, was compile a whole load of imagery that evoked this feeling of Virtual Self. I felt like I had a pretty comprehensive resource for how I wanted the album cover – the still image – to look, but I still needed moving graphics that had this sort of style when working with video artists. (I referenced Beatmania intros) pretty directly – the music video for “Eon Break” has a bunch of text scrolling above the left side and down on the right side. I also referenced the sixth style (from this video) a lot because it’s very cyber, and the seventh part with the floating blue particles. I called back to this again and again and again.
Rhythm game music was so fundamental to my life – it was the first electronic music I ever heard – and it’s so clearly and audibly an inspiration for Virtual Self that I almost didn’t think to mention it. One thing that’s interesting about the Beatmania intros is that it goes from 1999 to 2009, a 10-year period, and the first Beatmania intro was really hip hop. I remember that the first Dance Dance Revolution was very hip hop too, with graffiti text, lots of metallic-looking fonts and bubbly graffiti art. Then at the turn of the millenium it was like a flip was switched, and all of the designs went from this 90s street attitude to this extremely cyber style. What’s so remarkable about that is that it might be the most contemporary example we have of retrofuturism. It might be our most recent example we can really see of the design world’s image of how the future was going to look.