An in-dept interview with a pioneer of the glitch art genre, critical theorist and research artist, Dr. Michael Betancourt
Still from Instaglitches by Michael Betancourt, Digital Graffiti, Alys Beach, 2022. This work was a best of show award winner.
How does one bring the logical, the linear, the analytical together and meld them with the emotional, the random and the intuitive? And more so, what does it take to do this so consistently so as to create a body of work that is not only vast (and, seemingly, all encompassing) but also continues to push the boundaries of human thought AND creativity?
The sciences describe, in fair detail — might I add ;), the anatomy, characteristics and tendencies of human ability in the context of left and right brain functions. In (oppressively) short, one hemisphere of the human brain controls functions entailing order (L), and the other, disorder (R).
Stills from The Kodak Moment, 2013
Of course, the word order entails everything from logical thinking, language, math, etc., and the word, disorder — imaginary, sensory, intuitive, creative, etc., etc.
And while most people “tend” to gravitate towards one method, means, mode and media, or the other, as they solve the challenges of their daily lives, there are the few who are perfectly comfortable inhabiting both worlds at the same time.
Then there are those rarer still who do so with an awe-inspiring degree of tenacity and success.
Well, some time ago I discovered the work of one of these super-rare folk. His name is Michael Betancourt (Dr.). Creating glitch artwork since the 1990s, he is considered a pioneer of the genre. His work has been shown in galleries, museums, art and film festivals all over the world including the Tate Modern and Art Basel Miami Beach, to name just a couple. He is the author of more than thirty books (and counting), is a member of the board for the Art of Light Organization, has won several awards for his work, and with more than three decades of active creative endeavor, could very well be titled lord, king and master of the hyper-specific academic and creative niches that he has so diligently carved out for himself and in which he operates within.
From the surreal beauty of the glitching Kodak Moment to the mesmerizing cacophony of colors in Instaglitches to intricate descriptions of glitch art theory and typoems (again — just to name a few), my fascination with Michael’s work really goes past its compelling aesthetic and stems from the question of how far one can take a deeply logical line of thought and reason and extend that out into the abstract and back (or in other words: how far can one take an ordered line of thought and action into the realms of creative disorder and vice versa). It’s this seemingly rigid, but invariably fluid dichotomy between these two worlds that never ceases to captivate and inspire.
Yet, doesn’t the best of the world’s art, especially in the domain of fine art, by default, possess both: order and disorder? Logic and emotion? Thought and feeling? And more so, doesn’t that, by display of our creative sensibilities and abilities, define the epitome of human expression and what it means to be human?
These are just some of things that caught my attention when I stumbled upon Michael’s enormous body of work and writings (and I admit — it will take me a while to go through all of them). Nevertheless, I knew I had to learn more about the artist and his endeavors. So, I reached out, cornered him into a conversation:D and after several back-and-forths here’s notes from our interaction.
“My process is intellectual, but the results are visceral.” — Michael Betancourt
Malcolm: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Michael. Your work is extensive and touches upon art, film, education, technology, typography, motion graphics, anthropology, economics and more. Beginning with the most fundamental of items, first off: artist, researcher, a mix of the two or something else altogether? — how would you describe yourself and your work?
Michael: That is a good question, one that I have never really been good at answering. Willingly putting myself in a single category is difficult, but these days I describe myself as a critical theorist and research artist (but not always in that order!) because these are my two most obvious activities, the ones that are the most visible. They fit together for me, different aspects of the same process and approach. My theory work depends on the things being done in the studio, but the studio becomes meaningless without the approaches and analysis done as theorist.
Stills from the video work Malfunction, 2000
Malcolm: I find that symbiosis between the two fascinating, especially to the advanced degree to which you have developed these two facets, so to speak. How does your academic teaching fit into the grand scheme of things? How related is it to your own creative quests and development?
Michael: Teaching is definitely not a vehicle for my interests. Let me explain why: most critical studies courses in the program where I teach do not advance beyond the introductory or survey level, which means going over things that I find interesting may be boring for students who have never encountered these ideas before and may be a struggle for them to understand. It's the kind of work that ends up being almost entirely irrelevant to my theoretical and studio practices. What teaching does provide is the freedom to do my more serious work without having to worry about the art marketplace and its demands for saleable commodities. This is why I refer to myself as a “research artist.” What I'm doing is entirely apart from the commercial marketplace and its requirements.
