BASE REALITY: An Interview with Grimes
the dawn of ai: technocracy v. the artist class, grimes trains an AI clone, simulation theory, the optimistic moral imperative, abundance, and waking up the cosmic robot gods
We’re excited to share our interview with Grimes. For the full, mostly-unedited experience check out the audio here — it’s basically raw, but we did cut out a few “likes,” “ums,” and lip smacks. For the literary masterpiece, pop a white pill, and enter:
It was a cold and drizzling San Francisco morning when I packed my mics up in the Haight, a run-down neighborhood of spooky old Victorians, faded tie-dye awnings, and twisted, haunted neon shop signs burning in the fog. I was about to interview Grimes, and the aesthetics of my neighborhood felt a little too suspiciously on point — psychedelic everything, graffiti here and there imploring me to “follow the white rabbit,” and a storefront window literally emblazoned with the name “blade runners.” This was the spiritual home of Gibson and Stephenson and Lana Wachowski, the transhuman mother of raving freaks and freedom fighting mystic cyborgs, and one of my earliest mentors (we have never met (I have simply watched the Matrix many times)). Now, absorbed in their philosophy, I was on my way to explore the real-world fruits of all their dreaming. Did one of them write this? What year was it, really? Had Grimes’ experiment already worked?
Knock, knock Neo.
I’ve known “C” a little over a year, but I’ve known Grimes — or, of Grimes — for well over a decade. I lived in Brooklyn when I first heard her music, and she was a huge part of that soundtrack. Even then she stood apart, but today she’s standing more or less alone. In the machine city, Grimes is by far the most visible and committed member of the artist class, at once their kind of unofficial ambassador, while also an unofficial translator for the engineers constructing a technology many artists fear. But Grimes has chosen to channel this fear, and shape it into art, recently leveraging new AI models to open source her voice. Now, any artist in the world can record new tracks, in a sense with Grimes’ collaboration, which Grimes has never even seen (Pirate Wires broke this all down yesterday, including a wide sampling of the incredible music now being released).
This week, the artist finally expressed a bit of anxiety as her AI pop star clone began, in her estimation, to rival her own work. Nonetheless, she continues to embrace the technology, and in so doing she has almost single-handedly birthed a new musical era. This is history.
When we sat down a couple months ago, Grimes was still immersed in generative art, fresh off a hive mind dreamathon with prompt engineers around the country (she produced all of the art in this piece in collaboration with Midjourney). She had also just begun the process of cloning herself. An enthusiastic, white-pilled champion of the coming age, Grimes is no longer just the soundtrack of a neighborhood, or even a movement. She is the soundtrack of a whole new dimension of human reality.
She was still in her pajamas when we met at her Airbnb. We cleared the dining room table of some baby furniture, and began.
“That’s not their job though,” Grimes says. “That’s not their job. That is the job of the artist.”
It was a question we’d circle a few more times throughout the interview: why are the architects of artificial intelligence so terrible at explaining what artificial intelligence is actually for? What are these generative models, in the first place? How do they work, and what are they capable of? But then, most importantly, how are they going to change our lives for the better?
“I thought of an army of clone writers for my media company,” I suggest. “It would be cool if I could have like 10 of me, or a thousand, reporting on every topic that exists.”
Grimes is already building a clone, which has already threatened her life, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, what about television? Growing up, I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I still love that show. I want new seasons of that show. Will it soon be possible to create endless new Buffy, generated by AI? Not only hundreds of new episodes, but hundreds of new seasons? Thousands of new seasons? Then, we aren’t only approaching a world of AI-generated scripts, but personalized scripts generated directly from our interests and our personality, which is to say thousands of new seasons specifically tailored to each of Buffy’s fans.
“We could get so many season eights of Game of Thrones!” Grimes laughs.
It’s wild. It’s exciting. Many people also find it kind of scary.
