A rhizome is certainly the best image for illustrating and understanding Qubo Gas's artistic hybridization. A rhizome, from which a network of roots and aerial adventitious stems grows, is a moving process with neither beginning nor end. There is something more botanical than "Deleuzien" about the practice of this trio from Lille created in 2000 and that makes writing a genealogical text impossible. Qubo Gas's drawn or printed images convey the bursting pleasure of multiplying directions, shunning hierarchies among mediums, upsetting arrangements, favouring contacts; any description of their universe can only be a snapshot. In the traditional Chinese garden, one is unable to grasp its composition as a whole, except mentally; one's eyes get caught up in the movement, the fantasy, led on by dissymmetry and irregularity.
Qubo Gas's art can be recounted and articulated in its symbolic or referable systems, but its multiple, unbridled, imaginative facets make one think of a sedge garden with running roots painted by a master of kakemono. They need a glossary, a set of clues that would convey their rhizome-like method, a little like a breeding-ground for sentences and qualifiers.
*form: Both Morgan Dimnet and Laura Henno have perfected their artistic training at Le Fresnoy, a school specialized in the most sophisticated techniques of digital and film images. Data processing is one of the main components of their first years of collaboration. By connecting a quite "hand made" graphic style with Jeff Ablézot's sound technology, the three of them created a digital garden Shimmy Shimmy Grass in 2003-2004, and a digital fresco, Uki-yo, the following year. In 2006 their publishing firm, Smalticolor, playfully produced a software program of drawing animated with sound, Crayon Magic.
*practice: the vocabulary of the shapes, pencil drawn, coloured, painted on paper or on the screen, forms the initial substratum, an extremely fertile ground from which technically complex, digital spaces have been composed. For Shimmy Shimmy Grass, one hundred and fifty species have been listed, living exclusively in a digital space just for the period of an exhibition; they appear, grow, then wither according to the surrounding climate. Advanced technology and simple drawings are hybridized in this synthetic garden, – Qubo Gas's emblematic work – rewarded at the Split (Croatia) digital art festival. Their art enriches electronics with poetic sensations; from artifice springs the feeling of wild nature, of a touching ecosystem.
*making: The hybridization comes from practice itself, from expertise based as much on computer operations – such as copy and paste –, as on basic drawings with large coloured felt pens. The act of taking a part of an image or a text and pasting it somewhere else or onto another document can be seen, literally, in Qubo Gas's latest works. In the mural (Dainty Dotty) in the Anne Barrault gallery, a "forest" of trees, bushes and other plants, line-drawn and meticulously cut out, ends up pasted on the wall, interfering with the flatness of the drawing. In the same way as one works with successive layers, thicknesses or surfaces when composing an image with Photoshop, the exuberant collage Mille-feuilles is made up of leaves blending together, as well as play with words in dozens of colourful bits of paper, like as many cuttings in an uprooted garden.
*style: Qubo Gas trail their pens from very archaic drawings to very refined Japanese-like features, without unspecified information or references, from limpid to extremely codified language, and both escape us with the same certainty. Flatness, the absolute rejection of any attempt at volume or depth, is the unifying principle of this three-handed stylistic hybridization.
In this continuous interplay, Qubo Gas give shape to their drawings by digitally printing them on paper, delicate Duratrans, without excluding unique drawings on vellum or directly on the walls of a gallery or of an art centre. This three-handed art twines and untwines filters, sometimes straight from the hand to the surface, sometimes scanned, using the techniques and prowess of software, mixed with sounds, with movements. Qubo Gas do not submit or limit their practice of drawing to only one physical form. Thanks to a mobility that has nothing to do with indecisiveness, the group expresses a temporal and spatial quality. Their most recent landscapes – Bullbaba, Kaohikaha or GrrrimleyLand – operate like snapshots. Without the two-dimensional constraint of a sheet of paper, the lines construct, as surely as with a computer program, a dynamic environment extending far beyond the frame.
