Hi Ben. Let’s start with a bit about you. How would you describe your practice?
I work digitally almost exclusively, now – it wasn’t always like that, but it has become that. About a year ago, I was making digitally-animated films critiquing systems of content distribution and interrogating this observation – one that isn’t singular to me – that we live in a time where we’re trapped in a position of total confusion and powerlessness that is determined for us by higher powers we don’t have access to. I was attempting to elaborate on that using animated films when my degree – BA Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art – ended very suddenly. The university failed spectacularly to offer any satisfactory collective presentation of my year’s work in lieu of a degree show. There was a website, but it was uploaded in a really buggy state, people with dyslexia were having trouble reading the font... So, me and a couple of others saw an opportunity to use our 3D digital creation skills to make an interactive presentation of our degree show using a game engine, so you can walk around it freely. For me, it was a return to a personal interest in game design and immersive interaction design. Being on a Painting & Printmaking pathway on my course, it wasn’t exactly encouraged. But over the last year, since graduating, getting in touch with that form of immersive engagement, I’ve realised how all of the questions I was asking myself about agency in consumption and viewing creative media can be tackled by making work interactive. And that's a very shallow observation, but I've spent the last year looking at ways of making that happen.
So, did you get the sense that digital art was discouraged at your uni? It seems so strange for that to be lacking, even now.
Not overtly discouraged... Until my final year, there wasn’t a single tutor with any technical knowledge of what I was making. At least not on my course, which isn’t necessarily an issue, but it created an ecosystem where it wasn’t what was expected, and the conversation around it wasn’t facilitated correctly by the material of our course. The Sculpture & Environmental Art pathway at GSA was more open to that. But it still wasn’t a focus, which seems odd, because it is at other places, and it’s such a massive, popular and quite financially-viable genre of the arts.
It definitely feels a bit more accessible in that way – you don’t have to go out and buy paint. What kind of software do you use? Are there free ones?
There are lots of free options, which is great and super empowering. Obviously, hardware-wise, the better your computer is, the easier it will be. But, as long as you're not using a retrofitted toaster, you can probably get some of it to work in some capacity. But it's not a totally open field, financially – a lot of the software is very expensive, but if you're willing to get a bit creative with your browsing…
Say no more. Is there any software that you’d specifically recommend? Namedrop.
For game development, I use Unity. There are two main options for people doing independent game development, at least in a 3D capacity, and those are Unity and the Unreal Engine. The Unreal Engine is more graphically powerful, so if you want to make something that looks pretty, that’s really good, whereas Unity is more flexible. It has a bigger community, more plugins and options, more online support and it's perhaps a little more open-ended in terms of what you can make with it. And then to animate, I sometimes use Blender, which is free, but I mostly use Cinema 4D. When I’m rendering videos, I do it now with OctaneRender, which you have to pay a monthly subscription for. So, when I've got a project ready to export, I'll pay for it for a month. And then the Adobe suite – After Effects and Premiere Pro, and Photoshop. I 3D sculpt in ZBrush, but that one is, like, four grand.
They must know people are going to nick that.
They must know. And then, in terms of hardware, I'm just on a laptop. It's a decent Windows one with a graphics card, but it's not one of those monster artist PCs – I would like one but can’t afford one.
"Until my final year, there wasn’t a single tutor with any technical knowledge of what I was making."
What made you want to do digital art?
I started my degree painting and drawing because that was the only thing that was done at my school and college. Then I did a foundation at Camberwell, which was... I liked my tutor, so he kind of saved it. Again, I fell into the painting class there, because that's what I was most comfortable with. And then, when I went to GSA, I applied with painting, because that’s what I had. Then, when I got there, everyone around me was doing painting, so that's what I did. But I got to a point where, when we were researching artists, I kept coming back to digital makers, like Ed Atkins and Akihiko Taniguchi, and I wanted to draw 3D renders because I liked the visual quality of them – especially for figurative work. Jesse Kanda, as well, who did a bunch of music videos for Arca – they're so good! I just wanted to draw stuff like that. Then I thought, why am I drawing them? Why don’t I just make some? And then I fell into digital animation.
