conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 06.12.2022
SKYE NICOLAS: LIVING IN A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
NOSTALGIA AND PIXEL PAINTINGS
I will never forget the feeling of going for a walk for the first time with a Walkman and listening to a mixtape of my favorite songs. I must admit, it was a strange mix: Roxette and Nirvana, Silverchair, and things that were popular on the radio in the 1990s. The artist Skye Nicolas manages to bring these feelings back with his pixel paintings and readymades. It's not just seeing Walkman in his art. It's the song lyrics and the pixels. His art feels like a warm security blanket you didn't know you might have needed.
Skye and I met on the Internet a few years ago when Clubhouse was popular during the pandemic. People started speaking about NFTs, excitement was in the air. Skye and I were often in the same small Clubhouse rooms, getting involved in heated conversations about NFTs and the history of digital art. At some point, we figured out that we would much rather spend time with each other discussing 90s grunge music and playing guitar.
For EXPANDED.ART, we pretended we were back on Clubhouse and discussed urgent topics such as nostalgia and pixel paintings, crypto art and the metaverse, nature, and video games.
Anika Meier: Hello Skye!
Skye Nicolas: Before you called, I was listening to music, and Nena’s "99 Luftballons" started playing on YouTube. Isn’t that crazy? The algorithms are getting smarter! (laughs) This might sound strange to you, but I get a bit teary-eyed when I hear that song. Nostalgia at work? Perhaps, but it’s not that simple.
For me, it’s one of those profound moments when a song changes meaning over time. Go over the song’s lyrics and juxtapose them with the current situation with Russia: the onset of a new cold war, the talk of a possible nuclear attack. From this perspective, it’s no longer an ordinary pop song—it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was first released forty years ago, in 1983. It’s this sort of strange skewing of timelines that permeates my work. You’re German, so your association with the song would be different. A well-known German pop singer's iconic 1980s song, probably relegated to birthday parties and camp memories, but it's a magical song to me. As far as I can remember (as soon as the opening lyric lines come in), I feel as if aliens are speaking to me! (laughs) Hearing an unfamiliar language mixed in with an amazing sound—the track is full of atmosphere—as a child, it might as well have come from another planet! As someone who understands music production, I can now attribute most of that to the technical brilliance and quality of the songwriting and recording. The distinct reverb used for the vocals, the phrasing of the lyrics, the unique sounds that were layered in the instrumentation—the song transports me back to my childhood instantly. When I refer to nostalgia as a textural experience, "99 Luftballons" is one I always cite as a good example of this.
There is this thing called a "paracosm," which I’ve been thinking about lately. A "paracosm" is a detailed imaginary world often created by children with a vivid imagination and an unbridled creative impulse. Some of these fantasy worlds can feel so real that one can mistake them for memories of the past. The seduction becomes even more powerful when fantasy fuses with emotions activated by nostalgia. Throughout the years, I come back to the same places in my dreams. Just to be clear, these places have never existed in my physical reality. I’ve come to the conclusion that these places occupy the same locality in my dreams, and I’d be able to map them out if I took the time to do so. There are so many things we have yet to understand in learning about the power of our mind and how we experience reality. With the advancement of technology, it appears that we are on the verge of integrating with these other forms of reality, or at the very least flirting with them... for the time being.
AM: How did you know that I wanted to ask you a first question about what makes you feel nostalgic? (laughs) How do you define nostalgia?
SN: There are moments I feel like I’m living in a science fiction novel because I seem to travel between timelines with ease. People will often say: "Oh, that was so long ago." I just don’t see it like that.
Britpop in the mid-1990s gave birth to the New York post-punk scene in the early 2000s, which marked the beginning of a new life for me in New York. When I say I feel like a time traveler, I feel it’s as if I exist in all those places at once. The past and present collide, and I don’t feel as if there’s a discrepancy traversing between timelines.
Since I was a kid, I've always been sensitive about absorbing material, whether it was music or something visual, paying attention to the finer details. When I recall the packaging of products that excite me, for example, I can tell you exactly what that feels like. It's almost like having synesthesia, or when a sommelier analyzes the bouquet of wine. There’s a symphony of details when recalling these experiences and this is what I mean when I say that nostalgia is a textural experience.
