On Creating Art in the Face of Adversity

An open discussion between SBVRSV creative director hologryphic, unseelie labelhead/producer Dasychira and London-based artist Helica.


In light of the current social unrest happening in the US and abroad, SBVRSV creative director hologryphic, unseelie labelhead/producer Dasychira and the London, UK-based artist Helica met up over IM to share personal reflections on the sociopolitical realities of systemic violence and the role of the artist in confronting and challenging these realities going forward.


Dasychira: 2020 so far has been a disaster, with some of the most heartbreaking incidents recently - the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and violence toward people of color. This year started with the Australian bushfires, then we had COVID-19, Hong Kong’s fight for independence, the ongoing refugee crisis, and now this. One of the hardest questions I'm coming back to a lot is: "can one make art in the face of adversity, and if so, how?"

It feels to me that a lot of these systemic issues are tied to capitalism, however I see art as a spiritual opposite to consumerism - it's one thing that's helped me cope through these dark days, and has united a lot of communities in spirit.
Helica: My eyes continue to open to the socioeconomic system we all live in, and I feel more grateful that I’m in a community of artists who share similar sentiments. I'm normally closed off about my music and don't like talking about it too much, so that's something I've worried about this year - whether it's really important, or worth promoting right now.
hologryphic: I am definitely struggling with this question myself, just in terms of promoting and writing about music, it can feel disingenuous or irrelevant to be focussed on micro-cultures of niche music when there are such urgent matters at hand in the world.
Dasy: Yeah, it does feel like a double-edged sword at times. In this sphere of "underground music" I'm grateful I can have an open dialogue with my peers who are willing to listen to each other, and with marginalized groups. But at the same time it feels like it's not macro enough, it can feel a bit like an echo chamber sometimes. Getting in touch with communities outside your own can translate to acts of bravery and prompt one to speak out against things that worry you even in your own community.
Heli: There’s a fear that making art is too self-indulgent and not ‘useful’. In a lot of ways, it is self-indulgent, that’s inherently what makes it so meaningful for both the artist and the listener. 
holo: I do believe the right question to ask right now is how artists should move forward and re-orient their modes of self-expression to account for the events of 2020 and particularly, the uprising of political protests against police brutality and systemic racism. 
Dasy: Absolutely. I've been seeing a few people post about "short-circuiting" the system by taking their stimulus checks and redirecting the money into bail-out funds. In the same way Bandcamp is giving all proceeds from June 5th to artists, we can do what we can to affect the system by redirecting that money into a worthy cause.
holo: I think initiatives like this are definitely very good first steps and it’s really interesting to see this “short-circuiting” and almost 'weaponization' or repurposing of social media to draw attention to activism, charities and reliable info sources rather than selfies and promo. 
Heli: I like the idea of labels and institutions contributing to real world communities, even communities they are not necessarily a part of. I think the BLM movement and current protests are resonating on such a huge scale now because it’s clear that change can’t happen unless everyone is aware and willing to contribute.
holo: I’m still trying to process all of the events and information coming out daily but I think going forward, the music industry needs to restructure in such a way that prioritizes interdependence over independence and platforms, mine included, need to self-examine their unconscious bias and understand their responsibility to provide a voice for marginalized artists.
Heli: I also feel that it’s great for independent labels to take on genuine initiatives to help social progress, but at the same time it shouldn’t just be small labels who take the load. Artists have to earn a living too, so I definitely agree with what you said about restructuring @hologryphic_
Dasy: I've been thinking about restructuring a lot too. It's conflicting to me that a lot of the critical information we share are on social media platforms created by people with questionable or completely wrong ethics. Maybe highly ambitious but, as communities we should consider developing tools of communications ourselves and not rely on ones built by rich out-of-touch tech execs.
holo: Definitely. It's becoming increasingly frustrating to be relegated to these platform monopolies with questionable ethics. This also ties into the problem of an "attention economy" where artists are forced to compete amongst each other for space on the "feed." It becomes this sort of trap where social media is the only place that independent artists can receive engagement and recognition. 
Dasy: With the speed and ease of posting I feel like there is this pressure people feel to post frequently to maintain some sort of image or social relevance, but ultimately it mutes a lot of voices because in the same way that capitalism functions, privileged voices are often heard first. Especially if you think about "sponsored posts" and that type of thing.
Heli: It’s really interesting to see how the internet has changed over the last ten years. I think before 2013 or so, it genuinely felt like the Wild West, and it was uncommon to see large companies have a lot of internet presence and awareness. Certainly part of this change is the increasing amount of productive pressure - every artist I speak to feels like they’re on some kind of cycle throughout the year.
Dasy: Fighting censorship is a major responsibility right now.
Heli: On the topic of internet privatisation, I’m still optimistic that niche or underground artists will always find ways to operate, the problem is that it’s hard to progress in an industry context while still retaining your values. The business model for platforms like Bandcamp proves this a lot, I think.
Dasy: Yeah that's true - from the start of unseelie, and it's birth in New York - we've tried to retain the same sense of diversity as you would experience at one of our events and in the city. I think donating to bailout funds is great, but also donating to artists of color is something that should be done more.

