Samuel Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” in his 1983 novel Worstward Ho. These words have been found everywhere in social media as motivational content. Other contemporary trends deal with the idea that success can’t be achieved without some degree of failure. However, Phillip David Stearns challenges the rhetoric of success and of failure’s subordination to it. Through modification, extension, and subversion, failure is sought as a way to probe the limits of imagination.
“Deconstruction, reconfiguration, and extension are key methodologies and techniques employed in the production of artworks that range from audio-visual performances to electronic sculptures, light and sound installation, or digital textiles – among others, both digital and material” affirms his website. His work has been exhibited internationally at electronics arts festivals, museums, and galleries including the 26th iteration of Berlin Transmediale.

Phillip David Stearns’ work uses electronic technologies and electronic media as tools to explore relationships between ideas and material. His projects direct art and design to bring light to a global situation, addressing aspects of technology-oriented cultural practices and positing potential workarounds for systems of population control.
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Your education is in Sound Engineering first and in Music Composition & Integrated Media after. You have been working on your art projects for more than a decade now, could please tell us a bit about your background and how were you raised?
I grew up in Austin (Texas), born to a family of engineers on my father’s side and medical professionals on my mother’s. Both sides of my extended family encouraged me to channel my creative energies through the sciences.
I guess your studies in physics and engineering helped you to understand technology – in your artistic practice. Have you ever worked simply as a sound engineer, I mean, in the non-creative part?
For a short period of time, while completing my coursework in audio engineering at the University of Colorado of Denver, I did some freelance sound engineering. I worked as a live sound engineer at the Larimer Lounge and assisted with sessions in-studio and on-location for the jazz station Kuvo. During my graduate studies at Cal Arts, I took up a part-time position as an audio producer at the American Public Media studios in Los Angeles, where I worked on the Marketplace family of programs as well as Weekend America. After graduating, I took on a full-time engineering position there. In the years following my move to New York City, I worked freelance, mostly for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in-studio as an audio and video technician, and remotely, as an audio recordist.
Sound art tradition is based mostly on noise and experimental electronic music. I heard you were also classified as a glitch musician in your beginnings. Personally, I think it is more experimentation than glitch, maybe because I’ve been living in Berlin these past years, where the experimental electronic music scene is powerful – there is, of course, commercial EDM and club culture as well. What is your view on this?
I started listening to EDM back in undergrad. It was in the early 2000s, when Napster was a big deal. I wasn’t yet making experimental electronic music but I was spending a lot of my time making my own music. Most of what I was creating at the time was hugely influenced by different sub-genres within EDM. Some of the programs I was working with were Fruity Loops, SoundForge, Acid, Reason, and Cubase. Toward the end of my undergraduate studies, as I became more exposed to avant-garde and experimental music traditions, my own work began to drift away from traditional structures and approaches to making sound with electronics.
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The glitch comes into prevalence as a sonic material with the advent of CD audio, while noise is present in music since the beginning of the 20th century. By the sonic experience point of view, what are the differences between glitch and noise?
To put it simply, in my view, a glitch is an artefact of noise within a system that numerically encodes information or data. Noise itself is a very complicated subject, but in the context of engineering and communication, it’s generally defined as something extraneous to the message, as unwanted. Similarly, a glitch is perceived as such because it is something outside normal operational parameters. A defining characteristic of a glitch is its visibility as an anomaly.
I take issue with a sort of lazy approach to glitch washing, which takes two forms: the first, the fetishization of the artefact, which leads to glitch being viewed as an effect or ‘Photoshop filter’; and the second, everything that is somehow noisy or distorted is subsequently categorized as glitch. For me, there is something crucial about a glitch being unique from other forms of interference, information loss or signal degradation. I use glitch to discuss phenomenon related to the occurrence of and our perception of artefacts that are specific to numeric or digital means of communication.
However, it’s not only a term used to describe the product or artefact of noise within a digital system, but also the set of cultural frameworks that give rise to its being as such. A glitch is not merely the artefact but also a complex of objects, formats, processes, and social structures and norms that in my view have become the hallmark of the advent of digital media and define our digital age.
What led you from learning high-end studio techniques to chance-based customization of the circuits, the low-tech of circuit bending?
It was a rejection of a fidelity-obsessed industry and a gear fetishization that tends to pervade the audio industry. On one hand, you have the high cost of acquiring and maintaining professional equipment in the pursuit of high-fidelity audio, and on the other, you are kind of limited then by the equipment itself.
This realization that the tools and techniques are integral to the creative practice motivated my exploration of circuit bending, which paved the way for my own exploration of instrument making and a more experimental approach to making not only sound art but media art as well.
And then, how did you pass from sound/music to visual or audio-visual works?
When studying in Denver, I played some shows with some of the artists in the harsh noise scene like Rasmussen, Page27, Syphilis Sauna, or Nova-Sak. There would always be a VJ or some sort of visuals going on. My own set involved a lot of circuit bent instruments and I started to explore circuit bending TI99/4a computer consoles to create audio-visual performances.
Working with circuit bent video really got me interested in the history of video synthesis, which I got to explore in classes I took with John Hawk at Cal Arts. It was really during 2005-2007 that I started working at a lower level, with electronics as my primary medium, which resulted in an expansion of the range of forms my work took.
“There is something crucial about a glitch being unique from other forms of interference, information loss or signal degradation.”
