The Artistic Process Behind “Glitch Painting”
by D.S. West
From Writing to Painting
Up until around my thirtieth year, I identified as a writer. I’d also explored photography and graphic design, but until my thirties, visual art was just a side project.
As tends to happen from time to time, in my late twenties, a condensed series of major changes turned everything upside down. I left what I knew behind and essentially started over. As life changed, I changed too– and writing no longer scratched my creative itch.
Writing encourages foresight, organization, accessibility. After gradually accepting I no longer cared to cultivate these qualities, that I needed a change of pace, I transitioned to painting. I didn’t know jack about painting, but working in the abstract– just having fun– allowed me to create without goals or expectations. My elementary knowledge of the tools and science of painting set my expectations low. I was free to create, with little to no concern for what I ended up with.
Perhaps the most famous advice administered to writers is, “Show don’t tell.” Painting helped me through what was tantamount to losing my faith, if I had faith. I’d lost my passion for telling. I didn’t just want to show, either– I wanted to see.
From Painting to Deliberate, Systematic Corruption
For over a year, I painted regularly. I also wrote poetry. Writing had become secondary. I felt replenished when I painted. I relaxed– as crude as my process and methods were, I never knew what to expect from a session, and that thrilled me.
Then, trouble in acrylic paradise: I began to run out of room.
I’d developed a preference for large canvases, enough that smaller pieces failed to scratch my itch. I only had so much closet space. Since I wasn’t interested in selling my work, material costs were also a concern. The inconvenience of working large scale eroded the thrill of working at all.
Without an audience or a story to tell, a full return to writing seemed unlikely. Feeling cornered, I attempted to transition to a digital process. I’d explored photography and graphics editing in the past, but following my little abstract renaissance, working via commands and an Undo button felt stale, predictable. Where painting had taken me down rabbit holes, graphics editing was plain and antiseptic. I could study tutorials and hone my craft, but to what end? I wanted to be led around in the dark. How could I be content showing, when I wanted to see?
Bored, my tires stuck in the mud, I did what I could to entertain myself. I tried out new graphics editors, needlessly invested in a newer camera… I also researched glitch art, the practice of intentionally distorting or destroying image code for artistic effect. Enter: the digital rabbit hole.
The Digital Rabbit Hole
Glitch effects, or as I refer to them “corruptive methods,” can be produced by most any graphics editor. Filters and presets can add the distortions we associate with glitch. The results are less certain, however, and arguably more gratifying, when the code is damaged in a more immediate fashion. Glitch effects can be produced via the damage or improper use of cameras and scanners, or by editing image code in a text (or sound) editor. I use a variety of methods, but editing code by hand is by far the most gratifying.
Hacking image code is a perversion of writing, which I once loved. The code that appears in a text editor when you open an image is a mess of symbols. Normally, symbols and numbers have meaning when they appear on pages or screens. In the context of hacking image code, there are no words, no meanings to discern. Changes to this code, however, can have minor or catastrophic effects on the image. The results of editing this image script are unclear until the code is again opened as an image. It’s like banging your fingers blindfolded on a foreign typewriter, removing the blindfold and reading the story you’ve accidentally written, the very first time.
When I first explored using glitch techniques, I was far too down on myself to create. I was sullen. For the first few months I experimented out of boredom, corrupting photographs and drawings saved to my hard drive from years before. There was an aspect of self-harm to this practice, at least initially. I hated myself, I had no regard for my art. I felt worthless. In my mind, destroying what I’d created in the past was the last frontier available to me. Glitch art was my death knell. I was caught up in a novelty. I had nowhere else to run.
From Systematic Corruption to ‘Glitch Paintings’
After those first difficult months, I began to feel a tickle of inspiration. Corrupting my own work had begun as self-loathing, but doing so, I came to regard the destructive practice as a legitimate creative method. Inspired by intentional visual destruction, I resumed actively creating.
I think of the creative work I produce now as “glitch paintings.” Initially I was a purist, only using glitch methods and omitting all but minor adjustments in a graphics editor. Now that I’m ‘painting,’ I don’t mind using an editor to finish or add to a piece, but I still rely on the corruptive methods until I begin to see a distinct texture or hints of unforeseen structure(s).
I collect materials from a variety of sources. I incorporate automatic writing/drawing, sketches, scan hacks of family photos and collages, and pictures of found objects that tickle my art nerve– dilapidated walls, debris, items from thrift stores, intentionally crappy low-light concert pictures, even cracked or broken sidewalks. Anything that results in a tingle of the art nerve can be snapped with my phone or camera, or cut and glued and subjected to a scanner hack. I’m not painting, per se, but I’m painting with everything I can get my hands on.
After collecting enough materials, I corrupt some or all of the elements, open them in a graphics editor, and begin combining and layering them. Sometimes I can finish a piece after one cycle, but in most cases I collect at least one additional round of resource images before I begin to feel I’m approaching completion. This process enables me to work in larger formats. My files tend to be large, but I no longer have to store large canvases, nor do I have to settle for smaller, cheaper surfaces to save room.
My paintings now take up zero close space. My finished work is so convenient these days, I wonder if it really exists.
Glitch art appeals to me as a creator and as a product of the times. My reverence for destruction as a creative faculty also ties in with my interest in spiritual philosophy. Though I’m not especially religious, I’m drawn to and inspired by gods of destruction– Ishtar, Kali and the like. In polytheistic religious systems, destruction is often regarded as a positive, generative force. This is a better attitude, I think, than the clean, neat = good; dirty, irregular = bad paradigm that insists on perfect looks and sustainment of the status quo.
Flowers bloom from manure, which are feces, which are foodstuffs that have been chewed and digested. Destruction isn’t evil. However fearsome, destruction is natural– and necessary. (There’s a beauty to a cracked or crumbling city sidewalk I simply can’t shake.)
Glitch art is a celebration of decay, as well as of motion. Even through stationary images, glitch art is the emulation of flickering screens. Color waves, irregular blurs, a partially cohesive image breaking apart into strands or flecks of snow– glitch art depicts the gap between a screen grab and a refreshing CRT monitor; between stillness and motion; clarity and obscurity.
The primary influence on my art style, Brion Gysin, has no direct relationship with glitch art. In an essay on his friend Gysin’s paintings, “Ports of Entry: Here is Space-time Painting,” William S. Burroughs celebrates Gysin’s surreal landscape paintings for their uncanny ability to transport him to other worlds. “The pictures constantly change because you are drawn into time travel on a network of associations,” writes Burroughs. Gysin painted loose visual structures, pseudo-landscapes comprising calligraphy, space, and color. The paintings were fixed images, but the observer’s experience viewing them were in flux. A Gysin painting flirts with motion and interpretation but commits to neither.
Brion Gysin preceded game cartridge read errors and scrambled pay-per-views, but his paintings embrace the same qualities that make glitch art attractive to me, as both an artist and as an art lover. I don’t want to be in on the joke– I want to spot something spiritually sexy, something exquisite, in a mess of ones and zeroes. I long to create sublime religious art, and totally by accident. I long to create art for people can get lost in… myself included.
D.S. West is an artist residing in Lafayette, CO. His visual art has been published by *82 Review, Angel House Press, and Crack the Spine. His favorite fruit is the almighty avocado.