A Review of the Latest Glitch Artwork by Michael Betancourt
Stills from Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds, Video, Duration: 4.55 min, 2023
Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds is one of the newest video-based works to be presented publicly from American critical theorist and research artist, Michael Betancourt. The Savannah, Georgia based artist and academician has not only been using technology and experimentation to construct glitch art but has been meticulously formulating a foundational system of logic and critical ideas to support his creative explorations for more than a quarter of a century now. And keeping true to his roots and formal background, this latest work in visual music proves to be just as captivating as his previous creative endeavors. This brief, long-distance review attempts to take a look at the piece and try to make sense of it. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in.
Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds premiered at the 2023 Digital Graffiti Festival at Alys Beach in Florida, USA, last month. Designed for vertical projection mapped display on a three-storied tower at the festival venue, it consists of a 4 minute 55 second video with underlying sound track that, like the V12 on an Aventador, drives the piece conceptually.
The visual aspect of the work essentially consists of three “fairly” distinct vertical bands of activity comprising of the subtractive primaries (from left to right): one band of cyans, magentas and yellows, all flickering under a subtle-slower-transitioning textured overlay that has the effect of bringing down the intensity of the otherwise high-chroma colors. The second band of color, and perhaps the band that gives me (— a censorious, design prude) the most amount of pause, is a band of solid black with shredded sides that shifts and twitches but doesn’t quite resolve to the center as it should in a stable design. But this is often seen in works where the final outcome is actually reliant on a technical process with complete control seldom possible or even desired. To my mind, the tension that this lack of positional resolution creates is unsettling to say the least and is my one criticism of the piece. And yet, that might be its very strength. The third vertical section of the work is similar to the first save for its chunkier fragmentations and mellow-er textural overlays.
In classic glitch tradition, the bands flicker, pop, jitter and rudely tear into each other’s spaces in jagged splotches and in rapid succession creating an unique effect that resembles the hazy-out-of-focus sights that one might see while peering out the window of a subway train travelling forwards at breakneck speeds — and sometime backwards — all that, albeit in false color.
The sounds of this work consist of a cacophony of typical oscillator generated waveforms primarily of the sine, square and sawtooth varieties that reveal themselves in the form of wailing sirens, squeals and whistling static — all seed produced with a Theremin.
Being fortunate enough to get an exclusive preview to the work before its release, one of the first thing that struct me about the work was its title. The work, like most others in Betancourt’s vast oeuvre, is steeped in procedural context. Like the title indicates, Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds seeks to explore the barter of human sensory activity between the senses, while using the context and capabilities of electronic systems. And this is where its significance comes from.
Visually and sonically, the work, via its unique production process, has an aesthetic that is also unique yet possesses the signature of the instruments that were used to create it.
The seed of the work lies in its sonic side and with its procedure-heavy focus that is typical of much of the great glitch works we’ve seen through the years. In my interview with Betancourt, he describes the process of creating Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds in the following manner:
“The imagery and soundtrack are equivalents, generated at the same time by using a Theremin as a detector for simple, universal hand gestures communicating “come closer,” “back up,” “go left” or “go right” and “stop” that were translated into control voltages, and then used in a technesthesia which renders electrical and audio signals into analogue video that coincidentally resembles the optical soundtracks used in films; the image is literally the soundtrack, and it sings of warning alarms, air raid sirens, and the cacophony of terror. The lineage of this iconography showing the interface between the human world of communication and the unseen realm of machines stretches from the 1920s into the present. Several versions of this footage have been mixed together with glitched versions of itself to create a recursive visualization of this human-machine dialogue between gesture, distortion, and visualization ultimately mediated by digital encoding and direct, human interventions (recoding) of the machine-generated data stream. This multistage human-computer interaction creates a hyperkinetic progression of rising and falling waveform patterns. This movie is both a visual music work, and something that is clearly and unquestionably glitched. The title is a way of pointing at the process that isn't necessarily apparent when watching the piece: it's a recording of a dialogue between human gestures, an immaterial magnetic resonance field, and the interpretive functions built-in to machinery. I think this confrontation is rarely materially present in a work, but Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds is an attempt to realize that experience in a direct way.”
A model of ‘human-computer interaction’ — that is the phrase that sticks out and is perhaps the aspect of the work that deserves the most meditation upon. And there has been no time in history where a meditation such as this has been more relevant than it is now.
We are at a turning point in history (that is fast turning) where ages are fading away and new ones beginning — ages defined by the technology and humans that use them. What is the relationship between the two? What defines the two? What constrains them? And what allows them the propagate? These are just some of the questions that this work alludes to with a clear bias on the “human” aspects of these questions.
All-in-all, Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds is a novel attempt at creating a type of glitched aesthetic that is familiar yet is intrinsically unique at the same time and, frankly, deserves extended veneration inside the white cube. Once again, Betancourt has successfully managed to create a work that is exciting and thought provoking and pushes the boundaries of his craft to newer limits.
The final word: awesome!
View and listen to Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds in its entirety, here.
Dr. Michael Betancourt is a Cuban-American research artist who has cultivated a conceptual-theoretical practice that combines media art production with discursive, critical analysis focused on art history, digital technology, and capitalist ideology.
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All pictures used by permission from the artist. All blog content is copyright Malcolm Fernandes 2023