conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 22.08.2023
QUBIBI: BEAUTY AND WORMS
VIDEO GAMES AND GENERATIVE ART
The Japanese artist qubibi is known on the Internet for his artwork of worms. That probably sounds strange. Just as astonishing is the life of qubibi, who actually didn't want to become an artist. He finally came to digital art through his circle of friends and video games. He is now one of the best-known and most successful artists in the field of generative art.
In conversation with Anika Meier, qubibi talks about his path to art, about beauty and worms, generative art, and exhibitions.
Anika Meier: You grew up playing video games. What did you like best about playing video games?
qubibi: I liked the feeling of looking from outside or entering a well-designed box filled with dreams. In other words, I felt as if there was an enclosed and established world while playing games. It's fun to play with and control them, but it's also fun to just watch them move on their own. Graphics described in a limited number of colors, music sounding with limited sounds. The components with restrictions in games seemed different from everything in everyday life. When I became an adult and got somewhat familiar with programming, I realized that the "world" in games was made by intertwining rules with elements like pictures and sound.
By the way, the games I'm familiar with are from 1980 to 2005. If I were born now, I might not have had the same impression as described above.
I think I've played almost all the games from that era. There were many captivating games, but the one that comes to mind immediately is Wizardry.
AM: Did playing video games have an influence on your artistic practice?
qubibi: It should have. If I hadn't encountered games, I might not have been involved in digital art.
When playing games, I always felt like I was facing the screen one-on-one. Probably because I often played games alone. So, even now, I'm not very interested in things that everyone enjoys together. Thanks to games, I got to know the presence of creators who create a world, pack it into cartridges or discs, and invite me into it. However, I never wanted to be a game developer. I think I became familiar with programming because I played games. Everything, from 'if' to 'random', connected back to those times.
AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
qubibi: I've never once thought that I wanted to be an artist 😅. I'm where I am today as a result of running away from things I couldn't do. I make a living by exchanging the things I create, so I am definitely an artist.
In the act of creating, I often feel like I'm taking something away, perhaps by consuming or borrowing. For instance, in a series of projects called MIMIZU, I reference worms. In doing so, I feel like I'm taking something away from worms. The existence of worms is incredibly vast, and the impact of a person like me taking something from them is minimal. Even though I try to be as respectful as possible to worms, I can't help but think that creating is a deeply karmic act.
AM: What does your artist name qubibi stand for?
qubibi: The name "qubibi" originally referred to my label, but it eventually became a name people associate with me personally. It refers to an artistic act between something and something else.
The name is a creative twist on the Japanese words "首 – kubi," meaning "neck," and "美 – bi," meaning "beauty." I replaced the 'k' in "kubi" with a 'q' for two reasons: the shape of the letter 'q' resembles a neck, and the inverted symmetry between 'q' and 'b' struck me as symbolic. In essence, "qubibi" represents the intersection of two distinct parts of the body.
By the way, in Japanese, the connection between the hand and the arm is called "Te-kubi," and the connection between the foot and the leg is called "Ashi-kubi." I believe you can understand that these terms refer to the junction between one thing and another.
AM: You are very open about your past. Here’s an excerpt of your biography that you’ve shared online: "Got into music. Quit point drawing. Bought a Mac. Met some weird people. Said goodbye. Unknowingly entered a bad content design firm and quit immediately. Was scared for days after I quit because the company got hold of me. Worked and quit a number of jobs. At age 21, I discovered the fun of design." Does your autobiography influence your art?
qubibi: Of course it does. For example, I learned various things from those "weird people". I became engrossed in music because I was influenced by them. I started to watch movies and read books, and I bought a Mac. They were so weird that they disappeared, but I wouldn't be where I am now without them. They were all in their 20s and 30s. I didn't understand their complex talks, but when I listened to them chat like one listens to a radio, sometimes they suddenly asked me something.
I pretended to understand them. I think they understood that I was not really understanding. I learned a lot from them between the ages of 15 and 18. Today, I wonder if I would understand better what they said back then. It's suspicious. Would I now have a better eye than them? It's suspicious. They might have said, 'You seem like you'd like Buñuel.' Looking back, it might have been a random comment, but it gave me a clue to explore various things. After watching a film, I would be asked, 'So, how was it?' It was like a test. 😅
I consider myself fortunate to have had such experiences. Encounters with various people and environments in life that shape me are mere coincidences. Although one can infer and associate, I think it's just good luck in essence.
AM: When I think of maybe your most well-known projects, LEFTOVERS and the MAGICAL DOOR, they are literal and metaphorical at the same time. Does art need to have a message?
qubibi: The necessity of a specific message in my artwork varies depending on the perspective. For viewers of my artwork, I believe a specific message isn't necessary. However, when it comes to the creation process, a message becomes essential. I could say they serve as guideposts or even as a master-servant relationship, and having them allows me to make judgments in my creative process, like "This path is wrong."
In this context, the message might be replaced by a theme or symbol, which is indispensable in creating my artwork. The message might eventually become the title of the artwork. In other words, even if there isn't a direct message I want to convey to the viewer, I believe they can infer it from the title.
