Interview for Jamie Boulton

I was recently interviewed by Jamie Boulton for his final-year dissertation. He is currently studying Visual Communication at Birmingham City University, where he’s recently become very interested in glitch art. Below is the whole interview, with links and pictures added by me.

First of all, what is your definition of a glitch?

A glitch is an error or something unexpected.

How did you first come in contact with glitch art? What were your initial impressions of it and what made you pursue it as an art form?

I first became aware of glitch art on 5th May 2009. I was looking for things relating to software art and Stuart Parker mentioned glitch art. I can’t remember what I first thought, but I do remember in the early days that I drew comparisons between it and pixel art.

HLLEO

My first glitch artwork uploaded to Flickr

 

My artwork at the time – portraits and complex digital drawings ([an example]) – was very colourful and noisy, so the visual noise of glitch art really appealed to me.

Explode

These had been inspired by the work of Arturo Herra, whose work I had seen at an exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in 2007.

Where did you learn the skills you use to create glitch art? Did you have previous experience with electronics and computing, or are they skills you picked up as you experimented?

I’ve always been skilled at using computers and I’ve had the ability to write code (albeit not very well) since my undergraduate studies, but only since 2007 have I really begun to experiment with coding, hardware and software. When I came across glitch art I had been running fizzPOP since January of that year. From that I had learnt a bit about circuit-bending but essentially I was a bit of a curious beginner. Everything else since then – learning how to use the command line on Linux, writing code, learning how to use Pure Data, Processing and other creative programming languages – has been driven by my desire to create glitch – or similar – art.

Do you think that digitally produced glitch aesthetics can be as meaningful and expressive as real glitches, or is the technological experimentation part of the art itself?

This is entirely subjective. I’ve seen beautifully constructed glitch-alike artwork created in Processing and other programming languages and I’ve seen horrible, or just generally uninspiring artwork that is create purely through glitches. Although the process of creating the artwork is interesting I’m far more intrigued to see what artwork is created with the technology. To give another perspective consult the Vademecum of digital art, particularly point 8:

If the description of an artwork looks like the catalog of a computer reseller, check if the artwork contains more than mere fascination for technology.

Philosophy time! If a glitch is forced, is it still a glitch?

Nope. I think in order to have true glitches you will have to remove human intervention. Even the act of choosing which glitches to display as glitch art removes the ephemeral nature of glitch art.

Do people often not ‘get’ your work? Are a lot of folk confused by why you do what you do, or do you find that people are more fascinated in it?

A bit of both. My friends often like (and indeed “Like”) what I do but don’t really get what it is or how it’s made. In other words, they appreciate the aesthetic value of glitch art. I did have a situation in March 2012 where I was asked to submit a proposal for a public artwork [that was based on glitch art]. It was rejected on the basis that there was a concern that people would not ‘get’ the artwork.

I think one of the best ways to ‘get’ glitch art is to allow yourself to not ‘get’ it: Appreciate that it is something random, unexpected and possibly very different from anything that you may have seen before.

What do you think about glitch art culture? Is it a fad or has its technological nature birthed a score of genuinely interesting artists?

This question comes around every so often. The first time I remember glitch art being declare a fad was soon after Kanye West released the video for Welcome to Heartbreak. The concern was that everyone would start to produce watered-down commercial glitch art just to make money. This hasn’t happened. Of course, for any style of artwork (see the “grunge” artwork era of the early 2000s) there will be periods of mass popularity, but this won’t, or at least shouldn’t cause the art to decrease in quality. For another insight, see Notes on Glitch, in particular point 44:

There is no question that the glitch aesthetic been co-opted by mainstream media. Kanye West’s video for “Welcome to Heartbreak” (Nabil Elderkin, 2009) is done in a finely tuned, very slick style, using a glitch technique known as “datamoshing.” The artwork that accompanies the soundtrack CD for The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) features glitch stills that would not look out of place in the Flickr Glitch Art pool.21 When glitched images appear in mainstream motion pictures—for instance the Joker’s videos in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), or the camcorder footage in Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)—they are always deployed in the name of authenticity, and never in order to call into question the illusion of (digital) cinema itself. Rare is the feature film in which a glitch goes unexcused by the premise of a film-within-a-film. In mainstream popular culture, glitch is deployed not as a marker of artifice, but as a signifier of raw authenticity. It is a digital version of what Garrett Stewart—in describing the “painstakingly hand-defaced” faux newsreels of Citizen Kane—calls “authentication by disrepair,” and in this sense very much a reversion to the analog paradigm.

