In a crowded pizza parlour in downtown Minneapolis, a series of precise-yet-fluctuating artworks caught my utmost attention. The artist had taken public domain photographs of the British Library, superimposed them over other photographs he’d taken on his world travels, exported them as sound and reimported them as images.
I was so intrigued that I hauled the artist, Miles Taylor, also known as PFunkus, to the Depot Tavern, right next to the famous concert venue First Avenue, to probe him with some questions about the entirely new-age genre he’s become professionally and personally shaped by, Glitch Art. It turns out he’s also often at another favourite spot in town, Lush, DJing with music he has remixed, and playing his own glitch videos on the screens in the club.
What follows below are some prime condensed excerpts of our lunchtime interview-style conversation over some beyond great tomato basil soup.
Gabrielle Helmin-Clazmer: So. I’ve done some research, and I’ve found there’s not a whole lot out there about what you do. I had to poke around on Facebook communities for more information; what’s on Google and Wikipedia only really mentions what someone might use to make Glitch Art? Computer programs like Avidemux, Wordpad and Audacity…is that accurate?
PFunkus: Oh, yeah, definitely. And there’s, like, ten billion other ways, too. That’s what makes Glitch Art so great, because at its core it’s just about taking a digital file and corrupting it. Whatever that may mean.
When we use digital systems we expect them to behave in a certain way. You press the 2-key on your keyboard, a 2 appears on the screen. You click on a photo file, and see a canal in Paris or something like that. But because computers are these kinda obscenely complex things, there’s so many ways things can go wrong…people find room to take apart and create with all those parts.
First of, there’s text-based stuff, which involves the compression of images usually on WordPad, which automatically recognises and saves text files only. Or artists load pictures into a hex editor. Lots of colours on the internet are saved as hex-things.
GHC: Like all my awesome Myspace backgrounds back in the day?
PF: Exactly! So when you plug an image into a hex editor, it provides a short segment of code for every single pixel in the document. You can go in and replace, say, a 001001 sequence with other symbols, like dollar signs or hashtags, and it can really mess with colours, or all of a sudden this part of picture is over there. It also has a lot to do with the file format you’re working with. All those jpegs, tifs, pngs, what have you, save differently.
But every document is saved in Unicode, as text, as those ones and zeros. No matter what kind of digital file you’re dealing with, it will have “header data” at the beginning, which sort of says “Hey, I’m this kind of file, so from here on out this computer and program are reading this 1 and 0 and this connection my way.”
One big goal in Glitch Art is, never f* up the header data! If it happens, what you have is completely unreadable, you can’t do anything at all.
There’s sonification, too, which is turning an image, or video or any other file into sound. With Audacity you can load a raw file, leave that header data alone, then do whatever you want — say, layer images on top. The result might involve fifteen to twenty minutes of TV white noise, but it’s an image.
Creative coding is used a lot as well, it’s intentionally wrecking existing digital files or making them appear misshapen. This involves things like pixel sorting; changing a picture’s code with new instructions on where to place pixels can make twisted patterns, and can turn 2D into 3D warped mesh-like images. Speaking of 3D, there’s lots of programs that can turn 3D renderings into sound and text, too, like Blendr, Maya and Cinema 4D. I’ve seem some really cool patterns come out of that process.
Then there’s just the crazy miscellaneous realm. I’ve got a friend who will pull an image up on his desktop, run a program that calculates, like, every prime number imaginable; he’ll run about twelve movies at once and just wait for his computer to overheat, to crash.
GHC: What! He must use cheap, ancient computers or build his own?
PF: It sounds weird, I know! But in the end, the image file he started with is totally messed up. I would love to see him do it live during an exhibition, perhaps we can get a janky old laptop donated to him.
But that’s just the digital side of things. There’s analogue activity going on, too. Say you have a VCR, you put your copy of Hellraiser into it, then throw a big magnet on top…
GHC: Hold on. What do you prefer, digital or analogue? …or both?
PF: Ah, hah, digital because it’s cheaper, but analogue looks so. much. cooler. though! It’s cooler because you get, well, you get at the heart of glitch in many ways, it requires an artistic process with some predictability, but also part of it’s, like, “I don’t know whats going to happen, I’m gonna get purple, or green, or that face is going to be split in three zigzags.”
