Part 2 of my interview with a pioneer of the glitch art genre, critical theorist and research artist, Dr. Michael Betancourt
Still from Instaglitches by Michael Betancourt, shown at Digital Graffiti, Alys Beach, 2022.
Welcome to Part 2 of this conversation with Michael. This interview is continued from Part 1...
Malcolm: What are your thoughts on the rise of AI art — especially as it relates to this whole question for copyright, ownership and the like?
Michael: Everyone seems to be asking me this recently! Once we set aside the boosterism and marketing claims being made for these systems, their commercial use seems to be readily covered by existing case law: AI systems create new works by mixing elements of vast databases of existing works. That means what these machines make are derivate, and thus violating copyright. Before they were open to the public and being commercialized, machine leaning was using databases of copyrighted material based on fair use doctrines—but once they're being used commercially, that doctrine no longer applies; they are systems built on copyright violations, much the way the Google Books project was. While it looks simple that doesn't mean the courts will decide it is. I think the cases to watch that will suggest how all this may go are the ones about AI generated music and songs where the existing case law is much more settled. Those cases will likely provide the precedents for what happens with everything else.
Dancing Glitch (still), Video: 2 min 30 sec, 2013, Michael Betancourt
"AI systems create new works by mixing elements of vast databases of existing works. That means what these machines make are derivate, and thus violating copyright."
Stills from Dancing Glitch, 2013
Malcolm: Do you have any Art project/'s you are working on or coming up soon? Can you tell us about it?
Michael: I have a projection piece called “Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds” that will show in the 2023 Digital Graffiti Festival at Alys Beach in Florida coming up in May. It's a movie designed for vertical projection mapping onto a tower. 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 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.
The Gunz, Image, 1996
Malcolm: The name Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds has such a poetic ring to it and I guess falls in line with your other work in visual music.
Michael: Yes, this is 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.
Flowgraph, 1989. Explorations in Darkroom photography: The above image is one from a selection of unique process abstract photographs produced by Betancourt in the darkroom between 1989 and 1994.
Malcolm: The use of the Theremin seems like a natural fit into the format you are exploring; is this being played by you? Are there any live components to this work or is the "soundtrack" pre-recorded or in some other format?
Michael: Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds was basically made from a bunch of devices plugged together and whose outputs are synched through the performer's actions, recorded, composited in post-production, and glitched several times in different ways, and then re-composited again into the final movie. It's a live action abstraction made without a camera!
The Theremin is the most obvious part of the piece, but calling how I used it “playing” isn't really fair to the people who use it to make music. I was abusing it. The soundtrack is not music or really very musical. What I did was use it as an electromagnetic field detector that outputs an audible waveform. The model that I have also provides control voltage outputs, which are the actual source of the image generation.
Depending on how you set the sensitivity on the machine it will make things that sound like music, or produce something that Luigi Russolo and the Italian Futurists would like! I set it somewhere in between those options and ran the results through some guitar pedals to fill out the sound, and a bespoke audio device (made by Landscape) called a Stereofield that allows a performer to dynamically use their hands to create circuit bent noise; it also has control voltage outputs, but these were less important than the Theremin to the finished work. The Stereofield just provided interesting texture bursts that affected both sound/image—it's a machine for taking sounds and turning them into noise music.
The final piece is recorded. I made this for a projection festival and that brings limitations to how I'm approaching the work: recording also allows me to choose the performances that works best and layer them together constructively in ways that are much more interesting than just an interactive device; those rarely rise above the level of toys because when you open them up for an audience to play with their lack of previous experience using the system means you either build something that is so overdetermined that their input is basically pre-set by the work, or it requires so much practice to familiarize them with the machine to get anything interesting that the results always end up being disappointing. Since I didn't want either of those things to happen (and I try to produce polished, complex, interesting works). Making Gestures, Seeing Sounds had to be made in the studio and then shown as a short movie.
Malcolm: Can you elaborate on what technesthesia is?
