From geothermal mud fields to Death Valley, the artist explores the energetic properties of the earth in three new music videos premiering exclusively for Document
It’s been said that artists must invent themselves. For Hayden Dunham, this truth is more literal than most: Hyd, their musical persona, derives its name from a chlorophyll-based material that they developed as part of their multidisciplinary artistic practice. It made its public debut in their 2018 show inside darkness there are no lines, where Hyd displayed a 77-foot fountain containing the eponymous material—a unique formula which slowly changed over the course of the exhibition, turning from liquid to solid.
Hyd is no stranger to shapeshifting; in recent years, their creative output, which had previously spanned sculpture, installation, video, and performance, has taken the form of sonically lush, richly textured hyperpop, released last November in their self-titled debut EP. Though this is Hyd’s first project as a singer, it’s not their first foray into the world of music; before they were labeled ‘The Art World’s Mysterious New Ingénue,’ they were known as the face of QT (aka Quinn Thomas), a fictional cyborg pop star conceived as part of a project they co-created with PC Music head A.G. Cook and the legendary producer SOPHIE. In addition to a few live performances, Hyd’s role as QT saw them performing mesmerizing choreography in the dystopian music video accompanying 2014 viral single “Hey QT”—which doubled as a commercial for an energy drink called DrinkQT, which Hyd also physically created and fabricated over the course of a year. The project has been hailed by many as a genius piece of anti-consumerist performance art.
Produced by Caroline Polachek, A.G. Cook, Nomak, and umru, their latest endeavor Hyd features a mesmerizing combination of artificial and organic textures, synthesizing “a tectonic approach that cracks through the bedrock, calling for radical vulnerability, presence, and embodiment,” per the EP’s press release. “I really believe in music being a catalyst that can carry whole worlds within it,” Dunham says passionately over Zoom, explaining the way pop music allowed them to discover new ways of being as a child, when they realized that listening to the right song could change the way they felt in their body. “When you listen to a song, you can hear that person’s frequency,” they say. “I use music to augment my own frequency, to change my energy.”
Hyd’s songs are accompanied by a series of music videos, which were created in dialogue with specific geographic zones: from the hottest place on earth, Death Valley, to a geothermal mud field in Iceland, where Hyd shot “Skin 2 Skin” with cinematographer Michalina Gramowska. “That song is about embodiment and really being present on earth,” they say. “[Mud] is a very nutrient-rich material, which is also made in collaboration with plants dying—so there’s this idea of matter returning back to itself and reforming. Mud holds the potential of a form; it’s almost like a state of becoming.”
This sort of symbolism is characteristic of Dunham’s work. They’re interested in how our environment, and the entities within it, shape and co-exist with the human body. In prior art installations, they’ve explored the ubiquitous presence of oil, a material that functions as a main driver of late capitalism—a material they further mine in the visual accompaniment to their song “The Look On Your Face,” which was shot in an oil field outside of Los Angeles. “Oil is made from the amalgamation of [materials] in a very high pressure environment… Dead matter over millions and millions and millions of years changing form into this material that, when united with a flame, becomes hyper-energizing,” they say. “For me, this was a really interesting location because you can feel this energy of transformation happening just below the surface.”
“Relating intimately to the earth, and the elements, were key throughlines [in our creative process],” says 80881 [Bobbi Menuez], the co-director of the other two films. They describe the experience of shooting with Dunham as emotionally intimate and driven by their shared experience of the natural landscape, which they considered a “gift and an anchor” throughout the process—even when, as Dunham describes, the heat in Death Valley was so extreme that the cameras themselves began melting while they were shooting the video for “No Shadow.” It’s a song Dunham wrote after experiencing something equally extreme: a temporary loss of vision resulting from eye surgery, a life-changing occurrence that 80881 witnessed firsthand as one of Dunham’s close friends. “It was a time of deep listening and shedding for both of us,” they commented over email. “I think especially as a trans person, ‘No Shadow’ held something special for me too, the feeling of lines like ‘no names, no sides.’ I remember [listening to the song for the first time], and just sitting in their car with tears running down my face. Music is such a special medium in that way, how it can cut right through to a feeling.”