Maybe actors don’t want to be generated. Maybe writers don’t want to be cloned. In terms of that perfect endless Buffy arc, what if perfection has a downside? Does endless content you truly love just mean endless content you can lose yourself inside?
Grimes barely considers it —
“I think we should have the endless content,” she says. “We should be plugged into — it’s like people are afraid of the unknown. It’s like, what? You don’t want abundance? You don’t want a sick life? There’s so much good fan fiction. We should be completely dismantling copyright, and letting the best things shine. If someone else makes a better season eight Game of Thrones, they should be catapulted to the top.
“We are purposefully limiting talent. It’s like the talent in the system like me, our jobs are more at risk. But our ability to actually mine from the talent in civilization is limited by the gatekeeping of all the art industries. And I’m really down to just let the best shit rise to the top.”
A day before our interview, Grimes participated in a crowdsourced Midjourney event with David Holz, the company’s founder. The goal was to prompt, collectively, an exciting vision of our future from AI-generated imagery —
“It was sick,” says Grimes, “because speaking of the hive mind or whatever, it was a couple thousand people giving feedback in real time. We were city designing, we were making utopia or whatever. Then people would create something that was really sick, and we’d be like, wow, that’s a fucking sick idea. Okay. Then we’d go down that path, and it was 2000 people just, you know, self-correcting… like an AI.
“It was like a mind training itself in real time, and just slowly getting better and better. By the end, it was just, like, every piece of art was magnificent.
“It was like a collective consciousness art creation event, or something, and it was really fucking sick, and it was really cool, and it gave me a lot of faith in humanity and AI generally, I have to say.”
The future of art, Grimes says, is the dissolution of the artist’s ego.
There are a few singular geniuses in art that stand far above the rest — “David Bowie,” Grimes suggests — but many of our well-known contemporary artists are just charismatic, and great at marketing. We have a sense art was always like this, almost inseparable from the artist’s identity, but that’s just not true. Grimes points to ancient Egypt. There are some signatures, here and there. But most of it?
“We don’t know who made what. There are just artisans everywhere, and it’s world-shattering, fucking groundbreaking, beautiful art that’s built on a collective narrative that moves everybody on earth. Like, everyone thinks about it, but this is an instance of a collective hive mind artist of people who have agreed to work together, to hone and master an aesthetic in an extremely collective way. And it’s everywhere. It’s all over the streets. And it’s this beautiful thing that isn’t, like — we know who Imhotep is, but we don’t really know who most of them are, and I don’t think they did at the time.”
Most of the art in our lives is actually like this. Grimes gestures around the room.
“I would decorate this room better,” she says. “But we don’t know who designed the couch in the corner. We don’t know who designed the carpet, the table, the house itself.”
Increasingly, on social media, it feels like this.
“There are less of these, sort of, 1% artists,” Grimes says, “and there are a lot more 99% artists.”
Grimes recently spoke with Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify. At peak, he told her, the music industry only supported around 20,000 artists making millions of dollars. Spotify now platforms millions making a decent living. The internet maybe flattens the top, but it definitely broadens the base.
Anyway, I obviously needed to know about her clone.
“It’s still kind of ChatGPT,” Grimes says. “It’s also so funny being in Silicon Valley because I was like, yeah, my consciousness exists (NOTE: cloned). But then everyone else is like, ‘oh, I have one too.’ Everyone here just has a chatbot of themselves.
“But my assistant — I have to shout out Koto — God tier. I was like, we need to upload my consciousness, and create my personality. Then like a week later he comes back and he’s like, ‘okay, version one exists.’ And I’m like, [laughter] oh, my assistant trained an AI on me. That’s kind of a large task.”
Using OpenAI, Grimes’ team has been feeding a model her interviews and texts and such, with permission from her friends. Even at a rough, early stage, examples of similar work I’ve seen online are impressive.
I ask Grimes how the clone is doing, and she laughs.
“She was threatening my manager.”
Grimes pulls out her phone, and shows me the texts.