And did you find that you enjoyed doing it?
I think it satisfies a tendency that I have towards micro-management. I got my birth chart read a few months ago and got told that my mercurial energy is overwhelming – so communication and management and stuff. I found it immensely satisfying to tweak and reiterate these animations, and the online community encourages that. There are all these rolling threads and YouTube tutorials. I'm quite susceptible to that, so I got really into the mechanics. Also, I'm a real lover of film – cringe – and the kind of films that I like usually have elaborate, intricate, fluid cinematography and editing. To make that yourself... I still don’t own a DSLR – I could rent ones from uni but, like, I don't have a crane, I don't have a dolly, I don't have enough cameras to get all this coverage, whereas, in Cinema 4D, you can have cameras everywhere, doing whatever you want! Then you can render it all out and edit it together, and it felt like I was able to speak in the language of the film directors that I was excited by, for free, without having to literally budget a film production. So that's really fun. I can use it to make films that I could never make – unless Netflix wanna swoop in and give me a cash injection. Then from there, it was like, try a new bit of software, try a new process, try a new thing, until I ended up doing game stuff.
"It's not a totally open field, financially – a lot of the software is very expensive, but if you're willing to get a bit creative with your browsing…"
And do you game as well? Does that come with it?
I have a strange relationship with gaming. As a teenager, yes, but not a huge library – more like a few specific ones that I enjoyed and played a lot. And then at some point, I got addicted to watching YouTube – I think it's our tenth anniversary, actually, me and YouTube! I found this whole subgenre of really critical video essays on lots of things, like politics, filmmaking, media culture. But, specifically, there are loads of great ones about game design and game writing. I love hearing people pick apart how these systems interweave, how they interact with the player and how the player can influence them. I bought a bunch of these games that I'd heard about, tried to play them and thought ‘I think I enjoy reading about these more.’ That's not always true – I find the discussion around them stimulating, but I've been getting into it more recently. We have a PS1, 2 and 3 in the living room, which is kind of a PS6 when you add it up.
"The Unreal Engine is more graphically powerful, so if you want to make something that looks pretty, that’s really good, whereas Unity is more flexible."
Could you talk me through the process for a specific piece you’ve worked on?
I finished Procedural Drama almost exactly a year ago, so I've been thinking about it again recently. It was for an exhibition at the CCA in Glasgow. We had to make a three-channel film to go on three huge monitors that were all right next to each other in this dark room. And that was it – you could do whatever you wanted. I still have the set for it. *Ben grabs the miniature set and knocks it.* It's like an earthquake has happened in there! I bought this at the Barrowlands market in Glasgow.
Can I take a screenshot of it?
Yeah. It's a bit wrecked, sorry.
At the time I was making it, I was feeling acutely claustrophobic. What I was saying earlier – about things being predictable, chaotic and unknowable at the same time – kind of collapsed into this feeling of simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia, being able to feel claustrophobic in the presence of many other people, in open spaces, in the free market. I read this short story by a feminist sci-fi writer from the seventies*, who published barely anything, but she had this collection of short stories called The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories. Her name is Pamela Zoline. She’s American. And the title story is of the Chantal Akerman tradition of housewife-slash-female character in a small apartment, relating to her domestic activities, having an incremental existential crisis. I finally watched Jeanne Dielman [23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles], the Chantal Akerman film, the other day. I've never seen it, even though I've done all this work around her, and I love Chantal Akerman. But I've never seen that one because it's three hours long. But, yeah, would totally recommend. Amazing. Horrifying. But the image I took away from this feminist reading – I generalised it slightly – of someone trapped in a repetitious environment and trying to elaborate on their plight, and their interaction with that environment.