These days, Dunham embraces the power of all five senses to change one’s mental and emotional state—whether through a mood-shifting beat, or engagement with the tactile realities of bodily existence. “We have all these binary ways of talking about materials, of using language, but there’s something more that can happen that’s beyond the materials we’re given,” they say. “Performing onstage means setting up a system of different elements that can either transcend its form, or completely fail; maybe the amp doesn’t work, the microphone isn’t connected, whatever the limitations of those materials may be. But even in that failure, there’s something else that can come through. It’s why I get excited about performing; every time I walk onstage, there’s this potential for a sensory transmission, that something in that room can transform.”
Camille Sojit Pejcha: Could you tell me a little bit about the process behind these music videos?
Hyd: I really wanted to make something that was sensory, site-specific, and located in a feeling, so that when you watch the video it’s almost like you get a taste in your mouth of something else. The first video came to me like a tiny beam of light, traveling through space and time to collide with us in this energetic zone of Death Valley. It’s one of the hottest places on earth, where temperatures get so hot they melt the rubber on your shoes. That’s something we experienced [when we were shooting]; the camera rubber melted. While 80881 and I were there [shooting ‘No Shadow’], we were sweating incredible amounts. The video was shot largely at night, using the headlights of a car, and it felt really resonant for the song to be translated into visuals in that environment. Something about that location is really clarifying; there’s this dialogue between the environment and the way you feel in your body.
The second video, which is ‘Skin 2 Skin,’ was shot in Iceland in a geothermal mud field. There’s something about mud, for me, that holds the potential of a form; it’s almost like a state of becoming. [Mud] is also a very nutrient-rich material, which is made in collaboration with plants dying—so there’s this idea of matter returning back to itself and reforming. That material was of peak interest for me in developing ‘Skin 2 Skin,’ because that song is about embodiment and really being present on earth—finding a way in to be physically engaged in this world, which was something that at the time I was really struggling with.
‘The Look On Your Face’ was shot in an oil field outside of Los Angeles. As we know, oil is made from the amalgamation of [materials] in a very high pressure environment… Dead matter changes form into this material over millions and millions and millions of years that, when united with a flame, becomes hyper-energizing. So, for me, this was a really interesting location because you can feel this energy of transformation happening just below the surface.
Camille: Your description of these materials, and their physical properties, is so interesting. As someone who has studied it, do you have an emotional or energetic association to their qualities?
Hyd: I really identify with materials, especially with water—something that can change forms, that even when separated remains connected to a larger whole. Water is also so sensitive to sound, to vibration; it’s in dialogue with the world around it. It relates to a question I’m interested in, which is ‘How can I hone my own sensitivity? How can I be more caring, more supportive, more in touch?’ The material world creates an opening for me to feel connected, both to myself and other people.
This trilogy [of films] is being screened in three different, very specific locations. The first one was in Iceland, in a volcanic cave. Walking in, there were rocks above me and rocks beneath me, which were made by lava—an extreme heat source. When I walked into the cave, I just felt held, and I started tearing up. There was something about being in that cave, where the air was so heavy that it felt fully formed; you know, lava is also like a material that holds air, it’s porous. If you pour water into a cup made out of lava, and it expands, it leaks beyond its form. So there was something in being held by this volcanic cave that really felt like an opening for me. It’s one of these nonverbal feelings that doesn’t translate into words. That’s also why I admire your practice so much, working with words. Words, for me, are these gorgeous containers that have to be sculpted in a really special way for them to transcend their form, because otherwise they can feel limited.
Camille: That’s kind of the same reason I admire music and other forms of art, which have this ability to make room for plurality in a way that language sometimes can’t. Often, putting something into words means crystallizing it into some static thing, but music uses language to express something that’s still open to interpretation, where multiple meanings can exist simultaneously.
Hyd: It’s multidimensional. It’s so exciting to be in a space where there are multiplicities, where one thing can extend beyond its form [and become something new]. We have all these binary ways of talking about materials, of using language, but there’s something more that can happen that’s beyond the materials we’re given. You might listen to a song, but be able to see an entire world in the process.
