The Dystopian Cyberpunk Legacy of Laurel Halo’s Quarantine
Three years after it was released, a deeper look into the groundbreaking album’s themes of digital sickness and crippling technological terror.
Way back in 1985, American scholar Donna Haraway theorized a cyborg future in which technology could be reconfigured as a feminist tool of liberation, rather than its established role as a reinforcement of patriarchal social control. Subtitled “An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit”, Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto predicts the future of technology’s ability to warp gender, bodies and for better or worse, our minds. “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence,” she states. Since then we’ve seen our bodies become both more complicated and more streamlined via external and internal cyborg modification. Nearly thirty years later cyborg anthroplogist Amber Case would declare “we are all cyborgs now”; our bodies integrated with wearable technology, our thoughts outsourced to the cloud, and our memories stored via SSD.
Our psychical bodies’ near full integration with technology has resulted in some interesting side-effects. Digital illnesses like quirky “phantom ringing” or carpal tunnel syndrome to declining health over a long period from low-quality sleep and internet addiction permeate our lives. Illness Anxiety Disorder is a relatively new variation of what we used to called hypochondrisis: a compulsion to believe one has many different illnesses. IAD compounds that with an obsessive-compulsive behavior to research and self-diagnose sickness online, the internet’s vast databases worming through the brain planting seeds. It’s almost as if the new cyborg can hack itself, implanting an imagined or exaggerated disorder Inception-style into its brain.
Three years ago Michigan composer Laurel Halo released Quarantine, her major-label debut album on Hyperdub Records. A pre-Snowden artwork, it was critical and untrusting of technology from its hyperreal electronic pastiche to its conceptual form. “I wanted the record to emulate feelings of suffocation and isolation,” she told Self-Titled “taking illness and nausea and turning them into something transcendent and continuous.” Indeed from the opening wind on “Airsick”, Quarantine feels stale, vast and precise. Dummy called it “air-born — and airborne.”
Quarantine represents a world beyond our screen: a cold, isolated place where human voices act like viral infections, infiltrating digital realms and ending up eradicated by the humming drone. Much has been said about Quarantine being a particularly difficult listen, especially in the case of “Years” where Halo’s untreated voice, layered in a round, feels toxic among the pristine shimmering keys and perfect computerized rumble. Digitized music here is pressed white sheets, sterile hospital beds, Windexed glass panes and virgin stainless steel. In contrast, the human voice is ugly; a bloated, imperfect mass of syllables and spit. “There’s this brutal, sensual ugliness in the vocals uncorrected, and painfully human vocals made sense for this record” she said in an interview shortly after the album’s release. Painfully human. It’s a weighty conceptual narrative that critics latched onto, one that Halo herself has been somewhat dismissive of.
Halo’s relationship with the technology that consumes her is patchy. Systems break down and corrupt, threatening her humanity and consciousness. “The signal keeps cutting out but one thing’s clear /
Nothing grows in my heart there is no one here,” she sings on “Tumor”, her voice looping back around on itself like you’ve opened too many YouTube tabs of the same video. “MK Ultra” even beyond its shadowy CIA-referencing title feels uneasy: “Hurricane’s always coming / so take cover or run.” It’s a Scanner Darkly level of paranoia. Even traditional instruments can’t escape the grip of digital distortion as lofty piano chords and a looping, stuttering melody are processed through a poor cell phone connection on “Morcom”, the compression and clipping noise ripping through what would otherwise be a hopeful song.
There is heartbreak too, as Quarantine comes from not just a place of premonition, but abandonment. She marches on “Thaw”, powering through: “One foot in front of the other / Forward motion’s the only answer.” As the album progresses, you can hear her losing her humanity through prolonged isolation: “I can see you writing” she howls with joy during “Morcom,” sounding more like a persistent wish than a nostalgic vision. Her voice barely hangs on in “Carcass”, cracking at the edges like a speaker literally being ripped apart. By “Light + Space” she’s an empty shell, staring at her bed, emotionless. She hallucinates figures falling and mountains crumbling, organic living things worn down over millions of years.
Laurel herself has been hesitant to describe Quarantine as conceptually as it was received by critics. “I don’t think the human-digital strain is a high concept by any means, and I wasn’t trying to make a concept record … In terms of the importance or relevance of music responding to digitalia I can’t say, I don’t think my opinions should be taken too seriously,” she told The Quietus in late 2012. But in the years since Quarantine, popular culture has taken the idea further. Video artist Jesse Kanda, who has created videos for the likes of Arca, Oneohtrix Point Never, and FKA Twigs, explores the extremes that computerized distortion can take with human forms. In many of his videos, familiar bodies collapse into blooming fabric or have their features bloated into unsettling, tumorish masses.
And in the Breaking Bad spinoff series Better Call Saul, we’re introduced to Chuck McGill, a brother of the main character who suffers from a debilitating case of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. The extreme physical pain he feels from merely being near electronics mildly manifests itself in all of us: when’s the last time you had a migraine from staring at a screen all day?
Holly Herndon and Daniel Lopatin occupy these same spaces, rendering our anxiety down into hyperreal fluid sound bytes both retro-futuristic and literally futuristic. But where those two have shown themselves adept in interpreting our current world (Herndon’s brilliant NSA love triangle “Home”, for example) Quarantine exists outside of our reality. It’s a horrifying dystopian world closer to the Midgar of Final Fantasy VII or Akira than the society we experience in 2015. But each year we inch closer to the hyperreality of Quarantine. A contemporary twin to this record might be the cyberpunk anime film Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii’s acclaimed 1995 film that explores gender and sexuality in a dystopia dominated by cyborg culture where brains can be hacked and replaced with ease. It’s post-human in the rawest sense.
So while modern-day Blade Runner sequels are announced, live-action (and ill-informed) Akira and Ghost in the Shell films are shelved, and mainstream culture tries and fails to explain our anxieties away, Quarantine still deserves attention as a seminal work in translating the untranslatable feeling of being suffocated by technology. We talk about PC Music’s unflinching optimism as the antithesis to new-age art music. Or vaporwave as the opposite end of the spectrum: a blatantly pessimistic, ironic view of captialism run rampant through the lens of Muzak. Halo’s seminal work falls directly in the middle of both of these movements, not only in the chronological sense, but in the conceptual sense that it flirts with up and down moods in the span of a Tumblr scroll. It’s an ambiguous mood, unknown to comfort or pleasure.
Haraway poses a question near the end of her manifesto: “What might be learned from personal and political ‘technological’ pollution?” Quarantine is a record about a crumbling relationship at its core, the conceptual themes factor into how these emotions are processed. The pollution in Halo’s life comes in the form of depression and detachment post-relationship. Technological pollution penetrates her life, swarming her each time her voice bubbles from the aether. Technology here is reactionary to the human presence. Learning how to cope with how technology reacts to our being (as opposed to vice versa) is the true legacy of Quarantine.
So maybe part of the reason this album has slid off the radar in the past few years to be relegated as a “cult album” has to do with our externalized world. Think of keynote sound: the ambient noise you hear all around you, the sound your brain has been trained to tune out. We understand our environments based on how we live in them. As we descend further into this semi-fictional world that Quarantine seemingly represents, we might start to notice the similarities. Or it might take until each one of us has an Apple Watch fused into our wrist Croenenberg-style. Our cyborg bodies might finally get it then.