Kode9 walks us through his new sci-fi-esque installation Astro-Darien
Kode9’s never been the kind to channel all of his creative energy into a single area or medium.
Instead, the Scottish, London-based artist seems to prefer a broader, multidisciplinary approach. He runs Hyperdub, of course, the pioneering UK imprint that’s housed a roster of influential or boundary-pushing artists – such as Burial, Fatima Al Qadiri and Collections cover star Loraine James. He’s also lectured, written books and curated nights, such as the Ø series of monthly events at Corsica Studios in south London, which he helms alongside Shannen SP.
This week, Kode9 – real name Steve Goodman – returns to Corsica with a new multi-channel audiovisual installation conjured up with the help of some past collaborators. Entitled Astro-Darien, his latest project fuses a science fiction setting with heavy historical context. The installation focuses on Scottish colonial history, space races and the unsuccessful Darien venture (the disastrous 17th century scheme that wound up almost bankrupting Scotland, and contributed to the country having to enter into the 1707 Act of Union with England) through the gaze of character Guna Yala. The protagonist is the “lead programmer of a game about Astro-Darien, an orbital space habitat named after the Darien region of Panama.”
Astro-Darien was originally meant to be shared as an audio essay; however, it mutated due to the pandemic. The likes of Optigram, Lawrence Lek – who’s previously worked on audiovisual projects like Nøtel with Goodman – and Silvia Kastel have contributed visually to the installation. Lek will also be joining Goodman at Astro-Darien‘s now sold out opening event this evening (21 May).
Ahead of its opening, we caught up with Goodman to discuss the inspiration behind the new project and why he’s drawn to science fiction in his work.
Courtesy of Kode9
Can you give us a bit of back story on how the installation came to life and where the inspiration for it came from?
There were quite a few seeds for this project: finding out a couple of years ago about an ongoing, actual space race in the Highlands and Islands. There’s a Shetland Islands competing with one in Sutherland to be the UK’s key spaceport. The plans are to initially launch satellites, with future plans for sending tourists into space. This space race involves local communities, the UK Space Agency, the defence industry, the Danish billionaire who owns online clothes retailer ASOS – but is also Scotland’s largest landowner – Extinction Rebellion, and millions of government and private investment.
Also, a few years ago I came across a bunch of Scottish minimal synth from the early 80s, particularly projects of Alistair Robertson such as The Klingons and 100% Man Made Fibre. Thirdly, I’ve always found it weird that a video game such as Grand Theft Auto was initially conceived by DMA Designs – later Rockstar North – which is a Scottish video games company. Instead of programming a caricature of US inner city life, I wondered how it might handle something local. And, finally, dismay at the whole political spectrum and media in England since the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; imaging that the only way to escape British unionism was an off-world exodus to an orbital space habitat.
How long have you been working on this?
The idea has been simmering for a couple of years, but production started late in 2019. I was planning to perform/diffuse the audio for GRM [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] in Paris on their 50 speaker acousmonium in March 2020. However, due to the pandemic that got postponed. It got postponed again this March, but hopefully that will still happen at some point in the future.
Courtesy of Kode9
Would you care to explain the story that runs through the installation in a little more detail?
It might be a bit presumptuous to call it a story in any conventional sense. Whatever it is, it’s told from the point of view of the lead programmer at Trancestar North on the game Astro-Darien, who is tasked with devising Sim-Caledonia – a simulation model of Scottish history – that through deep learning of past data purports to model future scenarios. The game engine is run on an AI named T-Divine based on the emulation of a leading Scottish historian’s brain. What you hear and see in the installation are excerpts from the T-Divine database, particularly the system struggling with the tensions embodied in the word ‘colony’; the disparity between the catastrophic attempt to colonise Darien (the role of settler colonialism in the birth of British capitalism, Scotland’s role in the slave trade in between Africa and the Caribbean) in the late 17th century and the promise of a future utopian space colony.
What, if anything, can Astro-Darien tell us about the times we live in today? Despite having this strong historical context, its themes of “the end of the UK, independence and the potential of something better” feel incredibly timely.
That’s for anyone encountering the installation to decide. Astro-Darien merely sets up some factual and fictional conditions which frame the ongoing final chapters of the UK.
Why did you choose to zoom in on Darien and that particular moment in Scottish colonial history?
At a time when the UK looks like it will soon end in its current configuration, it seemed relevant to look at what happened just before the Act of Union in 1707. Seems like a good time to be aware of and learn from historical mistakes.
Are you able to hint to who the “cast of historical figures played by synthetic Scottish voices” may be?
The founder of the Darien Scheme, William Paterson, King William of Orange who was more concerned to promote the business interests of English colonies and the East India Company, the programmer Guna and the AI T-Divine.
Courtesy of Kode9
Asides from Lawrence Lek, who else did you work on this with?
The installation has visual contributions from Lawrence Lek, Optigram and Silvia Kastel. It’s a combination of promo material from space companies, news reports, some video filmed at the proposed spaceport sites in the Highlands in between lockdowns last year, some digital animation from Lawrence and stuff I’ve grabbed off the internet.
What was your first introduction to Lawrence’s work?
He got in contact early 2015 to see if we wanted any music videos made. The first piece of his I saw was Unreal Estate in which the Royal Academy of the Arts is rendered as a 3D simulation.
You’ve worked with him in the past, and screened previous work at Corsica before, too. What makes you such compatible collaborators?
Among other things, we both share an interest in world-building – whether in sound, image or story.
What can we expect from the audio side of the installation?
To be honest, this project was only supposed to be an audio essay, but it mutated into a few different things due to the pandemic. It doesn’t really sound like much I’ve made before.
What is it about sci-fi that appeals to you?
Rotating the past and present at a different angle to open a potential vision of the future.
Why did you choose to host the installation at Corsica Studios?
Well, myself and Shannen SP have been curating installations on the dancefloor of Room 1 of Corsica Studios for our night Ø since 2017, so I’ve seen that room twisted into all kinds of shapes. The main reason is because during lockdown, Corsica have been running an online gallery – which exhibited my video essay Audio Virology, among many other works – and they had a slot before physically re-opening properly as a club in June and asked me if I had any projects. They are always a pleasure to work with.
Astro-Darien is open 22 May to 4 June at Corsica Studios. To visit, book a time slot here.