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Mash Smarter Not Harder: An Interview with Benjamin Berg

05/12/2013
Monty Cantsin

A DISTINGUISHED DATA-BENDER AND ACCOMPLISHED SOUND-PLUNDERER, Benjamin Berg (AKA stAllio!) has made a career for himself as a member of the Indianapolis-based art band Animals Within Animals (AWIA) since the turn of this century. Alongside of that, Berg’s also emerged online as the host of a rad radio program on Numbers FM, as the founder/curator of the Tumblr called glitchgifs, and even as a pillow-seller. Midwestern breakcore fanatics may recall seeing his name on bills back in the day alongside such legends as Doormouse or Xanopticon. AND It turns out he’s also a rather skilled skill-sharer. Monty Cantsin [AKA Rap Game Gertrude Stein], big fan of stAllio! since 2007, corresponded with the artist recently [11/2013] by email for this interview.

Montgomery Cantsin: How did you first encounter the “plunderphonics” approach? And, looking back over the last few decades, what (for you) are the highlights and stand-out tracks that define that particular genre?

Benjamin Berg: A co-worker told me about Negativland so I tracked down a copy of Escape From Noise. That was a game-changer for me, and still one of the highlights of their catalog. The Evolution Control Committee’s (ECC) Whipped Cream Mixes were hugely influential and still stand up better than most “mashups” made since (same goes for their track “Rocked by Rape”). I’d also list: John Oswald’s early work, like Plexure; pretty much anything by Orchid Spangiafora; Osymyso’s “Intro-inspection;” Wobbly’s Wild Why. To that list I’d maybe add something by Wayne Butane or Cassettboy for a touch of humor.

MC: What were some of the first projects that you worked on in that vein?

BB: We were maybe mid-way through the first Animals Within Animals record when I discovered plunderphonics, so the first experiments were on the first two AWIA releases (Yard Ape, and Mono a Mono).

MC: When ECC started, I think they were doing work using a simple dual-cassette system. Did you ever do any of that? I am stealing the name of one of your greatest hits, “Mash Smarter Not Harder,” to title this interview; was that track made using simple editing software? Because, by the time you made “Bust A Groove” (a similar sort of track) you’d decided to use Ableton, is that correct?

BB: A bunch of the first AWIA record was made on a 4-track, and at least a couple of those tracks used a pause-button sampling technique, so that was effectively dual-cassette. Also, a lot of my earliest video work was done with simple pause-button editing; I didn’t have access to real editing equipment, so I would just hook the camera up to a VCR and edit that way. On some of those I was very loose about where my edits were; I would just fast foward to some point at random on my source tape and copy a clip over The Mash Smarter Not Harder EP and the first few tracks I recorded for A Huge Smash were done in Adobe Audition. But after a while, it got to the point where I just had too many cuts and the program crashed. When I lost a track and had to start it over, I switched to Ableton, which not only performed better but also made it easier to sync my edits to the beat.

MC: Now what about your personal history of glitch music? This one is a bit harder to pin down, perhaps?

BB: Yeah I can’t name a particular moment when I discovered glitch music or a particular artist or release. It was probably something off of the Mille Plateaux label, if I had to guess. The early M^2 records were an influence for me, as well as early Kid606 (but not anything he’s done in the last 10 years). My favorites are Lesser, DISC, and Farmers Manual… anything by them is great. Ryoji Ikeda is really good, too.

MC: An old film projectionist once remarked to me that “digital failure is absolute.” I guess he was frustrated… when analog equipment falters it still often gives you something (some image, some sound) and can be worked with. Whereas sometimes with a digital system it’s more of a black box situation where it’s either on (‘one’) or it’s off (‘zero’). Does the glitch represent a sort of exception to this? Can you talk about glitch in the context of this–perhaps mistaken–notion that digital failure is “absolute?”

BB: I wouldn’t say that digital failure is always absolute. Sometimes it is, like clipping versus analog distortion, where you hit a sort of peak and can’t break things any further. But it depends on the system, and the assumptions that engineers make when designing systems. An obvious example would be your TV going to a blue screen when the picture is bad, instead of showing snow as they used to. There’s no technical reason why a TV has to do that. Hardware manufacturers decided that nobody would really want to watch a heavily distorted picture, and designed their devices not to show one. I like to say that glitch art is like dancing on the edge of a broken system. You want to break things enough that it affects the output, but not so much that your tools stop working or the system fails altogether.

MC: I have to say that “Fuck Windows” (your track composed entirely of Windows and Sim City samples) is one of my favorite audio pieces that you’ve done. What can you say about that one? …Are computer games what got you interested in fucking around with ‘data?’

BB: I made “Fuck Windows” in 1996, and it came about in large part because I already had those sounds on my computer. It seems weird to think about now, but back then samples weren’t so easy to come by. You either had to rip them yourself from a CD (and being in college, I only had so many) or record them yourself using a shitty computer microphone. The system sounds and video game sound effects were practically the only WAV files I had, so it seemed natural to use them. …I started using data as audio around the same time, but it didn’t directly spin out of that track. I was using a program called Impulse Tracker to compose/arrange music on the computer. Going back to what I was saying earlier about assumptions: most programs assume that unrecognized file formats can’t be read (or they make you explicitly tell them how to interpret such files). Impulse Tracker assumed the opposite, and let you open any file on your hard drive as if it were a sample. I discovered that pretty quickly and spent hours just browsing through my computer, listening to all the data.