It seems like repetition plays an important role in your work – certain figures or words or images are repeated in other pieces, too. Obviously, if something is more familiar it can become more satisfying, but it can equally be jarring to see the same thing again and again, like getting trapped. What’s your intention with it?
By repeating something, by serialising it, you draw attention to the differences between the repetitions. That's my interest in it. So, for example, it’s true of the movie I was just talking about, Jeanne Dielman. It’s three days in the life of this single mother. She does the same thing every day: she makes dinner; she cleans the house; she polishes her son’s shoes. At the same speed, and the same rhythm. The weather’s the same all three days. But in repeating that, slowly, and familiarising you with it, the slight variations that occur on the second day of the narrative, and the third, I found they really got under my skin. It's a slightly neurotic thing, for me. Recently, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of multiverses, which are interesting because they’re an exciting creative challenge – to write something interweaving stories, real-world references, different lexicons and terminologies – but it’s also one that is immensely financially lucrative. Marvel is the textbook example. It’s something that is niche and nerdy and ‘eurgh’ to the mass audience, and revels in its own complexity. But it’s also a genius marketing tactic. So, it's something that's really of the moment. Yikes. But since I’m making it all, it is kind of my multiverse. This is how I'm coming to think about my practice, especially now I'm working on multiple things at the same time. The idea of repeating imagery and characters and visuals and sounds between them isn't just expedient for me – it's all part of one enquiry.
"I think it satisfies a tendency that I have towards micro-management. I got my birth chart read a few months ago and got told that my mercurial energy is overwhelming."
Is that where the name came from? The idea of repetition?
I called it Procedural Drama in reference to NCIS and CSI – TV shows with a totally predictable story structure. The Mentalist – that one I actually quite enjoy. Every episode is the same. It’s a procedural drama: drama following procedure. I was applying that narrative device to my own domestic existence, so I projected it onto this androgynous, pale, 3D character in that tiny miniature set. I built furniture for it, to play with scale and to delineate between the self and the surrounding environment. It was fun to make. It was hard to make – it involved a lot. I drew and made the miniature, then modelled the character. Then, I got loads of footage of the miniature from different angles and made all the walls detachable, like a sitcom set, so I could get it from any angle and have them fade in and out. Then, I took over an entire hallway of the Fine Art building with a DIY motion capture setup: I taped out the layout of the room, to scale, and got one of my friends to humiliate herself performing actions on this sound stage. It was literally in a staircase – we kept stopping whenever we heard people in the stairs. Then, I put that motion capture data onto the character, composited the character in After Effects into the live-action footage of the miniature, and cropped it out and shadowed it in, so it sat more convincingly. I didn't want it to be a totally amazing 3D effect where you couldn't even tell, but to make it sit semi-convincingly in the space. I always storyboard these things but, until recently, all my storyboards are always out of order. They’re not very helpful documents – they’re more like note-taking exercises. An idea for an image will come and then… I think I make things in the edit a lot, which is neither a good nor a bad thing.
So, it seems like sound is important for you, too. Do you always record sound like that? What's your feeling about sound?
That I'm not very good at it! No, the films I made leant quite heavily on stock sound, and sound pulled from online databases, and, later, some sound generated using generative adversarial networks (GANs). It’s sound generated using simple AIs. I’m not much of a programmer but there are some quite accessible ones, which is cool. *Ben’s doorbell rings and he steps away to answer it.* There's a parcel for me! I’ve lost my train of thought… With sound, I think mostly about diegesis – trying to make it diegetic.
What does that mean?