Shimmy Shimmy Grass refuses any physical contact; it withdraws during the promenade, caged behind a translucent wall, protected by its pixels. Qubo Gas's virtual garden, started in 2003-2004, is something forbidden, something wild, well-protected weeds. Hortus conclusus is the Renaissance enclosed garden, symbol of Mary's virginity, a picture of paradise, a perfection. In spite of its disorderly and impure aspect, Shimmy Shimmy Grass is the result of perfect organization. With its one hundred and fifty specimens and as many sounds, this garden lives with climatic uncertainties thanks to a sophisticated program which collects real-time weather forecast data and regulates the growth of this plant microcosm. This forbidden garden conceals an infinite potential: ferns, mushrooms, weeds grow freely, at random. This mad garden, the result of precise arrangement of data, can permit a rigorous, fragile natural growth subjected to temperature, sunshine and hygrometry. This unique, transitory garden, in situ, gives its fleeting fertility and exuberance to an ideal infinity. If it can be understood as the fantasy of nature reconstructed and interpreted according to a science-fiction scenario, Qubo Gas's enclosed garden is above all the surface for spiritual projection, the conception of a mental space of world reconfiguration.
Qubo Gas's members draw like calligraphers, with pleasure in lines, an art of the line that has written landscapes, plant worlds in movement. Their alphabet is as related to an aesthetic of the Extreme-Orient as it is to naïve and childish forms; this gives birth to poetical compositions to be read rather than to be looked at. But the decorative side of the calligraphic refinement implies a staticity incompatible with the group's moving and dynamic universes.
The trio started working together in 2000, when the contemporary French scene at that time rediscovered drawing, the "hand-made", a taste for expertise, presumed authenticity. A practice also attached to a generation with no means of production, for whom drawing remains a means of expression easy to produce and to circulate. Qubo Gas embarked on drawing by its digital conversion and its being set in motion in a rather anachronistic digital complexity. They were able to transform this novelty in 2005 when drawing became commonplace, nearly out of date. By coming back to pure drawing, simply on paper, by assuming its uniqueness when many artists were turning to desktop publishing with a view to multiplicity, Qubo Gas outsmarted the situation and avoided the weariness of this medium. By taking possession of the walls of the Anne Barrault gallery, they have changed the dynamic, unstable, eclectic, explosive character of their graphic digital practice, even while preserving it. Shattering all structure, Dainty Dotty invades the surface in order to proliferate still more, like a spontaneous garden or a cross-angle landscape, a synthesis, a temporary and temporal blending of various tools, techniques and forms worked out by each member of the group.
A world in motion
Uki-yo, a digital musical evolutional fresco, governed by an algorithm and created in 2004, takes its name from one of the major forms of Japanese art developed between the 17th and the 19th centuries, Ukiyo-e, literally "images of the floating world". These images can be the portraits of beautiful young women with erotic connotations, of kabuki actors as well as landscapes, mainly at Hokusai's instigation in the 19th century. At that time, there was an exceptional passion for the genre; the frontiers of the Empire were closed but that did not diminish the Japanese's liking for travelling to exotic countries.
If Qubo Gas's digital fresco explicitly refers to that period through its functioning and its title, formally it is more akin to the structure of the Chinese landscapes of the 12th century. Oppositions between shapes and voids, floating worlds with no centred perspective, no illusion of depth, unfolding laterally, the main line of the fresco projected on a milky glass surface, They inspired 17th century painted Japanese.
Uki-yo is a random perpetual landscape governed by a set of simple luxuriant forms, oscillating between black leaves and acidulous multicoloured flashes. The harmonious and gracious unrolling, mixed with electronic sounds, is interrupted, torn, and collapses for mysterious reasons hidden from the spectator wrapped up in his contemplation. Placidity and dumb rapture are not concerns for Qubo Gas; they enjoy making of the Japanese haiku, a seventeen-syllable epigram, and a troublemaker in this idyllic-looking landscape. The haiku functions traditionally as punctuation for haibun, poetical narratives often meant for travel stories; but here, some of the few well-balanced poetical words act as troublemakers in the algorithmic program based on the principle of keywords associated with forms. When the latter come across the word in a haiku, there are dissensions and discordant sounds. Then the landscape goes back to its slow, continuously changing lateral motion. Devastating fantasizing is on the move with no sentimentality, aware of the uncertainty of its course.
