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Carlo Volpi

Knit Blog

27th July 2015, London

Jeff Donaldson's work: a beautiful malfunction

The technological progress of the last few decades has been incredible. I don’t need to make a list of the evolution in all areas of our life, from medicine, to transport, communication and design.

© Jeff Donaldson

The foundation of such a progress is the creation of a better society, of better lives, of more opportunities. There is an innate desire in us to achieve an ideal of perfection, and technology has always enabled us to do that. With digital photography, for example, it is very easy to correct the flaws of a picture, the unsightly blemishes of the model’s skin, or her mole, or turn the uninteresting colour of the sky into a surreal, fantastical blue.

The same can be said for music, art and fashion: we always strive to create a perfect world where there is no space for human error or imperfection.

Glitch art is a form of expression that celebrates the imperfections of our technology, often hacking or reprogramming traditional appliances to make them work in a more “spontaneous” or less predictable manner.

The term “glitch” itself refers to a malfunction, or a software bug, a corrupted image. In my opinion glitch art is a metaphor for the more grounded and spontaneous side of life: our society is built on a multitude of rules and canons, on culture.

By adhering to these schemes, we become “normal”, sociable. Glitch art expresses a rebellious spirit of non conformism, but it also emphasizes that our ideal of a perfect and happy society is nothing but a belief, or a parameter: a digital image, for example, is just a collection of codes that are arranged in a certain order.

By changing the order, another image (what some people may call an “error”) is created, but the codes are still the same. I find this an incredibly powerful metaphor for our existence, that we are all equally important despite our success or the way we look, that we are one.

I met textile artist Jeff Donaldson when he gave a talk to the knitted textiles students at the Royal College of Art a few months ago and I was immediately taken by his work and his unique approach to knitting. A son of the 8 bit videogame generation, Jeff uses 80’s game consoles and computer software in unconventional ways to create his images by bending, corrupting and then visualising data. 

© Jeff Donaldson

There isn’t anything nostalgic about his work: the game consoles are simply an instrument to explore a new digital universe that goes beyond the frontiers of the orderly and limited worlds the videogames showed us. Jeff is a virtual tourist who takes snapshots of these surreal dimensions, a digital explorer and a storyteller. At first I felt that his role as a designer, or as an artist, was completely different: I saw him as a spectator of his own work, someone who establishes a new relationship with whatever appliance he is using (a computer, an old Nintendo or a knitting machine) and then watches the work develop before his eyes.

Then I realised the only difference between traditional designers and him is the way he uses his equipment: most of us know how to use our machinery and what can and cannot be achieved, while Jeff has a different dialogue with his machines, probably a more intimate and a less predictable one. His approach to design is probably a rebellion to the celebrity culture that characterises this discipline: I believe these days good design is defined by how popular a certain designer is, not necessarily talent. Glitch artists shift our attention back from the artist to the work itself, because after all the work is the protagonist, not the creator.

You can read more about Jeff and see some of his work on his website www.glitchaus.com. Here’s an interview I did with him recently, hope you enjoy it!

CV: How did you get into glitch art?

JD: Believe it or not but what actually led me to it was a dream that I had! But before that, back in 2000, while studying music composition at college in Maryland, I was modifying battery powered toys to create new sounds. Things like toy cellphones and keyboards, when short­circuited in specific ways, will produce some out there sounds. There’s a whole practice called “circuit­bending” that is based on this technique.

© Jeff Donaldson During my music studies, I was very inspired by John Cage and his I­Ching, chance based compositions. This inspiration as well as extended techniques for the electric guitar that I was developing at the time formed the conceptual foundation that I applied to video game systems. Then sometime in 2001, I had a dream that I was making glitchy art with the only computer I had at the time, my childhood Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

In the beginning I was using aluminum foil to recreate the graphic system crashes I remembered happening as a kid. That developed into preparing the NES with wires to make them intentionally short­circuit and spontaneously create abstract, geometric patterns. I borrowed the term “prepared” from John Cage’s “prepared piano.” I was adapting extended techniques for musical instruments to be used with video hardware. Similar to how Cage added objects to the strings of the piano to transform the timbre, I added wires to gaming systems’ electronics, transforming them from consumer gaming systems into generative art objects.

