It's a Friday night and central London is, as central London on a Friday night is prone to being, absolutely heaving. As our cab trundles down the Strand, past Pret a Manger and the Savoy, Coutts and Itsu, past the milling hordes and slow-moving masses, it becomes almost impossible to not think about the possibility of a city in which man is no longer part of the picture.
It's an image that's at once calming and utterly horrifying. Anyone who resides in a city is prone to romanticizing the solitude and serenity that we've misidentified as being a fundamental characteristic of non-metropolitan life. We pine for an imagined kind of quietude, one in which we'd finally get round to reading all of Proust, or learning how to play the piano. We'd swap the needless (and anxiety inducing) hustle and bustle for something that approached the monastic. In freeing ourselves from the shackles of sociability, we like to imagine that we'd find an inner-peace that city-living's denied us all these years.
That's obviously total bollocks. Undeniably seductive bollocks, but bollocks nonetheless. But it was that bollocks running through my head as I hotfooted it down the Mall to slide through the hallowed doors of the ICA this Friday gone for a performance of Kode9 and Lawrence Lek's audio-visual show Nøtel, part of this year's Clock Strikes 13 series of events.
The show—which saw the Hyperdub boss' still-stupendous 2015 LP Nothing played at ear-splitting volume while Lek's beguiling, disturbing, and ultimately incredibly thrilling first-drone (not first-person) visual ride through a non-populated hotel unspools and unfurls on a giant screen—was an unbridled joy. I mean, it was also thought provoking and confrontational and almost oddly elegiac, but there was still joy buried in there.
The joy, if we can call it that, came from seeing bold thematic concerns—de-individualization, the erosion of urban space as we know and understand it, "fully automated luxury communism"—presented with total and unerring conviction.
I spoke to both Lawrence Lek and Kode9 ahead of the show to try and understand what exactly the 'Nøtel' was and what it says about life during the end times.
THUMP: Can you give us a bit of backstory as to how you became interested in working within the medium of first person digital exploration?
Lawrence Lek: Since I grew up around different cities, I've always been interested in the idea of world-building—whether it's in cinema, science fiction, novels, video games, or concept albums. When I worked in architecture, I learnt that most buildings that get designed never get built, so I wondered: what if you took the stage where the building only exists as a rendering completely seriously?
As a first-person explorer in a virtual world, all of the psychological effects of being in an actual place still hold true, and you also divorce yourself from forces of reality that you don't agree with. So I kept on building, but without buildings. A lot of my virtual worlds were based on real places, and the Nøtel with Kode9 was the first time I designed architecture 'for real'.
I was lucky enough to be at Semibreve in Braga a few weeks back, where your collaboration with Oliver Coates was a highlight. Do musicians reach out to you, or is it the other way round?
When I used to do more music myself, collaborative projects acted as the gateway for me between the world of design and visual art. Friends (who were often also musicians) would make videos for my soundtracks, sometimes the other way around. A couple of years ago, Oliver sent me a track out of the blue and that became the main theme of my simulation "Unreal Estate (the Royal Academy is Yours)" a few months later. Last year I got in touch with Hyperdub about a soundtrack for a video I was working on, and that turned into the Nøtel.
Would you care to explain the idea of "fully automated luxury communism" a little more?
Essentially, there are two ways to confront the fact that human workers are being made increasingly obsolete by mechanization and computer automation.
One is to see it as a doomsday scenario, where we must oppose the machines in order to preserve and amplify humanity's own self-worth. The other (Fully Automated Luxury Communism) is to see automation as an opportunity to liberate ourselves from the drudgery of the 9-5 system. In this idealistic scenario, humanity would fully delegate labour to machines, thus living in a world where it was leisure time, all the time. And this luxurious lifestyle would be accessible to everybody (human, at least), regardless of race, gender, age, location, language.
What, if anything, can Nøtel tell us about the present age?"
A central idea in my work is that architecture is a self-portrait. In other words, society recreates itself through the places it leaves behind. So the Nøtel takes the idea of the hotel—a weird combination of transient and domestic space—to its furthest conclusion. Thanks to the automation of organizational systems, services that used to be dominated by the corporations like hotels and railways/airports are transforming into startups for self-employed and self-organized services like AirBnB and Uber. The Nøtel world suggests that startup culture is only one point in an evolutionary cycle: eventually, the biggest corporation will consume all other innovation, and hotels will become one with houses. Now, does that sound like a hotel or a prison? They're just mirror images of each other. Of course, that's only one aspect—there are ideas about death and immortality, and a lot more symbolism embodied in the Nøtel, but it's not for me to spell it out.
THUMP: What was your first introduction to Lawrence's work?
Kode9: Lawrence got in touch just as I was finishing the album to see if we needed any visuals for any of the artists at Hyperdub. His first piece I saw was "Unreal Estate" which resonated with the ideas in the album Nøthing. Once we met and had a couple brainstorming session it became clear we were sharing some brain cells.
Where does Nøtel fit into your oeuvre?
It's my third album, but my first instrumental album after the death of The Spaceape. My albums have always been conceptual in some way, but have been getting more upbeat and energetic. But I didn't want to perform this one on my own, which is why I asked Lawrence to collaborate.
What effect does the first person visual have on you, personally?
It's a first-drone perspective, not first person. Its cold and inhuman but curious and inquisitive.
Do you find hotels, in general, strange places? I always feel a sense of disquiet when I'm staying in one, a fundamental rootlessness that perturbs me greatly.
Very strange. I spend a lot of time in them and am always struck by their emptiness especially when you come back late at night and are confronted by stacks of identical corridors and rooms. I've got lost in many. I found out about both the deaths of The Spaceape and DJ Rashad, both of whom feature as holograms in the Nøtel, when I was alone in hotels on the other side of the world and that feeling haunts the project.