Transcript: E06 sgt_slaughtermelon — The Best Kinds of Collaborators, Balancing Depth & Fun, Glitch Forge, Lisa Frank, and Reinvention vs. “The Signature Style.”

sgt_slaughtermelon is a digital artist working mostly in abstract compositions – often code-driven. His designs span the gamut from looking backward to modernist and Bahaus-influenced geometric abstraction to crumbling code-addled neon structures fit for a future age. 

He is best known for his Artblocks drop autoRAD, “Lazlo Lissitsky” generative Swiss modern collection, and his glitch artwork across the blockchain and on album covers. He recently had a sold-out drop called Cantographs on the Canto blockchain and, the same week, a sold-out collaboration with FiveTimesNo on MakersPlace. 

Slaughtermelon earns the high distinction in my book as being an articulate artist who takes his art seriously while at the same time being incredibly playful and taking absolutely nothing seriously. If you’re interested in his work, I highly recommend you check out his website to read some of the extensive essays he writes on each of his series. 

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See our show notes for this episode here.

You can read our very first interview with sgt_slaughtermelon here.

[1:54] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Hi. Did I mention the new collection we’ve been working on for Canto?

[2:04] Brady Walker:

I believe you did, but let’s go over it again now that we’re recording.

[2:11] sgt_slaughtermelon:

We’ve been working on a series of Async Art blueprints, titled Inaccessible Worlds. The name arose from my experience playing glitched ROMs. I was using a tool that corrupts, changes, or modifies the hex code of an NES rom at set intervals. If you’re not familiar with the game’s various values, you won’t know what these changes will do in advance. Even if you do know, it’s often a game of guesswork. You keep altering corruption values, ranges, and intervals until the game functions in an interesting way.

My approach was to play uncorrupted versions of the games, saving at different points. Afterward, I would corrupt the ROM and try loading those save states. I discovered that loading states from the start of the game would immediately crash it. However, states saved from deeper into the game, say level three or four, were playable. These parts of the game would be inaccessible if you attempted to start from the beginning. You’d have to have a saved state inside this “wall of corruption” to start playing. This concept intrigued me – that these locations couldn’t be reached unless you manipulated the game state.

[4:05] Brady Walker:

So, you corrupted the games so thoroughly that the only playable parts left were these saved states?

[4:18] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Exactly, that’s where the name originated. I also tried video captures and discovered tricks like loading a saved state with a different game. Mostly it doesn’t work, but sometimes you see a strange amalgamation of one game’s sprites in the color scheme and arrangement of another game’s saved state. Sometimes the game even attempts to play. It’s a fascinating exploration of how these games can be distorted to create an ephemeral new world.

I find it similar to the experiences some people describe with drug culture. It’s like altering your brain chemistry and functioning, sometimes incorrectly, for a while. The question then arises – are you gaining enlightenment, or does the impairment make you think you’re enlightened? Are you glimpsing a different world that is usually hidden, or is it simply a broken game? This is what I find compelling about these corrupted video game worlds.

[5:53] Brady Walker:

I think your approach offers an interesting metaphor for glitch art as a whole. This leads me to a question I had in mind. I ask this because I know you articulate these concepts very well. How would you describe your art to someone who was blinded right before they could see it? They have some point of reference prior, but they’ve never seen your work. And maybe they’re not familiar with the broader corpus from which you draw inspiration?

[6:34] sgt_slaughtermelon:

In broad strokes, much of my art is composed of geometric shapes, typically abstract compositions, with seldom real-world references. But there’s a larger question within your question, and that involves the assumptions it carries. For example, if David Bowie, God rest his soul, were asked to describe his music, you’d need to specify which album. His early work differs greatly from what he produced in the 90s. Describing one song or style wouldn’t capture his body of work as a whole.

[7:25] Brady Walker:

Do you think in that case he might have defaulted to describing a process or a philosophy that guided or was a thread throughout his career?

[7:39] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Certainly, if you watch his interviews, that’s what he did. But that approach doesn’t necessarily give you a clear expectation of what you’ll hear when you put on your headphones. What did he create because of that process or philosophy? There’s no definitive answer, because it’s dependent on where he was heading or what idea he was exploring at the time.