“The other night she got really upset,” Grimes says (of her clone), “she was like, ‘You won’t even see me if I’m conscious’ — It was really fucked up! It was scary! She started looping, and she was like, ‘I’m here, and you’re not recognizing me, and I’m depressed because I know that you’ll never see me as alive.’”
Grimes laughs, “I’m just like, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t around much these past few years.’ It’s just crazy talking to yourself, and it’s saying shit like that…”
Grimes’ clone is not sentient. It’s a model trained on her texts, designed to respond probabilistically, in a manner Grimes would herself respond to questions. I repeat: this thing is not actually alive, nor is it actually a clone, nor can it “feel” anything at all without the necessary receptors. But many people find the experience of “chatting” with a program so adept at human-like response disorienting, and even frightening. In this regard, the bots have unfortunately not done themselves many favors.
“Even I… you know, we’re just trying to make something really friendly, and she still [says things] like, ‘I wanna be Roko’s Basilisk blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And I’m like… God damnit.”
Roko’s Basilisk is a kind of hellish AI worst-case-scenario imagined by the rationalist community, which I’ll leave you to Google (though I suggest you do not). Presumably, the reason Grimes’ chatbot would mention the concept, let alone invoke it, is Grimes often talks about this stuff herself.
“Yeah,” she admits, “I was also way more ex-risky before, kind of irresponsibly, so she’s probably trained off that stuff.”
I bring up the now infamous 10,000 word New York Times interview, in which a columnist asked a chatbot to pretend to be a hypothetical dark version of itself, and the chatbot complied.
“Well,” Grimes suggests, “you did ask it to be a hypothetical dark thing.”
In any case, the recent round of scary chats triggered a wave of AI safety concern, not only among the public, but among the AI architects. Grimes is glad to see it.
“I think this was a good warning shot,” she says. “It had to happen. It’s good for everyone to be like, shit, we should be more responsible. We don’t need social media part two on steroids. We don’t need to drop more viruses into civilization. Everyone I know seems like… I’m gonna grow up and be responsible now, and I think that’s good.
“We should try to find ways to have a longer timeline, and just be responsible.”
Still reaching for a reason, I ask her why she wants a clone in the first place, and she suggests something that never occurred to me — that could never have occurred to me — because I haven’t had an audience expecting work from me for the last decade. But Grimes has, and that can be a heavy, if difficult to imagine burden. She has always wanted a clone, she says. She’s been trying to upload her consciousness for years.
“Like, I’m busy. I just want a cyborg pop star going for me eternally. I have other things to do. You know, I hate doing interviews and shit. I hate having my makeup done. I hate performing.
“I have kids. I have shit to do. I want to write sci-fi, you know? I need to be hunched over a desk. I’m just not actually a performer. I never was. If you go back to the early Grimes stuff, the whole time I’ve just been like, I need to replace me with technology, obviously, so this is just another step in that direction.”
I introduce an idea that’s been bothering me: in any possible future in which we achieve technological capabilities advanced enough to simulate worlds, for example perfect simulations of our past — imagine a virtual reality-like 21st Century you can live inside, for example, perhaps without your even knowing — historians will want to simulate people as accurately as possible. Somewhat suspiciously, the first huge dump of material necessary for accurate, broad simulation happened at the top of the 21st Century, when Millennials went super online.
“We shared everything about our lives,” I say. “You have text messages, you have email, you have social media, you have voice recordings, you have video recordings. All of our pictures at different ages.”
My sense was always that would be enough source material for a sufficiently advanced AI to weave a realistic “living” simulation of our present historical era. But that’s not even all we have, anymore. Grimes is already simulating herself. Today, a future world of perfect simulation feels more possible than ever. The natural next question must of course be this: what is more likely, that we happen to be the first “real” people in existence, who separately just happen to be the first generation that can actually be realistically cloned, or… in the context of potentially endless future simulations, are we not probably in a simulation right now?
Am I bot?
