Fiction and fact blurs as we cross the threshold with the 24-year-old musician, who’s catching the ear of Björk and Aphex Twin
Electronic artist Calum MacRae, working under his moniker Lanark Artefax, is at the tail-end of his four-day art installation The Absent Material Gateway. We’re meeting on a dark November Sunday evening at Glasgow’s Glue Factory, hours before his first hometown gig – the cathartic live musical reckoning of the exhibition. It’s taken 10 years of crafting productions in his bedroom, a literature degree, largely avoiding the dancefloors, and a now-international show to get to this point. “I realise, doing this live show, that this music is just better loud as fuck,” he affirms, the bass from below punching beneath our feet.
MacRae’s music, urgent and epiphany-sparking, has been championed by Lee Gamble, Aphex Twin, and Björk in DJ sets – all major, visceral influences for his forward-thinking, spacial techno. His sprawling work could be a dark recalling of Björk’s spiritual latest album Utopia. “Seeing Aphex Twin playing my music on a huge stage works, but it also works in a tiny basement with (Belgrade producer) Vladimir Ivkovic playing it at half speed,” he says. Our conversation moves into intense, fun tangents – the astrology resurgence, accounts like @TabloidArtHistory and @GothShakira’s fresh perspective, and the “powerful force” of memes. MacRae is a reflective and deep thinker, and it shows in the Absent Material Gateway, produced in collaboration with Red Bull Music Academy.
The Absent Material Gateway is a project conceived around a super-secret “new-materialist secular-millenarian type group” called the Gateway. MacRae, writer Maria Sledmere, and designer Martins Daknis claim to be documenting this group for the first time publicly in this exhibition, as well as on their densely beautiful website. “It sounds cult-ish,” he laughs, “but it’s not a cult.” The mysterious organisation (which is absolutely not seeking new members) began in the early 90s, in MacRae’s home – and artistic namesake – Lanark, Scotland. The site reflects the heaviness and personability of the ‘old internet’, rather than today’s controlled social networks. It’s populated by links to journal fragments that detail strange encounters, missing person reports, internet-fattened theories on doppelgangers and universal species, videos of scorpions devouring crickets, X-ray fragments. It feels endless, which is probably deliberate. Amid the glut of the occult, paranoia, and profoundly weird, the line between fiction and fantasy blurs. The major takeaway is the Gateway group’s claims to have found ‘other-terrestrial’ artefacts.
“The overarching ambition of the show is trying to articulate something that’s very big and concrete,” the producer explains. “I wanted to convey the real spiritual arc of the Gateway, crossing the threshold into something that’s maybe not of this world. We’ve created works that take their cue from edification, the sublime and new materialism: what looks organic but also synthetic, alien but also human.”
“I like having empty space, and feeling like I’m one of a handful of people doing something. I'm not just contributing to the garbage pile of stuff, you know?”
Inside the hybrid installation, the waiting area has a table of books on ritualism, Matrix theory and space. Visitors enter the exhibit and experience it alone. It’s dark, swathed in thick white smoke with a set of headphones and a solitary bench facing three cabinets. In the display cases sit knobbly, metallic objects that somehow look both prehistoric and extra-terrestrial, natural and divine. MacRae’s production fills the eerie space with manipulated techno and swelling, human-machine hybrid sounds – like a 60 person chapel choir riffing off of pre-Biblical alien texts.
After an inter-dimensional pummeling, it halts. Time and space feel completely suspended. “There’s a static, strange energy to it,” MacRae says, later. “It feels like an altar, where these things are in sleep mode.”
Allowing people to experience the exhibit individually creates the perfect mindset to confront the Gateway’s mysteries, and avoids the “theatrical” role-playing people do in galleries or nightclubs. “When you’re in a gallery, you’re so conscious of the other people around you and how they’re responding to everything, and that’s relative to you. You’re playing a role in these spaces – courteous, respectful. Here you’re alone, you can totally switch off or be totally disrespectful,” he laughs. “I think that’s what we need.”
The cathartic moment comes later, with the live show and a packed room. It first debuted last year at Poland’s experimental Unsound festival, masterminded alongside LuckyMe Studio’s Shaun Murphy (who’s worked with Kelela, Hudson Mohawke and more). After support from local acts Domestic Exile and Creep Woland, MacRae, performing from a box, exhibits the relentless, full-bodied glitchiness of Atlanta sound designer Richard Devine, and masters the spectral, delicate spaces like iconic experimental musician Susumu Yokota with the otherworldly electro magic of Drexciya or Autechre. But the set is profoundly Lanark Artefax’s own voice: it soars and shudders from relentless techno to galactic ambient and sublime neoclassical. My heart finds the stolen moments of rhythm in it when my head cannot.
“I wanted to reach that breakthrough, that elevated state where art used to be,” MacRae observes. Having grown up up Catholic, he explains how his work attempts to capture the unquestioning devotion that children who grow up religious have. As it ends, I spot a girl crying, and supporters at the front who danced with vigour throughout – even when the celestial beats were far out of reach – give out rapturous applause. It’s a triumphant Sunday night pilgrimage.
In a city that’s known for a vibrant, passionate techno scene, MacRae is bringing something fresh and disruptive. Glasgow’s been riding on a postmodern nostalgia trip in recent times – trance and Detroit techno run deep in its veins – but Lanark Artefax is staring straight into a near-future. “I’m not really into dance music at all really, and I’m not quite as locked into the Glasgow legacy as others are,” he says. “I owe it a massive debt – the people who work here, the labels, are amazing. I think, like anywhere, sometimes nothing can totally feel new, everything is referential.But people have a strong work ethic and are unpretentious, they like to get smashed and listen to music, which is great.”
Much of what MacRae does blurs the concept of reality and myth, light and shade, the everyday and the sublime, and his diligent thinking plays out across his creative output. “I like having empty space, and feeling like I'm one of a handful of people doing something. I'm not just contributing to the garbage pile of stuff, you know?”
“We’re at a very critical juncture in art, and in general, where we either keep just churning out more and more shite, or there'll be a breakthrough, and we'll actually have a new modernism.” That could be borne from the new materialism that MacRae, Sledmere, Murphy and Daknis have crafted with the Gateway, or something yet to even be uncovered or conceived.
Whities 011 is out now. Lanark Artefax will play Sonar festival, Barcelona June 14-16