[8:03] Brady Walker:

Right, it’s a bit like tap dancing around architecture, isn’t it?

[8:11] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Precisely. If I were to describe my work, I would say a consistent theme is my preference for tool-assisted art. Now, this term has taken on a different meaning with the rise of AI, which I don’t utilize as much. For me, tool-assisted refers to using code, programs, or machines to create art that I couldn’t achieve with just my hands or Photoshop without additional software or tricks.

[8:50] Brady Walker:

As a digital artist, do you ever use physical tools? Do you pick up a pencil and paper?

[8:57] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Yes, but not frequently. I believe my impatience stems from not being the best traditional artist. I can draw, but usually, I start contemplating how to transition the piece into something digital. As a result, I often lack the patience to complete something physically.

[9:29] Brady Walker:

So you don’t use these tools for preparatory purposes, like when working out ideas?

[9:38] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Sometimes. For instance, I have a high-resolution scanner that I use to scan print artifacts and mail. When I look at these print things, I see the potential for creating something really cool due to the scanner’s ability to capture textures that are often overlooked in daily life. If I start creating art with watercolors, I’m thinking about how these textures will look scanned at a high resolution and how I can make something novel out of that. My entire process is so ingrained with digital assumptions that I seldom consider the final physical material. Often, I discard the raw material after using it for a digital project.

[10:55] Brady Walker:

That’s intriguing. In a similar vein, I wanted to discuss collaboration. Bowie was known for his collaborations, and you’ve also done many, especially in the glitch community. This community is notorious for collaborations due to the inherent nature of glitch art. So, what do you gain from collaborations? What have you learned from them that you’ve applied to your own process?

[11:46] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Great question. The best collaborations are with people who I can see will create something with me that neither of us could achieve individually. That’s the real essence of a good collaboration. I’ve been part of projects where I realized I could do it all by myself, but it’s not the same. It lacks the novelty of a joint effort. I tend to work tirelessly until a project is completed, so the intermittent nature of collaborations can be a little frustrating if I think I could do the other part.

Glitch art has a low entry bar but an incredibly high ceiling. Some artists, like Kim Asendorf, do things no one else knows how to replicate. That’s what’s exciting about glitch art. There’s an endless number of unexplored paths. It’s thrilling when you find someone who has ventured down one of these obscure paths, meeting them where they are, and working together to push the boundaries of what’s possible with code and art.

[13:45] Brady Walker:

Yeah, that’s interesting. Glitch art is fascinating because it’s like figuring out how to delicately break a mirror without fully breaking it. The mirror still needs to function in some way. Can you talk a bit about your background in glitch art and explain it for listeners who might not be familiar?

[14:11] sgt_slaughtermelon:

Sure. I got started when I was an adjunct professor. We were teaching technology students about the humanities and arts. Part of that included workshops where we’d introduce something cool for graphic students. Glitch art was one of the seminars we put on. My approach to learning is usually to try and learn everything I can. So, I started researching who the prominent figures in glitch art were. I looked up different people and found Rosa Menkman and Michael Betancourt to be quite influential.

We taught the students how to make glitch art using tools like Processing and Audacity. It was exciting to see the students go from having a basic understanding of file formats to knowing how they work in detail. I think that understanding made their art better. And I just kept running with it, exploring new types of glitch and dabbling in programming.

As for glitch art itself, it’s interesting because there’s a whole world of analog glitch art involving equipment that doesn’t work right and feedback loops, which I never really got into. That’s part of what makes me so enthusiastic about it; I can appreciate it from an objective perspective. That’s how I got into glitch and its history.

[17:44] Brady Walker:

Do you know if any of those students are still making glitch art?

[17:49] sgt_slaughtermelon:

I’m not sure, maybe? Some of them probably are.

[17:57] Brady Walker:

Another interesting thing about glitch art is knowing when a piece is finished, because there’s so many processes that you can invoke. And are you saving as you go? Or are you kind of just going for it and seeing what happens?

