Nearly 30 years after founding the anti-natalist Church of Euthanasia, Korda remains environmentalism's most controversial figure. But she’s only trying to save humanity from itself.
“Suppose I told you that a huge asteroid is headed straight for Earth, and that in a few days, all plants and animals—including us—will be vaporized, leaving only bacteria, insects and fungi…
“What would you spend your last few days doing?”
Apocalypse theory is Chris Korda’s way of saying we need to wake the fuck up now. I’d asked what informed the elegiac tone of her new album, Apologize to the Future, a dystopian synthesis of rap and robotics inspired by all the ways humans are destroying the planet. The asteroid, Korda explains, would only make the human extinction process faster and more egalitarian, granting painless vaporization to all—the reality is an increasingly inhospitable planet, with future humans suffering for our crimes. “Human beings are poorly equipped to respond to slow-moving threats caused by our own behavior,” Korda says. “I expect future generations will resent us bitterly while they’re picking through the rubble of society.”
This subject matter is nothing new for the techno artist, software developer, and environmentalist enfant terrible; who became notorious in the ‘90s when she established the Church of Euthanasia—and its infamous slogan, “Save the planet, kill yourself”—to preach the merits of antinatalism through four pillars of suicide, abortion, sodomy, and cannibalism. (The one commandment all members were bound to obey was “Thou Shalt Not Procreate.”) But on Apologize to the Future, the message is written from the perspective of future generations, voiced earnestly by a chorus of robots. It’s a tougher pill to swallow without the seditious irony of the CoE’s incendiary détournement stunts.
“‘Save the planet, kill yourself’ was macabre humor,” Korda assures me. But it feels gravely prescient decades after Korda was promulgating the message—via bumper stickers—at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, or on a 1997 Jerry Springer episode titled “I Want to Join a Suicide Cult.” America has only just survived a 2020 Presidential Election that repeatedly devolved into candidates arguing about whose fracking plans are the most epic. We’ve now entered an “era of pandemics” brought on by rampant deforestation, industrialization, and overpopulation. And as liberal senators from the Wildfire State refuse to acknowledge child activists backing a Green New Deal, it’s hard to argue Korda’s claim that “condemning your precious spawn to a nasty, brutish, and short existence on a wrecked planet is beyond selfish.” The real suicide cult, we’re discovering, is neoliberalism.
Apologize to the Future manifested over the course of a decade, during which Korda developed the custom sequencer technology the album was composed on, drawing on her classical music training and a long career in software engineering. “As a child I was fascinated by machines and occasionally disassembled them, to the great annoyance of my parents,” she recalls. “My teenage years were more turbulent than average but in college I had a great stroke of luck: In order to avoid writing term papers, I took an introductory course in computer programming, and unexpectedly discovered that I had a gift for it.” She wrote her first music software as an accompaniment for her jazz guitar, programming it to improvise solos, before discovering polymeter through a MIDI sequencing software called DOS Cakewalk.
Korda grew up in New York City, and it was on a childhood trip to the Museum of Modern Art that she first discovered the work of Thomas Wilfred—a pioneering light artist who built highly sophisticated mechanical sculptures, collectively dubbed ‘Lumia,’ that produced spectacular displays of kinetic light. “He made phase art long before the term existed,” Korda says. She describes her immaculately precise polymeter sequences as the musical equivalent of Lumia; while her machines are virtual, they use the same principle of interference, or phase shifts, to generate variety by repeating a pattern. In some of Korda’s compositions, it takes millions of years for the pattern to repeat. Understandably, she feels a great deal of affection towards her machines. “I have spent much of my life designing, constructing, and debugging invisible machines,” she says. “I care for my software inventions the way other people supposedly care for their children. In the virtual world, I’m godlike. I create and destroy hierarchies, stop time and routinely travel to the past or future. I actually prefer machines to people in many ways.”
“I care for my software inventions the way other people supposedly care for their children. In the virtual world, I’m godlike. I create and destroy hierarchies, stop time and routinely travel to the past or future. I actually prefer machines to people in many ways.”