AM: Your work is abstract but sometimes figurative, with, for example, worms and birds. Your color palette has warm and earthy tones. Which role does nature play in your art?
qubibi: Speaking specifically of mimizu, worms are fundamental organisms within our ecosystem. As Darwin once said, the very soil we tread upon has been tilled by these worms. I believe most people are aware of the deep connection worms have with nature. In other words, even if I wasn't consciously thinking about nature, through the worm, those were presented as the vast expanse of nature that lay beyond.
If we delve into the topic of color, the experience of receiving word or presence "mimizu / worm" in itself led to various colors being associated in my mind in relation to this artwork.
Why are the "mimizu" represented in reds, purples, and teal? While I won't go into the specifics of how each color corresponds, for me, mimizu has become a reason to accept and integrate these colors. It also serves as a guidepost for exploring new colors.
The "warm and earthy tones" you mentioned in your question could also be a perspective birthed from the worm, don't you think?
AM: Your style as an artist is very distinctive. It is nearly impossible not to know an artwork is from you once one has seen one of them. How did you develop your unique style as an artist?
qubibi: It isn't intentional. If it appears that way, it might be because my internal boundaries—my moment-to-moment decisions about what I don't like—are more unique than others. Or perhaps it's the result of being honest with myself about those feelings. It sounds good when I put it this way, but essentially, it's the end result of continually rejecting and running away from things.
But it should form something akin to the contours of a country on a map.
AM: Buddhism and Hinduism are references in some of your artwork. You were born in Japan and still live there. What inspires you?
qubibi: It’s the question of which aspects of Japan inspire me, right? Just as our bodies are made up of the food we eat daily, most of my memories are formed by living in Japan and its culture. So, I believe I draw inspiration from all aspects, but I've never intentionally sought out these inspirations. Those seep out naturally.
AM: Does the history of art and the history of generative and digital art have an influence on what you are interested in creating as an artist?
qubibi: I believe they do influence me. However, I tend to distance myself from familiar things. I can't remain ignorant, though; for example, if I knew about paintings, I'd like to know about music. Additionally, when I'm in the creative process, I strive as much as possible to eliminate my ideals and aspirations based on my own criteria. Because it's embarrassing.
By the way, watching people play catch from a distance is fun. And creating those people playing catch using programming and then watching that is even more enjoyable. I wonder if I, who created it, am the only one who feels this way?
AM: You have a background in graphic design. How did you learn about NFTs and blockchain and get started in the NFT space?
qubibi: I learned through trial and error. I started with the now-defunct Tezos marketplace Hicetnunc. I found out about it through a tweet from James Paterson, whom I admire. Starting with Tezos allowed me to go through a lot of trial and error and get familiar because it doesn’t really need gas fees.
AM: Were you interested in NFTs from the beginning, or were you skeptical? What convinced you in the end?
qubibi: I've been into digital art since before NFTs, but these artworks were almost impossible to sell. To actually make a living, I had to rely on compensation from corporate client work. Perhaps many digital artists were leading such lives.
As mentioned, I learned about NFTs from James Paterson's tweet. Including him, many digital artists I admire suddenly started posting promotional tweets. And they seemed to be rejoicing with statements like "Sold out!" Being a cynic, I was quite perplexed by this. The whole concept of non-fungibility was puzzling. One day, while grumbling about NFTs during a campfire gathering with friends, my friend yugop said, "You're unique, so you should embrace NFTs and make a fortune." Despite rejecting it that evening, the next morning I was filled with enthusiasm and minted on Hicetnunc within a few days. If this friend wasn't someone special to me, my decisions might not have changed.
AM: Is code your medium or a tool?
qubibi: It's a tool.
AM: Are you waiting for accidents when working with code and incorporating them into your work?
qubibi: It's mostly by chance. Not just limited to generative art or coding, a significant part of my creative process involves continually spinning the wheel until I hit a lucky number. The finished product often feels like a fluke that I didn't create myself. To begin with, the very inception of a project is usually brought about by chance.
AM: You create digital art with code, and at the same time, the physical presence of your artworks in the form of large-scale prints is how you like to display your artworks in exhibitions.
qubibi: I think there are several reasons, but primarily, many of my collectors want to display the NFTs they've acquired in their rooms. For that purpose, printed works are ideal. With printed artworks, there's no need for a dark room; they're portable; I don't have to consult with an electronics store to reference the size of TVs; and there's no need to crop the artwork to a 16:9 aspect ratio.
AM: Is it a difference for you if you know that you are creating artworks that will be on view in a physical exhibition? Do you think viewers experience work in different ways online and offline?
qubibi: If I know from the outset that artworks will be physically exhibited, I often create with that in mind, especially if displaying multiple artworks. There are considerations unique to physical exhibits, like the intensity of colors and the balance between artworks. While this may be understood by many, I believe that due to online exposure, offline or physical experiences have gained even more value. I think NFTs have played a significant role in this shift.
AM: Thank you!