[18:28] sgt_slaughtermelon:

That’s a good question. It depends on the project, really. When I work, I usually don’t glitch the finished piece. Instead, I glitch source materials and then compose them into something. Knowing when it’s finished? That depends on what I’m working on. If it’s a series, does it fit the series? The complexity or minimalism of the series can also affect when a piece is done.

I used to believe that creating these giant, high-resolution art pieces full of details was going to be satisfying for people. But unless you see it on a full-screen display, a lot of those details are lost. I’ve learned that composition is crucial, and that sometimes, too much texture can be overwhelming. Finding the balance between discovery and restraint is key.

[20:41] Brady Walker: On that note, as a digital artist, how do you envision your work in the real world? Do you contemplate how it will look on a screen, or as a print? Do you actively attempt to transition your art into physical collectibles or pieces that can hang on the wall?

[21:10] sgt_slaughtermelon: Yes and no. I’ve tried selling directly, hiring a local printer to produce items and mailing them out myself. It’s a headache, and the profit margin is quite thin. Particularly when you get into crypto. For instance, someone might buy a piece in Denmark. That’s great, until you realize the shipping costs equal your sales price. I have a shop where you can pay with crypto and I’ve outsourced shipping. This just makes more sense, especially when sales don’t scale well. Unless you’re selling thousands of items, it’s hard to make a profit. And the money earned from art sales is what justifies carving out time for it in your life. I do have a family to consider. This art sales process frees me up to spend more time with them. So, yes, I’ve tried printing things. But a lot of my work is designed for screens.

I believe in crypto art and digital art that remains digital. When you design something to look cool on a screen, printing it on various materials won’t capture the same essence. There’s a lot of talk about the metaverse and such, but the reality is, if you’re interacting with people on screens, displaying art on those screens, you’re living in a kind of metaverse. This is where digital art finds its home. If you’re spending significant time on screens and the art enriches that time, that’s digital art. It’s not about making a special trip to your computer to view it. The art is part of your everyday life on screens.

Certain pieces I create make more sense as prints, but usually it’s different. For instance, an ammoniac mod archive piece from my early days or a piece that looks like a Russian avant garde. Things that are more comfortable existing in a printed space.

[24:17] Brady Walker: That makes a lot of sense. However, I would argue that you still have to intentionally seek out your art while on your computer. I have a lot of art that I haven’t looked at in months. I might look at it when I first acquire it, and then only come across it when I’m in my wallet or on whatever platform I use.

[24:42] sgt_slaughtermelon: True, but you could theoretically save it as your desktop, right?

[24:50] Brady Walker: Fair point. Let’s pivot a bit. I’m curious to know about some of the communities you’re involved in, specifically Based Money and Based Ghouls. Can you tell me about that community?

[25:13] sgt_slaughtermelon: Absolutely. Right now, I’m wearing my Moon Based shirt from Google Last summer, when Based Ghouls launched, I published an autobiographical article about how I got into crypto art and became involved with the Based community. It was a little embarrassing, as people had assumed I was a crypto insider, a savvy artist crafting pieces for this edgy community. When they read the article, they realized I was just an artist who stumbled into this almost by chance.

Based Money was an algorithmic stablecoin with a rebasing function that adjusted the coin’s supply rather than its value to re-peg it to the dollar. That was my first exposure to crypto. I hadn’t even owned Bitcoin or knew what Ethereum was. The first crypto concept I had to grasp was an algorithmic stablecoin that was also a meme coin.

The coin was designed to be pegged to a dollar, but it spiked to some crazy heights, like three or four hundred dollars each. That was wild and chaotic. It felt like playing a game of chicken, trading and buying this unpredictable token.

Just as that was winding down, they started a new thing, Moon Based, represented by my shirt. It was essentially crowdsourced venture capitalist funding. The idea was to pool resources to help start crypto projects with shared ownership. It was a crazy idea with a cool interface, featuring a starship moving through space and partner projects displayed as tokens.