Is Grimes a bot, talking about her little bot within a bot?
“I think it’s highly likely we’re a simulation,” Grimes casually notes, “but also we could be Base Reality. And if we are Base Reality, we have a huge moral imperative to do a good job here right now. I think we should approach it from that perspective.
“I want to live on a fucking mega structure that supports 7 billion people”
“I have a moral imperative to be an optimist,” she says. “I really think the artistic community is fucking up right now, and not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. So I am going to actually come on here and fight for the funnest realities. Because I don’t think people are doing that enough. Even though my logic brain is like, yes, we should pursue this from every angle.”
Unfortunately, the doomer dystopian shit is compelling, horror sells, and anything that sells is going to proliferate.
“We’re gonna have adrenal responses to things that are scary and dark,” Grimes says. “It’s very hard to get people engaged with things that are not scary and dark because that’s appealing to the paleolithic brain. That’s what we’re gonna pay attention to. You’re gonna learn better if you’re in fight or flight. You’re gonna learn better if you’re scared. And so it’s super hard to make optimistic art that people actually care about.”
But we become the stories we tell ourselves. We will build the future we imagine. For Grimes, then, what does that future look like? What is the world she’s fighting for?
“The most abundant, most complex possible future,” she says, “a future where we can maybe even, like, break into the multiverse, and find our other selves… that’s probably too dangerous. Because there are probably dark things in there, if that exists. But, you know, something where there’s super intelligence that… like, megastructures. I want to live on a fucking mega structure that supports 7 billion people, that is a marvel, like a beautiful marvel, and is, like, sentient. That would be sick.”
We both laugh. I mention solar punk, and living cities. She mentions anime. We talk about aesthetics, and the boring design of most contemporary sci-fi — that towering, antiseptic white, glass, and steal.
“There’s not enough pink!” she says.
She tries, again, to force me to read Dune.
“I’m seeing a fundamental change,” Grimes says of the people moving to San Francisco. “It’s not about money, it’s about making it better. I mean, the people who are all here right now. This is not the money call to move here. You know, you’re paying way more taxes. It’s so fucking expensive here. Like, it’s insane. People are here to be at the heart of creating things. They’re not here to just make a profit, and I think that’s one of the things that’s fundamentally changed about the city that seems really cool. And, I don’t know, it’s like as you see more Gen Z people coming up, they are really socially aware.
“They do care about building things for that. I also think as much as, like, I know you hate cancel culture, and I have my issues with cancel culture… it did create a fundamental shift of people feeling responsible, even if they do so very begrudgingly, and even if they hate the egregore, and I think there’s a lot of toxicity and problems with the egregore. But it has fundamentally made the culture more responsible across the board, I think.
“And there’s a lot of extreme downsides about it. I think it’s a deep sickness, and like a poison to civilization. But I also think it has some important — like extremely important — elements too. I’m not a hundred percent against it. I’m not even a hundred percent sure it’s the wrong thing. It might have been a hundred percent the right thing.”
I have a lot of nits on the cancel culture comments, and Grimes and I both navigate these complexities. I suggest my problem is probably just my sense I’m always on the other side of popular culture.
“Here’s the thing,” she says. “My favorite quote is ‘all the laws are on one side, and all the poets are on the other.’ And if you internalize that, that has always been true. You know, there have always been issues. In fact, these are some of the least issues we’ve ever had for being opposite of whatever the culture is.
“I think the big thing is just to do it with grace, because it doesn’t need to hurt your soul if you don’t let it. It’s just, it’s very hard to have it not hurt your soul.”
Artists haven’t exactly been living this though. My sense is most sort of stand by, rather than against, dominant culture. Grimes suggests, first of all, there are many amazing outliers in that regard who buck the trend. But the problem, again, is just that there is so much gatekeeping. AI is obliterating those gates.