This was about four years before I became aware of anyone using the term “glitch art” to describe what I was doing. I was happy referring to it as a “Prepared NES.” I also used the word “Notendo” to describe it as a way to convey that it was another or hidden side of these Nintendos, the opposite of what they were intended to be used for.

CV: How was Glitchaus born?

JD: Glitchaus was more or less fully conceptualized back in 2001. The prepared NES graphics immediately reminded me of textile motifs. I felt then and still feel now that it is a very modern concept, that broken computer graphics can resemble both traditional and contemporary textile motifs. I felt that this was perfectly illustrated with my 2007 edition Notendo scarf. For this edition, a screen capture from the prepared NES was used for the motif which was knit pixel to stitch. The motif resembles both Navajo design and the jaggedness of houndstooth. The difference is that I created it by intentionally short­circuiting an 8bit video game.

In 2011 I settled on the name Glitchaus and established it to explore these concepts of design parallels as well as the idea that textiles can be used as a way to back up digital media. As a studio label it allows me the freedom to explore various digital techniques as both textile and surface design process.

CV: When we met, I remember you showed us different projects. Can you tell me more about them and what the concept/processes behind them were?

JD: There’s an overall concept and process behind each edition that revolves around conceiving of knit or woven textiles as pixel art. Pixel art and textile art both share the grid as their foundation. Early on I was interested in the history of textile production paralleling that of modern computers. The jacquard loom utilizing punch cards to execute instructions is obviously similar to early computers using punch cards to store programs. When I became aware of computer looms and knitting machines, conceptually, it all made perfect sense to me. It is a marriage of art forms that originated in 1801 inasmuch that jacquard looms are some of the earliest computers. We can think of woven textiles made with these machines as pixel art and the artists who create the punch cards as some of the first programmers.

A parallel I like is how woven textiles can seem “high res.” Since computer looms are able to achieve a high degree of detail, we see online services that offer to turn photographs into things like woven throws. I’m attracted to knit textiles because they feel more “low res” similar to 8bit graphics where the pixels are bigger and chunkier. Since my original inspiration was from the results of short­circuiting my 8bit video games, my first edition was a knit scarf with a “Notendo” motif.

© Jeff Donaldson

The concept behind the Notendo series centers on the similarity between broken 8bit graphics and traditional textile motifs. There are also parallels with 20th century designs. I’m a fan of Gunta Stölzl’s Bauhaus work, in particular. My process for creating the motifs involves preparing a NES to intentionally short­circuit. Once prepared, I then “play” the NES as an instrument while recording the video output. Finally I choose single video frames that I like and these become the motifs for knit and woven textiles.

The “Read Error” series is conceptually the same as the “Notendo” series. The difference is the process. For “Read Error” I’m using a late 1980s PC emulator to display programs at the wrong resolution. The unpredictable results are screen captured and I choose the ones that I like. These are designed to be knit pixel to stitch, effectively materializing the virtual.

For the “Data Knit” and “Data Weave” series I’m exploring the concept of knitting machines and computer looms tieing together the history of computation in textile design and production with current digital media. Using custom software, I view binary data graphically to create very detailed motifs. Each pixel represents each bit of data that makes up a JPG image or a computer program, for example. By knitting pixel to stitch, this effectively backs up digital media in textiles. I see this as a continuation of the ancient tradition of embedding information in textiles as well as a modern design process.

Working under the studio name Glitchaus, I’m interested in exploring what are now classic “glitch art” techniques for textile design. The HexEdit houndstooth scarf is the first edition that was designed by manipulating the data of an image file with a hexadecimal editor. A hexadecimal editor is software that allows you to open up any digital file as a series of hexadecimal numbers, edit the data and save your edits.

I chose houndstooth because it’s such a famous motif and it already looks glitchy! So, I manipulated the image data to create a motif that begins as houndstooth then unravels into digital noise.

