Artificial Expressionism

There is a sense that the hierarchy of ‘digital visual art versus electronic music’ is being dismantled. Artists and musicians alike are transcending the language of image and sound as these territories begin to draw from the same new technologies.

This crossover of practices and techniques is evolving in the form of short films and videos, where data flow and the interpretation of information is explored formally and representationally.

Artists from Qubo Gas to reMI are conducting unique explorations in an emerging international network. New forms of expression are rapidly emerging, keeping pace with technological progress, as audiences adapt to changing trends alongside these developments.

From cinema or internet-based films to live video performances, the context is constantly in flux. This pixel-fuelled abstraction puts in motion a static style that was historically confined to the printed page.

The Artificial Expressionism scene has emerged, set against the digital noise and sample degradation of certain electronic music. These artists are producing work that establishes an ultimatum for the termination of wallpaper visuals.

The initial mid-nineties wave of underground video for live and experimental electronic music was mainly concerned with sampling and collage/montage of images. It recontextualised TV culture and focused on disinformation by undermining the medium and rhythmically choreographing video bytes to music.

More recently the computer boom led to a proliferation of PCs and ‘warez’. What was expensive to produce became available via the domestic market, and as computers improved users developed skills in step with the potential of the hardware and software.

New digital audiovisual techniques and styles developed, and the focus became the potential of what new technologies could achieve in the hands of artists. The current digital boom in the audiovisual world relates to the freedom that previous technological advances introduced. Low cost computers can now handle video as easily as they could handle audio five years ago.

This explosion of new work is not unexpected, as artists are always at the forefront of new technologies. The contemporary artist’s role might be seen as exploring the relationship between technique and visual representation.

Certain branches of the electronic music scene were getting closer to forms of artistic expressions, leaving behind their origins in dance music. Artists on the Mille Plateaux and Mego labels, eg Oval and Pan Sonic, began to push the limits of technology. They stretched the limits of human audible perception and started to explore the listening side of dance music.

Two audiovisual styles stand out in this field.

Firstly there is a formal exploration presenting raw data and analogue signals ̶ neither tampering with nor recontextualising information. Through hardware/software dysfunctions digital errors are exploited as part of the process. The glitch is born as a creative element.

This deconstruction reveals flaws and cracks within the seemingly hygienic purity of the computer, using this dirt or grain as a reflection of the reality of non-linear randomness. In its most reduced form the computer-manipulated image becomes a pixel, whilst the sound equivalent becomes a single tone or pulse. Using digital information as the carrier signal for the image, audio / visual glitches become the context for Artificial Expressionism.

The second style is focused on digital representation which combines technique with content and digital with analogue. The work is more informed by the signature of the artist than by the computer itself. Although each artist may use the same software they use it in a personal way.

Works coming from these approaches often defy definition; are they films, visual music scores or works of art? These works challenge the genre of cut and paste club visuals or MTV filler. Within this digital arena artists are producing more focused, considered works.

Many visual artists have found common ground within this exploration of digital space. Each computer system or piece of software has its own limitations offering creative potential beyond its own intended use.

Artists like reMI and Bas Van Koolwijk (Austria/Holland) found a personal style through process based pieces. reMI explains ‘For instance, by allowing a particular version of Adobe Premiere to run in a windows environment the computer becomes irritated and itself produces images. Because the image is disturbed it flips out and begins to live a life of its own. As soon as you open the file of the video signal, the structure repeats itself in the frame. Files of this sort are the basic foundation of images for the film’.

SoundLab artists (NYC) Howard Goldkrand and Beth Coleman’s film Tilt, was similarly formed out of electronically disturbed code where images were taken from the flow of data.

Qubo Gas’ (France) slant is personal, abstract and figurative, utilising similar methods to those used by Dat Politics in their collaborations with musicians. Both have treated viewers to a noisy mess of pixels and badly cut up graphical squiggles that wholly complement the quirky abstract nature of each other. In their latest live audiovisual performance Vanty Pup, Scratch Pet Land play the soundtrack while Qubo Gas perform their interactive animation.

Skot ( Austria) have helped to establish a scene around live video and digital manipulation. There are growing communities who implement Nato (a software plug in that allows access to and control of video data sources) who create algorhythmic-influenced hacked images.

People Like Us (UK) have developed a visual narrative style based on sampling cultural oddities, and have now begun to produce much of their work as musical films. Their is a growing focus on incorporating a video element into live electronic music, and many musicians are developing their own music and video simultaneously.

Although People Like Us and other sample-based musicians have a tradition of using readymade music and video, their ability to work this way is dependant on computer collage and editing. It has as much to do with the digital scene as more extreme formal works.

Throughout our work we have sought to physically tie the senses of sight and sound in an attempt to transcend their differences and possibly find a place where they have no distinction. We have explored particular system errors, wrenching out broken data as the visual and aural content to produce process-based films.

Works which are a true fusion of sound and image are often the same thing. The flow of data through the system is split into separate elements and given a role reversal, presenting the image as the sound or the sound as the image. In works such as Puffed Rice and Yes You Are Right! (A direct aural assault on the retina), we forged ways to channel audio information into a visual form.

Sometimes different forms of information are taken from the same source (data/signal), and diverted from their designed path to find themselves being read by unintentioned sensory organs. In these formal explorations the computer is both the method and the content. Through an absence of metaphors the digital and analogue signals hold a neutrality of their own as they were never made to be read by our eyes and ears.

The film A to Z of Noise, (a sound recording of the 20th century played in 60 seconds), uses tools for cleaning up images and audio to create interference, by pushing them beyond their limits.

In other films we take a different approach, blending the handmade with digital and analogue data. Each has a distinctive visual style which acknowledges the role of the computer as co-architect (semi-conductor). Experimenting with the direct relationship between sound and image, we use the landscape of architecture as a means to describe an aural and visual interpretation of the world.

Retropolis 1999 takes the viewer through a paper constructed sci-fi London where electricity is the audible terrain; Linear 2001 links the sub-atomic world of ‘String theory’ to our urban landscapes through the vibrations of sound; and in Earthquake Films 2000 cities and buildings are shaken by songlines sung by earthquakes.

Most recently collaborations with musicians QT and Mứm have widened our acoustic playground. These methods of representation create clear links between the audio and the visual landscape where fictional relationships are suggested. As soundscapes define the narrative the cinematic sets the scene.

Artificial Expressionism consents to a pledge between the artist and the computer as they cooperate to evolve new senses and meanings. These have a dynamic relationship with the audience where the creation takes many forms, as cinema or online works and as live performance. Artists have a role in channelling the status quo in its acceptance of digital media as the new art form.

Current audiovisual experimentation is laying the foundations for future expressions. Possibilities for live and experimental manipulation of time-based images have come to the forefront of this multi-disciplinary field. As the power to create more complex live narratives develops there will be a greater engagement in questioning the role of the computer and what it brings to the work.

Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt

Edited by Greg Daville