Glitch Art Makes Us to Understand Life: a Conversation with Artist Dom Barra

Explorations of AI Art — Episode 11

Beth Jochim, Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. Twitter: @_bblurred

I believe glitch art is a great way to learn about life, and to understand the tech based world we live in… I always approached the digital space as a landscape, and glitch art was the path to actually explore this new world through its vulnerabilities and possibilities.” — Dom Barra

[Fig.1] “ Internet Graffiti Chasing Algorithms”, automatic glitch drawing by Dom Barra

For the new episode of Cueva’s art blog I had the pleasure to interview Domenico (Dom) Barra. He is an Italian digital artist based in Naples, Italy, where he works also as an educator and a visual content creator. Most of his work relates to glitch art, exploiting the “glitch” as raw material for artistic creations, but also as the narrative line to investigate aspects related to the new media.

In 2017, Barra decided to start using the nickname Altered_Data. Like he writes on his website, this choice was motivated by the belief that our persona is the result of everyday data alteration that shape, manipulate and influence our online identity, behavior and thoughts while we are chased every moment by algorithms on social media.

He uses different media, preferring above all the creative misuse of hardware and software to generate images, GIF images, videos and installations. His work has been featured on various sites and magazines, such as “The Creators Project”, “Motherboard”, “Bullet Magazine”, “Hyperallergic”, “Monopol Magazin”, “Espoarte” and “Digicult”. He has also served as a curator in many projects and he has been exhibited nationally and internationally.

[Fig.2] Video “Erased Human” that follows an artistic exploration to the question: ”Will we ever erase the human from the works and process of a machine?”

Beth Jochim: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in digital art?

Dom Barra: It is a very hard question to answer, because I will have to tell you something about myself that it is not out and shared yet on social media. I won’t get too much into my private life. I am a very sensitive person who has found the right dimension in art to face both the beauty and the adversity of life with poetry, philosophy and sarcasm. I live in uncertainty and doubt, but I am happy to do so.

Last week I saw some doodles on sale in an important art gallery in Naples. The artist sketched those automatisms on paper while he was on phone calls. I guess I missed the opportunity to become an artist at an early stage as I was spending hours on the phone with my friends and girlfriends and my home’s phone book was an anthology of automatic doodles. I was an avid doodle sketcher, but I was not that good and neither was the artist on show in Napoli. But I was, and I still am, very modest so I didn’t really consider a career in art, not even when I got my first computer around 1995. Back in those days, I was making some amazing hyperlinked pages using Front-page. I always loved GIF images. I wish I could show you those digital pages loaded with amazing 90’s looping animations but, obsolescence is the end of games. I still have some of those GIF images on a CD which, for me, are a treasure and part of my own history. I also became a master in using scanner and photocopier, creating some legendary homemade pirate editions of those prints that really caught the attention of young boys and girls. I was the Internet for them, you know what I mean.

Anyway, I dropped college after the first year as the Faculty of Economics was not in my mindset, and I moved to the UK in 2002. I wanted to live my life free and loud. I was into clubbing, partying and chatting. I lived those days as a new bohemian, enjoying music and poetry, and I got myself a cracked copy of Photoshop that I loved. I enrolled at Leeds College of Art and Design in 2004 bringing to the interview some doodles, collages, ideas and a lot of imagination. I got my place at art school. The same year I went back home to Naples to see a show by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke called “The Children of Uranium”. It amazed me so much that I only wanted to make installation art. My final piece at the end of the academic year show was a multimedia installation titled “Mea Patria”, a funeral pyre dedicated to Italy. Those were the years when Berlusconi was in charge and my country was a shameless misery. I was living abroad, I missed my country very much but I couldn’t waste the best years of my life in a place led by a lunatic. I was young and strongly believed in my ideals, and Italy felt like tiny for me. I was planning to do more installations, but I realized that there were several problems with that type of art. First of all it was expensive, but the real issue was that installations need space. I couldn’t afford a studio and I realized my computer was actually made of space. I started to focus on digital art, collages and videos. One hard disk of some gigabytes could have space for so many of my works. And then the internet, a truly wonderland, seduced me and I fell in love with the digital.

Even if I studied for two years at Leeds College of Arts and Design, I consider myself a self taught digital artist. At the beginning most of my works were experiments, studies, and explorations. I wanted to be totally free and wild, so my approach to digital art has always been very “do-it-yourself” and “do-it-with-others”. When, in 2011, I came across the works of Rosa Menkman, Nick Briz, Jon Cates, Benjamin Gaulon and many others, those works totally influenced my perspective on digital and new media.

