If you've been to Dada at any point this year, you've probably already encountered his work. He did the posters for the recent Sub-Culture events — Mykki Blanco, Scratcha DVA — which have a distinct aesthetic: unsettling, vaguely photographic 3D tableaus cast in a palette of post-apocalyptic-psychedelic pinks and purples. Actually, his vibe in general has struck a chord among forward-thinking electronic music promoters internationally. Besides rebooting Sub-Culture's visual identity for 2014, he's also done posters for New York's Lit City Trax, Chicago's Total Therapy, and LA's Fade to Mind.
In addition to his virtual work, Kim pushes internet art into the physical realm via his clothing label TIMEFLY. By "clothing" I mean outlandish cyber ponchos so future that the only person who could pull one off in Beijing is Shackup.
Kim's currently on a Beijing-bound train with a suitcase full of GPS screens and metal rods that will eventually become an installation at the Sub-Culture x RBMA x Lit City Rave tomorrow night at Dada. Looks insane (see below). Here Kim explains a bit about his online work, his installations, digital drugs, virtual gods, Taobao tech, et al...
SmartBeijing: So, stock questions first: Where are you from originally? How / when did you get to Shanghai?
Kim Laughton: I’m from Cornwall in the UK, and came to Shanghai to take photos for a book about the city before the Expo in 2010. I didn’t really plan to stay, but ended up doing so.
SmBJ: I know of your 3D imaging work and your clothes label TIMEFLY… how do you pay the bills? Do you do commercial work or do you make ends meet through selling your designs as clothing?
KL: Yes, I do commercial work (usually VJing corporate events) but it can be sporadic. Sometimes bills get paid late! TIMEFLY has yet to break even; we spent quite a bit testing fabrics etc to get it right at the beginning, which we’re now paying off.
TIMEFLY designs by Kim Laughton; more here
SmBJ: Can you talk a bit about your history as an artist? When did you begin working in the medium of computer-generated 3D images? What themes were you interested in exploring when you first started?
KL: Pretty early. My father saw that kind of thing as a productive use of the computer when I was young; getting a graphics card for Unreal meant putting some time into productive software. There were always demo CDs on magazines with programs like Bryce and POV-Ray, they were fun to play with — but at that age it was mainly playing with no real aim. 12-year-old boy themes like robots. I then largely forgot about it for a few years after university and focused on photography, and came back to it in order to make animation to VJ with.
SmBJ: You started to get involved with the Shanghai music/club scene through the ROM parties, right? How did those come together? What would you do for them? Seems like they all had a theme and rather elaborate installations, like this one where everyone's wearing some kind of '80s-future cyborg mask…
KL: ROM was icenine (MC & producer) and a few others who shared an interest in cyberpunk. We started with a night called Jump! on September 11, 2009 featuring the silhouette of the guy who fell from the towers flipped upside down in neon colours on the flyer. That was at Anar (now dead), then we moved to Dada and finally Shelter. We planned out the world behind the nights with detail — digital drug addictions, virtual gods, future propaganda — and then icenine would write songs and I’d prepare visuals accordingly. I expect the only people who actually got what was going on were in the room with us when we were working out what to do, and only if we didn’t drink too much.
retro-future cyberpunk vibes via ROM Augmentation at Dada Shanghai, April 2011
SmBJ: Before that, had you been involved with or interested in any particular music sub-cultures, either in China or elsewhere? What kind(s) of music do you get in to?
KL: Growing up in Cornwall I didn’t get a great deal of access to music outside the internet (Ishkur’s Guide & Napster), but when I went to London for university I was able to go out more. I’d always liked the idea of VJing, but didn’t want to do it from a bedroom in Cornwall — so waited for the opportunity to do it properly, which came in Shanghai with ROM. At the moment I’m really enjoying everything PC Music is doing.
SmBJ: -The reason I'm asking is a few of the US-based experimental electronic musicians I'm interested in now — Fatima Al Qadiri, Oneohtrix Point Never, Holly Herndon, for example — are incorporating visuals that have some aesthetic overlap with yours, reflecting hyper-clean, synthesized sounds with totally synthetic, 3D-rendered imagescapes. In your own work, especially designing posters and developing installations for events, how does the visual aspect augment or interact with the sound?
KL: I like that clean digital feel — for both audio and visual, it's refreshing because it's not trying to mimic anything else or go back in time. I guess the live video is the tightest interaction with the music on a night. Although I play with pre-animated clips, the way they are used allows for sync with the music, especially if it's the kind of music I had in mind when making them. The posters and other bits are less connected, but hopefully never too distant from the sound. The more cohesive the elements, the better the outcome.
