Since 2013, Brooklyn-based artist and designer Phillip David Stearns has been creating “digital woven housewares” using code as the raw material. In GlitchTextile’s “Blockchain Collection,”
for example, he mined Blockchain data and other related binaries, and used custom data visualization techniques to translate it into pixelated designs that are then woven into throw blankets on a computerized Jacquard loom. Today, using a similar process, he’s launching three new pieces
on Foundation that incorporate visuals generated from Foundation’s smart contract bytecode.
With many notable collaborations under his belt—including partnerships with Christian Dior, Kenzo Paris, and DesignTex—GlitchTextile’s launch of Foundation is not to be missed (especially by all you ETH heads out there). In this interview between Phillip and Foundation collaborator Willa Köerner, you can read more about the evolving GlitchTextiles process, why Phillip sees so much value in experimentation, and how glitches can open up portals to new possibilities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe your creative practice, especially in terms of GlitchTextiles?
As an artist, my practice spans a lot of different disciplines, but my main focus is on generating textiles. Through GlitchTextiles, I merge creative coding with data visualization, and I’m able to bring in custom software and other design tools that I use (or misuse) in order to visualize digital “materials.” Those materials could be a blockchain, or a sorting algorithm, or an artificial life simulation. Essentially, my practice involves modifying source code as a material, and then pushing pixels around on the screen to visualize the underlying digital information, and then turning those visualizations into textiles.
When you say you’re “visualizing digital information,” how does that process actually work?
I create a mapping between a data set—which is basically just a set of numbers—and convert that into a color space, so that numbers are represented as pixels. The same idea applies to DNA, for instance: You take groupings of the base pairs, the nucleotides, A-T-C and G, and depending on how you group them, you get different looking organisms. For my work, one group of numbers can be represented as a pixel with a particular color, and then I can render that as a grid, or a set of lines, or any other sort of spatial transformation.
Is there a certain software you use to make the actual images?
Recently I've been using custom scripts in Processing. At one point I had a lot of help translating the raw binary data into textile designs from a software engineer and an artist friend. But after I learned Processing, I created a bunch of tools from scratch, and now have a pretty extensive toolkit.
When you're making these images, how do you manipulate them aesthetically? Do you just stick the dataset into Processing, and see what you get? Or is there more visual manipulation involved?
It really depends on, A) the dataset, and B) the translation. It would be an oversimplification to say, "For this group of numbers, I’ll break it down into pieces, and each one can be scaled to a red, green, and blue value,” because there are so many more transformations I can do to the original numbers, and how they’re mapped to a color and shape.
For the designs that I did for Foundation, I started with the platform’s bytecode, and translated it into a series of lines. Then each one of the lines was colored in a way that also mapped directly to the bytecode. I also manually shifted things around to obfuscate it a little bit, and finally mapped the visuals onto a complex surface using a 2D rendering environment in Blender.
From there, I made very slight animation and lighting changes over, say, a thousand frames, and then rendered that out. Then I went through each frame manually, and picked the ones that had the most interesting aesthetic balance of texture, scale, and depth.
What does the process of translating binary code into a visual experience do for you? Does it expose something about the underlying code, or is it more a way to generate interesting images?
Sometimes things are revealed within the source code when it's visualized, but that's not always the case. Mostly, I find that code is an exciting source material for creating visuals. For my pieces on Foundation, I was interested in the Foundation source code as a material, and was curious to see what would happen when I ran it through my tools. What became conceptually interesting was this idea of obfuscation and blocking exploit attempts by making it impossible to reverse, and just running with the visual aesthetics of that process. For me, it’s about disrupting the regular order of things. GlitchTextiles was founded on the idea of using different techniques and methods to disrupt systems from their usual flow of operations.
Your work almost feels like a metaphor for the crypto space overall, where it’s both super transparent, but also very opaque.