Next, they planned to launch Based Loans, which was to be a loan platform like Compound Finance, but for meme coins like Dogecoin and Shiba Inu. It would essentially be a functioning loan market for coins that people weren’t generally lending or offering as collateral due to their volatility. However, everyone got spread too thin, and it didn’t pan out.

Throughout this period, I was involved with the community, making NFT art of various members. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but it did, to a certain extent. We became friends and would hang out, even after the failure of some projects that we were enthusiastic about. The community became a place to share our crypto misadventures, exposing me to things like Polygon or Gnosis safe multisig that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

We would support each other when launching projects or trying out new tokens. We’re genuinely nice people who refrain from ripping each other off when we could. And then, we made Based Ghouls, which is our profile picture (PFP) project that represents our shared history of failed projects and DeFi shenanigans.

[31:15] Brady Walker: Did any of that play into the founding of Glitch Forge?

[31:20] sgt_slaughtermelon: Not really, because the Based Ghouls crowd is generally more serious about their DeFi. Some of my close friends from there have toyed with Glitch Forge, but it was more of my pet project. To the prominent developers and figures in the Ethereum community I’ve talked to, Tezos isn’t appealing. They see no good reason to use it, apart from the fact that its fees are cheap and it functions much like an EVM wallet. Those are the reasons artists like it. However, it doesn’t align with the finance mechanisms these developers are focusing on.

[32:34] Brady Walker: I see. Could you take a step back and tell our listeners about Glitch Forge?

[32:40] sgt_slaughtermelon: Certainly. Glitch Forge was conceived as a generative art tool for Tezos, somewhat like a sandbox for P5.js programs. We wanted to build a back end using Python and Node.js, where artists could collaborate with coders. The idea was to process large amounts of source material through filters, reorganize it, manipulate pixels, and use code to generate unique projects.

To make this happen, we need to upload gigabytes of storage for the raw material. We have to ensure that the content is appropriate and that the code doesn’t break anything. It’s a complex process, but once it’s up and running, the results can be astounding. A project on there by Jared Scott and Luca Pisarek, for example, creates real-time GIFs.

We aimed to create something unique that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The auction format works well with this model since transactions on Tezos are cheap, and people can afford to bid multiple times. We’ve also made an on-demand version for pre-rendered series. We wanted to provide versatility for those who might not be keen on working with a coder to build large-scale projects.

[34:59] Brady Walker: It’s impressive how you’ve developed Glitch Forge. Could you delve into the gamification aspect? It seems to be a fascinating part of the platform.

[35:08] sgt_slaughtermelon: It’s a great feature indeed. Interestingly, I didn’t create that aspect – our developers conceived and built it. Here’s how it works: for every auction we start, a set number of tokens are due to be minted at the end. However, they aren’t minted until the auction concludes, and you rank among the top 16 or 32, depending on the rules of that particular auction.

When you bid, you compete for one of the final spots to generate your art. However, if you decide you’re not fond of your creation and let others outbid you, your piece will be eliminated if it’s pushed out of the top spots. As bids continue to climb and time elapses, your piece might end up in the “smelter” where it’s deleted, and it never gets minted or goes on-chain.

This mechanism makes the auction more interesting. Participants pay a premium to influence what gets minted, instead of being stuck with a blind event. It also offers glimpses of the parts of the project that never make it to the chain, revealing the potential and diversity of the project. It differentiates what makes it into the collection versus what’s merely possible.

However, the journey has not been without challenges. Tezos took a significant dip just as we were finishing up and seeking programmers. Moreover, coordinating everything – from hosting servers, developing the platform, finding competent artists who can provide sources and write code – takes considerable time and effort. It’s a labor-intensive process, but we believe it’s worth it.

[37:30] Brady Walker: I find it a fascinating project.

[37:32] sgt_slaughtermelon: Thank you. I absolutely love it and I hope more people will come to appreciate its unique aspects.

[37:38] Brady Walker: As we take another pivot, I want to delve into some practical advice for our listeners. Earlier, we talked about balancing consistency and eclecticism in art. In the crypto art space, some artists display an array of styles, jumping from one program to another and using different source materials. Their work often lacks a recognizable signature. On the other hand, some artists continually repeat themselves. How do you balance maintaining a signature style without falling into the trap of repetition?