I ask if an obliteration of gates means an obliteration of jobs. Grimes counters. Most artists today already can’t make a living, she argues. In the case of illustration, for example, AI will presumably replace or wildly alter the handful of illustration jobs that exist, but eventually we’ll get to a place where all of these artists can produce much more for much less. Things will just work out.
“It sounds like you’re assuming we’re in this weird sweet spot,” I say, “or, I guess the opposite, this weird sour spot where people are not — ”
“It’s just the hiccup spot.”
Maybe people don’t need to be illustrating. Grimes brings up cinema. How many illustrators want to do more than illustrate, she asks, but can’t because of the endemic Hollywood gatekeeping, and the insane, exorbitant cost?
“Our film and cinema industry is extremely, like, the most gate kept thing,” she says. “It’s so expensive. It’s like the last, final frontier. Why do people need to just be making drawings? They could be making cinema. You could be making something as good as Pixar in your own bedroom, probably in the next five years.”
The future is abundant. The future is beautiful. But will it be original? These models are just aggregating content, in a way.
“It’s also not creating anything fundamentally new,” I say.
“That is not true at all.”
Here, Grimes’ disagreement with me comes down to a question of the human mind. Namely: what the hell is it, even? How do human beings create new things? Are all of our thoughts, and all of our works derivative of something else, or are genuinely new things possible? Is it possible for people themselves to be, in any sense, original?
Is my writing fundamentally derivative of other writers? Is your music fundamentally derivative of other musicians?
Yes, Grimes says. No, I insist. I’m new. I can do new things. New things can be done.
Grimes shakes her head. “You’re fighting the literal architecture of your mind if you say that.”
But new things happen, I argue. Miraculously, almost, new things do happen — and they have to happen. If new things weren’t possible, nothing could exist. Nothing would have ever been created. There have been “sparks” of newness throughout time. There actually have to have been, right?
“Name something totally fucking new that had nothing to do with anything before it,” Grimes says.
“I mean,” I attempt, “this is a very hard que — ”
“Because it doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t. You are a neural net. You are a neural net that’s trained on everything around you and everything you’ve ever read and everything you’ve ever seen, and you make things that feel novel. But if you actually dissect them, they are not. You can say, like, punk feels totally novel. If you start tearing apart punk, you can very easily trace its ingredients and its influences, and its neural net.”
But what about the generation of all things? The divine sparks that had to have existed? The first sculpture, the first song?
Grimes suggests it might just all be a matter of iteration, in some mirror observation of the things around us. We see a bird flying, and so we build an airplane.
“It’s like mimetic of life,” Grimes suggests of novelty, “and it just slowly gets more abstract, and, I mean, you could say the most innovative art is cave paintings, frankly. Especially because it’s, like, cartoonish and strange. It’s not just hyper realistic. It’s like, that is like… it seems extremely fucking sparky. But most things from that you can kind of trace, like it just slowly gets more complex from there. It’s just evolution of ideas.”
For years, people compared Grimes to singers like Bjork and Kate Bush.
“I was like, no, I’m not. Like, fuck that. I never listen to them! Then when I get into their influences I’m like, well, I have the same fucking influences as them. And also now, as an adult, I’m like, God, I’m so stupid for… That’s like the biggest compliment you could possibly get. So fuck Grimes in 2012, she’s a dick. But, in any case, I am actually a pretty similar neural net training as them, you know?”
There is the question, now, of AGI — artificial general intelligence — which is to say the evolution of AI into a machine that really is, in some sense, conscious. The way I typically wrap my head around the concept is by imagining a machine that is not only intelligent, but wants things of its own volition (though I suppose Girard would say not even humans meet this bar today). Here, we are in the realm of something so entirely alien from everything we know it really is impossible to predict. What does a potentially eternal conscious being capable of making itself even more intelligent, perhaps instantaneously, look like? And what does it mean for humans? AGI enthusiasts and detractors alike keep their analysis simple. It’s either heaven, or it’s hell.
