The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with James Irwin by Laura Davidson

June 2015

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

LD:    Firstly, I’d like to start with an observation about your series RGB InstaWorks. They remind me somewhat of the 77k videos uploaded anonymously to YouTube last year, which were compositions of blue and red rectangular blocks.

These videos carried no explanation and caused some commentators to compare them to ‘the footage’ in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Eventually, it was discovered that Google had developed them to test various elements of video quality. Although RGB InstaWorks have much richer colour fields and geometries, I’m really curious if there is some correlation here?

JI:    Thanks for these, I haven’t seen them before - Google are a bit weird aren’t they! The RGB InstaWork pieces take the camera through various Instagram filters that are layered over RGB gradients, generated by a programme to test the limits of the RGB spectrum. What's happening is that sections of the digital spectrum are changed and manipulated by the Insta filters, so yes, in a way they are testing elements of video quality. They probably also operate in a similar way contextually. They are on YouTube and Vimeo, and no one knows what they are or what they are doing there.

RGB InstaRevolve (2014)

LD:    You’ve also worked with Instagram filters off the screen; how does this process work? At what point did you decide to extract the Instagram filter from the screen?

JI:    I started making the Instagram veneer works last year, before the moving image pieces. At the time I was thinking about how filters applied to images in Instagram have a normalising effect. A photograph put through an Instagram filter blurs reality into a weird hybrid space, where the agency of the author is replaced by a new technological agency. I’m interested in how technologies are designed to cancel out the noise - nuances are removed and everything is presented within a certain spectrum.

The images printed onto the wooden veneers were made using Photoshop actions that reproduce the effects of Instagram filters. Someone worked out how to replicate the effects of filters like Mayfair and Walden in Photoshop, and put the files online. If you apply the actions to transparent documents you end up with a certain hue, or a vignette effect, which I had UV-printed onto the hardwood-veneered panels. Within the works the veneers operate as a physical parallel for the Instagram filters - they provide a skin or layer to alter reality. I was trying to produce images that exist as a physical-digital hybrid, where you don’t know if you are looking at is a printed image of a wooden surface, or a wooden surface. In this sense the Instagram filter is used as a tool to question the integrity or authenticity of what you are looking at.

LD: So would could technologies, in an abstracted sense, be perceived as a reductive practice?

JI: Yes, I think so. Generally, when using software you are forced to work within parameters - you can get away from that by writing your own programs, but a lot of work made in that way still has this quality to it, which is defined by it being digital. I work with systems and processes a lot, where I’ll follow a rule or an idea as a way of deconstructing what a digital image is. So I’ll apply different filters that I’ve made - for shuffling pixels, affecting resolutions or working with RGB colours - to sets of images to make new images that I relinquish aesthetic control of. I think a lot of work made with digital technology has that filtered effect, where spontaneity comes about as a result of digital processes that we are detached from. I suppose in a literal sense all technological practices are reductive because they’re based around logical numerical systems.

LD:    Which must seem like a contradiction, when these logical systems seem to be capable of constantly generating material / data?

JI:    Yes, I think it’s because it’s so reductive - and essentially so simple (0000011110101010…). We have been able to replicate and record everything through binary translations that provide this echo, or mirror, of the material world.

Silicon Progression (Binary Flicker)’ Still (2014)

LD:    Silicon Progression (ii), 2014, selected for Generator, appears to be a direct reference to the material origins of computational culture. Can you talk us through this work?

JI:    The moving image work that I am showing in Generator is from a set of animations that I made using single stock photos. The piece in Generator uses an image of a lump of raw silicon on a white background, repeated 8 times across the bottom of the screen.

Throughout the animation the 8 rocks systematically pulsate and flash. They are placeholders for bits within a byte, and count from 0 to 255 – a full byte of data - or in binary, from 00000000 to 11111111.

The binary progression is there to provide a script for the animation to follow - to give it a start and an end. I was interested in encrypting the material within a digital image so that it bears very little formal resemblance to its parent image. This was done algorithmically, making sets of images by progressively re-interlacing the pixels of the original through a piece of custom-written software. The process is repeated over and over, and the stock image becomes more and more shuffled. With the work I wanted to create a feeling, or a sense of constant background activity. A whirring buzz of the computer thinking. In Generator it’s going to be shown on a monitor that’s sitting on a desk - the computer as a kind of primitive processing machine that’s opening up in a really straightforward way.

LD:    Who are the practitioners who influence you? Do you find that working processes / software / developments in technology drive what you create more so than other practitioners? Or is it a balance?

JI:    At the moment I’ve been looking a lot at Anna Barham’s work. There was a great two-channel video shown at Arcade last year that she made on a residency at Site Gallery in Sheffield. I’m probably drawn to her because of her process, and how she incorporates text and verbal language in moving image. Other than that, people like Tauba Auerbach, Laura Buckley, Haroon Mirza, and I’ve recently discovered Rachel Rose’s work. It’s important to me that my practice operates in a dialogue with others. I find it strange that there’s still this dominant idea of the artist as the isolated genius, especially now so much work is being made around the digital age and the internet - it goes against this whole sharing open-source thing.

I’m not really interested in letting developments in technology drive what I’m making - more in understanding how we translate the world around us into digital space. I see most of my works as explorations into the effects of living with the internet as a kind of omnipresent digital mirror.

FaceBreak 1 (Degrade Regrade 10 per cent speed) Still (2015)

LD:    What are you currently working on?

JI:    I’ve been writing these predictive poems recently, using the predictive text function in TextEdit on OSX Yosemite to make text works that are constricted by the choice of words offered by the software. They’re presented as edited, cleaned-up screen recordings of the writing process itself. Documentations of the performance, I suppose.

Most of what I’m making at the moment examines the idea of automation, and how technologies determine the choices we make day to day. I’ve been making these animations by linking images through Google’s Search by Image. The pixels of each one have been manipulated to make stills within animations that disrupt these hyperlinked narratives. I’ve started using text-to-speech software to make voiceovers for them too, also using predictive text in a similar way to the predictive poetry I was describing before.

As well as that, I’m using some Photoshop scripts I’ve written to make images come in and out of screen resolution to censor web--based ads for different tech products - like this.

RGB InstaLapse Still (2014)