As long as there are artists that continue to create and innovate in this area then it will evolve. The only thing that I feel will kill glitch art is repetition, over saturation and selfishness. On that latter part, see point 49:

Glitch has embraced the open-source mentality of sharing knowledge, which is rooted in the DIY tradition of punk. When a glitch artist refuses to reveal how work was made, it not only raises a question of whether it is “really” glitch—as opposed to a Photoshopped simulation—but also whether the artist is selfishly hiding their technique in a refusal to contribute to the collective knowledge. This all reflects an anxiety over authenticity and the underlying politics of glitch—something not strictly defined, but which favors cooperation and community over the proprietary motivations of any individual auteur.

Which do you like more; having the end glitched visuals or the process of creating and experimenting to achieve them?

A bit of both. For most of my artwork I like to create new tools (Pure Data patches, processing sketches, shell scripts) to create the new artwork. This approach helps me keep the practice as interesting as the outcome

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Anything where order can be found in chaos. I’m particularly influenced by heavy metal and electronic music. Some of the people I know have strong – usually negative – opinions about this music but I really like trying to find patterns and order in the music, and so too in glitch art.

What are you trying to say through your work, if anything at all? Is there a message that you want to send, and who are you sending it to? Or is your work more for you than anyone else?

It depends on the piece. Through using only open source software I aim to bring creativity via software to more people. Through releasing much of the code and techniques I aim to make digital art more accessible. For an example of a piece that has meaning behind, see What Revolution? and I Am Sitting in a Room. They don’t have very deep meanings but there is more to them than just being pretty.

There are, however, times when I just want to make a pretty picture.

What techniques and equipment do you use most to create your work? What’s your favourite process?

I create almost ll of my artwork on my Dell Studio laptop. Since 2007 I’ve exclusively used Ubuntu Linux. The combination of the two makes for a very capable, if not very powerful, computer to create things on. Occasionally I use old camcorders, VHS tapes, circuit-bent toys (for sounds) and whatever other materials I can find. However, it nearly always is somehow compiled into something on the computer.

In terms of software, for my still images, I mostly use text editors. I did make some scripts to automate some glitch effects – the What Glitch? scripts – but these essentially automate glitching files using a text editor. Despite writing the popular tutorial on databending using Audacity tutorial, I rarely use Audacity in my work. I’m beginning to use Processing a bit more, but even then the output is usually glitched in text editors.

For my performance and VJ work I exclusively use Pure Data. Unlike Mac and Windows, there isn’t a wealth of choice when VJing [on Linux]. You either livecode in Fluxus, attempt to compile VeeJay or build your own software in Pure Data. I chose the latter as it allows me to build software that suits my needs and evolves as I do (the same can be said for similar programs like Max/MSP).

Video mixer V1

An old video mixer, built in Pure Data

 

As far as I’m aware there isn’t a way to produce glitch art using only PD (ok, there is a jpg glitch plugin but I’ve never got it to compile), but it’s great for adding glitch-like effects to videos.

Are there any elements to glitch art that you don’t like?

Nope.

Teaching Glitch Art for GLI.TC/H

Part of Birmingham City University‘s involvement in GLI.TC/H 2011 involved me teaching Kate Pushkin, a student on the MA Digital Arts in Performance course, how to “do” glitch art, with the aim of devising a ~15 minute piece to be performed at GLI.TC/H. Given the number of tutorials and tools that are available online one would imagine this to be an easy challenge, right? Well, I only had the week prior to GLI.TC/H to do all of this. Yikes!

It’s true that taking leaps instead of baby steps and working under pressure helps us to learn, and so Gregory Sporton, the course leader, explicitly only gave Pushkin a week to devise this piece, with only a one-day tutorial with myself.

After GLI.TC/H had ended I caught up with Pushkin to see how she approached this task. The first step in teaching her was to find out exactly what she knew about glitch art:

I didn’t know what [glitch art] was. I did know what a glitch was.

I’ve got the impression that the coding side of things and the software side of it, in that respect, is considered key [in glitch art].

