In this fascinating conversation with the prolific and voluble glitch artist sgt_slaughtermelon, we discuss the history of glitch, the influence of Kazimir Malevich, glitching emulator videogames, beautifully designed book covers with no named designers, and whether he’s the Michael Bay of Glitch.
MP: Can you tell me about yourself and your history with art and, in particular, glitch media?
SS: I’ve been computer graphics professionally and for fun since I was pretty young. I remember having Kid Pix. That’s a fond memory of the early days of kids making art on computers.
I started glitch art properly as an adult when I was adjunct teaching. It was supposed to be a crossover between technology students and art students, so we had to pick seminar subjects to teach some practical skills. Glitch art stuck out as really interesting. It’s something technology students ought to learn how to do just because it makes them learn to deal with file formats and how you break them, just good practical knowledge for technology and computer graphics students.
And then there’s the arts component [to teach]. There’s this whole movement led by people like Rosa Menkman and Michael Betancourt. I would take their stuff and talk about things like, “What does it mean to be making work in a digital space that exists as digital work from the very beginning?” It’s interesting to think about what it means to have images and art that we sort of imagine as being permanent and unbreakable just because it’s digital.
It’s not like a painting where you can spill something on it, or you mess it up, and now it’s ruined. Now, there’s this idea that this art exists almost intellectually; it exists as an idea of art that technically is represented by a certain amount of code that has pixels and so on and so forth.
Glitch art takes a step back to acknowledge that, yes, this is a digital medium, but it’s still a medium, and it can still break. These are not Platonic forms. It’s just a different kind of material. So, for me, that was interesting to get into and share with students.
My day job was making graphics, and no one ever asked me to break an image. This was a chance for my job to break things and explore and do the kinds of things that there’s never enough free time for.
MP: Can you briefly introduce glitch art to our readers?
SS: Yeah. One of my colleagues was studying Aldo Giorgini recently. He was a early digital artist who used math to create fractal-type things and optical illusions. I don’t do a lot of analog glitch art, but that’s where it started. People like Max Capacity are doing that kind of stuff, and people like Sara Zucker and Kate the Cursed are exploring circuit bending and malfunctioning gear.
I think you’ve got to study the difference between a failure and taking the failure of that equipment and seeing it as an aesthetic event. And that’s something that’s been going on since the beginning.
For instance, there’s a thing about lens flares, right? So you watch a Michael Bay movie, and they’re all over the place. They’re a kind of expression. But originally, they tried to get rid of lens flares in movies because that was a sign that they hadn’t angled the camera or the lights right. It took you out of the experience. And then eventually it became a token of authenticity to have the flair, to say, “We’re making art.” That level of artifice was okay. And then it went one further, and the artifice was the expression where Michael Bay would like to make fake lens flares to mimic authenticity.
Glitch art follows a similar sort of thing. Originally we tried to stop having errors because you want it to be able to draw a box, and it looks like a box. And after that, people are like, Oh, the box has rough edges because I want you to know that I’m using a computer, and that’s our shared experience of authenticity. And then eventually, it’s like, “look: no box, all edges.” We’re just making glitches. This third stage of graduating from “try to make it work” to “try and demonstrate how it works” to “try to make it not work as a new aesthetic experience.” In the most abstract terms, I would say that’s sort of a path of development that glitch art has taken.
MP: Would you call yourself the Michael Bay of Glitch Art?
SS: A little bit, actually. Not in the sense that I’m famous, but that I’m very rarely the one out there discovering effects. I don’t sit around trying to capture new glitches as much as I try to figure out how a certain glitch works, make it work as well as I can, make it predictable enough for my own purposes, and then make work from that.
You’ll see my glitches, and it’ll be an effect that I’ve done a hundred times. I figured out how it works. I try to make it happen like I want it to happen in my work. And yeah, it’s kind of like the lens flare. Michael Bay is using them differently; he’s making super crazy colored lens flares that can make an action scene look bonkers. And yeah, you can overuse that, and then it’s just bubblegum, but on another level, trying to recreate that with a regular camera and in-camera is impossible.
That’s where you get someone like me. My latest project looks like some broken ROM glitch sprite things. You can make a game screw up its sprite sheet by corrupting its hex code, and that can work and the wrong sprites end up in the wrong places, and that looks cool. But without tinkering behind the scenes, there’s no way to make it load another game’s sprite sheet. It just wouldn’t happen. It looks cool when you use an emulator to do that — which is what I’m doing — but it wouldn’t happen without someone engineering it knowing that’s what it’s going to do.
