Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst: xhairymutantx


Commissioned for the 2024 Whitney Biennial, artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s xhairymutantx exists both within the Museum’s sixth floor gallery as well as here on artport. This project focuses on training data behind artificial intelligence (AI) models, opening new possibilities for its use. “Holly Herndon” is not just a person. The name also designates a distinctive internet presence: a female character with white skin, red hair, blunt-cut side bangs, and bright blue eyes. Herndon has become well known in the music and digital art worlds, to the point where when someone types the words “Holly Herndon” into a text-to-image AI program like Dall·E, Midjourney, or Stable Diffusion, the prompts generate an image with some of the characteristics of Holly Herndon, the character. 

Here on artport, the artists have trained a text-to-image AI model on images of Holly that have been altered through costuming that distorts the artist’s body, and exaggerates her most noted feature, her hair, to transform her identity within AI models. No matter what text prompt is entered by the user, the results will generate a strange version of Holly. The new images are stored in the project gallery, thereby entering the internet at large and potentially becoming part of the data set behind new AI-generated images. Since AI programs view institutional websites like whitney.org as trusted sources, the artists play with the idea of using the Museum’s heft to influence the parameters of AI models, and to raise questions about the extent of self-determination possible with the internet today.

The 2024 Whitney Biennial is organized by Chrissie Iles, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator and Meg Onli, Curator at Large, with Min Sun Jeon and Beatriz Cifuentes.

Significant support for xhairymutantx has been provided by Colin Brooks and David Lisbon.

Enter project

Holly Herndon (b. 1980) and Mat Dryhurst’s (b. 1984) collaborative practice navigates uneven distributions of power using AI technologies and virtual ecosystems. Both are multimedia artists: Herndon records cerebral and whimsical studio albums combining electronic music, ASMR, and artificial neural networks; Dryhurst produces music in advocacy of a decentralized internet. Their shared project, Holly+, is a machine-learning instrument that converts audio files into Herndon’s voice.

Housed in a combined set of artistic and technological practices—pedagogical activities, public performances, music making, a podcast—and firmly committed to collaboration, Holly+ exists as a formalized model through Herndon and Dryhurst’s DAO (decentralized autonomous organization). While the two artists operate through a rigorous and playful embrace of the creative, transformative capacities of vocal processing tools, Holly+ illuminates how such tools function in a tangled web of subjectivity, private property, corporate control, disembodiment, and representational autonomy. The embedded self-implication of Holly+ as vocal clone and digital twin is significant given the acute ethical stakes associated with AI as an arena of experimentation. Herndon and Dryhurst’s project is optimistic in calling for serious attention on how artists can be protected while benefiting from the development of sonic prosthetics. The duo’s formulation of “vocal sovereignty” addresses how this plays out; and they offer the term “spawning” to describe new forms of media mimicry.


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