[Fig.3] “The Thinker” by Dom Barra

By the time I had started joining the many glitch art groups on Facebook I was already totally hooked on. I just loved the idea of breaking things. Destroying to create sounded just right. Especially because I am a big fan of Stan Brakhage’s style and methodology of working and I was following his path experimenting with 8mm and photo film. Glitch art practices as “databending” allows me to work on digital files as I was used to do with film, but I work with software and data instead of bleach and ink.

Beth J.: What inspires you?

D.B.: I am a very sensitive person and many events that happen to me influence what I do. It could be a viral meme or the sight of seagulls flying over the jail right in front of my window, or something else. Everything can make me have an intuition and inspire me. After many years I finally became more aware of myself, who I really am and what I can do as an artist. I need to challenge myself in new territories very often. New knowledge and personal experiences very much keep myself motivated and inspired.

Beth J.: What kind of narrative does glitch art bring to the table?

D.B.: I believe glitch art is a great way to learn about life, and to understand the tech based world we live in. Of course, I base this belief on my personal experience. I always approached the digital space as a landscape, and glitch art was the path to actually explore this new world through its vulnerabilities and possibilities. Glitch art changes the perspective on new and old media because it is about looking at those with a different mindset. It brings a different culture of using, embracing, and understanding technologies, machines and gadgets. As a consequence, very different narratives (that I like to group in four main areas of interest and that are all linked between them)emerge. The narratives I talk about are related to temporality, functionality, accessibility, and opportunity. Temporality represents the obsolescence, e-waste and recycle and the all politics behind them. Also it relates to memory and preservation. Accessibility means transparency, privacy, ownership and availability. Functionality is about structures, dynamics, logic and languages. Opportunity is value, utility, exploitability and creativity.

Working with glitches influences the way we perceive failure,and how we transform the downfall into an opportunity. Glitch artists create problems to solve problems, to find alternative solutions and new ways of thinking. The mind is exercised to deal with critical and unpredictable situations, like the event of a glitch in a system, and is trained to find practical and theoretical solutions. Glitch becomes a way to live life beyond machines. Making glitch art helped me to build new narratives on many different topics, especially those related to autism, as I did with my exhibition called “The Beautiful Minds”, where through the poetry of glitch I have narrated the story of my autistic cousins and our family experience. I tell my students not to rush to make glitch art only because there are plenty of plugins and apps to use immediately, but to use glitch art as an opportunity for learning, thinking, and understanding life.

[Fig.4] “The Beautiful Minds” by Dom Barra
[Fig.5] “The Beautiful Minds by Dom Barra

Beth J.: If art is not an object, but an experience, how does digital art change the way of expression and communication compared to traditional art?

D.B.: Even if it is not tangible and in many cases temporary, digital art feels more real, more contemporary. It’s about us. The digital is shaping the way we speak, think and act. Social media are a good set for showing creativity and creative digital media are more accessible to the public.

Everyone is creative, for example, working on their holidays photos: think of the post editing process where you apply filters, make collages, create Instagram stories, etc. Digital art is more engaging, and very often is mediated by tools and props that people use everyday. Digital art is happening and people are confronting themselves with it in many different scenarios. Not just in museums and art galleries, but on the internet, on a screen, basically almost everywhere and almost every time. So it is a matter of space and time. The digital brought art in our daily life and culture, moving it from a wall and a city square to our pockets.

Digital art has become a universal language influenced by many cultures and stories. Just by posting a link on a Telegram channel I can bring an online show hosted on a website in the hands of thousands of viewers that can enjoy the exhibits on their way to work, during a school break, at the red lights of a cross road, before falling asleep. The experience becomes more personal, art comes and moves with us and it is available to us every time we wish. This relation space and time give us control on the way we experience art, making it more authentic. People follow their favorite artists, support them, and talk to them. It’s about connecting.

Beth J.: You are an artist and an educator working in Italy. What is you relationship with the public and what are the challenges you face every day? Is Italy a country ready for digital art?

D.B.: In 2014 at Sudlab, a center for art and new media in Portici, a small town on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, we organized the first glitch art and tactical media group show in Italy. It was called “Tactical Glitches”, curated by Rosa Menkman and Nick Briz. We were very excited, also it was my first experience in directing the works for a show like this, but at the same time we were a bit afraid of the public reaction.

Are we in Italy ready for this type of art? It was a delightful surprise to know that yes, we are. People of all ages got really involved, interacting with the works and asking questions, participating actively to the discussion, sharing their point of view and experience. The reason is simple. New media art and digital art is about what we experience every day. Video games, websites interfaces, operative systems, and all of the related topics in terms of usability and so on. Visitors of the show had previously experienced a glitch while watching a video on YouTube, many of them even knew about copyright and piracy issues. Surely all of them had a smartphone and Facebook.