Certain objects, ephemera, music, films, and other content that were popular during one's childhood will always transport you back to that time and place. For most people, nostalgia is a trip into the past, a reminiscence of happier times, but there’s more to it. Nostalgia is not just a longing for an idealized past but a blueprint that allows us to better understand the powerful forces and events that have shaped our present selves.
The word’s etymology is derived from two words: "nastos" = homecoming, and "algos" = longing. In 1688, a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer observed this feeling in Swiss soldiers who were fighting abroad and were homesick during the war, and these soldiers reminisced on conditions before the war. This is medically known as "the melancholy of war," and it makes us reflect on the inner conflict we are fighting within ourselves that activates nostalgia as a psychological means of coping, a survival mechanism that attempts to deal with whatever trauma the present has inflicted. As a response, we tend to hyperbolically exalt specific memories of our childhood. And very much like a computer program, it rewires our brain, reformatting it to highlight those memories that bring us comfort.
Of course, too much focus on the past and an unattended present have their consequences, which is why pop culture and entertainment are very addictive as they provide content that can be consumed instantly. In healthy doses, nostalgia can be a warm security blanket that allows us to heal, giving us the strength to take another step forward when dealing with anxieties about the future.
AM: What’s your earliest memory of art?
SN: The first art book that was ever given to me was about the art of Paul Klee. It was a present from my mum when I was about five years old. The book is part of the "Art for Children" series by Ernest Raboff. Looking back, it was my first lesson in expressionism, cubism, surrealism, and an introductory primer on various painting techniques. Even at an early age, I felt that I naturally understood color theory, a subject that Klee is known to have extensively written about in his essays and lectures. The book opened up a dream world I could escape to, and it was like coming home to a place that felt familiar.
This feeling of belonging was made even more evident after my mother gifted me my first set of watercolors and oil pastels. I felt like I was speaking some kind of internal language through my drawings, and I'd emulate paintings I’d discover in the pages of encyclopedia volumes. I could somewhat feel the visual information I was absorbing. I was able to communicate with the birds, the fish, the animals, and the children who were integral characters in Klee’s paintings.
My mother taught literature at the state university. She was an artist herself, and a stage actress in her youth. Her younger brothers are iconic musicians; they are The Bee Gees of the Philippines, called VST & Company. I joined them on a mini tour in 2004 as one of the lead singers. It was a fantastic reliving of my childhood because I used to see them on television growing up, and suddenly there I was performing on stage with them. Everyone in their youth at some point dreams of being a rock star, right? You pick up the guitar as a teenager, and you daydream being on stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. It’s pretty incredible that it became a reality throughout several stages of my life. From my 1990s teeny pop band in Manila to my indie rock band in New York during the early 2000s.
AM: It was okay for me to just play the guitar in my bedroom. I still have my Paul Reed Smith, covered with stickers, and took it out of the case for the first time in many years after one of our long phone calls about music. You grew up in the Philippines and moved to New York in the late 1990s. How did you go from music to art? And what led you from the Philippines to New York?
SN: I’ve always grown up around showbiz and creative energy. My uncles are music icons who were instrumental in shaping Philippine pop music. Their friends who hung out at my grandmother’s house became recording artists, producers, and actors. My mother went to school with individuals who became legendary Filipino film directors, poets, and literary giants. My godmother was a philanthropist, newspaper publisher, and a patron of the arts. That was the kind of environment I grew up in.
Sometime in the mid-90s, I auditioned to join the talent pool of the country’s biggest television network and movie studio. The acting workshop facilitated by the talent center is where I met my bandmates for what would become a teeny pop band–I was assigned to be the lead guitarist. We were the only local band that would guest on popular television shows without an album to promote. (laughs) After our first TV appearance, my life had somewhat changed overnight, and performing whether in front of an audience or camera crew gave me the confidence I never had. Though I experienced a momentary taste of moderate fame, we disbanded after only two years before we could record our first album.
