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Kode9 audiovisual Escapology

Insight: ‘Escapology’ by Kode9, the generative nature of sonic fiction

Text by Agata Kik

Escapology, Kode9 (2022). Video Still
Escapology, Kode9 (2022). Video Still

Escapology was initially conceived as a soundtrack album to an audio essay Astro-Darien, composed and produced by Steve Goodman, also well known as Kode9, a Scottish electronic music artist, DJ with a PhD in philosophy, and founder of the Hyperdub record label. Astro-Darien is a universe of a game-like narrative, speculating on potential scenarios that could have been developed by Edinburgh’s video game development company Rockstar North Limited if, instead of their interest in American street life, which resulted in Grand Theft Auto, they had rather simulated the divisionist future of the UK. 

Astro-Darien directly deals with the break-up of Britain on the level of a national narrative, playing out scenes and scenarios of the lands saturated by British Brexit or Scottish pro-independence political movements and the all-encompassing environmental apocalypse. Hypothesising further on a silenced Scottish space race to build rocket launch sites in his home country, Kode9 envisions an extreme exodus, which he describes as a carefully constructed escape from the decaying corpse of the British Empire

Such a deserter strategy, that overthrows colonial tendencies, is all the way anti-capitalist. Akwugo Emejulu explains the correlation between colonialism and capitalism in ‘Fugitive Feminism’, referring to Saidiya Hartman’s writings, claiming that (…) since enslaved people were fungible – commodified and reduced to property – to be a fugitive is, in a sense, to be anti-capitalist. The writer then continues to explain that (A) fugitive is one who escapes the routine material violence of the slave economy and the symbolic violence of our status as the non-human other, from which whiteness and humanity draw their meaning and purpose. In other words, fugitivity is escapology.

Escapology, a 15-track colour LP, was released on July 2022 on Hyperdub label, marking Kode9’s striking return after a seven years break. Full of sci-fi swooshes and androgynous AI voices, eerie electronic exclamations, machine clatter, weaponizing whistling, ambient beating and rhythmic clicking, the album traps the listener in a video game-like environment. With no second to spare in there, the sonic story stages a quest after the promise of the extra-terrestrial escape.

Cosmic chimes are contrasted with digital alarm beeps, while deep drones and ghostly gonging glissandos envelope bouncing buzzes of screen-captured sonic creatures. An author of the book ‘Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear’ also, Kode9 masterfully manipulates the affective power of sound, scattering each signal with meticulously calculated care. The rich timbres, layered textures and sliding pitches of microtonal electronic phrases perfectly respond to the glowing graphics by Kode9’s long-term collaborator artist Lawrence Lek (alongside With show visuals from Optigram, Bianca Hic and Kode9 himself). The project is as vividly visual as it is ambitious as an audio album.  

Having released soundtracks for art exhibitions in the past, Hyperdub has dealt with sound in the utmost interdisciplinary way. In a similar manner, ‘Escapology’ has transformed itself from a concept of sonic fiction to an idea of a performance diffusing Astro-Darien in Paris in March 2020 for INA-GRM on the Acousmonium at La Maison de la Radio, a 50-speaker sound system built by musique concrete composer François Bayle in 1974. In 2021 the work also acted as a 3-screen audio-visual installation at Corsica Studios in London, and from this year on, it is pressed into a vinyl form that has been audio-visually live performed too. 

As a complex interdisciplinary art project, having been presented in different formats ‘Escapology’ delivers the Astro-Darien story diversely, rewriting history in an innovative way, using fiction to retell and reenact the Darien story, so that it conversely ends with a constructive political paradigm shift. As Kode9 explains, “the Astro-Darien universe is programmed by a Panamanian games designer. She codes it to specifically be xenophilic, to ally with outsiders and aliens, pay its historical debts.

In the late 17th century, Scotland aimed to colonise Panama, and its failed attempt attained the name of the Darien Scheme. As a result, the country went bankrupt, and the catastrophe soon after gave way to the currently known UK. Colonisation continued after the Acts of Union, while Scotland and England took over half of the planet. Astro-Darien universe is, in a way, a recovery, which reverses past crimes, using fiction as a healing methodology, imagining a different, better world that could be a reversal of the written histories. 

Kode9 simulates a utopian act, where it is the elite that says on the damaged earth, while everyone else abandons their worldly homes and departs into the cosmic unknown in search of a new land to be inhabited anew, in a ‘not-known-to-the-human-yet-way’. In this way Astro-Darien is in a dialogue with the grammar of Black feminist futurity, to which Akwugo Emejulu refers in ‘Fugitive Feminism’ as a “performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must…”. ‘Escapology’ in a sonic way closes the cycle of a narrative for the aquarian age type take-off.  

(Images courtesy of the artist)

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