SmBJ: You officially joined Sub-Culture this year. The posters you've designed so far all have a clearly defined aesthetic: dark purple / pink color scheme, vaguely dystopic imagery, 3D images playing with compositional ideas from studio photography. Aside from the obvious benefit of having an immediately identifiable palette to unify the events, can you explain your concept for the aesthetic and visual vocabulary of these Sub-Culture posters?
KL: A flyer/poster has a lot of work to do. The flyer has to connect with people who are likely to be interested in the music and give a taste of the world that the music (or perhaps the night) exists in. The best club nights are escapist, and the imagery involved can really build on that aspect. I do flyers for Sub-Culture and also Total Therapy and Lit City Rave events. Hopefully each has a different feel that adds a little to the night.
SmBJ: You've also been doing installations for the Sub-Culture gigs in Shanghai, and you're coming up to do one in Beijing this weekend. What do you have planned? Saw a photo on your Facebook, looks like a bunch of GPS screens and boom arm parts, like you're going to recreate that weird panopticon thing in the poster…
KL: Right, yes — in this case the installation will connect with the flyer. That thing hanging from the ceiling in Dada with any luck!
installation by Kim Laughton at Shelter, Shanghai, 2014
SmBJ: I've read elsewhere that you mine Taobao for parts to do these installations, and that there really isn't anywhere else in the world you could do it for so cheap. You also maintain a Taobao tumblr. What's some of the craziest shit you've found there?
KL: Yes, I don’t think there’s anywhere else that has the same kind of cheap tech as China, so that can make things viable that wouldn’t be elsewhere. Shops are generally really quick to deliver which helps make projects work at the last minute. As far as Taobao in general is concerned, it’s really hard to pick out some items that are stranger than others; you can browse for hours trying out different keywords and finding what a factory in Guangdong has made. It’s also about the presentation; a fairly normal product can be presented in amazing and bizarre ways. [Ed.'s note: copious examples here.]
SmBJ: As a visual artist, I have to assume that your work is "exhibited" mostly on the internet. Does that get weird? I know some people like Kingdom from Fade to Mind have found your work online and that's led to collaborations, but do you see any dark or strange sides of deep web culture through your practice?
KL: It’s never occurred to me as weird — online feels natural.
Not sure if there is still a need to separate web culture from human culture because virtually everyone (in the developed world) uses the net. Some people are strange and perhaps more open with that strangeness online than they would otherwise be. I think it will be exciting to see what people create as 3D software becomes easier. Looking at Second Life already gives a taste of that future.
Kim Laughton's future: digital drugs, virtual gods, corporate vapes, internet as meta-gallery
SmBJ: I think it's interesting that you take your visual work, which has an otherworldly, physically impossible aesthetic, and push it into the physical world, through clothing via TIMEFLY and these installations. Why do you mediate between the virtual and the physical like this? Why not just let your work live online?
KL: TIMEFLY was conceived as a way to bring some of the new images people were making online into physical space in a way that (hopefully) adds something — through the nature of the garment and the way they exist half offline, half on. There are a number of attempts to bring net art off the net, but it feels like many don’t think about why they should be doing it in the first place or what that transition does to the work. The club installations (as basic as they are) go towards creating an atmosphere that at the moment requires physical space to exist. I’d be excited to play more with VR, the first version of the Oculus Rift shows the really exciting potential in that area.
SmBJ: I can only imagine the enormous amount of time it takes to render something as elaborate as a 100rmb note or a Red Bull can in a still image, which makes looking at your video work from the last year almost impossible to fathom. How much of your time do you spend making images / GIFs / videos that aren't directly connected to Sub-Culture, TIMEFLY, or any other formal/commercial work? Of all your projects, what's your main focus as an artist?
KL: It’s a tough balance, too many different projects here and there can make it hard to focus on doing anything well. Commercial jobs are a real pain because very often a client doesn’t provide everything needed, and a seemingly simple project can drag on for weeks. The Sub-Culture nights are fairly self-contained, leaving the time in between free. At the moment I suppose my main focus is making things on the computer for an online audience.
SmBJ: And a stock closer: What are you working on now? What's next in 2014 and later? Where are you getting inspiration these days?
KL: I’d really like to push the installation thing further — to perhaps do something outside a club but with that kind of intensity that isn’t usually present in a gallery. Somewhere in between the two. I think there’s room to explore with bigger and more ambitious projects, but I’m not sure if China is the place? Then, further ahead, VR, especially when later-generation devices arrive.
Catch Kim Laughton's installation on Friday night at Dada at the Sub-Culture x Red Bull Music Academy event feat. Lit City Tracks boss J-Cush and Fade to Mind's Total Freedom.
First three photos by Shanghai-based photographer Andrew Rochfort.