Prior to the bright set lights and television appearances, I had already been an avid fan of the Philippine underground music scene during the late-80s. I became friends with members of seminal bands of the era, some of whom would later become 90s icons. The cool kids went to art school at the University of the Philippines, known to have the best fine arts program in the country. As students, we learned about painting and sculpture during the day, and at night we either played gigs at school events or went to see friends play at a club where all the top bands congregated.
I don’t think it was a conscious decision to become an artist. I simply felt that I was not good at anything else that wasn’t creative. Throughout elementary school and high school, I had always been known as the guy who could draw and won art competitions. That was my superpower as a shy and awkward kid who spoke very little. In college, art felt like home because those I looked up to and respected for their creativity went to art school.
For the record, the arts program was quite difficult to get into as the classes were limited to a few students. Only a handful of the hundreds of hopeful applicants were accepted each year. Though I was having the time of my life at uni, I had always dreamt of escaping. Financial hardship and several brushes with death make one dream of a better life elsewhere.
AM: And what led you from the Philippines to New York?
SN: When the opportunity presented itself, the U.S. seemed like an obvious move. I arrived in New York in the fall of 1997. Walking around Tompkins Square Park, St. Mark’s Place, and the Bowery made me think of Basquiat’s exploits in the East Village. I became a regular at the iconic Coffee Shop at Union Square, a spitting distance from The Factory where Warhol produced most of his silkscreen paintings.
I was intoxicated by the pulsating late-90s vibe and all the romanticized stories of the city that had inspired many legendary creatives who came to New York to create. I wanted to live like my heroes, who stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, working on nothing else but their art. It was at the tail end of the city’s last great party era. Instead of just hearing stories about the myths told by larger-than-life personalities in books and documentary films, I soon found myself part of a scene much like Warhol’s Studio 54 days, but with different nightclubs, different music, and a different attitude. Tunnel, Limelight, Bungalow 8, Don Hill’s, Brownies–each night was an adventure. It was a chance to meet all kinds of characters, both famous and obscure, all working on some creative project. Meeting and partying with legendary photographer Peter Beard remains one of my fondest memories from those times, a uniquely New York moment.
It was perhaps the last breath of sex, drugs, and rock 'n’ roll before the scene exhausted itself, rolled over, and died. Whether I was a naive young immigrant infatuated with the city and its beautiful dwellers or a decadent libertine in the making, I thought, "This is it! This is the place. This is what Basquiat and Warhol were doing!" (laughs)
AM: And when did you think: "This is it! This is what I am doing with digital art!"
SN: Memories of early video games, whether on the Atari 2600, Apple II, or Nintendo Famicom, inspire the motifs that comprise the aesthetics of my digital work. Early internet culture – websites, chat programs, animated gifs and videos, opened up a galaxy of creative possibilities. It was in the early 2000s when I started remixing all kinds of digital content and began experimenting with digital media the moment the office where I worked as a web designer gave me a laptop.
Since then, I’ve always observed the peripheries, looking out for new ways to exploit readily available technology. In 2016, I created "SN. Sunday Journal – The world’s 1st Snapchat fashion zine". The temporary nature of Snapchat’s self-deleting posts, conceptually, made it the perfect medium to mirror the printed punk rock ephemera I had collected in the 1980s and 1990s. Each transitory issue (published once every Sunday), could not be saved for later viewing. Eventually, volumes of these digitally ephemeral zines would only exist in the memories of its loyal subscribers.
Two years later in 2018, I was experimenting with Instagram’s algorithm which resulted in a series of word-phrase triptychs–a piece created using appropriated imagery from the digitized photo archives of Self Service magazine, was exhibited at the Dallas Contemporary in 2019.