MC:Blue Screen of Death” is another one of my favorite audio works that you’ve done. You describe this kind of work as ‘data-bent’? What is your process for it?

BB: These days I’ve taken to calling that style of music “data sound”. The general process is that I browse through my hard drive, converting data files to sound and trying to pick out the ones that sound the most interesting. Then when I have enough cool sounds, I arrange them into a track. My first data sound release, Dissonance Is Bliss, was done entirely in Impulse Tracker (both the sonification of the data and the arrangement of the samples). Then I switched to using WAV editors to sonify data, and loading the WAV files into other music-making tools. “Blue Screen of Death” was arranged in Fruity Loops. Everything on my newest data sound release (On the DLL) was arranged in Ableton.

MC: What can you say about chance? And, is there a distinction to be made between the data-bent and the glitched? Can something be a glitch if it is intentionally created? …This reminds me of a somewhat related question, that of “found objects”–can we rightly call them that if we specifically go out looking for them? [In surrealism there is the so-called “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” It seems to me that it’s largely the chance aspect that is of key importance there–the notion that such objects could be juxtaposed unintentionally somewhere in the world and you could just happen upon them.]

BB: I think glitch is like the intersection between chance and formalism. In the 20th Century artists started asking questions like “What is music?” and “What is a painting?” And you had things like The Art of Noises, musique concrète… you had painters who were more concerned with exploring the nature of paint and canvas than with “representing” some physical object or scene. Glitch practices are like that stuff, but because digital structures are more hidden, you can do things where even if you know pretty much what’s going to happen, you don’t really know what the end result will look or sound like. It’s not really chance, because there are rules governing it, but it feels like chance because you don’t understand those rules. Even if you have a good grasp of something like JPEG compression, you probably can’t look at the code and tell what the image is going to look like. So it’s a way of creating things that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, just as in the tradition of John Cage, Bryon Gysin, etc. As for the difference between a “natural” glitch and manmade glitch (or what Iman Moradi called “glitch-alike”): it’s an important distinction that had to be made, but it’s not one I find particularly interesting. For one thing, the audience generally can’t tell the difference unless you’re really obvious about it, so it’s mostly a question of what you feel comfortable with as an artist. Encountering a glitch in the wild (what Antonio Roberts and Jeff Donaldson call “glitch safari“) is exciting, but the idea that if it’s not a wild glitch then it’s not “real” is very limiting and precludes all sorts of interesting art practices.

MC: I wonder how is it that a whole industry (websites, music and art careers, academic conferences, etc.) seems to have sprung up around The Glitch. How can so much be generated within that narrow of a conceptual/aesthetic space?

BB: I’m not surprised by the growing popularity of the glitch. We’re surrounded by technology but we’re not that used to thinking about how it works, let alone how to deliberately misuse it. Glitch practices constitute a different way of thinking, and these kinds of ideas are infectious. You can apply glitch theory to pretty much any technology or system, so it’s widely applicable, and it tells us things about the world that might not be obvious otherwise.

MC: You are founder of glitchgifs Tumblr? Is it you alone?

BB: Yeah, I run glitchgifs. GIF is such a great format for glitch art, because it’s the only common shareable format that allows motion and looping without the user having to click anything. I run the blog alone, and I would actually love to invite other curators, but because it was the first Tumblr blog I created, I am unable to do so. To Tumblr, I am “glitchgifs” and there is no way to tell it otherwise, even though I have a blog at http://stallIo.tumblr.com that’s intended to be my “personal” account. There are those pesky design assumptions again.

MC: Plans for the future?

BB: I’d like to find the time soon to do some video work again. I have footage; I just need to assemble it and set it to music. Musically I have a release coming out (hopefully) soon on a German label called Betonblume. I’m really pleased with it and can’t wait for it to come out so people can hear it. After that, I hope to make some new post-mashup tracks and finish the follow-up to Wack Cylinders. I’m still going to be active posting new art on Tumblr, and my weekly show Active Listening / The Act of Listening on numbers.fm will continue at least for the near future.

MC: Finally, please tell me more about this big international show you are in right now, and about this amazing text generator thing you did for it.

BB: The Wrong – New Digital Art Biennale is a massive online art show, consisting of 30 individually themed pavilions. Bill Miller graciously invited me to contribute to his pl41nt3xt pavilion, which centers around art made with simple technologies like text, rather than fancy 3d environments or video processing or stuff like that. So I made a glitch text generator and text-art canvas. It lets you quickly generate “glitch text” out of combining diacritics (g͖̣̝͎̙͐ͅl̵̮̰̝᷇̑̾î̶̢᷾ͭ̈́ͩt̯̬̰̓ͦ᷁͋c᷿͖̙ͯ͛̊᷇h̳̭͓͛ͬ᷈᷄) as well as generate other fun stuff like ◞▀╗▪┐│╌╈◚┱▍▷▀╻▪╶ …plus it’s a text art canvas for making art out of the text you generate. You can even download the scripts yourself and add them to your own project.

MC: OK, stAllio! thanks for your time! Oh, one last thing: what is your favorite ‘dingbat’ or ‘wingding’?

BB: My favorite Unicode pictographs are in the Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs block. Not many fonts support this block right now, but it has some crazy stuff in it. Probably the craziest is Love Hotel. A love hotel is a hotel that is geared toward sex. The fact that there is a character for this in Unicode blows my mind. Another great one is Dancer, which looks like John Travolta on the cover of Saturday Night Fever. It’s so perfect. Travolta has literally become an icon.