The Gradient blankets aren’t “glitch art” but they do utilize generative process. The idea is that by creating a full colour gradient then downsampling it to three and four colour gradients, intricate patterns result from Photoshop’s diffused dithering algorithm. Then by machine knitting pixel to stitch, these extremely detailed patterns are materialized and can be experienced as tactile pixel fields.

CV: Glitch art revolves around the idea of digital malfunction. Why do you think this idea of a digital error is so appealing?

JD: I’ve always been attracted to the unpredictable nature of it. With glitches, you are experiencing moments in time. I once wrote about how a glitch can be thought of as the wave function collapse in quantum theory. A system is running like usual and then all of a sudden, this collapse happens and a new or unexpected observable state is exposed. In “glitch art” we experience it as scrambled pixels of familiar images or new graphic forms from unanticipated sources and techniques.

I personally think it also has to do with machine error representing a human element in tools that are sold as being capable of perfection. Digital errors bring a sort of analog warmth to what can be perceived as cold, logical systems.

© Jeff Donaldson

And, of course, there’s a sort of anti­establishment sentiment built in to an art movement based on breaking things. “Glitch art” runs the gamut from high art conceptualization to a punkish predilection for defacement which makes it appealing to a very broad audience.

CV: There is an increasing number of computer programmes and apps that are able to perform interesting creative tasks, what do you think is our role as artists/designers in the future? Are we going to become mere spectators of our machine's creations?

JD: I see my role as similar to how Brian Eno conceived of generative music in the 1990s: setting up parameters or initial states for systems to generate material from. To me, this idea is at the heart of what we now call “glitch art.”

Let’s say we want to manipulate the data of a JPG image, for example. What is happening is the JPG image format is acting as one parameter. The image format is the container or wrapper that enables the data representing the image to display correctly and render a viewable picture. The other parameter is the image data itself and that is what is manipulated to create a work of “glitch art.” By retaining the JPG header, software is able to interpret the manipulated image data as a JPG file and display it.

Another example is my prepared NES. The wired points on the machine act as one parameter of the system, the game software is the other. So, I see roles as moving toward creating new systems to generate various works. The challenge in this art lies in creating original systems.

In a way you could say that we’d become spectators but we would be spectators of our own systems creating works from the parameters we’ve chosen. And we can’t forget the importance of choosing which results to keep and which to forget! Something we humans like to call “taste.”

CV: It seems like your work is born from a dialogue between yourself and the various pieces of equipment that you use. Can you tell me more about this?

JD: Yes, that’s a very accurate observation. Coming from a music background, I applied my improvising experience with ensembles to my visual systems. There certainly is something of a dialogue between me and my prepared video hardware. I control this very chaotic output with switches. Since it’s unpredictable, there’s a sense that I’m collaborating with the machine. I’ve prepared it to continuously generate video which is guided by turning on and off different switches.

Manipulating image data can also be seen as a collaboration with file formats. The different formats provide the framework for the edited data to work within. The person’s role is to play with the source data and the machines role is to interpret it through various codecs.

CV: Do you prefer working with knit or print? what are the advantages and limitations of each method?

JD: Knit is my favourite. There are so many variations and techniques to bring out texture and structure. And the way it reminds me of low res, 8bit graphics, it’s like physically materializing pixels. I love the tactile quality of designing knits pixel to stitch. It gives much more depth and texture compared to the flatness of prints. The only advantage I see to prints, and why I design them, is that there isn’t as much of a colour limit for prints as with knits. Prints are for fun and especially easy to produce these days. Designing for knits is much more interesting to me. I love the ability to design each stitch.

CV: What are you currently working on and what's next?

JD: There are a few things currently in the works right now. I have a new series of Data Knits called “Malwear” that use famous computer virus binaries for motifs. Backing up these terrible little computer viruses in knits, pixel to stitch is a sure way to make them harmless! I’m nearly finished work with a programmer to develop an application to decode the Data Knits into viewable files. Work I began during a residency in Berlin using hacked domestic knitting machines is ongoing. More apparel is in the works and I have some continuing collaborations with designers in the UK and Japan. These things take time but it’s worth the wait.

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