More recently, I discovered NFTs (funny enough through the comedian Tim Dillon, who was on Clubhouse doing a comedic rant about it in early 2021), and I was finally able to bring to life a proof of concept piece I had made in 2019, when I was hired as a consultant to create a creative brief for Saint Laurent’s new concept store, Rive Droite. I imagined a looping animation that could either live in your phone, or be projected on a billboard, and owning this piece of digital art gave you exclusive access to all kinds of YSL experiences. Of course, the challenge was how to assign ownership to editions of something as abstract and nebulous as a dematerialized asset, or artwork that is essentially made up of code. NFT technology was the answer to all these creative question marks. The work was eventually minted as my genesis Tezos piece on HEN (Hic Et Nunc), which many know as DANCE DANCE DANCE, or DANCEx3.
AM: How important is understanding online culture and communication on social media for being a successful digital artist?
SN: I believe the answer to this question is something we touched upon in one of our early Twitter Space conversations about NFT culture and the community that gave birth to it and is constantly shaping it. We both agreed that one of the differences between the old system and Web3 is the frequency of engagement. It is constant, and your participation in this greater conversation is crucial. That’s just the way things are today. Whether one accepts it as an indispensable mode of communication or an annoyance, we cannot escape the overreach of social media and our participation in the attention economy.
Those who are more thoughtful, focus on the quality of engagement and are more discerning to avoid the echo chambers that litter the social media landscape like a case of bad acne. On a positive note, beyond the obvious vitriol, social media is an indispensable tool that allows for discovery, which could lead to some amazing collaborations. For one, it allows curators and galleries to discover artists. Being an active participant especially if you have something worth sharing will equate to positive interactions and, hopefully, lead to amazing projects.
AM: What is success for you as an artist?
SN: Creating meaningful work that allows you to support yourself financially.
AM: Is there such a thing as Crypto Art or is Crypto Art Internet and Post-Internet Art gone mainstream?
SN: Internet and Post-Internet Art gone mainstream is one way to describe it, as the mainstream knows very little about Post-Internet Art or the greater history of digital art. When I hear the term "Crypto Art," it makes me think of digital work that was minted during a specific time period, right before the big Beeple sale at Christie’s and shortly then after. The works are characterized by featuring or commenting on crypto culture as subject matter. Rare Pepes, CryptoPunks, Xcopy’s Taxman–that sort of thing.
I find this very similar in trying to answer the question, "Is there such a thing as NFT Art?" Generally, it’s digital artwork minted using NFT technology to facilitate a transactional exchange wherein cryptocurrency is used as a form of payment–or NFT technology is primarily the focus of the work and is creatively utilized as an artistic medium.
There are ongoing debates on the subject, and if the greater community cannot come to a consensus, it just makes sense for it to split into factions wherein each group upholds its own definition of these terms. Sounds very much like religion! (laughs)
AM: You call your NFTs "Pixel Paintings." When I look at them, I feel nostalgic. I feel like you sent me back in time. To my teenage bedroom, where I listened to mixtapes on my Walkman that I made for myself or got from pen pals from all over the world. Silverchair, Nirvana, Tool, Fugazi, Minor Threat, and many more. Is that what you would like to achieve? And which role does music play?
SN: During the Twitter Space that launched Marina Abramović’s first NFT collection, THE HERO 25FPS (in which I was invited to take part in the pre-launch campaign), she commented that "music is the highest form of art"–a belief we both share as it is a primordially profound means of human expression and communication.
Music will naturally color the aesthetics of my work since it has been a huge part of my life. This makes perfect sense as to why I employ carefully chosen lyrics appropriated from 180s and 90s songs as an essential component of my pixel paintings and Walkman readymades. They are a form of meta prose: poetic declarations that operate on the subconscious level, inviting the viewer to engage with these works and explore their own personal myths through a visceral experience activated by what I refer to as "induced nostalgia."
Most of my work is rooted in the process of distillation. If art is the communication of an idea between the artist and the viewer, good quality art I believe facilitates a successful data transfer. The emotions and thoughts are embedded in the work and can be transmitted and downloaded by the viewer. The internet is not only a repository of content, it can also be seen as a living neural network that is constantly sifting and editing data that we interface with. Source material culled from the internet represents our collective memory and has the great potential of revealing so much about us. My investigations seek to discover the essence, the source of nostalgic feelings and emotions, and the role of memory in the post-internet age.