Camille: I keep thinking about the way that you’re conceiving the material world as being in this state of transformation, of becoming, which is a quality I’ve more often heard attributed to digital environments and non-embodied materials. There’s this sense of infinite possibility that’s often constrained in the real world.
Hyd: There are so many limitations with our physical bodies, and what is possible there. I get really excited about pushing through those ideas of what it means to be physical and embodied in this way. I don’t know how old you are, but I grew up in a time where getting to choose your own name online was an incredibly empowering thing; having the flexibility of living in a space, and in a way, that wasn’t physically evident in the material realm created a safe haven for me and my friends. And now we are adults here in this world. And it’s like, how can we shape it into one that we can thrive in, and that can be loving and supportive?
The way that this material world has been configured is one that has been very harmful for so many of us; it’s almost not very generous to humans. I’m really excited about what can happen as we continue building a world that supports embodiment, that supports feeling connected to each other. There’s a lot of work to be done in this physical world, and I think that the non-physical world has been an incredibly expansive and supportive place. I get really excited thinking about how to bring that into the material realm. It’s almost like, it exists here, how can you expand it out? Can it be embodied [in flesh-and-blood reality]? I’m interested in articulating the self in another way that’s not immediately present.
“I have an almost devotional curiosity about the materials of the physical world… These little miracles [of existence], like the fact that plants begin as seeds that are embedded in total darkness.”
Camille: Your sound merges artificial and organic textures, and in your visual art, you’ve investigated the impact of materials and substances on the body. I’m curious, do you view the manipulation of sound as similar to other practices of self-augmentation? I feel like changing the way you look, or modifying how something sounds, is an active choice that reflects a person’s identity, and I’m interested in how artificial materials or technologies can be used to facilitate new forms of self-expression through transcending the ‘organic’ or ‘natural form.’
Hyd: I don’t believe in organic nature. I feel like that way of thinking is incredibly limited because, even in this ‘natural’ environment, we are constantly augmenting. Every part of us, every articulation of the self is augmented. Plants that orient towards the sun, they’re constantly augmenting. We are all adjusting to being here, in this environment, all the time. I get excited about getting to work with materials that support personal integration—feeling embodied, feeling able to be present here, and using whatever’s in your toolkit to do that. I love living in the physical world. I want to see it as something that supports me… So instead of waiting for the world to become this vision, I’ve started living as though it is now.
I really like that question, and I think it’s one that we are all considering. Having come from working in very large-scale sculpture and physical forms—working with vapor, working with liquids, working with materials that change forms—I found myself really interested in how songs have this capacity to hold a body beyond its form. When you listen to a song, you can hear that person’s frequency. I use music to augment my own frequency, to change my energy. If I’m having a hard day, or I’m feeling kind of isolated, or just struggling, I’ll listen to a friend’s song that I know will transform my energy. Even as a kid, I used music this way, listening to pop songs on the radio. I realized that if I listened to one of Shania Twain’s songs, I could open up my energy, I could change the way that I feel. I think the reality is that we’re always transforming, constantly self-augmenting in order to be in this world. It has always been part of my life, of learning how to be human and be embodied here on earth.
Camille: That’s a really beautiful way to think about the kind of music you produce, which is so tactile—I do really feel it in my body when I’m listening, and as you say, it has the power to shift moods. I’m curious about what led you to start releasing music after your time in visual art, and what your relationship is to each of those mediums?
Hyd: I really think of Hyd as the medium, as a material. I really believe in music being a catalyst that can carry whole worlds within it.
I started working on Hyd in 2015, and I knew it would take around five years to develop it. But I also work with time in a special way. For example, the song ‘No Shadow,’ came to me at a time where I couldn’t see, so I didn’t have access to time in the way that other people had access to time. Inside total darkness, there isn’t time. Time is forever. Day and night. In darkness, there’s really no way of tracking time; when you wake up in the morning, you don’t know how long you slept. It might have been two hours, it might have been ten.
I’m interested in conceiving time in another way that’s less linear. For instance, right now I’m feeling really supported by my past self, who created this ecosystem for my current self to be in. And now I’m developing additional ecosystems for my future self, and also for the future selves of people that I love and people that I don’t know yet. I kind of see us all working together in this way.