It totally is. I've dabbled in the crypto space and tried to pick up the lingo and understand what's going on, but before this, I had never really sat down with the contract code and tried to understand how things worked. It can be frustrating when, again and again, you'll have people from the cryptocurrency world present at art events, saying things like, "Anybody can do this. It's open." But it's really not. It's very opaque and locked up in so far as not everybody knows how to code, or can understand the code at that level. It’s like, sure, if you have the tools and know how to use them, all of this stuff is pretty transparent. But right now, for the average human being, the crypto world still feels completely opaque.
As an artist, as things become less opaque, are you excited to see where these more decentralized models can lead?
I've staked my career on being an experimentalist. Foundation opens up an opportunity to see how new market structures can be implemented, and how things can operate within the crypto space. It's interesting to allow artists into this world. For me, it's a starting point for exploring other modes of work, and how that work can be traded and valued. Throughout my career, I’ve never had gallery representation in any sort of meaningful sense. I've had to find other ways of sustaining my life and my practice, by piecing together whatever I can. The possibilities of crypto and Foundation in particular feels like another welcome tool to have in that arsenal.
How does the idea of a glitch relate here? To me, it feels like another way to think about busting open new possibilities, or revealing holes in existing models.
For me, the glitch is mostly about revealing the distance between what we perceive to be real, and—in a kind of Lacanian sense—The Real. We go along, we create these models, and we take them to be truthful ideas about how the world works. When something comes along that challenges them, that's essentially what a glitch is—it reveals the distance between our perception, and reality. This gives us an opportunity to examine the assumptions that we've developed and held onto, and whether or not we need to revise them. The glitch can create an opening for new opportunities to come into focus.
The way that capitalism has been approached in the U.S. is that there's this invisible hand in the marketplace that dictates prices based on supply and demand. But I think this is a really outmoded way of thinking. What I see with Foundation is the possibility for mini markets based around a single piece of art, where there is still a question of supply and demand, but there’s also a whole bunch of unknowns. In that way, it feels like a really safe and fun playground for me to experiment. Like, what if the product was secondary to the pricing curve, or the pricing curve itself was the work? I’m not sure if I would ever pursue that, but just the fact that these new models are helping me to generate these ideas is exciting.
Often, artists can feel psychologically blocked around the idea of pricing their work. Perhaps taking a more playful, experimental approach to pricing can make it feel a bit easier to approach.
For artists, pricing is always going to be a challenge. You can't approach it from a point of, "If I don't sell anything, this work is a complete failure." I feel like that's just the wrong attitude to take to anything. But this is especially the case where, if you're worried about actually paying the rent, maybe it's not the time to experiment—at least not in a way that might put you at a disadvantage. But at the same time, the platform could be really helpful for experimenting with pricing overall.
Do you think selling an artwork can be a creative act in and of itself?
Yes, absolutely. Artists have taken random garbage off the street, and priced it at ridiculously high amounts. Others have taken creative approaches by radically undervaluing something. Look at Damien Hirst's skull piece
. That diamond-encrusted, platinum skull required how many different investors to actually make it exist? There's something related to this idea of the price of the work being part of the work itself, tied up in that one.
What do you think the creative economy of the future should look like?
Overall, I would love to see a place where the work of creative people—across any discipline, and any range of skills—is properly valued in a way that supports their livelihood. I would like to see more opportunities for artists to create their own marketplaces that also sit within a greater ecosystem. Moving forward, I actually don't think traditional markets and marketplaces are going to disappear. Things like auction houses, galleries, artists selling work online, eCommerce—those shouldn't be totally supplanted, but they should be augmented and extended. And I think so far, cryptocurrency technologies have shown promise in extending and providing other modes.
Right now, it’s about punching a hole in what we have, or creating a glitch, to expose what can be built in between existing spaces. It’s like the many universes theory, where you have all these different universes as bubbles, and when they get really close to one another you can open up a portal between them. I feel like this is kind of a portal into those new universes of opportunity.