Space Invaders: Peeking Inside Electronic Media Artist Phillip Stearns' Studio

<p>Phillip Stearns, one of the best-known glitch artists around, is poised to be the next bad-ass art boy—thanks in large part to a Tumblr he started in January 2012 called Year of the Glitch.</p>

Michelle Lhooq

Michelle Lhooq

We're fascinated by the artistic process and are constantly trying to peek behind the curtain to see how things are made. We'll take you into the studios of creatives across all disciplines in order to find out exactly where and how they do what they do. Today, the Bushwick workspace of electronic media artist Phillip Stearns—best known for his Tumblr project, The Year of the Glitch.

In August of last year, Animal New York proclaimed glitch art to be “the new punk rock,” comparing its celebration of corrupted, broken-down imagery to punk's reaction to commercialized music of the time.

If so, then Phillip Stearns, as one of the best-known glitch artists around, is poised to be the next bad-ass art boy—thanks in large part to a Tumblr he started in January 2012 called Year of the Glitch, where he methodically (and painstakingly) posted a picture of a different glitch experiment of his every single day.

From the “Forest for the Trees” series.

By the end of last year, Stearns had been catapulted to the status of being, well, "internet famous." He'd also turned into a sort of glitch guru—fielding both technical and theoretical questions from his 40,000-odd followers, while actualizing some of his best works from the Tumblr into snuggle-friendly "glitch blankets."

However, Stearns is kind of the last person you would compare to a "punk rocker." His professorial demeanor (you know the type: quiet yet verbose, always nimbly jumping from abstract theory to abstract theory) when he opened the door to his Bushwick studio revealed a thoughtfulness that went beyond the desire to create aesthetically-pleasing images out of corrupted data.

In fact, most of Stearns' profuse projects take on a kind of theoretical profundity once he started talking about them, and after our rambling conversation that circled around the ethos of glitch art, new media theories, and his focus on "process," I realized that Stearns was accomplishing what many of us wish we could do: take a thoughtful and critical stance towards the technologies that rule our lives.

The author with Phillip Stearns in his Bushwick studio.

The Creators Project: What’s the project you’ve worked on in this studio that you've been most proud of?
Phillip Stearns:
This skeletal sea creature-looking structure is actually a model for Entity, a room-sized installation that was first shown in 2010.

A prototype for Entity, an interactive light and sound installation which is based on neural networks.

It functions like a neural network, in that sensors cause circuits to fire, and those circuits trigger other circuits which are arranged in layers, and so on.

This thing by the door looks like an electronic wind chime…what is it?
It's actually an AM receiver that picks up frequencies below what we usually use, so it's emitting this static signal, like a sound of a waterfall off the distance. The lights are triggered by the signals so that they resemble water falling.

Stearns' light and sound sculpture Deluge consists of 35 hand-made modules that each contains a transistor receiver, an amplifier with a speaker, and 12 LEDs. Together, they create the impression of rain.

The idea was to take this medium of wireless communication and translate it into a system that contains data. And then use that meaningless data that’s being presented as more of a poetic metaphor.

That reminds me of your introduction on your website, where you wrote, “I tend to focus on things that technology, tools and the media themselves become entangled with the message and content.”
Yeah. It’s like post-McLuhan. That’s kind of what happens in a lot of my work.

What about this Game-Boy-looking-thing over here? What does it do?
The game boy case was a gift from a friend. It's a video synthesizer, so basically I just take analog signals and put them in a position where normal RGB video signals would be.

The Slain Boy VGA Synth,' a self-made Game Boy synthesizer.

What happens then?
This device imprints audio signals as video… so you see the sounds as a direct visualization. It gets down to the point where it’s just electric signal that you can sculpt into an experience.

The Game Boy synthesizer, closed.

What kinds of hardware are essential to your practice?
I build things from scraps, from the ground up. So it’s not necessarily that I depend on one particular brand or type. Like this thing, it’s crucial to me, but I built it myself.

How did you become interested in making your own video synthesizers?
I was making “computer music,” where I would open up the case and put probes on the motherboard, then take those signals and convert them into sound.

I wanted to do visuals, and the best way I thought was to convert the signals that I was picking up off the board directly into video.

A self-made analog mixing desk and a row of clip lights, both used in numerous feedback-based performances.

So you were playing the computer as a kind of musical instrument?
Yeah, I was using its operating system to open and close files. The climax of the piece was me selecting all of the files, and opening them all. Eventually the computer came to a screeching halt.

That’s kind of a poetic ending, I don't know. How often does that happen—where your instrument just breaks down at the end of the performance?
It hasn't happened so much recently, but it’s been more unintentional than intentional. I like the idea of twisting technologies around, and playing them in such a way that reveals what it is they really are.

You have a lot of clip lights lying around. Did you use them at your recent performance at Silent Barn?
Yep. I have loads of clip lights and use them all the time. For example, I built some boxes that allowed me to take audio signals from a mixing board, and convert them into a signal that will turn the lights on. I was translating sounds into light. Maybe I can do a demonstration?

Above: Phillip Stearns demonstrating how he uses a self-made analog mixing desk, clip lights and Solid State Relay technology to translate sound directly into light during a live performance.

So the light is responding to what comes out of the output, and you can control everything with the fader positions. I’m basically treating this digital thing as an acoustic resonator, but because it’s digital you get these very discreet pitches.