MP: Can you tell me about your creative relationship to the writings and work of Kazimir Malevich?
SS: Yeah, for sure. You know, there’s a truism that there’s nothing new. Everything’s been done. You don’t examine that very closely, and it’s like, “Yeah, that sounds right.”
But the United States is older than totally abstract art. Hilma af Klint was probably one of the first people doing it anywhere. We’ve had decorative art meant for pillows, clothes, a column, or whatever. But apart from Islamic and aniconic work, total abstraction is a novel thing in Western culture, this idea that you can express something that has no reference in the objective world.
The terms people use for this kind of thing are contradictory. It’s either 100% subjective, and the world you’re depicting is not objective. Or you can go to the other extreme and say the really, truly objective thing — the only thing you can access and that you can know — is what your expression is. It’s pretty solipsistic to make art that way, but at least you can be confident that’s what you’re expressing, right?
So what’s philosophically interesting about Malevich is he didn’t think, “Oh, well, maybe I’m on to something.” No. He was a lunatic in the sense that he was a fanatic over his own ideas. He thought he was some kind of mystic, an original philosopher in a weird way. He made a lot of enemies, being a jerk who stuck to his guns.
MP: Would you recommend a good starting place for readers to scratch the surface?
SS: My whole excitement with it didn’t start with looking at his art, which I thought was just okay. I mean, if I’m honest, I like some of his friends, like Ivan Kliun, who I think is a better artist. But that’s not the point.
The point is, you see his art, these kinds of offset shapes. I remember this kind of thing from advertisements in the 1940s or whatever. It doesn’t look that incredible. It was reading his Suprematist Manifesto that was exciting to me because that’s when you see that, though as an artist, he’s just okay, but as a conceptual artist, he’s much more exciting.
This is when he’s somebody who wants to totally destroy tradition, and at the same time has a pretty like Russian Orthodox, mystical bent where he’s saying the same sorts of things that Medieval monks were saying, but it’s about these geometric squares. How do you not see that you’re in that tradition while trying to destroy it?
So that’s just what’s fascinating to me. It’s hard to not get excited while reading his writings. And I think you can only understand what he means when you start trying to make the kind of art he talks about. It helps you start to process what he means when he talks about planes in space and intimations of figures that arise out of nothing and trying to construct this space that is not objective but which, at the same time, is the only thing that’s objective.
MP: I read your essay about Inaccessible Worlds and was especially captivated by the creation of Neotorim as only being possible by ceding a large chunk of creative control to the code. You wrote a program to create random meaningless words, and you used “neotorim” and others as names. Using names with no meaning or connotation freed up your expectations of what the thing might look like, thus greater freedom to create. As a digital artist who often works with source material, how has your relationship to “absolute creative control” evolved?
SS: Absolutely. Not to get too far into it, but I’ve been a student of mystical traditions for a long time. And that’s not to say I’m a mystic or practicing any of those things. I just find it fascinating.
One really interesting stream for me is Kabbalah; Abraham Abulafia is a really interesting thinker. He talks about rearranging the Torah’s letters to discover new insights. But while doing it, don’t think about what you’re doing. Don’t try to control it. Don’t try to have it be you working out some new thing you know about your religion.
He was using abstract language and syllables and characters to try to receive meaning. It sounds a bit like Ouiji when you put it like that, but that’s the gist. It’s this whole human tradition of: What does it mean to have something other than a Promethean understanding of the craziest true thing? Meaning that we don’t steal fire from the gods. We have to let it come down, right?
As an artist, that’s one of the most fascinating things, You can read Kandinsky, and it’s all throughout what he’s doing. And even Malevich. He doesn’t just say, “I’m expressing all these things.” He says that sometimes you start putting things in their place, and you realize it has to be a certain way. I think the actual quote is, “the forms reveal themselves.”
And that’s fascinating to me: to realize that you’re not talking about anything you see or experience in the world. And yet when you start trying to make the thing, you’re not always controlling it. You’re revealing some other thing that you’re not getting through senses or rationality,
And that’s one of the most interesting things to try to explore with art and with aesthetics. What are these kinds of exploration that aren’t rational? And they aren’t empirical? And as far as we humans know, those are the only two reliable ways of knowing things. Right?
So what’s this other category? You might say it’s aesthetic. I don’t think that’s true. But let’s imagine it is. Then you’ve unified the aesthetic and the mystic impulse. And to me, that produces some of the most interesting art.