Pushkin had done some experimenting with video editing in the past and had, although unintentionally, come into contact with glitch aesthetics through feedback loops. Due to the short time allocated there really wasn’t much of a chance to explore the somewhat hazy history of glitch art.

I went on a couple of glitch artists’ websites and they didn’t work on my computer and I couldn’t tell if that was a big joke or if actually my computer just couldn’t handle what it was doing.

In trying to understand and describe what she had found, Pushkin says:

What I thought glitch was was very much the kind of very modern looking bright colours […] Moving visuals that have abstract content and are quite lurid.

Although the debate still rages on about what glitch art is or isn’t I feel this description is really quite accurate. Although she has described glitch art and the processes as very digital-looking and relying on computers the content she chose to use somewhat surprised me.

Reproducing pixelation using a disco ball

Reproducing pixelation using a disco ball

 

Pushkin had chosen a lot of content that had a very analogue feel to it. The glitches present represented the types found on VHS tapes and old records rather than compression artifacts or digital errors. She utilised her own Super 8 film footage together with attempting to replicate compression artifacts using analogue techniques.

I tried to replicated [the pixelation effect] using a disco ball and my webcam.

Putting the pixelation effect on the organic pixelation of the disco ball. That’s the sort of thing that, if I was going to take [glitch art] further, that’s the sort of thing I’d be into.

Considering that I had mostly shown her glitch art that had a very digital feel to it (databending, datamoshing etc) I was somewhat surprised by her choice of content. Nonetheless, I’m very pleased that she was able to find a style that she was comfortable working with.

On producing her content Pushkin faced several challenges. As we’ve seen she used analogue methods to produce her footage but she still wanted to make something that could integrate well with the festival and have a digital feel to it.

The first thing that Pushkin did, in order to try and glitch her videos was to “Download stuff wrong”:

The very first thing that I did was downloading stuff wrong. Downloading things […] But then saving it before it was finished in order to see what the results would be

Kate Pushkin at GLI.TC/H

What Pushkin had unknowingly come across was what happens when you remove I-frames from videos, or what is more commonly known as Datamoshing. For Pushkin this was a very much a hit-and-miss operation, with most of her clips being unplayable. To assist her I took some of her content and ran it through the What Glitch? scripts, but it was clear that she was after a more analogue feel.

Below is a sample of some of the content that she produced, together with the audio from her performance:

The other challenge came from the software. Pushkin was more akin to using software such as Final Cut Pro to produce videos, but for GLI.TC/H she would be faced with the task of performing live. As a user of Pure Data for nearly all of my performance work I attempted to teach her the basics of this. Although it is a somewhat complicated program, under the right supervision it is very easy to get a video player that has a few basic effects. I gave Pushkin a short tutorial and then later provided her with some abstractions that I use in my video mixer. The resultant patch looked like this:

Kate Pushkin Pure Data Patch

Click to embiggen

 

As a tool for manipulating videos Pushkin found Pure Data inspiring, but time constraints prevented her from delving further into the software:

I really wanted to be able to make my own patch for my own effect, and I found it quiet frustrating, but at the same time I did give up relatively quickly because it became obvious what is going to possible in the time, given that I’d have to do something other than just make an effect for 20 minutes of entertainment.

Also technical problems sometimes arose that threatened her performance:

I had a lot of trouble with crossfading and my computer. And every time I’ve ever done it except the actual performance my computer crashed when I first faded too much. But I learnt how to get it running again in 35 seconds, so that’s a good lesson for life!

Despite all of this, it all came together on the day of GLI.TC/H. You can watch her whole performance below:


(The other videos from the event are also available online)

I’m really very pleased with her performance. Pushkin is by no means a novice in producing artwork, but to tackle a whole new style of art in a few days and then perform in front of nearly 70 people is quite an achievement.

I wonder, is glitch art (and circuit bending) something that could/should be taught at art institutions?

Tune In

For my final piece for my studies in Digital Arts in Performance at Birmingham City University I collaborated with Alex Botten (aka Thee Moths (RIP)) on a performance piece called Tune In.


(there’s also a performance video of it)

Without revealing too much here, the piece is a trip through memory lane and nostalgia in a world that is moving from analogue to digital.

All of the concepts behind the piece can be explored through the blog that I kept during the development of the piece and also through this video where I explain much of it all in a roundabout way:

It’s definitely a concept that I’ll be revisiting in future works!