Michael: This is a term I created to make the parallels between human experience and machine processes explicit. A “technesthesia” is a machinic analogue to “synaesthesia”: just like the cross-modal perception that defines synaesthetic experience, technesthesia is a multiple transformation of a singular signal so the machine renders it into simultaneous, different outputs—in this case as kinetic imagery and sound. It's really just a label so I can easily refer to a complex set of ideas projected onto/into machinery and its functioning.
Still from the video, she, my memory (2002). A collaborative project with musician Henry Rajan, the footage and ambient sounds and music were recorded in India. The film offers a captivating little peak into the hallucinogenic thoughts of an unnamed American man in search for his true love. Not explicitly "glitched" per se', the film with its various clips that float, fade, and pixelate transform into a montage filled to the brim with turn-of-the-century nostalgia — especially for me being a 90s kid, from India, and with experiences of my own for the sort being described. The method and design of the film — as viewed today, speaks as much to me about the nature of human-technology-glitch-human relationship, if not more, than the actual 'plot' of the film.
Malcolm: How do you define success as an artist and critical theorist?
Michael: I try not to. Just being able to continue working is such a privilege that to worry about ideas like “success” just seems capricious. Being able to work apart from the market concerns and demands that normally apply to artists, although it has its own set of problems, is very much a luxury that I would not have if I wasn't teaching. For someone else this might not have resulted in the freedom I currently have to do my work, so “success” isn't really a concern.
Malcolm: I love this perspective of yours. What about your writing work — can you tell us about your latest book?
Michael: This is a bit complicated since at any given moment there are several. By some weird alignment of publisher's schedules I had three books of asemic poetry made from glitched, collaged and fragmented typography—what's called “Typoetry”—come out within a few weeks of each other. They're all very different books, each exploring and challenging ideas about what it means to read and recognize language. They play with experiences of aphasia where you can recognize language, but it comes unstuck from meaning and coherent communication. At the same time, I have a book on Glitch Art and semiotic theory that is off on review with an academic publisher and I'm waiting to see what happens with that one. I am always working, so something is always in progress.
Glitched Allegory of the Knight, Death, and Durer, 2013
Malcolm: Any advice for folks who would like to walk in your footsteps?
Michael: I always encourage younger artists to look for ideas and approaches that interest them and then make that the focus of their work rather than trying to do what someone else has already done. This issue is something I am very aware of because I'm involved in training artists and designers: what is valuable about them is what makes their work different from everyone else, and it better to find ways to become yourself.
I have realized that intentions and artistic intent are actually irrelevant to the final work—what I try to do is look at the art the way my audience might (that is to say, someone who does not know what my intentions were).
But, in the studio at least there are two rules that have always worked well for me: There are no miracles, only discipline. Creative work of any kind is work. Most of what I do is revision, minute alterations that matter to me and which nobody else likely even notices: many small details that each incrementally improves the piece.
The other is to always be looking: do not be so focused on what you wanted the outcome to be that you ignore what you've actually done. This really means setting aside your intentions because they will mislead and prevent you from being able to disinterestedly consider what's there.
All of the critical thinking and writing comes from this same place of trying to be empirical about things and separate my own feelings and intentions from my considerations. Difficult to do, but rewarding as well. My approach to writing theory begins with questions about something that I can't find satisfactory answers for by going to doing research, which forces me to create the theory myself if I want any answers to my questions. That kind of personal interest and desire to understand goes a long way to doing your own work, and I've found it provides a good guide to keep working.
Instaglitch, 2018, from the series Instaglitches — one of 2600 images created between 2018—2020, these were made using only the Instagram app on an iPhone and serves as a demonstration that every digital system is prone to glitches.
"I always encourage younger artists to look for ideas and approaches that interest them and then make that the focus of their work rather than trying to do what someone else has already done.
Malcolm: As has been for the last 100 – 150 years (if not more), a huge part of all the major changes in society — from the invention of the telephone, electricity, the lightbulb, the automobile, powered flight and eventually even computers and the internet seem to come from the developed West (I believe because of the root cause (without getting into details): its early acceptance of individualism, versus the nature of collectivistic behaviors in various other societies and cultures). With AI now being widely introduced and adopted globally, how do you see this impacting societies in the developing worlds? And what would you say is the role of Art in an age like this?
