Back in December 2013 I did an interview with Emily Pickthall from Tribe Magazine. Sometime around May in 2014 it was finally published in issue 28 of the online magazine. Below is the full interview. Enjoy!
(images and links added by me)
Antonio Roberts first spliced a name for himself at the international GLI.TC/H festival which emerged in Chicago, expanding to include cities from Amsterdam to Birmingham, where Roberts is currently based. Screening his breakthrough video piece ‘I am Sitting in a Room’ at the 2010 festival, Roberts generated a significant profile for himself both online and in then emergent circles of hacktivism, dirty media and noise artists.
In his 2013 article for Libre Graphics Magazine, Roberts explains that “[g]litch art is the aesthetisation of digital or analogue errors…by either corrupting digital code and data or by physically manipulating electronic devices”. Signalling back to early information theory and the avant-garde, Roberts’ glitch work boldly demonstrates how the digital artist doesn’t just learn how technology works, in order to utter a language of code or craft an image mimicking the real. More frequently, the digital artist foregrounds process over product and allows unpredictable, external forces – chance and automata – to supersede the power of the artist. As though there really was a ‘ghost in the machine’.
For Roberts, glitch art is a creative and playful method of exploration which verges into the commercially and politically subversive. He has previously engaged in specific debates such as art and copyright, not to mention an outright user of open source software. Roberts has written on his blog on his ethical standpoint regarding open source software:
“For instance, opening an image file in an audio editing program (a process known as databending) has been done for many years using proprietary programs such as Adobe Audition. Whilst useful, users either have to spend a lot of money on the software or find an illegal copy.”
Antonio Roberts spans a wellspring of methods and media disciplines. To date, he has exhibited graphics and found items at locations such as the Furtherfield Gallery in London and TROVE in Birmingham. Some of the most enthralling exercises of his work include live glitch performances; full immersive, audio-visual displays that have been picked up on by hosts as unpredictable as the Birmingham Opera Company. Recently in late 2013, he worked with [RHP] CDRs, the record label organising 7 Days of Sound Festival in Leamington Spa, riffing on the relationship between experimental music and contemporary art.
In this exclusive interview with tribe, Antonio Roberts discusses the importance of viewer curiosity and open access tutorials, his hatred of the Comic Sans font, the ephemeral life of the machine along with his own ephemeral life in multimedia graphics before glitch was even a catchword.
Firstly, can you tell me where the pseudonym hellocatfood came from?
I just needed a new username about seven years ago and I was just sitting and thinking about this episode of The Simpsons where Ralph Wiggum says, ‘my cat’s breath smells like cat food‘ and for some reason that phrase popped into my head and then the word ‘hello’ just added itself to it and it has stuck for this long simply because no one else had the web address hellocatfood.com. It was random enough to not really mean anything but has now become the focus of me, everyone always asks the question! There isn’t really a personality to go with it; most people just think that I’m a girl because of the association with Hello Kitty!
Can you tell me more about your background and training? I see that you have both a Bachelors and Masters in multimedia graphics and digital performance, but how self-taught would you consider yourself to be? Where did you your interests first emerge?
I started off doing drawings and paintings back when I was a young kid, but I’ve always been interested in computers and playing with them. Mainly because I wanted to know how it all worked; how everything worked, really. I’ve always been the one in the family who fixes things I’ve always been the one who wants to explore things. I guess when I did my degree it was more focused on web design than experimental work. It was all how to use Photoshop and how to design a page for ecommerce. It wasn’t until a year after my Bachelors that a friend of mine said, ‘have you tried any glitch art?’ By then I had started doing a little programming and using a little Linux which I started using in 2008. Linux really lends itself to exploration. With my Masters, which I did in 2010, it was very much an extension of everything that I’d been doing up until that point. It is very easy with digital art to focus on the technology and not produce a good artwork. That said, glitch is very much self-taught; they do teach this kind of stuff at universities now, but back then my professors had no interest. They just let me get on with stuff, because there were no courses in experimental art or my kind of circuit bending.
On your blog you post about associations with festivals like GLI.TC/H which emerged in Chicago and have expanded to include cities such as Amsterdam and Birmingham, where you’re based. The festival doesn’t just feature glitch and sound artists, but also internationally based performance artists, DIY enthusiasts and hacktivists. How do you feel about being filed among these ranks? How do you relate the work of performers and hackers, for instance?
By the very fact that I’m doing glitch art – which is as a form very subversive – I suppose that what I’m doing is quite political. I’m not anti-Microsoft or anti-Apple. This is not at the forefront of my art, I don’t rant at people who use a Mac but I would associate with the DIY crowd, who like to explore rather than take what is given to them. Usually when I meet up with these people they’ll be sat around a table, surrounded by all these pieces, working out how to break something and not how to use it. You may also see that I publish a lot of tutorials on my website, talking about what I do and the processes, which is mainly to encourage others to have the same line of thinking, not necessarily to ditch Microsoft and Apple but to make their own tools. Which means that yeah, you might spend a lot more time developing them. But once you’ve made them, you understand them and might even create things that even you didn’t imagine were possible.
Its certainly a very democratic form of art – but how would you classify glitch as an art form? Is it closer to a technology, an aesthetic or political subversion? Or is it just play?