But I also try to keep my interests apart from my teaching because I don't want my students to become imitators. I'd much prefer they did things of their own and which reflect their interests, rather than just be emulators of what their professors were doing. Of course, with things being the way they are, you can't have a professional practice your students won't see, but at the same time I generally don't make that practice part of my classroom instruction, even if there are some overlaps.
Clip from The Kodak Moment, glitch video, 2013. The source film, an early test of color film stock, was shot in 1922 and features the silent film actress Mae Murray.
Malcolm: In just a couple of lines, how would you define Art? Can this or a single definition apply to art from all around the world?
Michael: I generally try not to define concepts like “Art,” nor do I really worry about what is or is not art. Considered anthropologically, it's an idea that definitely has a particular history and lineage that takes shape over the past few centuries and is focused around status symbol decorations used as mechanisms for demonstrating social position, but at the same time these are works that are also often exceptional expressions that allow their audiences to engage the sublime or some analogue for it, which leads to art assuming what sometimes seem like contradictory roles, when their exceptionality in relation to everyday experience is precisely the point. The assumption that these experiences are 'rare' is essential to their prestige and value, reinforcing the whole mystique that art can present. For a different lineage and culture, these values and concerns might be entirely alien, but the question then arises: would that work be “art” or something else? I have no answer for this issue.
Malcolm: In this context, how (or where) do you see (or place) your own artistic output as a research artist? You mention that you really don't consider defining art, yet, if forced to speculate contextualization, what would you say?
Michael: I think that would simply depend on the work — book, movie or art; I imagine they would simply be in the same categories that they're in right now.
Categories largely function to facilitate indexing and retrieval of works, and with the kinds of deep text-based search that have emerged with digital computers these kinds of organization have become not only less essential, but less meaningful as well. Being concerned with access (as I am) I'm happy to have my work put where ever and in whatever category it will most easily find an audience interested in it. Worrying about these kinds of issues can easily turn into making things for those categories, which doesn't interest me at all.
Still from the video work Going Somewhere, 2015-17
Malcolm: Can you tell us about your background and how you got into these fields where the arts and the sciences seem to merge?
Michael: My background is probably much more interesting than I am because it conjures fantasies that have been shaped by popular movies—but the reality is completely mundane and tedious, despite how it might sound. First, almost everyone in my family is a writer—my brother writes fiction, my father is an archaeologist, my grandmother was a screenwriter, my grandfather and his parents ran a newspaper in Cuba, and he was the founding editor of the first Spanish language newspaper in Chicago while he was at Northwestern University—I consider writing as a central part of my process, and view publications as artworks. Because of my father’s work on the Hellenic Bronze Age, my childhood and teenage years were divided between the United States and Greece, where we spent the summers working on Minoan excavations in Crete, first at Kommos on the south coast in the 1970s, and then at Pseira on the north coast in the 1980s. These excavations were formative introductions to an intellectual environment defined by people with a broad range of skills, talents, and perspectives. It taught me everyone has something vital to contribute, and demonstrated the necessity of an interdisciplinary, historically-mediated approach to understanding art/culture as more than just the artifacts selected for aesthetic praise (art includes every aspect of our lives; all aspects of culture are equally valuable and important). Throughout all of this I was simultaneously interested in both movies and computers, so I guess it makes sense that as the technologies converged during the 1990s so would my concerns. Arts and sciences just never seemed that distant.
“I consider writing as a central part of my process, and view publications as artworks.”
Malcolm: Can you tell us about Expected Materiality — your latest talk at the NOT.GLI.TC/H Conference, University of Chicago in April?
Michael: This was a short presentation about how the semiotic functions of glitches have become the guides for not only the ways we're increasingly using them, but they are also shaping the kinds of software being created now. These effects become obvious when looking at the AI images created by systems such as Midjourney or Stable Diffusion that create works that can simulate the surface effects of glitches. What seems to be happening (and machine learning makes this very obvious) is the expectations for what a glitch has been in the past are becoming the aesthetic restrictions for how we evaluate and identify Glitch Art. It's a step towards thinking through the issues connected to AI systems and the kinds of glitches they produce.
Malcolm: Working in such diverse areas, how do you manage your time? What takes up most of your time during the day? What is your routine like.? How do you organize yourself, your ideas, projects and working on your creative vision?