The show was about offering a view on something familiar that they knew and experienced already. Art was real. Italians are creative, they have theoretical and technical knowledge. The biggest problems are always related to administration and distribution of funds and resources, bureaucracy and vanity. We could do great things if we did have structural support. We must update our way of thinking and operating.

Beth J.: Can you tell us a little more about the vision behind “White Page Gallery/s”?

[Fig.6] “White Page Gallery/s” by Dom Barra

D.B.: The “White Page Gallery/s” brings a new culture. We operate through an artistic methodology based on collaboration and participation to inspire new processes, counter-narratives and practices in curating art online. Although, we do not think this has to be exclusively limited to the web.

Through this methodology we also wish to nurture positive human values such as generosity, caring, openness, and inclusivity, building empathy more than competitiveness. In a world where many governments and political propaganda are based on division and exclusion, we welcome people to join us and work together. We use a web page as a metaphor for unity, praising diversity and acceptance. Also, “White Page Gallery/s” is a common ground for students and emerging artists can practice their professional skills, building confidence, sharing know-how and receiving feedback. Our motto is “art can influence society with its good and healthy practices.”. The social value of art is fundamental, especially in times where we are going through a fast evolution. We need to be able to count on the support of each other, we need to change our way of thinking and revalue old paradigms and “modus operandi”.

Beth J.: How is your relationship with technology?

D.B.: I have a very addictive personality, so I get really too much involved into using new technologies. Anyway, I try to behave myself and to consider the pros and cons of the machine I use, especially in terms of safety — mentally and physically speaking.

Beth J.: Prediction for the evolution of digital art in the new year? What would you like to see more and what less?

D.B.: I can not make a prediction, sorry, but I am sure there will be a lot of AI. I wish for more imagination and less hype. Also, I would like to see a shift of the focus from the art piece to the art practice and from the artist to the community. We should engage in those practices that can help nurture human values and positive counter-narratives. It’s about acting and not just about making. Digital art as a collective experience is something we really need. Too many toxic political agendas are spreading around, we need to do something and digital art can be a good ground for new visions.

Beth J.: Resolution for 2020?

D.B.: To establish the “White Page Gallery/s” as a solid community and reality that artists will trust and enjoy to be part of, and together creating real opportunities for each other. I hope to start new collaborations, especially in the field of music as I would love to make more art for music artists. For me, music is a great source of inspiration, especially when I am working on a project.

An exploration of AI generated images. On the left [Fig.7] “Deus ex Machina”, on the right [Fig.8] “Symbiosis” by Dom Barra

“It’s the glitches and twists, I thought, that make this universe unique and compelling. Without flaws, there would be no depth, no substance.” — A.M.Jenkins

I am grateful to Dom Barra for his very sincere answers that have brought out not only the side of the artist, but also of the man.

Several artists I had the pleasure to chat with have spoken of technology as something that can push us to redefine the concept of art. However, the role of art itself, even created with technology, remains the same. Among the various functions that art can assume, therefore, the one of being a shelter from the difficulties of life is unchanged. As Picasso said: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

Interesting enough is the fact that glitch art becomes a metaphor of the self that is altered, day by day, by the engagement with social media. Our online behavior shapes a new identity that must face different vulnerabilities (and possibilities). Heraclitus spoke of how everything flows, and nothing remains the same (in Greek “πάντα ῥεῖ”), referring to the fact that it is impossible to experiment the same thing twice as any form o life is subjected to inevitable change.

In a world torn by conflicts, in which many policies pursue more exclusion and conflict than anything else, the response of artists like Barra is to recompose the fragments of our society through a collaborative and inclusive artistic practice to nurture positive behaviors and feelings.

If on the one hand the digital dimension allows a broad, fast and democratic access to art, on the other hand glitch art provides an opportunity to stop and reflect on our human condition. Its language and narrative help us to build a different mindset, where problem solving, alternative solutions, and new ways of thinking are consistently developed and make us more adaptable to positive and negative changes in life.

In other words, glitch becomes a way to live life beyond machines.

Thank you, Dom Barra, for your contribution to democratize digital art and for introducing us to the language of glitch art. ∎

Resources and References

http://www.dombarra.art/


About the author: Beth Jochim is the Creative AI Lead at Libre AI, and Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. She works at the intersection of technology and arts. She is actively involved in different activities that aim to democratize the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, bringing the benefits of AI/ML to a larger audience. Connect whit Beth in LinkedIn or Twitter.


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