Camille: What’s your relationship with mysticism and spirituality?
Hyd: I don’t think that we are limited by this physical world. I don’t think that it began here or will end here. So that’s just one reality that I know, in myself. I feel like I’m visiting earth, and that I get to almost, like, take a bath in the materials here and get really immersed in them. It’s a gift to be here, and it’s a gift to be embodied. And there’s a lot of people that I love who don’t have that—they are not in bodies right now, they weren’t able to stay here on earth. I have an almost devotional curiosity about the materials of the physical world. When I say that, I’m also speaking to these little miracles [of existence], like the fact that plants begin as seeds that are embedded in total darkness. I relate to this germination process, the idea of being under the ground, and finally coming up to the surface.
My interest here on earth is really showing up and listening. I’m interested in how to make new materials that can go beyond their form. There’s this concept of grand return, of learning from earth and looking to these processes, like a plant losing its flowers, and that going into the ground to then become a new seed. I mean, it’s so simple.
“I don’t believe in organic nature. I think the reality is that we’re always transforming, constantly self-augmenting… It has always been part of my life, of learning how to be human.”
Integrating [with reality] is really hard, and I think that’s where I get really excited about the idea of living as if a better world already exists. It’s almost like bringing that reality here. When I get into a place where I get disoriented, or disconnected or disassociated, or just feel far away from this world, or the people that I love in it, it’s a call for listening. For me, going outside and looking up to the sky—even just that motion, the act of looking upward—can get me out of a way of thinking that is small, or myopic, or singular. Because the reality is we’re not here alone on earth. There’s so much here if you can just look up.
Camille: There’s so much that is beyond language; experiences or phenomena that can’t be explained through the scientific model, or the words we know. And so I feel like we almost have art as a container for what is too much to express through other means. It’s such a powerful portal.
Hyd: Yeah, I feel the same way. It’s really unbelievable, actually. Sometimes I just feel in awe of this world around us, like that sunsets exist or the feeling of warmth or the fact that you can float in water. I mean, it’s incredible. The current world, or the world that we inherited, is often one that doesn’t support listening to bodies. So it’s kind of like, it can feel so bad here. So just returning to these material forms is really inspiring because they show me that things can transform, that water can move from a solid to a liquid to a vapor state. That’s so hopeful for me.
Camille: A line of thinking that I sometimes fall into is that physical, material reality is just a necessary prerequisite to experience the desires of the mind, even as I also find physicality to be a source of pleasure and joy. It’s nice to think of material becoming more than material, and embodiment being an indication of the potential for transformation.
Hyd: I mean that is so exciting, that it could be, you know what I mean? That it has that potential in it. And I think that’s the entrance for me, in working and making artworks or making sculpture or making new forms—the idea that something else could come through.
Camille: Does that relate to what you said about trying to hone your sensitivity, becoming almost porous to the world around you? Is that about making space for something greater to be transmitted?
Hyd: Yes. I guess it’s also about cultivating a willingness to fail. Going back to this vessel idea, the [artist] is a container. Performing onstage means setting up a system of different elements that can either transcend its form, or completely fail; maybe the amp doesn’t work, the microphone isn’t connected, whatever the limitations of those materials may be. But even in that failure, there’s something else that can come through. It’s why I get excited about performing; every time I walk onstage, there’s this potential for a sensory transmission, that something in that room can transform.
Hair & Make-up Yumi Kaizuka. Floral Art Naoko De Oliveira.
“No Shadow” Direction Hyd + 80881. Cinematographer 80881. Editor Aaron Chan. Particles Isaac Cohen.
“Skin 2 Skin” Direction Hyd. Cinematographer & Editor Michalina Gramowska. Creative Production Jack Armitage. Photo Assistant Matylda Nowacka. Hair Concept Holli Smith.
“The Look On Your Face” Direction Hyd + 80881. Editor GEORGIA. Angel Massima Bell. Cinematographer Blaine O’ Neal. Hair and Make-up Matia Emsellem. Movement Directior Miles Brenninkmeijer. Truck Coordinator Carly G. Support Chloe Morris, Lessa Millet. Location Scout Lana Miller.