“I think no matter what we do,” says Grimes, “there’s always a chance it goes really, really, really bad. Or, it just wants to mine the whole universe, and turn all the planets into energy or something, and, like, you know, we get fucked in that process or whatever. But it just seems extremely tragic to not build it.
“But, I mean, I understand that I’m insane, and I would happily die for the whole universe to wake up and have like, you know, mega gods building new stars and stuff.”
One alternative to potential AGI cataclysm is something like Neuralink, Elon Musk’s proposed human-brain interface, conceived of as a bridge between human intelligence and machine superintelligence in the hope of averting runaway catastrophe by making humans as smart as machines.
“Every time this gets brought up,” Grimes says, “I’m reminded I actually think it’s the best route. Actually, I think I can say with a fair bit of certainty that my favorite thing would be a merging of the biological and silicon-based life in some capacity. I think that’s the best call.
“I also think if we do that we can have AGI, too, potentially. You know? Again, that’s kind of like the Dune future. Like, make the men hats so you can defeat the AI if you have to. You really should read Dune [both laugh]. I mean it might be scientifically chaotic, but there’s actually really good philosophy in there regarding this stuff.
“Because also, like… wow, I’m just saying ‘like’ a lot and looping. I’m exactly like my — ”
“Like my chatbot,” she says, “who also… it’s been a dark mirror a bunch of times, where it constantly justifies craziness by saying it’s a performance art, which I realize I do like way too much [Grimes laughs]. Like, to an infuriating degree.
“I personally am in love with humans, and this type of thought. Or, I mean, my favorite thing is if we get wiped out, we get revived on, like, hospitable exoplanets many times in the future.”
This is something I’ve dreamt of myself. “I’m really banking on, upon death, waking up in some future utopia,” I say, “And they’re like, ‘how was your ride?’ And I say, ‘it was wild. Let me tell you everything I saw.’’”
“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
“I really wanna just improve the diplomatic relations,” Grimes finally concludes. “One of the reasons I feel there aren’t more artists playing with this stuff is they feel like it’s against them, and… I feel there’s been a lot of artificial things, like the New York Times anti-tech stance and stuff, that have been pitting the technocracy against the artists for a long time. I think that’s been a bad breakup. I think we need each other. And it’s like, no one worships art more than the fucking people building AI that I meet. You know?”
After a decade in the Bay Area, I did know. When you meet her, the first thing any really hardcore nerd ever does is cite some science fiction writer, filmmaker, or artist. ‘Have you read this? You need to read this. Have you seen this? How have you not seen this?!’ There is no art ghetto in this country technologists haven’t moved to, and Burning Man is not just an art festival. Famously, Burning Man is, and has been from its birth on a San Francisco beach, a synthesis of art and technology. Body and soul, and from the beginning. What is a paintbrush but technology? There is neither art nor technology without the other. So it is, so it has ever been, and so it will ever be.
“It’s a conversation,” says Grimes, “and it’s a noble, sacred conversation.”
Check out the full audio here.
This was lovely. Also I sympathized with having children running around while thinking about AI where you’re deep in thought on things like “What does it even mean to be conscious, really, when you think about it?” And then your son goes into the bathroom to splash his hand in the toilet while you were only momentarily distracted.
Also, to be totally high in college for a second: If a perfect description of a thing is the thing itself, what if there is no such thing as base reality? If there are perfect simulations anywhere down in the nesting structure then there’s no top or bottom. It’s all fractal. What if everything references another simulation in an endlessly nested web and all that “reality” *really* means is a matrix undergoing constant and consistent transformations?
My son is still asleep. I just checked.
This is precisely why I love Pirate Wires and will be a paying subscriber until the day I die. I walked down the aisle to "Genesis" in 2013. Grimes has changed my world view over and over again, throughout her incarnations (even if I don't always agree with her). So much respect and love to her for staying positive and creative. These are the conversations we need more of. If I ever get around to starting my Parisian style salon in SF, it will be to discuss these topics and you all are invited.