Machine music has long been a tool of resistance and a sound of new frontiers. Detroit’s techno pioneers harnessed their immediate post-industrial surroundings to imagine techno-utopian futures of robots and space travel; an otherworldly sound that spread to Berlin’s first nightclubs when the Wall came down and the Cultural Revolution was sparked. But Korda’s new album comes as the techno scene experiences an existential crisis of its own. Due to the pandemic, clubs remain closed for the foreseeable future, and recent uprisings have forced musicians to reckon with an age-old tension between resistance and raving. In Korda’s hometown of New York City, amid historic anti-police brutality uprisings, techno’s associations with hedonism have sparked backlash from both media outlets and local organizers. Particularly amid a pandemic, it’s not easy to keep track of where the line is drawn between resistance and irresponsibility.
“The music of my youth was often explicitly political, but the Reagan years put a stop to that,” Korda recalls. “Of course exceptions could be found, particularly in hardcore punk, rap, and avant-garde, but the 1980s arc towards superficiality was unmistakable. For me, the first signs of a counterforce were ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Cop Killer.’” Korda accepts that techno is associated with hedonistic pleasure and pure escapism, but says it needn’t be limited to that, and historically it hasn’t been. She points to the sharply political lyrics of techno pioneers Kraftwerk, and specifically their album Computer World, a masterpiece of pro-technology sentiment and sound that feels deeply, palpably human to this today. Even Korda’s anomalous 1994 hit “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself” has a close relative in “Sterilization,” released in 1997 by Detroit’s Dopplereffekt—a futurist electro-techno act led by Gerald Donald of Drexciya. The track is a thumping critique of racial hygiene and selective breeding which contains only six words: “We had to sterilize the population.”
“Rap is a more likely avenue for political music because it’s lyric-driven,” Korda says, but “any style of music can be political if there’s the will to make it so.” While techno often relies on an absence of lyrics, there are countless examples of artists using lyrical sparsity to extraordinary effect—including Carl Cox’s remix of Korda’s 1994 hit “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself,” on which the call to “explain, explain, explain, explain, explain, explain, explain” (why your leaders deny that the planet’s ecosystem is failing) builds to an insistent intensity until the beat inevitably drops. Gerald Donald of Dopplereffekt has championed also the political potential of purely instrumental music, which speaks through data structure, tempo, and repetition. “Usually we associate a particular set of tones, rhythmic patterns and timbres with certain emotions, conditions, ideas or environments,” Donald told Electronic Beats in 2013. “For example, a very rigid pattern and rapid percussion sequence can give the aura of a totalitarian state, as can industrial music. All music structure is reflective of its surroundings.” (The cover of Dopplereffekt’s 1999 album Gesamtkunstwerk, on which “Sterilization” appears, features the hammer and sickle of communist proletarian solidarity, which Donald describes as an homage to the ideal political concept.)
“For countless millennia we were childlike morons cowering in caves. For all its faults, civilization is the only strategy that leads to anything interesting. If it kills us all, so be it. It was worth a try, and at least it wasn’t boring.”
Apologize to the Future sees Korda forge her own heady fusion of techno and rap music. On the track “Overshoot,” the polymeter creates a twitchy, danceable syncopation over which the robot children spit mechanical rap bars, lamenting, “It’s my future on the line / While you bitches shop and dine / I didn’t ask to be born / Into a disaster porn.” The robot rappers also have a sly sense of humor and a knack for weaving pop culture references into their political banter. “Remember the film Titanic? How that rich dude was such a dick?” they ask in monotone before the music pattern reaches a peak, offering a pleasantly chaotic respite from the not-so-easy-listening chorus. Other tracks echo the soothing, seductive time signatures of space-age healing music, with lyrics delivered like extra-terrestrial meditation mantras.