Michael: Well, first, there is never enough time! Most of my time is spent doing mundane things like teaching my classes and attending to student critiques and the minutiae of teaching college, but I work every day on my writing and/or studio projects. Setting aside time for them is essential or they would never happen. There are always more ideas and things to consider than I have time for, so I just make notes for things and when it seems like I have something to say that's interesting to me and I haven't seen someone else talk about, then I start writing it up. At any given moment there are several projects underway. Most of them go nowhere, instead they end up being entirely different than what they started because my thinking changed as I worked through the ideas. For me writing is where I do my thinking, which allows me to drop in on it later and reconsider what's there—and it's the same for the studio work too, although in a less formal way.
Malcolm: As an interdisciplinary practitioner and theorist, what have been your biggest challenges so far?
Michael: The invisibility that comes with our hyper-connected and networked world—I think everyone has the same challenge: being seen. But with interdisciplinary work that problem is often compounded by the nature of the work, because it happens between fields its invisibility is doubled—which is just a complicated way of saying it takes place in the margins and hinterlands between established and recognized work. That status is both an advantage and a restriction. Being free to work in foundational and new ways also means that work does not always easily find an interested audience. This situation describes everything from difficulty finding friendly publishers to venues and galleries not being interested in your work because it doesn't fit easily into their existing programming schedules.
Still from Illumination, 2001
Malcolm: I agree; working in spaces between fields of expertise can be very challenging, especially in trying to get people to recognize what you are doing - how does one manage or overcome this and other related challenges you mention above? And more so, how does one find the courage to continue, as, I believe, you have over the years?
Michael: To be honest, I don't really know how to answer you. There are tradeoffs to everything, even if you don't know what those will be in advance: just being interested in new things and ideas is alienating in itself since you end up thinking about things that you just can't have a conversation with most people about; actually working on doing new things amplifies that experience, but it seems unavoidable.
I don't think it's a question of courage, but of getting past being continually ignored and the condescension that goes with that. Trying to disengage emotionally and distance myself is the only way I know to deal with this happening, because otherwise it's just depressing that people are in their own bubbles and can be very offensive when they feel the need to police their domains against outsiders like me. I'm not talking about the “creatives need to have a thick skin” comment that gets offered as a response to this kind of observation, but the in-group/out-group dynamics that dominate every social gathering, no matter how open or diverse or tolerant it claims to be. I understand why so many people say “forget it” and go do something else in response to these behaviors.
Malcolm: What does your artistic process look like? How does it compare to your research process? Has it evolved through the years?
Michael: These are actually the same thing in my work; I know that can be difficult to explain since critical theory is very different from art. Writing allows me to explore and consider the tangential and radiant potentials that are entirely different from what happens in an art work, yet these things are connected for me since the kinds of questions that I can ask in writing begin with things that can only be explored in the studio. That doubling frees what happens in the studio from worries about easily explained meaning or content. For example, it's difficult to talk about the moment between graphic marks and their transformation into letters, but this is something that can be explored directly in the studio, and those realizations can then change and inform the writing without making the art into a demonstration of the theory. This approach has gradually taken shape, as much a product of my own personal inclinations as a conscious and directed choice about how to do things. Logic and analysis have always been easy for me, so I guess this process is just me relying on what I'm good at doing—I think everyone tries to work with or to their strengths.
End on Part 1.
For Part 2, click 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.
A pioneer of "Glitch Art," he has made visually seductive digital art since 1990 that brings the visionary tradition into the present by glitching still and moving images. By emphasizing their digital origins, his aesthetics express a consistent concern for the poetic potential of the overlooked and neglected products of digital computers. His asemic poetry made from glitched and fragmented typography has been published by RedFox Press, Timglaset, nOIR:Z, and Post-Asemic Press, and in Die Lerre Mitte, Utsanga.it, and aurapoesiavisual. Learn more: www.michaelbetancourt.com
Also check out one of Michael's latest books on Typoetry:
This is not a sponsored/ affiliate link: Typo Poem
Footnotes and References:
The Kodak Moment — view the full video here: https://vimeo.com/73802758?embedded=false&source=vimeo_logo&owner=3355595
Going Somewhere — view the full video here: https://vimeo.com/152030090?embedded=false&source=vimeo_logo&owner=3355595
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All work featured on this page has been used by permission, courtesy the artist.
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