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Features / Digital

The Man-Machine: Actress on artificial intelligence, op art, and Kraftwerk

When he was just five or six years old, Darren Cunningham realised he possessed a talent. “I could pick up a book full of illustrations,” he recalls nearly 35 years on, “and then draw any of them. Perfectly. My mum was astounded by it.”

Darren is better known as Actress. Here in 2018 he’s better known for the hypnotic, heavily-textural, and hazy electronica he produces under that moniker, rather than the immaculately-copied drawings that he and his mum were so proud of.

But even as music became more important, Darren’s drawing mutated, rather than stopped. “I tend to sort of draw within grids these days,” he tells It’s Nice That over the phone, “and I tend to change images I’ve already taken myself. I’m into adapting photography. Turning those images into drawings.”

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Young Paint: Young Paint (2018, The Vinyl Factory/Werk Ltd)

Over the past decade, with albums like R.I.P. and Ghettoville, Darren’s burrowed deep into his own sonic world. It might take the odd cue — you hear a bit of Basic Channel’s gritty and granular approach to dubbed-out techno here, a bit of the slow-motion body-movement of Detroit beatdown there — but it is uniquely his. The concept of artistic and creative ownership in an age of endless and unlimited co-authoring is central to his most recent release,Young Paint, which sees the former footballer — Darren somewhat infamously used to play for West Bromwich Albion before injury curtailed a sporting career — investigate the potential of AI.

In essence, the eponymous mini-album sees Cunningham feeding his work into a computer system, which begins to understand things that he might do, and then does them. It is a generative process that sees the musician fusing himself with technology.

“Young Paint is something that really has gone through a number of forms. Essentially it is still me, but I’ve been making music for a relatively long period of time and used different methods, learned different things,” Darren says. “I have a system, and the idea is to create a software out of that system which is able to input different formulas. It’s like an X-ray that learns how I perform, what sort of lines I’m likely to go toward. This is what I’ve been leaning toward; manifesting this other being in the studio that’s constantly learning."

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Mehdi Lacoste: Actress

Darren Cunningham’s records look great too, which always helps. “Totality is very important to me,” Darren says. “From track titles, to sleeves, to everything. It’s like writing a book or directing a film. I want to wrap things up with a pretty bow. That way, all the components come together.”

To that end, it is apparent that Darren sees the Actress project as an audio-visual merger, so it makes sense that he’s used it to work alongside creatives as diverse as the multi-disciplinary master Eddie Peake, and superstar painter Yayoi Kusama. When it comes to the records themselves, it was graphic designer Will Bankhead who helped Darren conceptualise and then visualise things.

“He [Will Bankhead] fully designed the artwork for Splazsh [Darren’s 2010 album] with the concentric hexagons. He was working at the record label Honest Jon’s — they released it — and because I didn’t have any firm concept in mind, they handed the material over to Will.”

The Trilogy Tapes boss — and former Mo’Wax man — worked on it, and then they chatted about inspirations and possibilities. It was op-ed artist Bridget Riley who Darren was looking to channel. “I moved to London and studied and her work was in my brain. I wanted to write a piece of music closely related to that,” he says.

That relationship continued up to R.I.P., where Darren takes “100%” of the credit for the album’s design, with Will being assigned to artworking it. “I had the template and shape and he artworked it and made it sharp and coherent.”

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Actress: AZD (2018, Ninja Tune)

Last year, Darren’s work with with photographer Mehdi Lacoste brought a childhood interest to the fore. “I’ve been fascinated with robots from a young age,” Darren says. “I’ve never wanted the full monty of pure robotics – I see our relationship to them as a holistic thing.”

Videos of both Michael Jackson and breakdancers caught his eye as a child and ever since he’s found himself intrigued by what happens when humans emulate robots. “That’s where the fascination is for me: it stems from dance, from bodypopping. Then it gets inverted with artists like Kraftwerk. They don’t dance but they have this really funky music that’s cold, and they talked about the man machine and interference and radioactivity.”

When it comes to what AI can do for music, and art in general, Darren — a creative incredibly well-versed in electronic music and contemporary aesthetics, and one seemingly untethered to the past — is guided by one firm principle. God, as anyone versed in the lore of Chicago house will tell you, made Mike Dunn phunky: Darren Cunningham wants his computers to be the same.

“I want my AI to be funky,” Darren says, his smirk visible down the phone. “I want my AI to express to a certain soul.”

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Those wanting to see a funky AI system in the flesh will have the chance to do so this coming weekend as Darren brings the debut live Young Paint A/V experience to Peckham’s Copeland Park, on Saturday 27 October. Recent performances with the London Contemporary Orchestra — with whom he collaborated on this year’s LAGEOS LP — have seen Darren taking on a role that’s part performer, part conductor.

“This,” he says of the upcoming gig, “will be the first time I’ve done anything that’s loosening my control over the overall outcome.” Not even he’s sure what to expect fully, but he does note that, "it should be an interaction between myself and AI. I do something and it responds. Or it does something and I disconnect it and subvert it and it learns to do something else. It should be a two-way experiment of communicating with music.

We want to expose the real time process as much a possible. It’s process art; I’m going to expose the sinews."