Artslant: Meet the Artist Crew Charting New Digital Terrain
First published at Artslant
It’s easy to get lost in the Quantum Natives universe. The global-collective-slash-platform-slash-record-label is tricky to summarize, and even trickier to navigate. Fortunately, though, there’s a map. Inspired by the world-building practices of fantasy and science fiction, this strange, debased Google Map allows the visitor to meander through its wash of dreamy colors and unidentifiable symbols. Each project icon floats ominously above its surface, casting long gothic shadows. This is cartography in flux, a digital dérive: click on one icon, and up pops a tweet from transmedia artist Rosen: “If u found a portal and couldn’t see what was on the other side wud you go in?” Some icons bring up CAD drawings, others, SoundCloud clips. Once, although I’ve never found it since, I landed in a 3D-rendered art exhibition.
As co-founder Awe IX—who also makes music as Yearning Kru—tells me, the map reflects the lateral and digital nature of Quantum Natives more generally. “It doesn’t present something as being the most important, compared to a feed or a timeline,” he says. “It allows you to separate all these artists like little worlds, with their own idiosyncratic practices, but you can still also draw links between them.” Awe IX lives in Taipei, several time zones away from fellow co-founder, James Stringer (aka Brood Ma) in London, as well as others who fall into the Quantum Natives sphere. Digital space, then, has become a necessary stand-in for physical space, with conversations often taking place on Facebook or Skype—spaces in which Quantum Natives are entirely autochthonous. The rhizomatic nature of online space reflects their porous and globally dispersed offshoots. Unapologetically promiscuous, some artists will work on a single project before disappearing, while others will participate for months, even years.
Since its foundation in 2010, around 20 people have been involved to varying degrees. The map allows this milieu of artists to stake a claim to their own aesthetic identities—whether psychedelic, brutal, industrial, upbeat—while remaining part of a whole. Although far from cohesive, taken together, they leave you with a creeping sense of disquiet, a dryness in the throat, as though all of the anxieties and contradictions of the present are, quite literally, mapped out in front of you.
“I mean, obviously I’m quite interested in these dystopias,” says James, who works under the pseudonym Brood Ma. “But I always felt that they were critiques of what I saw as quite a juvenile obsession with the end of the world.” Of all the creators associated with Quantum Natives, Brood Ma has perhaps borne the brunt of criticism for his exploration of brutality. Both his visual and aural projects are disheveled, even aggressive; his last album, Daze (released on Tri Angle in 2016), was filled with thunderous crashes and fretful synths. It was met with accusations of poor taste and even worse politics. “It was a dark space,” he says, “and obviously exploring that is tricky.” Eager to clarify his position, he later sends me an email. With Daze, he writes, he wanted “to explore among other things the absence of morality / empathy within shared digital spaces (particularly games spaces)—and I used the landscape of Day-Z (an apocalyptic zombie survival horror game) as a way to frame this—as it is predominantly populated and dominated by juvenile men and teens.” Perhaps, however, in a post-Gamergate landscape, and in the face of ascending neofascism, even an ironic, rib-nudging glorification of violence and dystopia misses the beat. For too many people, dystopia is now; it’s already here — just without the sci-fi aesthetic. To use dystopia as a tool for ironic play could, despite the best of intentions, affirm its normalcy.
Standing amidst broken glass and ruined skyscrapers, both James and Awe IX are eager to leave Quantum Natives’ dystopian past behind. James is now working with more organic sounds, and spending more time developing immersive Unity game engines, “a lot more textural … audio spaces essentially.” Awe IX, whose own music undulates more towards the psychedelic, prefers a quasi-surrealist approach, slipping into unconscious minds to reconfigure the everyday. For him, “more abrasive club music… deliberately tries to be anti-escapist, because it has this very jarring quality to it. It wakes you up. Whereas, I suppose, [my music] lulls you into a trance-like state.” Recognizable tropes and pulpy pop culture references, he suggests, prevent this from tumbling into banal escapism. Not so much Lautreamont’s chance encounter of sewing machines and umbrellas, but rather Pantene Pro V with a peyote chaser.
Where the Quantum Natives founders are serious and ruminative, Clifford Sage, or recsund, is unwaveringly cheery and animated. One of Quantum Natives’ more active members, he began making “sound diaries” as a teenager, using an incomprehensibly complex system of layering in Windows Sound Recorder. “There was a ‘no revert’ button, but I didn’t dare click on it,” he says. More recently, however, he’s been working on his avatar, ProDance®, a 3D-modeled, Janus-faced avatar who doubles as an intergalactic transmission system. ProDance® began as a joke, a parody of the smooth, clean lines of CAD-sculpted net art, but has since evolved into a fully-fledged character with his own backstory. Clifford is now collaborating with James to integrate ProDance® into a game engine.
Like other Quantum Natives artists, he’s also interested in world-building, and in its potential for blurring the real and imaginary. Recalling a childhood memory, he says:
I’ll never forget my dad getting annoyed with me because we were on a walk and I’d be like, ‘oh my god that building is like something out of [computer game] Riven!’ He’d be like, Riven is out of someone else’s imagination! This is real life! I didn’t really see what was wrong with someone else’s imagination. That it could distract me in reality, even in a beautiful place.
At their Grace Nexus performance earlier this year, Quantum Natives used a game engine to create a 3D model of the space (Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room), which was tweaked and remodeled before being projected back into that same space. The result was an immersive, constantly shifting alien surface on top of the original; it simultaneously diminished and accentuated that which was familiar. In their own literature, they described the night as “an act of tourism” into the Quantum Natives universe. This kind of project goes beyond conventional world-building, where that other world is only ever an eternal elsewhere. Grace Nexus pulled that other world into our own.
This slippage between reality and fantasy is fun, for sure, but it’s also a useful exercise. What happens when real space becomes a palimpsest? When you layer new worlds on top of the old? I’m wary of overstating the case here, but it does remind me of the quote, variously attributed to Mark Fisher, Frederic Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek, that goes something like, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Maybe we just need the right tools to imagine new worlds.