AM: The history of painting and sculpture is well known. We learn about it in school. I remember visiting art museums when I was in school, but I don’t even remember learning about digital art when studying art history at the University of Heidelberg. What are the criteria for historically relevant digital art these days?
SN: To start with, I personally hold reverence for the creations of the early pioneers. Works that were created during the E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) movement in the 60s, in which engineers were paired with artists like Yvonne Rainer and Robert Rauschenberg—and works created by polymaths such as Frieder Nake, Manfred Mohr, and our beloved Herbert W. Franke.
Identifying what would be considered historically relevant digital artworks post-NFT can be a challenge, as there has yet to be a consensus among artists, collectors, and curators; and this dilemma should in fact highlight the importance and function of curators, especially in the NFT space.
Work that is popular culturally doesn’t always mean it’s good; and the speculative nature and velocity of NFT trading can further muddle our attempt to clearly define a criteria. Fundamentally, I still look out for work with substance, depth, and sophistication—Harm van den Dorpel’s "Mutant Garden Seeder" is a good example of this. It seems that good quality and meaningful work has been created by artists who’ve been busy cultivating their careers long before NFTs. I think the first and recent ART NFT LINZ festival this year, which led to the acquisition of digital artworks for the permanent collection of the Francisco Carolinum Linz museum, is a good reflection of meaningful work.
Art is a conversation between the past, present, and future. If you have something substantial to add to the conversation, you will be part of that greater conversation.
AM: Is the Walkman your Balloon Dog?
SN: Perhaps a quote that speaks about this succinctly is by Rene Ricard in the fabled article entitled "The Radiant Child" published in Artforum in 1981, which is said to have catapulted Basquiat to stardom overnight. He wrote: "The greatest thing is to come up with something so good it seems as if it’s always been there, like a proverb."
Good appropriation is transformative. It happens when the re-contextualization process takes over and seeps into the public consciousness. There will come a time when people see a balloon dog and always relate it to Jeff Koons. Most will forget (especially the much younger generation), that it started as a novelty, a party favor, or something you bought from the balloon vendor at the park. Banality and novelty were elevated into something more. At this stage, appropriation is no longer just an act of artistic expression; the work becomes synonymous with the artist.
It has been four decades, and Walkman specimens in very good condition are now very difficult to source and acquire. They are as rare as the youthful energy and memories embedded in them. It was a conscious decision to appropriate the Walkman, as it is a powerful object that symbolizes and celebrates youth culture—reminding us of the power of music, which facilitated the magic moments of our youth. What an honor it would be to someday become synonymous with such an inspiring object full of history and meaning.
AM: Nature has been a recurring topic in your digital artworks next to icons of pop culture such as the walkman and emojis. What role does nature play within your body of work?
SN: The interplay between nature and iconic symbols of pop culture, such as the Walkman and emojis, seems to emerge as a complex negotiation of contemporary visual vocabulary. Once romantically exalted as a sanctuary for contemplation, nature has now been seamlessly woven into the fabric of our mediated existence, revealing the heightened digitized realm we inhabit—where the virtual and the tangible coalesce, blurring the boundaries between what we once conceived as pristine wilderness and our synthetic landscapes. A metaphoric mirror emerges, reflecting the precarious symbiosis between humanity's technological ascension and the impending precarity of our biosphere. Nature, much like pixels on a screen, is deconstructed and reconstructed within my work, casting a liminal aura that interrogates the very essence of authenticity and how our sense of values are continuously redefined as we interphase with the digital; such topics are explored in SHUNDO ODDISH.
Some of my work explores the transmutation of nature from an autonomous entity into a commodified signifier, commodified to the point of being embedded within our collective subconscious—the conceptual foundation of my series ‘IN BLOOM,, comprised of five works that, either individually or combined, transform a site-specific location into an intimate digital garden. Induced nostalgia colors the viewer’s experience as the piece attempts to locate the pulse of fleeting memories in a post-internet age wherein our memories themselves have been somewhat digitized. And there is UNTITLED [SAKURA HX-59749D]’, in which digital specimens of stock floral images are conceptually treated as visual affectations to elucidate morphic resonance, wherein self-organizing systems inherit memory from previous or similar systems, in an attempt to inherit the collective memory of analog painting as an emergent property of the artist’s mind. The piece also touches upon Assembly theory, a theory that aims to capture the biological signature of life by examining the intricacies of replication, and the idea of simple machines building more complex machines.
