I’ve wondered occasionally whether the position of arts critic – self-appointed or otherwise – should be subject to term limits. The thought occurred to me most recently while attending… no, while immersed in Grace Nexus, the simultaneously bewitching and bewildering presentation mounted at Issue Project Room on April 15 by Quantum Natives: eithera British digital-media collective or “an abstruse net-label run by two art school-educated Londoners,” according to Resident Advisor. Maybe both.
The event was auspicious for two principal reasons: it was the U.S. debut of Quantum Natives – founders Brood Ma (James B. Stringer) and Yearning Kru (Awe IX), joined here by transmedia artist Rosen (Rachael Melanson) – and it was the inaugural offering organized by writer and media theorist DeForrest Brown Jr. in his capacity as Issue’s 2017 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow, a newly instituted position named in memory of Issue’s founder and guiding spirit. In a conversation with Bill Kouligas, founder of the expertly programmed record label PAN, recently published by BOMB Magazine, Brown talked about his background and what he aspires to do at Issue.
On entering the space Grace Nexus occupied, you were confronted at once with two simultaneous video projections on opposite walls, two distinct varieties of sculptural components (not counting the central pillar on which the video projectors were lofted) scattered around the room, and electronic music considerably more abstract than what’s heard on the excellent albums issued last year by Brood Ma (Daze, on Tri-Angle) and Yearning Kru (Copper Vale, on Planet Mu), murmuring and buzzing from speakers throughout the space.
What seemed clear from the start was that much if not all of the performance/installation took its cues from similarly immersive video games – a medium of which I have no significant firsthand experience whatsoever. So, yeah, for a minute or 10 I wondered if I’d have anything of genuine value to say.
So I sat down on the floor against a column, and I started to think. There’s this book I’ve been reading lately, Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965 by Melissa Rachleff, the companion to a terrific recent exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Among its many insights, this generously illustrated tome includes numerous descriptions of genre-flouting multidisciplinary installations, performances, happenings, conceptual works, and other instances of intermedia creativity by artists such as Allan Kaprow, Red Grooms, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Yoko Ono, and LaMonte Young. Among the recurring refrains is a view of conventional art criticism as a mode that failed to meet the demands of these emerging art forms, along with an urgent assertion of the artist’s authority to identify and assess her or his works, rather than ceding that authority to the critic.
I was also reminded of the intoxicating flood of sensations I encountered while covering a presentation of Cage’s epochal HPSCHD at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center for The New York Times in 2013. (Issue Project Room was involved in that presentation, along with Eyebeam and the Electronic Music Foundation.) That room, too, was flooded with simultaneous and at times contradictory sensory data. There, too, I’d spent time on the floor trying to compose my thoughts.
Grace Nexus wasn’t as confrontational or overwhelming as HPSCHD had been. Indeed, throughout the room here, audience members clustered in communal appraisal or private conversation, as if the event were some kind of egghead club night.
The key to interpreting what was going on, I think, was in a statement printed in the program distributed at the door:
In their debut performance of Grace Nexus, the collective forms a new episode in the rhizomatic Quantum Natives universe, extending their online surface to a live setting. The artists will unite to use video game engine technology, paired with software-based sound design, to sculpt birds-eye and panoramic experiences of merging fictional landscapes, physical, and online spaces, which in turn will be projected in ISSUE’s theater and online.… Grace Nexus emerges as a seance or incubator for the Quantum Natives community and an act of tourism into their world.
Viewed from a tourist’s perspective, the constant stimulation felt strangely inviting: a sensation familiar to any traveler who has visited a country where the language and customs are unfamiliar. Tribal-techno soundscapes and indistinct, murmuring voices jostled with grating machinelike sounds and pealing bells in loudspeakers throughout the room. Pedestals like gallery displays held arcane symbolic sculptures, or were covered in text that read like gamers’ dialogues. A screen on one wall showed a sequence of videos: landscape images juxtaposed with more game script; aerial views overlaid with a Quantum Natives signature rune that took on an eerie aspect of targeting sight as population centers came into view far below; and fluidly morphing vistas that shifted from soothing pastels to lurid fluorescent hues.
On the opposite wall, a virtual camera eye tracked in 360 degrees through digitally rendered and altered views of the Issue Project Room space itself. Gradually you began to suspect some correlation between motion on this screen and the sounds you were hearing, certainly when digital scribbles depicting mixing-board sliders moved up and down the screen. I wondered whether the music itself was being produced with game-related software. (No clear answers would be forthcoming.)
Not quite two hours into the presentation, the lights dimmed appreciably. The name Brood Ma was projected in wobbly scrawl on one screen; if you were watching closely, you also saw it tagged along with the Quantum Natives icon on the walls of the “virtual” Issue Project Room on the opposite wall. Audience members sat on the floor facing the active wall, as if a concert had materialized spontaneously, and for a time, music became the event’s principal focus. This presumably was Brood Ma’s set, which further suggested that the evening’s initial segment had been Rosen’s, followed by a stretch overseen by Yearning Kru. It stood to reason; there was rarely more than one operator behind the laptops and mixers plainly visible in a dark niche.
Or not! Did the details matter? Training and experience led me to long for a crib sheet instinctively. Yet what resonated most about Grace Nexus was not intimate knowledge of the how or the why (or a lack thereof), but rather the sensation of giving in to an immersive encounter with the what, when, and where. And as much as having read Rachleff and witnessed HPSCHD had provided reassuring evidence that Grace Nexus wasn’t wholly unfamiliar or beyond grasp, my most meaningful response wasn’t an impulse to dissect and analyze it, but instead simply to savor the heady experience of having been lost inside it for a few pleasantly disorienting hours.
A lot to take in, and very much worth the doing. I look forward to spending more time trawling through the Quantum Natives world online, and to seeing what further fresh surprises Brown will present during his promising residency.