And when there’s instability, it bounces back and forth at a very regular rate. But because this is an analog mixing desk, there’s a bit of fluidity in there, so it’s not as robotic as it might otherwise be.

What do you mean by fluidity?
For instance, right now, I’m not touching anything but the system is making its own noise or presence.

Another theme that runs through my work is that even though I’m often in a position of control, I relinquish that to the instrument. It's less about me operating a device, and more about me putting myself in a position of collaboration with the instrument.

When I perform on instruments that I build, it's with this idea that they have a key role in the performance, where I work through the curveballs they throw at me.

So your instrument has a sense of urgency?
In a way. Maybe more appropriately, uncertainty.

Is that randomness?
No, it’s not randomness, which is another tricky topic. This is just uncertainty, in that I don't know the outcome.

Why isn't randomness as relevant to your work?
Well, randomness implies that there is no form. So we’re talking about uncertainty as a property that leads to randomness, maybe, but randomness sounds too loose. There’s no grounding.

Do you have a musical background?
I did middle school band? [laughs]. And yeah, I studied audio engineering at Boulder, music technology in Denver, and then went to Cal Arts for my masters in composition and integrated media. It really helps with structuring performances around these composition ideas.

Stearns' studio wish-list: “More storage.”

Would you consider yourself a glitch artist? What's the glitch scene like in New York?
Because of my Year of the Glitch project, people are introduced to what I'm doing through that small path, but it's just a small part of my practice.

The glitch community is still pretty fringe—there are maybe a handful of people actively involved who I know, and that is Jeff Donaldson (aka noteNdo), myself, and Daniel Temkin.

A lot of the glitch scene happens online. It's like, decentralized to its core.

So there isn't a New York community per se?
No, I think the communities are along different lines.

Can I see where you stash your glitch blankets?
Of course. These are the first prints I started doing, which look like Op art, where simple patterns are overpowered by the vertical weirdness this thing induces. Conceptually, I'm hacking the brains of the cameras—and they're producing imagery that effectively hacks our brains. It's like this closed loop.

Blankets woven with glitched-out patterns.

Very cool. Let's get to Year of the Glitch—your enormously popular Tumblr project. It started as a 2012 resolution, and the idea was to post a new glitch project every single day, right? How exhausting was that—are you glad it's over?
Yeah [laughs]. But at the same time, now I don't feel as anchored.

I noticed that you compiled a “Top Ten” of your most successful posts. Why do you think those ten, in particular, resonated with people?
I think the top five were all Tumblr Radar picks, and I have no idea how that algorithm works. The number one post (below) was actually a collection of JPG artifacts, which is what happens when you break the file format to produce different distortions—8 by 8 blocks of pixelated weirdness.

Year of the Glitch's most popular post of 2012 was a series of JPG artifacts.

You've kind of become this guru figure, and frequently answer questions about the glitch practice on Year of the Glitch. What do you think are the biggest obstacles that beginners run into?
The introductory technique is to open a JPG in a word processor. And the next question always is, "I've gotten this to work, now what?"

So if I had to guess, it would be fully appreciating that the medium is fluid, and once you have zeros and ones, you can take one file and another and copy and paste this chunk into another one—even if they're different formats.

Right, so it's kind of like breaking down mental barriers about what you can or can't do with a certain technology?
Yeah, the reason why I think this is an issue is because I came into glitch through circuit bending, where one of the biggest barriers is, "What happens if I break this thing?" There's something physical at stake with circuit bending.

For glitch, you can always copy the file and break the copy. But it's about figuring out how to take that small chunk that you've learned and extract the most out of it, in terms of use and application.

So part of it is not being overwhelmed by the cascading pool of possibilities, and part of it is sitting down and actually figuring out what those are.

Are there other kinds of "ethos" that you think are important to glitch artists? Embracing uncertainty seems pretty crucial.
Yeah, "uncertainty" reflects this acceptance that answers don't have to be black and white—and that the purpose of asking a question is not necessarily to get an answer, but the value of asking a question in the first place.

Another thing I think glitch artists value is a sense of community, where everyone is sharing their ideas and expertise.

Which is what Year of the Glitch was about, right? That kind of "open source" mentality of collective knowledge?
Yeah! For me, it was about laying everything bare, just saying like, "I'm trying to figure this out as much as everyone else is. I'm going to share everything I know."

It's all very technical, but it's helpful to understand that's a lot of what happens behind glitch art. The output may be crazy and visually compelling, with this kind of aesthetic hype, but getting down to the processes can be very dry.

Learning how the sausage is made! So, we've got "uncertainty" and "community" so far. Anything else?
I think glitch art has its value is in this idea of process being important, as a metaphor for other kinds of cultural activities, and the values for the world beyond the technology.

Now that Year of the Glitch is over, what are you planning to do in 2013?
I'm keeping the site up to answer all these questions I've gotten, but I'm pretty glitched out. I'm trying to focus back on my sound practice, which has fallen on the wayside.

I also have larger non-electronics based works I might start doing. So this idea of mechanical reproduction in context to the economic climate, and this notion of tension not imposed by the outside, but rather, structural implosion—these ideas are coming together using pulleys and rope [laughs].

I'm also performing at Transmediale, doing a show in Denver, and a visit up to L.A. to present on L.A.'s glitch work. Then, I'm heading out to Amsterdam in the spring to do a residency with STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music).

Lucky you. Thanks, Phil!

All photographs by Kamil Tyebally.