GHC: A man of many tastes. Okay, I need to ask, what do you think of the new app out there literally called “Glitche”?
PF: Love-hate. So, they made some kind of promo video starring Kylie Jenner or something, and I was like, goddammit, but—
GHC: —I know, c’mon, guys, there was so much promise there. But I admit, I downloaded it, I screwed with a picture and put it on my Instagram. It’s fun, but—
PF: It’s fun, but—
GHC: But I feel a lot of real Glitch artists might be asking themselves, what’s going on?!
PF: I’ve heard some constant conversation going on about that. We’re going to host a debate at an upcoming exhibition about this, not like, “Rahh, We are the Glitch Congress, and as of this day…” but we’re going to hash it out a bit.
But there’s Pure Glitch and Glitch Aesthetic, and personally I run the line between the two. Because Pure Glitch is…well, there’s some people in the community who think that the first time you accidentally opened a picture in WordPad and saved it, that’s the only time you’ve ever done Glitch Art. Because every time after that you knew sorta what could happen, it’s all intentional. That’s so extreme. There’s a lot of different gradations and grey areas. Others have just embraced apps, just the aesthetic, and maybe they might place another process or two over that.
I just think, it looks like glitch, great. But I appreciate when there’s some more effort put into it, like spending an hour really reworking small details of some bits of code, or spending an hour overheating your computer. But at the end of they day, if you made something that looks cool, kudos. My goal is to combine everything together, music, video, glitch, graphic design, even live drumming. I built a computer in an old night-vision goggles case, military, artillery style, and like to play what I can live with it.
GHC: Where has Glitch Art taken you?
PF: Oh, man. So I graduated college and thought I’d work in a lab, but you needed good grades I didn’t exactly have. And grad school sounded horrible, so I went out into the world, lived with college friends, worked in call centers for two years, played guitar, DJ’ed, tried to figure out life. I had discovered glitch art and experimenting about a year after I left school, but two or so years later, I had ended up in a straight up corporate situation. And I stopped feeling it, the cubicle, the office politics.
By summer 2015 I had some money saved up, I’d been DJ’ing for burlesque shows and children’s plays. I’d submitted my work to Glitchartisdead, the major glitch community in Krakow, Poland. I went to the collective conference there. Made a ton of friends, had deep conversation about different processes, converting files, dorkiness. And drinking, because the Poles can drink like no other people on earth.
And now those friends come and visit here, from Poland, France, Brazil, the U.K., so many places, and we’re working curators to bring the event here to Minneapolis’ Gamut Gallery. We’re planning three days of workshops, debates including the Glitche App/Kylie Jenner debate, performances, presentations on theory, interactive pieces, a livestream that we’ll invite hackers to disrupt and play with, and we’ll ask online observers to participate throughout all of this.
It’s going to be Glitchartisdead Minneapolis! The open call for artist submissions is going to be launched 14th December. Then on 11 March 2017, there’ll be opening night. The gallery show will go on for three weeks, leading up to a grand finale on 1st April, which we’re opening up to the underground community and local veejays.
GHC: Big plans! I’m glad I have time to get off work and be there. Last question, would you say there’s a cultural message, a message to society, tossed around and expressed at these big collective get-togethers?
PF: Education is key to what we do. Glitch is so open. There’s an unwritten rule, if someone asks how you do something, you tell them, teach them, otherwise you’re a prick.
It’s a DIY movement with lots of people without much or any art training doing what they do and getting others to join in, and yeah, more formally educated artists are taking notice. But it’s important to share discoveries and swap ideas, there’s no hoarding of knowledge.
Everyone in the community wants you to take part and to help you out.
Our lives are increasingly dependent on digital media, everything seems easy, but so much can go wrong. Glitch Art ends up being a bit ironic in a way. It’s disturbing, unsettling, it shouldn’t be happening, but it sure can happen. What if we can control it like a ship’s captain weathering a storm?
Miles and I had a delightful conversation, and I encourage you all to follow Glitchartisdead to stay posted on the latest in the Glitch community. If you like Pfunkus’ stuff, you can check out his shop on RedBubble, or on his website. And you can download the Glitche app here to make your own ‘gramable art.