Do you remember the monster that used to live under your bed? What did it look like? What did it hunger for? Did it invade your dreams and turn them into nightmares? Have you ever stopped to consider the significance of this manifestation of your childhood fears? How you gave it shape, breathed life into your abstract emotions, and manifested it into a physical form? What does the monster under our bed ultimately reveal about ourselves?
At the premiere party for Brooklyn-based artist and musician, QUALIATIK's, video for "Mother Tongue" these are some of the things that pop into my head. Co-directed by QUALIATIK and Kathleen Dycaico, the self-produced music video is a terrifying marvel to behold. Full of nightmarish creatures, abstract blobs of flesh, pregnant vein-y bellies, cybernetic nails, and coated in lick layer of slime, the video feels like it crawled out of the collective minds of H.R. Giger, David Cronenberg, and Guillermo Del Toro channeled through a vengeful Björk. It's creepy and disturbing, but at the same time has a strange allure to it that makes it impossible to turn away from.
Inspired by a hallucination they had, "Mother Tongue" at its core is the abstracted tale of an artist whose creations take on a life of their own. Centered on creatures referred to by QUALIATIK as "Anima," the video sees the grotesquely maternal entities cross over into reality, transforming the artist into one of their own creations. In a very meta sense, the video mirrors the process QUALIATIK took to bring their drawings to life, sublimating a part of their imaginative subconscious into physical form.
For the video, QUALIATIK joined forces with former Secret Project Robot coworker Dycaico to bring the feverish fantasy to life. Enlisting the help of models Brooks Ginnan, Tomasyn Hayes, styling by Griffin Hall, makeup by Toshi Salvino, and nails by Juan Alvear (aka NailsByJuan), the video came together within the span of a couple of weeks on virtually no budget. Sitting down with QUALIATIK afterwards, they go into detail about the thousands of hours they devoted to editing, colorizing, and generating the CGI for the film since last December. A labor of love made possible by an entire village, "Mother Tongue" is is the culmination of an artistic practice and community cultivated by QUALIATIK over the past few years. It is a triumphant achievement and by far their strongest work to date.
PAPER caught up with QUALIATIK ahead of the release of their debut EP, Discarnate, to dive further into the inspiration behind "Mother Tongue" and the wild, arduous road they took to get there.
Let's start at the beginning with "Mother Tongue. What kicked it all off?
"Mother Tongue" is the single off of my debut EP which is called Discarnate. I wrote the EP when I was living in this basement because I had just come from this crazy SXSW experience after my first year of making music, everything was so insane. All of this crazy shit happened and everything just disappeared, I ended up living in a shipping container in Austin, Texas for five months. Really depressed. Then I came back to New York, was subletting my friend's basement, I didn't sleep for like three weeks and ended up getting this chronic sinus infection, then the basement caught on fire because the dryer exploded, so I needed to find somewhere else to live. I ended up living in this windowless basement, my walls were a blanket hanging from the ceiling, a mattress on the ground, a suitcase and a broken desk. They put rat poison in the walls and for eight months it was just rats piling up and decaying in the walls.
After the rat basement, I moved into the house I still live in now to finish the record. In that house I went into this state of extreme isolation for two and a half months or so. I didn't leave my room. I built a blanket fort in my room and put brown paper up on my walls because I like to journal really obsessively, but I wanted to have it in a place where I could just jump up and write it.
I wasn't sleeping at all. I was only eating cereal in the morning and a can of soup at night. And I wasn't socializing with anyone at all, I couldn't even leave my room until I was certain that none of my roommates were around because I had such severe social anxiety that I couldn't interact with anyone. So I was just in a state. Just as I was figuring out all of this anima stuff, I started entering this really bizarre, lucid, somewhat hallucinatory experience that basically changed everything.
As I was drawing this anima on the wall, she came out of the wall, and got on top of me on my bed. She grew this vine penis and started penetrating me. It felt really invasive at first, like I was being assaulted in some way, but then I completely submitted to the penetration of this character, because I was basically submitting myself to having found this entity. And then I got on top, started sucking in air and I imagined that I sucked the entirety of her being inside of my lungs. I held her in my stomach and I said, 'You are a part of me now'.
How did this then become the video?
The idea is actually what happened, in a meta ass way, the process of making the video and the anima coming to life. It opens with this artist manically drawing and drawing, before the lines become blurred between the artist's creation and reality. So it's like in my life, the lines have become blurred for me between that hallucination type thing. And then in the video, you see the anima start to take shape, they come to life, they gain life force. I basically submit to them. The final scene is really powerful because I have emerged from this and I'm a combination of what I was previously and the anima now. I was looking at the concept art and looking at the thing right in front of me, and it looked exactly the same.
Emotionally, what kind of state were you in during all of this?
I was working this job taking care of this extremely ill 9-year-old girl every weekend. At seven AM on the weekends I would go to the Upper West Side and take care of this girl who had a feeding tube. I would wipe her diarrhea and have to pump gas out of her stomach, she would scream in agony from her gas pains because her intestines just didn't work right. I would have to go to the bathroom and cry because she was just so sweet and pure and she just had such a miserable life. It was a really morbid time but it also was a time of tremendous, leaning into empathy. The emotion of that time was morbidly sad, dark and intense, but also extremely tender and vulnerable and emotionally raw, nurturing and empathetic and I was working through a lot of personal things at that time too. I was in this crazy super introspective state for an entire year.