Well, it depends where you want to go with that. I’m based in Birmingham and there a lot of traditional art galleries, hence it has been tough in relation to the things that I do. But it is creative. It might not be very physical and it sometimes isn’t perceived as art, but it is still creative. So even if there some people who focus on the technology, practitioners who just want to see how you can use and what you can do with the technology. Of course, there are lots of self-proclaimed ‘artists’ who really just mess around and put lots of GIFs on Tumblr. Interestingly, glitch has also become a craft. I mean, here’s one –(holds up pixelated glitch scarf) – this is a glitch scarf, from one of my friends, [Glitchhaus]. He takes screenshots from broken hardware and will make things out of them, scarves and objects, whatever. It can still be viewed as a tool, but there are lots of people making artwork out of it. The difficult part is going to be convincing the traditional institutions, but I see it happening more these days.
I first came across your work through the Furtherfield gallery web page and the Glitch Moment/ums exhibition which you were involved in during June this year. One of the corresponding essays that I read on the website discussed how glitch art “sits in the historical tradition of process art and chance art. Automatism and chance acts in Dada [and] Surrealism”, which avoid a specific intent for the artist in creating a work. What are your views on this – is the process or the product more important to you in glitching?
Both are important, for sure. The way that I create artwork, sometimes the process comes first and sometimes the product. Sometimes I’ve tried out a new script and I’ve gone, ‘oh, this is amazing!’ I still might now know what to do with it, however. I have the capacity to come back to it later, because most of what I do is ideas driven. I agree that the process is very important, because after all, these are computers. They have been built and people want to know how to make them, how to reproduce them and so on. Inherently, glitch is going to be heavily based around process. Most of the emails I get ask, ‘how can I do this?’
When it comes to chance and generative art, I like seeing when people give up the role of the artist to outside processes, such as a script they’ve written or even just in dripping paint, allowing gravity and every other force to take over. It can be liberating to know that and to create something which makes its own art. The focus is on the tool, so you get into questions like ‘am I the artist, or is the programme the artist? Do I make the programme, or does the programme make the artist?’ These are questions that we’re always looking to answer, so I can’t give you a definite answer.
What about issues such as artificial intelligence – for you, does glitch ever create moments where “the computer itself [will] suddenly appear unconventionally deep”, which seem to indicate that there is some level of unpredictability or uncanny free will in the digital medium?
Yeah, totally! Recently I’ve been messing around with hardware, especially hardware video synthesisers. In fact, here is one – (holds up volatile looking box of circuitry) – this is a 1994 model, you will have been able to use it in conferences and do different kinds of transitions and pitching and things. These I find quite unpredictable. It’s literally all circuits and I usually work in codes, although I don’t have a degree in computer science or anything. Yesterday I was messing around with some wires and plugging in different things and I was getting some really interesting sound and visuals, but I didn’t have a clue what was happening; it was just doing its thing, it seemed to have a life of its own. As long as there are no fires or electric sparks then I don’t really care what it does! I don’t press buttons the whole way through. My interaction usually stops once I turn it on and these objects make what they make of it.
How do you typically expect viewers/users with events that you are involved in to respond to your work and interact with it?
I expect them to be curious, really. I hope that they don’t go away thinking, ‘that was rubbish’ – I hope that they think, ‘that was rubbish, but I want to know more!’ Typically after every performance, people want to know how it’s been done. So I show them the software and give them a demo. It seems to me that more people than you would realise are very open to glitch art; people like the bright colours for one thing. I expect them at the very least to be curious about how it has all been made. I don’t want to cause too many headaches from the bright flashing lights and loud noises, although that has to be expected!
Lots of glitch art seems to be an exaggerated and ironic commentary on popular media and technology. Your recent project ‘Comic Sans Must Die‘ was a light hearted attack on the Comic Sans font and really made me aware of this.
It is true. The thing that I always ask when I’m describing glitch art is, ‘you remember those analogue TV sets that you used to go fuzzy and weird when you lost the connection?’ We try to recreate that. It’s a little bit of nostalgia too, of course. We have a few links with the 8bit music scene, although it’s not exclusively about that.
How important do you consider it to keep a running archive of your work?
Very important, mostly because you’re playing with hardware and most of the time when it is doing its thing, a glitch is short lived. It is just a moment in time and they cannot always be reproduced: once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s happened. Although one question is, ‘if I am controlling and reproducing my art is it really a glitch?’ I argue that yeah, it is. Because the glitches were a glitch in the first instance. It’s all ephemeral. Every performance that I do is unique in many ways. The results of what I will do will exist in a certain spectrum of results and within this spectrum, it could be anything. I wouldn’t recommend documenting every single thing or every single picture, but sometimes I just have to for structure. To know what I’m doing and keep a body of work.
What can you foresee in the future in terms of your work and ambitions?
I trained as a graphic designer and I’m hoping to do a little more of that again, really. I recently did a project, as you mentioned earlier, called ‘Comic Sans must Die’ – I really do hate Comic Sans – but what was happening there was that in destroying each different glyph, I was creating a new design. Not so much generative design, but degenerative design. Taking what exists and creating new designs in themselves, through destruction.
You can also see this in the ‘I am Sitting in a Room’ video, the one that got me ‘internet famous’. It’s a silent video, only a minute long but similar to ‘Comic Sans Must Die’ although this one came first, in 2010. Fonts are all just vectors, you see, so I just minimised the position of the lines and the font file and then I did a pastiche of text. Each frame of the video is a different font file and there are a thousand different iterations of this file, so if you wanted iteration 900, for instance, where the text is just bleeding all over the screen, you could use this font in a word processor. I really want to come back to this degenerative design and bring chance back into graphics. That’s my future, I guess. My contemporaries will be doing more in video and I should think I still will be doing performances, but my focus will return to graphic design and images.