Then, you started to work with visual glitches. Are you somehow seduced by the aesthetics of failure – understanding glitch as visual produced signal degradation, hardware failure, or anything extrinsic to the system?
Before I was using glitch to describe some of the work or ideas I was exploring, what I was interested in was the notion of modification, of extension, not failure or corruption. Circuit bending was a way of intentionally creating artefacts in digital systems. I view this as a hardware approach to making glitch art. My work here was a rejection of the consumer electronic device as a closed system or black box; to break it open and literally extend the wiring was a way to explore alternate modes of operation.
When I began working primarily with digital media formats and writing my own software, I was similarly motivated by the notion of extension, but what became apparent is that glitch artefacts are given their characteristics by the algorithms used to encode media. Since 2012, if anything, I’ve been seduced by the aesthetics of the algorithm.
Your glitched visual textile works Mortal Threads, Fragmented Memory, or Vestigial Data are made mostly using Jacquard looms, which seems to me a kind of parallelism with computational history, as first computers also used punched cards. I know your primary concern is materiality. But isn’t it a kind of obeisance too?
In these works, I was bringing together a lot of different ideas. In Mortal Threads, I connect the thread of life drawn, measured, and cut by the Greek fates with our contemporary understanding of DNA, and explore rendering the symbolic encoding of life within its structure in a digital, textile form. Fragmented Memory and Vestigial Data explore hypothetical forms of portraiture in the context of extended post-digital photographic processes.
In each of these cases, the loom was a mechanical means to an end, but also one significant in regard to its connections to the history of digital automation. The works deal with digital manifestations of the body realized in physical materials that historically are intimate, tactile, and commonly used to cover it.
A bit before 2012, you founded GlitchTextiles. In your statement, you say, “We believe that the immaterial world of the digital has a vital materiality one that has the power to touch and move us.” That materiality, related to the senses, do you think that the most missed sense in the digital era is touch?
I think that the present state of digital media overemphasizes the visual and, as a result, crowds out all the other senses. It’s not only touch that suffers.
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If I am not wrong, Dior approached you through your GlitchTextiles thing. But how did your collaboration with Dior start?
It started with an email requesting some samples.
Talking about images, digital photography is considered as an extension – or even an enhancement – of analogue photography. But in fact, the principles are very different: the first uses electronic photodetectors to capture images, and the second, the image is generated by the reaction of chemicals on the film exposed to light. What is your view on that?
Photography has always involved a curious assemblage of technologies but I think the goals are more or less consistent through its history: the production of an image using light. In this regard, digital photography is an extension of photochemical photography. However, there are some uses of photographic media that raise questions about the nature of what this extension entails and how we consider the digital image from the perspective of photography and vice versa.
The photogram still uses light but does away with the camera. A ‘chemigram’ involves the production of an image on photographic media through the application of chemicals. There are others I could list, but these practices push the envelope of what could be considered photographic imagery before the advent of digital technology.
What about today?
Today, there are dozens of different digital image-making technologies and processes, which can and should be considered as extending the discipline of photography. However, what I’ve been pursuing recently, especially with the previously mentioned Fragmented Memory and Vestigial Data projects, is this idea that the digital camera is a simulation of past non-numeric photographic processes.
If one accepts that the digital media, which receives the image in a numeric form, is analogous to film, then we set the stage for viewing any digital media as a potential photographic media. If we view the algorithmic processes, which converts the image data into a viewable/printable image as analogous to the development and printmaking processes of the darkroom, then we set the stage for viewing any algorithmic process that transforms any digital data into an image as a process of development.
In Fragmented Memory, I specifically choose my laptop’s RAM as the digital media and use custom software to render it into an image. If the above holds, this image is a new form of portraiture. Beyond this, if the digital camera is a computer-simulating process of traditional photographic image making, then, what about images rendered using digitally simulated cameras? There’s the question of the screen capture as well. In my mind, these are all post-digital forms of photography.
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Let's change the subject. As an artist using a wide range of mediums both digital and material – audio-visual performances, electronic sculptures, light and sound installations, digital textiles, etc. –, do you prefer one more than another?
These days, I tend to favour developing a concept and then selecting and combining media to best express it. I’m also interested in developing the contexts and frameworks through which a work is experienced.
We are living in complex and interconnected societies almost globally. Your last works, Interlaced Fields (about obsolescence) and Open Vault (a set of software retail package designs made for the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence cyber weapons from the Vault 7 leaks published by WikiLeaks), both ongoing, take a more political approach – in my opinion – than the previous, which were more about materiality. Isn’t it?
Though it began with designing software boxes for CIA espionage tools, Open Vault has become a corporate identity that is performed through interventions in online and offline spaces. The project deals with representing the ecosystems and ecologies of cyber warfare, which directly involve political organizations, governments and other power structures; however, I’m not interested in taking a political stance. As the project evolves, other state-sponsored cyber programs beyond the CIA’s and NSA’s will be researched and incorporated into the performance.
Interlaced Fields was not at all created with political intent. The Scorched Earth prints, however, explore ideas of post-digital photographic processes and the use of imaging technologies in modern warfare. I’ve specifically chosen to work with imagery related to or derived from the civil conflict and proxy wars devastating Yemen.
I cannot finish the interview without asking which are for you technology-oriented cultural practices?
Technology is a cultural practice.
Excellent! And to finalize, what are your next projects?
Open Vault is my primary focus. I’m currently working on this project at New Inc and developing a series of Ethical Hacking workshops for non-technical people.
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