Michael: There isn't really a simple or short answer to this question. It would be easy to write a book about it! To my thinking, the whole question of Art, the art market, and art history is connected to these changes. It starts with the marketplace: in most ways the global expansion of the art market hasn't resulted in a real expansion of the things we like to imagine go with it, like disruptive thinking or technological innovation. The expansive and open understanding of Art that allows anything to potentially be an artwork is part of a general exploit of the postcolonial demand; contemporary refusals of art history—the insistence that any history is incomplete and thus irrelevant—is a self-serving act dependent on an art marketplace that constantly needs new works to sell, and which the ahistorical turn allows by making any of the distinctions you're asking about seem unimportant; this development then serves to reinforce the Eurocentric and commodity-orientation that dominates art historically while giving its continuance cover to claim otherwise.
What makes the US different from most of the world is not the issues of freedom or democracy, but the social chaos that informs most of what happens here in small ways. It's not that the US isn't a stratified and highly class-conscious society, but that the places where the innovations are coming from are also places where those aspects of social order are much less dominant than in the rest of the US or the world. What all this interconnected technology has done is make those few, small places where traditional social order is in flux much more obvious. It's amplified their presence and people's consciousness of how they are different, but hasn't made the nature of that difference obvious unless you're a resident living in one of those locations, then the difference becomes obvious as soon as you go anywhere else.
The new forms of automation that machine learning has enabled are likely to increase the conservative demands that change either stop “or else.” This technology is a powerful destabilizer that will either enable more people to have greater freedom in their lives, or will act to control their options more perfectly than in the past; likely it will be a mixture of both. But as long as the machine learning systems remain controlled by large corporations and people's use of them resembles the old “time-sharing” system of mainframes in the 1960s and 1970s (which is the system most people interact with AI now), the benefits of AI will be concentrated with the owners of the machines and everyone else will suffer because they can't modify or challenge how the machine operates.
Art enters into this situation as a tangent that reveals how the social realm is responding to technological change by both seeking to expand markets that exploit the heterotopias discovered by acknowledging local differences around the world, and by using that expansion to dissipate opposition in advance of its development. The embrace of the art world elevating new local arts communities and artists is a good thing, however it is often only a superficially anti-colonial gesture that selects art that either essentializes difference, turning local traditions and approaches into so much spectacle, or imitates work done elsewhere (such as in Europe or the US). Both types of work are fundamentally conservative, looking backward to past models to imitate, rather than inventing or developing new responses to a changed situation. Most of the important art made in Europe and the US in the past two centuries comes from attempts to disrupt or challenge the dominant art world systems by directly attacking its systems of representation and production. Those developments are fully assimilated to the contemporary art world, meaning that any new challenge must address a different set of concerns than ones tied to either representation or production.
I have to expect that as AI systems become more commonly used, there will be increasing emphasis on performative works explicitly done by humans (i.e. cannot be machine made). The precedent for this is the “relational aesthetics” of the 1990s, but these works don't challenge the aesthetic status quo; they reinforce it. The kind of critical change artists want only becomes possible by confronting the art market and challenging its dominance and complicity in digital capitalism, but there is no easy way to avoid commodification without refusing the market entirely—something that reinforces existing unearned privileges and social classes in other ways.
"...always be looking: do not be so focused on what you wanted the outcome to be that you ignore what you've actually done.
Malcolm: What are your greatest fears about the future of art and technology in the near future versus what do you feel positive or optimistic about?
Michael: It's always hard to make predictions, especially about the future. So much of my critical work is about trying to develop a diagnostic tool that would allow an understanding of the present in ways that can anticipate what happens that I rarely think about it in either positive or negative terms. My approach tries to disengage from imposing these kinds of a priori value to my analysis and instead simply looks to see the potential avenues of development. AI images offer great potentials to democratize media production, but the ways that the distribution apparatus of the internet is evolving may very well act to counter that potential by making it difficult/expensive to reach any significant audience.
