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Embracing Chaos and Celebrating the Error

A Conversation with Multidisciplinary Audio-Visual Artist Naomi Oliver

Naomi Oliver performs at SOFT PEDAL II, 2021, the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre, Australia, Photo credit: George Tillianakis



There are a few forms of art that almost always guarantee a feast for the eyes (and a jolt to your expectations) like glitch art. The colors, textures, the surprising shapes and forms that emerge from (or survive) their respective turbulent histories collide and explode at the same time usually rendering the viewer helpless in their presence. And sometimes, at the hands of a competent facilitator, they can even break through to transcend the digital and manifest into other forms while still maintaining all their compelling character and still being able to make you stop — stop, and think.


Enter Naomi Oliver.


Naomi describes herself as a multidisciplinary audio-visual artist. Yet one look at her work and you’ll know that she is more than that. Naomi’s art practice is based in video art, coding, glitch, sound art, and performance. Her current work often investigates defects in technology, such as corrupted digital imagery, as well as flaws in human psychology, the body and our environment.



Holo Halo, 2019, Lenticular Still



In an attempt to learn more about Naomi and her practice, I asked her some questions. And here’s what she had to say:



Mal: Hi, Naomi. From coding to 2D knitting to performance art — what does your artistic process look like?

Naomi: Most of my process is experimental, repetitive and computer-based, focusing on creating video and sound art and often incorporating some analog or obsolete forms of technology. I like combining or layering largely incongruent mediums, file types, programs, devices and techniques to see what eventuates - I'm especially interested in the results of merging old and new technologies. Occasionally this approach has lent itself to working with textiles (knitting, sewing, embroidery, digital printing on fabric) and performative elements (performance art, live sound, experimental music or video mixing. This comes from an attempt to physically and metaphorically deconstruct the digital space, and simply the desire to periodically include more tactile methods in my art practice. I'm certain that this way of working has been influenced by the interdisciplinary nature of my art education at Western Sydney University in the early 2000s. And my preoccupation with mixing different forms of tech likely originates with the huge shift from analog to digital taking place at that time.



Mal: How would you describe your style?

Naomi: Messy psychedelia. Embracing chaos and celebrating the error. Sensitive disarray.


Ecstatic, video, 2011



Mal: There’s a very intriguing concept that you express in your performance piece Self Generating Tranquility Pod where you are seated under a light while knitting. Can you elaborate on the theme, its inspiration and execution?

Naomi: I see this piece as an introverted performance. Wearing headphones and indulging in the comforting task of repetitive knitting, I created a bubble of calm and privacy for myself within a public, performative space — striving for a meditative state. The headphones were playing a continuous loop of upbeat new-age positive affirmations. In terms of the materials used and the silky, almost opalescent spacesuit costume, I wanted to give a nod to 1970s/early 80s sci-fi movie aesthetics, which I love. 'New-age' and 'space-age' are recurring themes in my visuals and my approach to sound design.



I enjoy being surprised by the endless possible outcomes of experimenting. I am very enthusiastic about the research and experimental aspects of my practice. I ask whether, in elevating the glitch to the status of artwork, the notions of 'mistake' or 'failure' become redundant? What happens if you find random errors interesting or beautiful?


Mal: From developing the idea to 5-minutes before, AND after the event — How does an artist prepare for a performance piece?

Naomi: Selecting a concept usually comes first, which might be a suggested or designated theme by a curator, or something I am particularly interested in at that time. Developing the concept includes reading, listening to artist interviews and music, watching related documentaries or films, brainstorming, costume ideas/creation, and prop ideas/creation. If costume or set design is involved, I will create a digital mood board of possible styles/fabric types/other influences (such as a film still or artwork). I will likely go through many iterations of the performance before I select one direction - sometimes filming myself performing, to see if what I'm aiming for is coming across. If a performance involves specific timing or skills (live video mixing, singing etc.) I will practice as much as possible leading up to the performance, and the same goes for trying out the tech or props involved (if any). Deep breathing right before a performance to calm nerves, and reminding myself that once the performance starts, I usually get into the flow. If possible, after an event I try to schedule some recovery/quiet time the next day.



Mal: What are the biggest challenges you face in bringing such varied genres together in the way that you do?

Naomi: Having a practice that spans different mediums includes the danger of potentially muddling the concept or context for the viewer, or confusing them about the nature or style of my art practice. Although my overall practice (generally) makes conceptual sense to me, I try to remember that a viewer may be only experiencing one artwork or a small selection of my artwork at one time.


Lo-fi Horizon 2, Oliver, 2021, Video still sublimation print on fabric



Mal: What were some of the challenges you’ve faced in your early years? How did you see them through?

Naomi: Earlier on, though it can still happen in a smaller way occasionally, I would have a freeze moment during a performance; as in, my mind would go blank, and I wouldn't know the next step even if it was otherwise second nature to me. Through sheer repetition and exposure to performance anxiety, I have gotten to the point where I either don't freeze or, if I do, I can recover quickly.



Mal: Is it fair/accurate to say that your performance work often shows you working with your hands or making something? If so, is that intentional/ can you elaborate?

Naomi: That is a good point and not something I've overtly analysed. There is often some form of craft-making involved - and as I find crafting therapeutic, perhaps I'm incorporating it to feel grounded whilst performing. The chosen actions have always been selected as I thought they held a metaphorical or layered meaning.