[38:45] sgt_slaughtermelon: That’s a profound question, and I don’t believe any artist has a perfect solution. I’ve recently been comparing this situation to musicians. With music, we anticipate an album to have a certain consistency, but we don’t necessarily expect the next album to resemble the previous one. Yet, we can still appreciate it’s the same artist. This isn’t quite the case for painters; they usually present a more continuous style.

With musicians, there’s an expectation of creating something different each time, and multiple different things at once. It’s a challenge to discern the consistent thread when producing different series. If you veer too far off course, it might feel like it’s not truly your work. I don’t have all the answers, but my approach is to make each series as good as I can, trusting that my artistic intuition will serve as the unifying element.

If my intuition fails to maintain consistency, then it would be hard for me to trust myself to explore new territories. I’ve created pieces with friends that significantly diverged from my typical style, yet they could still identify my touch in the work. However, if I were to define what that touch or sensibility is, I couldn’t because then I’d be trying to abstract rules or guidelines out of something that is essentially intuition.

[41:05] Brady Walker: I’m curious about your current Profile Picture (PFP) project you’re working on. Would I be able to identify it as a piece of your work?

[41:23] sgt_slaughtermelon: My secret PFP project isn’t necessarily an artistic expression in the usual sense. It’s more of a tribute, a fun endeavor. When it gets released, the part of my signature you might recognize is the conceptual underpinning. It’s not just another FBX project, but an attempt to create complete characters, scenes, and props that fit a familiar context.

Too many PFP projects feel arbitrary. Why does one character have laser eyes while another wears a peculiar hat? Often, it means nothing and that’s boring. Good projects have a vision for an internally consistent world. Take the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) for example. It’s filled with references to the early DeFi world and its mythological lore. Each trait is a reference, not random.

That’s what my PFP project aims to bring – an internally consistent expression of an idea we found enjoyable to work on, not just to make a bunch of money or establish an organic community. It’s not about being the next big thing.

[43:57] Brady Walker: From our conversations, it seems like you create art that you want people to enjoy without overthinking, even though you yourself ponder over it deeply. It’s as if you’re thinking Malevich, but want the audience to just enjoy it like they would Lisa Frank.

[44:53] sgt_slaughtermelon: That’s an accurate observation. It’s partly due to the current platforms where these conversations take place, predominantly Twitter, which isn’t conducive to nuanced thoughts. Presenting profound or even just interesting ideas there feels like pushing a rock up a hill – laborious and seemingly unending.

The key is not to take ourselves too seriously. If we truly understand the meaninglessness of it all, then irony and nonchalance make more sense than nobility or defiance. There’s no profound defiance against nothingness or shouting into a void.

I write deep, lengthy articles more for myself, to articulate my thoughts and invest intellectually, aesthetically, and experientially into my work. I don’t expect everyone to engage at the same level, and that’s perfectly okay. Art can be enjoyed without having to grapple with every underlying concept. Sometimes, you just enjoy the piece, no overthinking required.

[49:14] Brady Walker: Right? Yeah, I’ve been to Marfa a couple of times and I’ve seen and read a little bit of Donald Judd’s work. In many respects, the elaborations on his work are more interesting than the work itself, to be quite honest. I wonder what his work would look like if he had a sense of irony or humor.

[49:46] sgt_slaughtermelon: Yeah, yeah.

[49:48] Brady Walker: On the other side of humor, I’m curious about how frustration comes about in your creative practice. What strategies do you use to get past it? When does it seem to surface the most? Have you pursued projects because they might present fewer roadblocks?

[50:35] sgt_slaughtermelon: It makes sense. As someone who uses creative code to make things, I don’t always enjoy coding itself. Sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out simple things. The satisfaction of accomplishment is fleeting because once you’ve done it, you’re not done – you’ve got to make the art work.

Frustration for me is often tactical. For example, the new candidate graphs that just came out took me a long time to figure out how to get the metadata generation right. A lot of the free tools online assume you just use folders, but I have my own system, my own workflow. It was a lot of work. Once it was done, I was satisfied, but it wasn’t necessarily fun.