“Science starts from the assumption that our senses are easily fooled,” Korda explains of the relationship between her obsession with machines and her anti-industrialist ideology. She notes that Galileo wouldn’t have been able to decode the skies without the technological advances that made telescopes possible, allowing humans to radically augment our vision, and touts the potential of intelligent machines to build a more enlightened world. “I’m pro-technology because I’m pro-knowledge and pro-civilization. I don’t romanticize our prehistory,” she says. “For countless millennia we were childlike morons cowering in caves. For all its faults, civilization is the only strategy that leads to anything interesting. If it kills us all, so be it. It was worth a try, and at least it wasn’t boring.”
The anti-procreation messaging of Apologize to the Future is still militant and still radical. But if it doesn’t incite the same outrage as it did in the ‘90s, it’s likely because many of us seem to agree—for myriad reasons—that “making more babies is fucking insane” in today’s climate. The US birthrate is the lowest it’s been in three decades; most of us can’t afford to have babies even if we desperately want to, assuming we want them to have a reasonable chance at life. In this respect, Korda’s logic isn’t really out of line with liberals and leftists who point out the hypocrisy of anti-abortion ‘activists’ being pro-life only until the baby is actually born. Korda only takes things a step further by maintaining that you can’t relinquish responsibility after the kid graduates college. If environmental destruction continues at this rate, student debt might be the last thing on our children’s minds.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants, and their story is what gives my life meaning. It’s a terrible paradox that the same qualities that make us interesting and worth saving—our insatiable curiosity, our desire to master and transform our world—are also our undoing.”
“The biggest change is that I have more sympathy for humans now,” Korda says when I ask how her politics have changed since the ‘90s. “Many of the biological attributes that helped us to survive our prehistory are now counterproductive, but that’s hardly our fault. Any intelligent species would be tempted to throw an extravagant party and burn all of its resources at once.” The Church of Euthanasia itself had a quiet internal reckoning in the ‘90s; with members deciding they harbored sympany for, rather than anger at, humans. And throughout the 2000s, Korda continued to publish e-sermons and news clippings on the Church’s website, though nothing that drew as much attention as counterattacking an abortion clinic protest with signs reading “Eat a Queer Fetus For Jesus,” or setting up a suicide hotline to coach people through the process of self-annhilation. (“It’s been a disappointment to me that no one’s actually killed themselves and then had their parents sue us,” Korda said in one interview published on the Church’s press page. “That would actually punch through the media shield.”)
Today, Korda and the Church’s climate-focused culture jamming and punk performance art have their most obvious echoes in Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience actions—but while XR demonstrations have certainly attracted controversy and attention, the group has been mostly welcomed by elite media. It’s difficult to think of anyone now riotously crusading for the avant-garde art of détournement, as a worthy cause in itself, quite like Korda and the Church of Euthanasia did. Taking cues from the Situationist International and Dadaism to newly grotesque (and hilarious) heights of spectacle, the Church made plenty of headlines in its early years, though you could hardly call its members media darlings. In their eyes, all press was good press. “I’m inspired by Dadaist art, but I wouldn’t call it a strategy. Art shouldn’t be confused with political tactics,” Korda says. “The best art exists for its own sake and doesn’t serve the goals of anyone but the artist. I don’t make art in order to change people’s behavior, and if I did, I would be very disappointed.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Korda doesn’t fear death—“that’s part of the deal”—but she finds the impermanence of one’s artistic legacy very difficult to accept. “My work will probably be unknown in the future,” she says. “Because a wrecked planet certainly won’t include archives or websites, and eventually won’t include human beings either.
“The hardest thing to face is the realization that all of humanity’s hard-won progress—our predictive explanations of phenomena, our mastery of tools and technology, our dazzling cultural achievements—will all be reduced to a thin layer of oily rock. That’s a heartbreaking tragedy. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and their story is what gives my life meaning. It’s a terrible paradox that the same qualities that make us interesting and worth saving—our insatiable curiosity, our desire to master and transform our world—are also our undoing. It seems unfair. But who said evolution has a happy ending? The creative process consoles me. Achievement is its own reward.”