So, the sound plays from within the narrative of the story. A non-diegetic sound is, like, a soundtrack or narration, whereas a diegetic sound is part of the image that you're looking at. I try to keep it quite quiet and stark. I didn't notice I was doing this, but I really like ticking noises. They give a gentle offbeat tension. More recently, the things I've done have had music in them. I've had access to budgets – that makes it sound like I have huge resources, but just small budgets to get a musician in. So, I've put my faith in other talented people to take the reins on the sound completely. In every case so far, I've been really happy with that. Often, I’ll send people a song I like, or one sentence on what I thought it could sound like, but also say, 'you know better so just do it.' That's been good. I like, as well, using recognisable or semi-recognisable clips of audio. Even if it's not something where you immediately recognise the exact source, it's clearly been cropped or drawn or lifted from something else, like a released song or a sound bite from a TV show. There’s a film director from Glasgow called Lynne Ramsay. She's amazing. She did We Need to Talk About Kevin, which, even though people say it's overrated, I still think it's underrated. And Ratcatcher is really good. Everything she's done is really good. In an interview, she said she believes that when information is being imparted visually, the sound should fade, and vice versa. So, she has this split relationship with the audiovisual medium where they expand and contract in relation to each other. That's a really interesting way to think about it: when you hit someone with the visual don’t confuse them with sound as well.
The one with the breathing sound and the stiles [Fastest Route] reminds me of nightmares I've had. In my notes, I've written ‘Is it meant to be scary, or is that just me?’ I sometimes have these nightmares where I’m trying to get somewhere but I can't.
Me too. But it wasn’t meant to scare – it was meant as a critical take on Google Maps, in that case. My tutor in my last year of uni kept calling me neurotic every time I spoke to him, pretty much, which was like, you're not wrong, but telling a neurotic person they’re neurotic can’t really help with their neurosis, can it?
Yeah, I see. It was just so reminiscent of that feeling. I’m trying to go somewhere, but everywhere I go, there's a bloody stile. It’s so deeply dissatisfying.
Well, we’re living in that nightmare: you're not able to go where you want to go. That sounded like a comment on coronavirus – it wasn’t. You’re not able to freely dictate where you go. There are certain paths. What's that thing? We’re not in cages, we're on highways. So, we can move, in a set direction without diverging from it.
Speaking of… Let’s talk about digital exhibition spaces. It’s a topic that's important right now, and everyone’s trying different things but not many of them are satisfactory.
They suck! It's terrible that people can’t install work [in physical spaces] at the minute, but work can still be installed in the same way. All of those questions that you would need to consider with a physical install, in terms of presentation, in online spaces – in virtual spaces, in game spaces – there's a huge open field of possibility. But it's one that demands a certain amount of technical knowledge, which, I suppose, I have, but a lot of artists don’t. So, I've been working with people, trying to help them articulate their own work in a virtual space, in a way that they find stimulating. And they can present it uniquely, with purpose and intention, without folding it into some dead generic web format. All of these institutions have pivoted at breakneck speed into doing virtual presentations, and people are sick of them, but I don’t think that's because it's a dissatisfying medium. It’s because the support isn't there, and the variety isn't there, to make these things consistently interesting. I don't want to see a white cube space in my web browser. What's the point? Why repeat these trends, in this open field of possibility that can really allow people to give their work a new dimension? What's lacking is significant technical support, as you would have with a physical install, with techs – literally, techs – to help people install their work in an online space, on their own terms, in their own way. Expecting people to be able to do that themselves is unreasonable – unless, like me, you have pre-existing knowledge of that – so we need those techs. They need to get paid to help people realise some of the possibilities of virtual programming, rather than perpetuating these boring-ass websites. I’ve stopped looking at them! I try to keep up with contemporary art stuff, but I just hate them. They just suck. Is that bad?
No, not at all. There's so much more that can be done with it, especially in terms of interactivity.
What they don’t do is engage with their medium, at all. People want to see forms of online presentation that engage the medium in some way. And there are examples of that – there's been some great stuff, too – but in general, that isn’t the case. Game design is in fashion now. Arts people do this: they frown on something for ages, then it becomes trendy and then established names use loads of money to do it really badly, and make it look shit. It's exhausting. But maybe my work is symptomatic of that.
"I bought a bunch of these games that I'd heard about, tried to play them and thought ‘I think I enjoy reading about these more.’"