A feeling of disquiet, of a collapse, of a tragedy arises from Qubo Gas's beautiful graphic compositions. Still images on a white surface, a wall, a sheet of paper, a screen, maintain a pressure that goes far beyond intention. The course of the drawings or actions is agitated by torments that prevent the works from being just pretty. There is no rest for the eye in this suspended time. Bullbaba, Spotted Vert, Criply Moonteen, Cripple Crow, Gribble, five panorama-sized drawings, have given birth to whirling dark forms, without their being explicit, but that agitate an intelligible surface, inviting one to an atmospheric journey stretched on sublime paths in its classic conception. In a precarious balance, on the brink of breaking.
Plants and other vegetable elucubrations crawl, are spontaneously generated and develop whatever their composition: dwarf trees, ferns, creeping sedge, mushrooms, luminous spores, this invasion is not necessarily pleasant. The chromatic colonization of the white background is accompanied by a loud, invasive march as the process continues. When Qubo Gas get to walls, their method is infallible, halfway between compulsory exercise of projecting and a free, unrestrained but serious program, at the extremes of the logical. The wall is a meadow assailed by a universe ready to blossom and multiply which, even if drawn, goes on being noisy. The tentacular venture takes up every flat surface, not to anchor an illusion but to build a parallel dreamlike chemical world. Qubo Gas's imaginative floating landscapes, acidulous psychotropic visions, do not try to reproduce some hallucinogenic effect, or feign description, but to assert themselves in showing a world in motion, elusive by snatches, as if the computer no longer mastered an unbridled outbreak of pop-ups on the screen, untimely windows, an adventive artificial principle for a new way of gardening.
Originally the landscape was necessarily a painting, a piece of countryside thought picturesque, worthy of being painted. Often pastoral, carefully composed in a studio in past centuries, landscape painting became a major genre in the nineteenth century with Romanticism. Halfway between scientific observations and flights of spirituality, paintings and drawings sketched more and more hostile territories, in the pursuit of the sublime. An emotion fed on awe, an imperious feeling defined by Edmund Burke for whom mountains and oceans were interesting subjects.
Then photography took possession of the landscape. More pragmatic, it was intended for surveying territories, documenting the world. In early modernity, realistically representing a territory was out of place, and for a while landscape painting was confined to the documentary genre. It was saved in the sixties thanks to space travel; the earth was seen with a fresh eye. Artists left galleries to confront nature – then called environment. They travelled, measured, sculpted places, playing with the elements, contributing to the comeback of landscape painting. Photographers such as Stephen Shore started walking, recording their context. The picturesque is no longer what it was. Landscapes of suburbs, poor horizons, the landscape as it is, without special treatment. Where are we? The landscape answers to this question bluntly. It is no longer as beautiful; the artist no longer aspires to a pleasant aesthetic. In the era of globalization, faster journeys require more than ever that the landscape testify to man's presence on earth. The artist's eye, the frame it affixes to territories, becomes a landscape. Is it enough? Sometimes; but today's artists also like to add a critical eye.
In Qubo Gas's cracked landscapes, the beautiful animated or floating images hide a violence that breaks with a probable indulgent visual confrontation. Luxuriance becomes an aggressive, inexorable invasion, acidulous, irritating colours are striking, naïve forms conceal real dexterity. Like a carnivorous plant or its clever synthetic version, the drawn landscape or botanical worlds are always very close to being pretty, without yielding to prettiness, consciously ironical. Far from film surveys, from incredible expeditions to the other side of the world, or from quasi-scientifically conceived machines flourishing in art at the beginning of this century eager for sensations and information in a narcissistic reaction, the drawings of these dual landscapes offer the sensation of simple landscapes, a geographical shift going through neither s(t)imulation nor reproduction.
Like a substitute landscape or a botanical garden, the graphic imaginings present a moving territory where one can wander as if entering an unknown land, with no superficial, old-fashioned, insipid romanticism, but you shiver as if approaching a dark forest.
Something sublime in a bottle, some gallery climatology, panoramas by proxy, with not an ounce of nostalgia for a nature that is not necessarily the subject. Above all, the "qubic" landscape is synthesis, synthetic, a work of the mind.
Benedicte Ramade is an art critic based in Paris.
Net Art commission by Qubo Gas exploring a virtual archive of collage work. An interactive graphic composition made of random drawn landscapes.