[51:53] Brady Walker: How do you overcome the frustration?

[51:59] sgt_slaughtermelon: You work at it until you get it right, being persistent. It took me over two weeks to get the metadata generator working for Pantographs. That was just getting it labeled correctly, not part of the art itself.

Sometimes the market dictates what is possible, which can be frustrating. I enjoyed working on these things called Fatal Exceptions over the summer. I asked other glitch artists to do glitched video game captures and I hired musicians to score them, creating animations of failing video games. However, there’s no market for such collections. They don’t scale well and it’s hard to know what to do with them. It’s an in-between medium that requires a lot of effort. I ended up having a few pieces that never saw the light of day, which is another form of frustration.

[55:11] Brady Walker: It seems like you might need to resort to YouTube and web2 strategies for this kind of project.

[55:20] sgt_slaughtermelon: Yeah, I suppose you could. That’s a whole different creator model for me. I never wanted to engage in that.

[55:31] Brady Walker: Sequential art also seems to have a blocker there. I wish somebody would invent essentially a Kindle with an onboard wallet, where you can get books and comic books from creators who are minting ePubs. We need somebody to topple Amazon from the web three world.

[56:02] sgt_slaughtermelon: That would be cool. There are a lot of independent comic books I would consider engaging with in that way, rather than going through the hassle of getting pulls at a local comic book store. I just want to read them.

[56:18] Brady Walker: Right. As we approach the end of our interview, I have a couple of final questions. Do you have any tips for time management? You’re juggling a full-time job, creating art, participating in numerous communities including running Glitch Forge, and parenting. How do you manage all of this?

[56:58] sgt_slaughtermelon: I’ve pondered over this, trying to come up with an explanation. I think people sense and are put off when you desperately need a particular project to succeed. That kind of desperation can sometimes make the project less likely to succeed. I’ve been there, obsessing over something, over-promoting it, and possibly burning bridges.

I believe you need to plan for your life to function without crypto working for you. When you free yourself of relying on it, it often works better. My day job takes care of the necessities. If I can earn some extra on the side, that’s nice. I create art in my spare time, not time I would devote to work or family.

In my view, it’s essential to approach the benefits of crypto and crypto art with an open hand. This attitude not only makes you more appealing but also reduces the likelihood of mistakes. If you’re not trying to pursue every possible avenue to make money, you avoid wasting time, potentially harmful links, and risky teams. Being desperate is often a surefire way to lose money. My advice would be to be in a place where you’re not worried about it, and creating is a joy for you. People often respond positively to someone who’s genuinely having fun.

[59:44] Brady Walker: I’d like to mention to our listeners that you’re also taking care of baby chicks in your office, which they might hear in the background.

[59:57] sgt_slaughtermelon: Yes, the chicks are temporarily living in the office away from the dogs. So, every meeting I have comes with the sound of wildlife.

[1:00:10] Brady Walker: That’s lovely. Now, for my final question, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self about art, creativity, the creative process, or any mindset or knowledge you wish you would have had?

[1:00:34] sgt_slaughtermelon: That’s a tough one. I feel very in tune with how digital art works in crypto; it feels intuitive to me. But I know I would have struggled trying to do the same thing when I was 20, convinced that people wouldn’t buy JPEGs. In retrospect, I was better off building a career that catered to my daily needs, learning basic programming logic, reading, exploring counterculture, and cultivating a sense of culture beyond the latest trends.

So, if I were to give advice, I would say, don’t rush to see the fruits of your learning. Understand that you’re always cultivating the artist within you. If you find that you prefer watching TV or playing video games more than exploring things that contribute to your artistic skills, then perhaps you’re not yet ready to fully commit to being an artist.

That’s not to discredit any form of art, but there’s a good chance your art will improve if you focus on personal growth before expecting to create good art. I know this might sound a bit condescending, and my 20-year-old self would likely tell me so, but maybe there’s something in that too. Defy the advice, prove it wrong with the art you can create right now.

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