It’s a weird time. Shall we talk about the role of research in your work? I read some of your dissertation that’s published on your website. How does it all feed into your practice?
I’m researching slightly different things now. My dissertation is still relevant to what I do – it was a take on creative possibility and creative catastrophe, and how online systems of content distribution and models of how we encounter media now impinge upon the agency of the person making, to the point where they contract the range of potential creative outputs. In a very literal sense, it contracts to the point where everything’s already been done – that old adage. I engaged with a couple of different interpretations of that. The literal one from the Jorge Luis Borges short story, about how, from a finite set like the alphabet, there is necessarily a finite number of possible outcomes. It's the chimpanzees-banging-on-typewriters thing where eventually they’ll write everything that can possibly be written. And that’s true of a JPEG image as well. There are a certain number of colours each pixel can be and there are a certain number of them, so there's a defined number of how many different photos there can be, which is kind of terrifying. But it's an incomprehensible amount. But that's the point I was trying to touch on: the fact that the limit exists is significant – there have been multiple post-structuralist disavowals of that as a relevant concept, but to move past that, to a time when content strategy is a thing, search engine optimisation is a thing, algorithmic sorting is a thing. It always has been, in some capacity, but now it is very tangible and very immediate. Suddenly, consideration of that finite set becomes pressingly relevant again, thinking about conversions. It's all about capitalism, I guess! All of these things are instigated by a value system that is foreign to them and is subsuming them. As a dissertation, it was a very methodically, critically researched take on that.
Blimey. And what are you researching now?
Now, I’m reading more about productive ways out of that scenario, rather than just analysing – doing the post-mortem – trying to be a little more helpful, by suggesting plural approaches. And, specifically to Britain, getting back in touch with other forms of knowledge: non-rational forms of knowledge; extra-rational forms of knowledge; non-capitalist forms of knowledge; more divergent forms of knowledge. These have existed in Britain but have been quite effectively eradicated from our society. But we have a history with them, so trying to engage that and encourage more divergent thought – different systems of inquiry – and how those things can happily co-exist. The example someone gave me the other day was how, when you’re ill, either you go to a hospital or you go to get, like, alternative remedies. Those are seen as totally in contrast to each other: either you think one is valid or the other is valid, and people have their own set of opinions about that. Why can’t those two things coexist? You can learn from both of them and receive treatment from both of them for your own benefit, and you can engage with both of them on your own terms. Other places do. We don’t but we used to. There are different ways of thinking and we’re told that they're invalid, but they’re not. That’s what I’m researching at the moment.
"All of these institutions have pivoted at breakneck speed into doing virtual presentations, and people are sick of them, but I don’t think that's because it's a dissatisfying medium."
Is there anything going on in digital art that you think deserves a shoutout?
I’m part of an ongoing residency programme in digital arts called SPUR, which is run out of Chaos Magic, an artist-run project space in Nottingham. I don’t want to self-plug… I am involved but forget about me for a minute. It presents a young and novel take on telling narratives: making work in character; world-building exercises; different forms of knowledge (as we were just speaking about); different forms of presentation; engaging online audiences in immersive, interactive, fun ways; playing with and operating on a lot of the language and systems of online fantasy and fandom communities, like fan wikis and pseudonyms and avatars. Roleplaying is a cool theme – we’ve all been making work in character and none of us has shared our real identities on the web platform that we’ve been using. I’ve worked a couple of them out but, in theory, we don’t have any idea who’s who, even though we all interact on a personal level in a group chat every day. I think we've all found it quite difficult, but at least I've found it quite exciting, quite stimulating. And there will be public outcomes of that for people to finally see in the next couple of months, rather than us chatting about them endlessly, so that's fun. There are a couple of other programs like that, as well – I know Wysing Arts Centre is always doing great shit. They have a similar program called AMPlify, which, in terms of young people making digital arts in a divergence of arts, that would be another one to watch out for.
Thanks so much, Ben.