How did that end up translating into the music?
There's this one quote from this poem by this person, I think her name is Emery Allen, and it says, "to be tender, one must endure their own suffering". That was basically the mantra that I kept, in the face of suffering you become so extremely gentle, loving, understanding and compassionate. The closer relationship you have to that in yourself and the healthier relationship you have with your own traumas and the abstract parts of yourself that you can't really work through extensively because they aren't clear. That was kind of the emotion leading into when I wrote the song.
What was that like seeing these things that you drew come to life?
There's this kind of this ouroboros of, we're both kind of feeding each other against each other, the line of dominance actually becomes blurred. I was laying covered in freezing cold slime with these creatures crawling on top of me that were actual physical forms of my drawings, crawling on top of me. I couldn't see anything and I was just laying there in such a state of submission and confusion. I was like 'my babies, but I'm baby?' Like a mommy but I'm also [a] baby and it was so weird. So fucking bizarre.
What was the process of conceptually putting Discarnate together?
The process of putting the record together was basically finding commonalities between these drawings and poetry I had written on my wall. "Discarnate" means non-corporeal or not having a body, not having a form. My background is in neuroscience and the reason I got into it in the first place is because I am fascinated by the subconscious, by intuition, identity formation, and how our brain functions. I was starting to just lean into that, when I draw, I don't think at all about what I'm drawing. I just draw and let the lines reveal themselves to me. I always end up with these characters that I feel extremely connected to, that are actually embodiments of my own Discarnate, a subconscious abstract or traumatized parts of myself that I don't have any other way of accessing.
Could you explain what an "anima" is exactly?
As I was doing it, randomly the word 'anima' came to my mind. I was like, 'What is that about?' went over to my computer and I googled it. It's a Jungian concept that basically means the internal feminine in like a male form, but I just view it as the internal feminine. Then there was a whole list of traits that the internal feminine has; access to reality beyond physical reality, the ability to self-soothe, heal, and nurture, and compassion. It was all of the things that I had been exploring the record. And I was like, 'that is literally what these creatures are.' These creatures are representations of the inner self that understands and feels and holds the subconscious. They have a lot of pain in them when you look at them but when I look at them they seem to me like the most tender, compassionate, loving, and understanding forms. The idea was that the anima are the middleman or the middle women or middle creatures in you accessing your discarnate.
How long have you been drawing? I know it wasn't always a part of your musical practice, what was the catalyst for folding that in?
Well, it's always been my go to form of comfort. I have really bad anxiety and the only thing that gets me centered is drawing. It's a channeling process for me. I've always journaled very intensely and very visually, and journaling has been a part of my creative process, because it's how I work through ideas, since the beginning. It became really integrated when I was using my walls in that room. When I started taking the pictures from my journals and putting them on the walls, and I realized there was this repeating character. This is when I realized what it meant, the anima thing clicked. The drawings meant the same thing that the music means, they're inseparable.
A common theme I've noticed through your work is this organic fleshy-ness but somehow simultaneously synthetic?
Yeah, there's definitely supposed to be a cybernetic element to it. Because I think a lot about the brain in the future with integration of brain chips and stuff. I already work with AI a bit and have a history of working with Arduino and EEG and literally doing brain surgery on rodents. I've worked with flesh, I've done open heart surgery, I've done brain surgery. I've done some really morbid science things, but also in the context of a sterile lab setting and with computational brain models. The biggest research I did was on schizophrenia, studying how THC is the biggest trigger for people who are predisposed. Its really intense but also a very beautiful. These things are very emotional for me, I can't quite make sense of it, but it's basically how I feel internally.
How did you end up coming together with Kathleen Dycaico for the piece?
We both worked at Secret Project Robot. She bartended and I was engineering and we became friends, we had a lot of mutual friends. We really vibed with each other and she had me come DJ one of her bartending nights. It was cute. I always thought that she was very talented, a very strong presence, but I had no idea how amazing she is! We got coffee to talk about her doing a performance for the Halloween Unseelie show and ended up talking about this video instead. I had been writing this 30 page treatment about it and making all this art and she had a lot of really beautiful ideas. There was this really compelling thing about the pregnancies and what it represented.
And how did you two go about making that a reality?
She met with me, at some weird cafe in FiDi after one of my acupuncture sessions for my tailbone, and we started talking and got into it. She actually never agreed to do it, it just kind of happened. She brought together all the people on the production end the set designer, the Director of Photography. I had already reached out to all of the people on the creative end, all the people for prosthetics, [Brooks Ginnan], Griffin [Hall], all my friends who worked for free, basically, and everybody came together. In two weeks Kathleen and I conceived of everything, and I set up this prosthetic station in my house. She basically helped me feel okay with telling the hallucination story when explaining the video and just embodying that fully. It was just the most perfect, collaborative dynamic I could have imagined.
You can catch QUALIATIK alongside Eartheater, Swan Meat, Deli Girls, and more at H0l0 in Brooklyn for the EP's release party May 31st.
Photos and Stills Courtesy of QUALIATIK