The future of media is likely already here: generative programs created continuously by AI and then run as uninterrupted programs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Productions of this sort are currently novelties and of poor quality, but we know that as the underlying technology improves so will the output until it looks like live action cinematography.
Glitching, whether via Glitch Art or not, seems like it's reached a kind of maturity and general presence (much like Surrealism) which means that the next stages of its development will likely be the emergence of post-Glitch practices where the digital materiality common to glitched work becomes a starting point for new kinds of articulation and expression, rather than just a stylistic flourish (as in most commercial media and the apps/plug-ins that make it).
"The future of media is likely already here."
Malcolm: Who would you list as your inspirations?
Michael: Since I don't work from inspiration, I don't know how to answer this. My approach is guided by intellectual questions that are usually grounded in theory, rather than responses to existing works. I know that makes me unusual, but I have self-consciously tried to untether my process from subjective concerns or personal feelings. The critical theory ends up being entangled with my studio practice, not as an illustration of theory but as its equal, doing the things that theory cannot because my art depends on its experiential presentation. My process is intellectual, but the results are visceral. This is why I've taken to calling my work “research art.” It's driven by complex questions about how media and articulation converge in the actual expressiveness of the art itself. I decided on this designation primarily because what I'm doing is not at all formal, but is instead closely tied to the kinds of issues that arise in my critical theory work.
Not every question or issue that I address in critical theory results in art directly, but the kinds of questions about the relationship between the physical world and the immaterial media of the digital are always in the background to everything I do. My critique of digital capitalism breaks down into only a few concerns, and the physical-immaterial relationship is central to all of them. So much of what initially looks like emancipation with digital technology turns out to be just another way to extract unpaid labor and value from the people using it. That's a frustrating situation, and is why glitches are so interesting to me—they offer an ambivalent response that has the potential to subvert the normal operations of digital systems, even as they can simply be ignored as noise, dismissed as accidents, or turned into meaningless style. This instability is why my concerns with Glitch Art always begin and end with the audience and their response to the work; my intentions are independent of that encounter.
"Glitching, whether via Glitch Art or not, seems like it's reached a kind of maturity and general presence (much like Surrealism)
Malcolm: Then is it fair to say, your inspiration is the audience/ users/ those exploited by digital capitalists (a.k.a. the general public), or would this be wholly inaccurate?
Michael: This question of inspiration is a lot like the question of intention—neither is of great interest to me. I'm not making things for an audience, but at the same time, it's useful to set aside all the subjective detritus that gets in the way of understanding what's actually been done—what's present in the work and its relations to other works. This is why the audience figures in my process, but that is definitely not inspiration.
Malcolm: Any plans on bringing your work to the global east?
Michael: I would love to do that, it's just a matter of having the opportunity to do so. I'm always open to exhibition proposals and screenings! Earlier this year the M+ Cinema in Hong Kong showed two of my movies in a screening series that ran from January to March as part of a bigger event built around Yayoi Kusama's sculptures and work. Both movies were made with kinetic light shot at ISO51,200 in a black-out space lit with tiny fairy lights—they’re typical of my recent movies blending more traditional types of cinema using digital cameras with Lumia effects, digital animation, and Glitch Art.
“So much of what initially looks like emancipation with digital technology turns out to be just another way to extract unpaid labor and value from the people using it.”
Malcolm: What’s next for Michael Betancourt?
Michael: I honestly don't know. (I actually hate being asked this question.) Everything proceeds organically as earlier projects are in progress and they raise questions that haven't been answered. All that I do is look at my work for things that need more exploration and simultaneously are sufficiently novel that they're worth doing. I've never had much interest in repeating myself or what other people have already done.
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
Don't forget to follow and support the artist:
View Michael's video art catalogue on Vimeo at: https://vimeo.com/channels/michaelbetancourt/videos
View Michael's collection of Instaglitches on Internet Archive:
All work featured on this page has been used by permission, courtesy the artist.
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