There’s art that explores the human condition. There’s art that explores suffering. There’s art that explores love. There’s art that explores, you know, rules we base society around. I’m interested primarily in art that explores the awe of discovery combined with expressing what that feels like.
If I make a really good piece of art, in my mind, the feeling someone should have is, “Oh, whoa.” And it’s not because it’s the most incredible virtuoso design they’ve ever seen. It’s just that, for a moment there, you can’t put your finger on it. It doesn’t look like a tree. It doesn’t look like a great rendering of a bridge. It looks like some thing that you’ve never considered before. That you never thought existed. And you still don’t think it exists. But then why do you think it looks good?
It doesn’t look good because it’s sexy. There’s no continue-the-species impulse. It doesn’t look good because it looks like food, and it’s supposed to be eaten and nourish your body. It looks good for no reason that you can understand, and that’s the exciting Why. It’s a big question of Why. There’s no answer, but art can help push the question.
MP: Can you tell me about GlitchForge?
SS: So Tartaria Archivist, my coding partner, and I wanted to create a generative glitch art platform on Tezos. When we started building, fxhash didn’t exist. We’d worked with ArtBlocks and knew some of its limitations. With ArtBlocks, you put in code, and it generates art.
As a glitch artist, I said, “Okay, but where do I put this 30-megabyte jpeg that I intend to break?” And the answer at ArtBlocks is, “We don’t do that here.” Which is fine. It wouldn’t make sense to do it because they store everything on-chain. And we realized that’s not what fxhash is doing either. But that’s what we wanted to do.
So that meant building it. One artist gives it all the raw materials, and a coder comes in and says, “Now make it do this, this, and this.” We have a vision for a collaborative platform where artists and coders could make stuff together.
We’re not competing with other people. We’re trying to do a thing that no one else can do. We’re almost finishing three different projects. The whole idea is that people can generate glitch art. You bid to create it. It’s not minted, so it’s not a blind mint. But you bid to keep your favorite piece in the top 30, and if it slips out of the top 30, it gets “smelted,” and you need to create a new one.
The mechanism is in hopes of the collectors being curators while we create something without gas fees because it’s on Tezos. I don’t think anyone will get rich off of it, but that’s okay because we wanted to make something that could do this.
MP: What are the new projects coming up on GlitchForge?
SS: Yes, there are three.
For Inaccessible Worlds, a friend of mine named Bunloaf is helping code a version of it called Kill Screens. It takes a lot of this raw imagery I put through and gave him and makes gif animations of how a video game crashes and breaks. It’s cool to see. I think it’s a unique addition to the project.
Then we got jrdsctt doing his thing. He took all these AI images — he curated a giant collection that Luka has made into a bunch of crazy dither effects. It looks like a glitched sort of retro neon landscape, with a really dark tint. It’s pretty cool.
And then, finally, there’s another one going on with NukeHype and Frederative. It’s kind of like the stuff I want to make. NukeHype is better at this sort of thing: polished combinations of processing and After Effects, but then taking that and processing it with all these bend, break, dither type things that our friend Frederative is building.
MP: You have a Swiss modernist alter ego, Lazlo Lissitsky. What are the latest developments with this project? It feels of a spirit with The Suprematism of Sargei Slaughtermelovich and Sega Sibyl. Can you comment on the urge to divide “canon slaughtermelon” from “tangential slaughtermelon”?
SS: I think all of it is canon. I don’t do any work that has to exist separate from the rest. I think sometimes you can get a little cartoony with it, and then people who don’t know you just think you’re messing around and don’t take it seriously. That’s not really what the goal is either.
As someone who genuinely appreciates Swiss modern graphic design, I found that there are so many beautifully designed book covers, and no one even properly recorded who designed them. And that’s a shame.
No one will ever know these great designers because it wasn’t important at the time. But every now and then, you find one with a name, and he’s supposed to be really famous, then you see the list of books he’s done. And that’s the sort of thing that idea comes from.
Making them up for Laszlo was fun because these are things that you imagine a designer working on: a great abstract modernist Swiss design style, and it’s for a cookbook for making highly specific Neo-Scandinavian backwater style eggs, like such a niche that only five people would ever keep as a paperback.
It’s fun and a way of expressing a sort of mourning for that art movement that got wasted on shallow commercialism.
But there’s a few in there you can find, like a book of Zen aphorisms or something like that. It almost steps back for a moment, and it’s like, this is simple. This is beautiful. This is a tiny little moment that existed in a transitory paperback, but it’s stark, and it’s simple, and for a moment, you can see that like they did that cover correctly. And yeah, it’ll go back into the Earth at some point.