Fuzzy Glitch, 2014




Mal: Besides the 80s retro glitch aesthetic (through which I happened to stumble onto your insta profile and learn about you), you also use knitting and yarn as a sort of visual tool — is that right to say? Can you tell us more about that?

Naomi: Although I studied Electronic Arts and consider myself a mainly digitally-based artist, I have always loved textiles and crafting, particularly knitting. Occasionally this comes into my work — such as in my 'Fuzzy Glitch' series (2014-15) of chunky wool embroideries inspired by Youtube glitch screenshots I had taken. Around this time, I started seeing the process and visual parallels between stitches and pixels and how they could be seen as representations of the human hand and mind.



The little quirks and errors we can see in craft are also visible in the digital glitches, bugs and examples of artifacting. The 'humanness' of all technologies is so evident.


Mal: I love how you seem to, in my mind, find the ‘line’ in your work — no matter the medium — making it a very unifying element of art. For example, the line is a very strong element in your glitch imagery; the yarn also mimics that as if bringing ‘it’ to life, and it shows your lenticular prints and code art (e.g.: Monochrome Monitor: Green on Black) — what would you say is the significance of that?

Naomi: Looking back at my earliest video artworks to what I make now, I have often sought to disrupt or obscure my imagery, whether with static, VHS banding or digital glitching. I've always been drawn to messing things up — artists using magnets on CRT screens, for instance. In this way, I pursue imagery (and sound) that is broken, spliced, and interrupted. Combined with years of exposure to the geometry of TV test patterns, CRT scanlines, VHS scrolling, playing 8-bit computer games as a child, lenticular items and so forth, these elements have all added to my visual style and use of line.



Mal: 2014’s Nothing Needs to Mean Something is an intriguing video piece that starts off with a “You Are Not Connected to The Internet” screen and moves into abstract imagery — Can you talk about the title, how you came up with it and the work itself?

Naomi: Overall, this is a work about grief, exploring the idea of people continuing to exist (in some fashion) after physical death. Whether that is simply leaving digital artefacts (via social media, email correspondence) or some possibility of a sophisticated ai version of a mapped-out personality. It is also about finding spiritual/existential meaning in the digital, within data.



Still — Nothing Needs to Mean Something, 2014



I am inspired by the everyday haphazard: static (audio and visual), found TV/computer glitches, crossed telephone lines, unintendedly unkempt chroma key effects and so on. I tend to find inspiration in older technologies, though not in a Luddite or retro-worship sense (I'm very interested in new technologies), but in thinking about how they have shaped society's definition of itself at different times and how these ideas can be remixed or subverted.


Mal: Who/What are your biggest artistic influences?

Naomi: Experimental musicians, including Nicola Morton, Sonaura, @nightjar_fade, SOXSA, Laurie Anderson, David Lynch, @zeropointzen. I am very interested in the meeting of art and science. For instance, Eugenie Lee, an interdisciplinary artist looking at the experience of chronic pain; Lada Dedić, who creates needlepoint of MRI scans and brain imaging; and Ben Denham, who has created intricate mechanised drawing machines. Science fiction in film, literature and art. Experimental film. Video art and innovative music videos.



Self-Generating Tranquility Pod, 2013, Naomi Oliver sits in a bright pool of light just inside the entrance to the PACT performance space.



Mal: How do you define success as an artist?

Naomi: Regularly creating work that excites you, and following the threads of your interests as rigorously as possible. Having a solid connection with supportive, like-minded creatives. This mindset is encapsulated by the enthusiastic devotion I often see of electronic/code/sound/experimental artists and musicians to their craft. It is in the sense of camaraderie (for instance, on Instagram) and the generous sharing of knowledge, investigations, collaborative projects and the supportive nature of the communities.



Mal: What’s the future like for Naomi Oliver?

Naomi: I'd like to make more video clips, as that is a big passion of mine. I am also looking to learn simple holography at some stage and visit the Holographic Studios in New York City. Other than that, I intend to continue my practice of experimentation, incorporating new forms of technology as it arises. It is exciting because who knows what could be next! Hoping it will be wild.



Mal: Any advice for folks who would like to walk in your footsteps?

Naomi: For those interested in learning about glitch art, I'd recommend checking out Glitchet, as it's a fantastic resource. I would also suggest looking into the writings and work of Michael Betancourt. For those interested in researching older/defunct technology, enjoy the 'Dead Media' archives at www.deadmedia.org.


I have made some tutorials for easy ways to start databending (opening and manipulating files in a program not designed to work with that particular format):




Databending Images as Sound:




 




Naomi Oliver is an Australian artist who works with a focus on experimental, lo-fi video, sound, coding and performance art. Her work spans a number of mediums and investigates flaws in technology, such as corrupted digital imagery, as well as psychology, the body and environment - and how all of these elements interact.



Find out more about Naomi Oliver:



Naomi’s RGB Slider (Open on Mobile): https://www.instagram.com/ar/1350719392075643/


Naomi’s Holo Glitch Mask (Open on mobile): https://www.instagram.com/ar/225738225441060/


Naomi’s Bandcamp: https://n40m1o.bandcamp.com






Note: All images on this post are courtesy and copyright Naomi Oliver.



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