These investigations coincide with Jean Baudrillard's notions of hyperreality, wherein the distinction between the real and the simulated dissipates, leaving behind some kind of kaleidoscopic simulacrum. The Walkman and emojis, emblematic of their respective eras, are entangled with this narrative, serving as vehicles that transport us to the juncture where our electronically integrated daily lives intersect with the perennial rhythms of nature. It seems that nature's recurring presence indicates an unsettled negotiation wherein the schisms of culture and the environment are rendered inextricably entwined, as communicated in SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW, SKIES ARE BLUE (in the permanent collection of the museum Fransisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria), which to my estimation is the consummate Metamodernist landscape. Just as pixels flicker on the digital canvas, so does nature's essence oscillate within the confines of my creations. Specifically, through my digital artworks, I aim to expose the paradoxes embedded within our sensorial experiences, inviting the viewer to engage with the multilayered tapestry that constitutes our contemporary visual landscape—an ecosystem where nature and pop culture intersect, mutate, and ultimately metamorphose into signifiers of a rapidly evolving digital era.
AM: What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse?
SN: In the metaverse, the ontological boundaries between the organic and the simulated seem to converge into an intricate assemblage, much like the digital artifacts I meticulously thread through my own narratives. Nature, that perpetually shifting and evolving phenomenon, encounters a profound reconfiguration of our perceptual and ontological frameworks. It morphs into a spectral entity, existing in multiplicity as both an enduring memory and an ethereal construct. The metaverse has then become a stage where the boundaries between the organic and the algorithmic are diffused, unsettling conventional notions of reality. Within this paradigm shift, nature ceaselessly undergoes a process of remediation, transitioning from its terrestrial corporeality to an abstraction, a simulacrum. Akin to an immense interconnected neural network, the metaverse produces a paradoxical condition where nature's authenticity is both magnified and obfuscated in the form of a techno-nature: an intricate fusion of code and materiality.
The metaverse challenges us to reevaluate the very essence of nature, imploring us to deconstruct its significance beyond the realm of the organic. As avatars navigate landscapes where the laws of physics can be rewritten at will, the dialectic between the "real" and the "virtual" becomes a matter of perspective. The dichotomy of the metaverse mirrors the dissonance of our larger human relationship with the environment, compressing the simultaneous allure and disillusionment of our techno-utopian aspirations. As nature is continuously incorporated into this new domain, it becomes both a source of inspiration and a harbinger of ethical inquiry; it amplifies and complexifies these tensions, thrusting us into an ever-evolving dialectic. Though the metaverse introduces a new ecology of interconnectivity, its earthly ecological implications remain paradoxically ambivalent. It may offer a space for novel engagements with nature, enabling immersive experiences and interactions that are unimaginable, but it is inherently imbued with its own forms of exploitation and extraction. The digital infrastructures underpinning the metaverse require immense energy resources, echoing familiar patterns of misuse present in our physical world.
In this era of the Anthropocene, we witness the reimagining of nature as an aesthetic experience, a dataset, a malleable entity—a simulacrum that eludes the confines of tangible existence. The digital wilderness of the metaverse is both a testament to human ingenuity and an unsettling reflection of our desire, or hubris, to recreate, even transcend, the natural order. As an artist that employs new media as a means of creative expression and exploration, I can’t help but ruminate on this question: can the metaverse become a site of reconciliation, a liminal space for reimagining our ecological commitments? Or will it amplify our existing dissociation from the material world, entrenching our disconnection from the very nature it abstracts and reinterprets? I find myself drawn to this juncture of potentiality and peril, wherein the interplay of nature and the metaverse reveal a situation that is both technologically captivating and ethically vexing.