I think one rule of thumb in art is always be sincere. People can smell bullshit from light years away. We all live or have lived in international major cities and know artists of color, we have to think about real people in our lives who we can help and not just jump on the neo-liberal bandwagon blindly.
holo: For sure, virtue signalling is definitely an issue in this context, when people are only supporting out of obligation or for the sake of optics. 
Heli: It’s definitely been easier to spot this kind of virtue signalling in the last few years because it’s become so pervasive.
Dasy: To return to the original question I've been thinking over: "can one make art in the face of adversity?" I think the answer is yes. You just have to stand behind what you believe in, do what you can to help others IRL or URL, and use your platform with intention. Also keep an open mind, and allow dialogue amongst all.
Heli: It’s interesting to think of when it might not be okay. There is a sense of guilt amongst a lot of artists, I was worried about releasing music during this time but I feel like that type of anxiety is unnecessary.

I believe some social issues can be so important that they have to be prioritised over your personal projects. But I think art doesn’t have to come to a halt entirely - as long as you’re not promoting yourself too aggressively, there can be space for both.
holo: Indeed artists are often at the forefront of sociopolitical revolutions and I do believe music and art can act as a catalyst for social change as well as personal reflection on one's own participation in capitalist systems of violence, oppression and racism. 
Dasy: I hear all of that! And I feel like this is a good note to end this conversation on. Thanks for getting real y'all.


Helica’s On the Sky String is out now on unseelie, with all Bandcamp proceeds from the first 24hrs. being donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Purchase here. If you would prefer to support Black artists directly, we have compiled a Buy Music Club list featuring a selection of our favourite experimental releases from Black artists. A master list of 1000+ Black artists/labels is also available here.

Q+A w/ Helica conducted on an earlier date:

Tell us a bit about your background, where did you grow up? What led you to become a musician?

I live in Southwest London, where I grew up and went to school. I picked up cracked versions of FL Studio and Logic in 2012 and started messing around, but only took it seriously much later. I went under a few different names – there’s this vaporwave project I made when I was 15, still on the internet somewhere. Somewhere down the line I was getting listeners and responses on my songs, so I think it kept me going.

How did the ‘Helica’ project initially take shape? What are some reference points (musical or other) that inform your artistic vision?

It started with making these chaotic instrumentals, I just wanted to use the weirdest sounds I could find and pack in as much detail as possible. The aim was always to mesh imagery with the sound, so I’d say Helica is a visual project too. My older music was very cerebral but nowadays I want to make everything more emotive – I think it’s challenging to make something that is both melodic and hits. With my old work, it felt like each song I put out was an experiment. Eventually I started using my voice, I think because it’s more direct. I like to feel detached from my voice, that it’s just another layer of sound to manipulate – the way I produce music is by constant editing and processing; finding ways to distort it and make it more deranged.

What was involved in your creative process with ‘On the Sky String?’ Do you write the lyrics & melodies of your tracks first and add production later or vice versa?

It began with a set of paintings I made before any music started, one of which became the EP artwork. I was fixated on the idea of particles, the sky, quantum entanglement, like a phantom world where everything is connected by strings. So for me, all the sounds reflect this kind of atmosphere. The melodies and lyrics are made on the spot but continuously change up until the last minute.

This is your first release on a label, how did you connect with unseelie and what do you admire about their curatorial vision?

My friend Will showed Adrian a random edit I made and we got in touch from there, initially to do a mix. Then Adrian came to London in December, we met up and talked about putting a record out through unseelie. I had just started work on it so it was perfect timing, and I loved the visual world built around xDream. I think we share a focus on aesthetics, so having an interactive site built on top of distributing it has been amazing in making everything come to life.

What does quarantine look like for you? What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry going forward?

It hasn’t affected me as much as other people I know, but it’s worrying to think about how venues will survive in the future.

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