Paul B Davis is an American new media artist currently based in London, England. Best known for pioneering the use of hacked Nintendo cartridges for the purposes of art, datamoshing, and early 8-bit electronic music, Paul was also a founding member of Beige: a small collective of artists and musician which also included Corey Arcangel.
I guess we should start right at the beginning
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in St Louis USA. It’s a mid sized post-industrial city with a rich musical history. So like Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner; there’s a lot of Soul and R&B and I guess ragtime stuff if you go back even earlier. That was sort of my first thing. When people ask where I’m from that’s what I mention, what I’m proud of.
How did you move from there to making inroads into producing works of art?
Well growing up I played music a lot. My parents started me on piano lessons when I was four, with this opera singer from down the street. It’s kind of a funny story; my dad’s an architect, and another contractor who owed him some money for a job, and didn’t have it, had a piano. So my dad was sort of like ‘okay we’ll take that’. That’s how we had a piano and I started lessons. Then at some point, when I was a teenager, I got into computers, bought a decent synthesizer, and started making electronic music. I was doing computer graphics and basic programming, plus I was involved in BBS’s.
What are BBS’s?
Like pre Internet message boards. They’re basically software that would run on someone’s home computer, but they’d have a modem attached to it so you could dial up on your computer, log in, upload and download messages. It was really slow speeds compared to Ethernet today. I wasn’t heavily involved in it, but I was lurking around and interested in it.
What was it like?
Well people were doing weird lo-res graphics, cracking software and stuff like that. Sort of like the original hacker scene.
When did you become exposed to contemporary art ideas, or I suppose, the possibilities of a contemporary art practice.
I did art stuff in High school and I was aware of, I guess, blue chip modern artists.
Well my favourite artist at that time was Modigliani, which is probably a very high school artist to like. I suppose I was more interested in music and I was listening to a lot of ambient stuff and all the Rephlex records and Aphex Twin stuff, which got me interested in obscure 70’s synth records. Also, because of my classical training on the piano I knew about 20th century classical music like Stockhausen and Elliot Carter. I took that and went to music school, but my music degree was interdisciplinary. It was an electronic music and composition degree, but because it was in a classical music conservatory I also had to play a traditional instrument and chose Harpsichord.
Because of the way liberal arts education in the states is structured, you do your core thing but you also have to take X number of courses in totally non-music related subjects. I was taking philosophy, fine art and a couple computer science courses. So that connected me with a lot of art stuff that was going on at my school and then the professors that we had at my electronic music department were people like Pauline Oliveros and Richard Povall. By that time the whole history of western music had fused with art practice anyway, especially from the sixties.
Where did you go?
Oberlin. Where I also met Cory Arcangel; he was in the music school too. We were roommates for a few years and then Jacob Ciocci, who’s in Paperrad. We had a little crew and just bounced ideas off each other.
Then at some point you formed Beige.
Yeah, well basically me and my friend Joe Beuckman, from St Louis started Beige as a record label just to kind of put out tunes.
That was 97 right?
We started it in 97 our first record came out in January 1998. By that time Cory and I had been making stupid videos and I’d gotten really into looking at sounds from old games systems, so we’d already started working on the 8-bit construction set record by 98.
Let’s talk a bit about the 8-bit construction set project. How did you go about programming the music and keeping it so immediate?
Part of that is, I think, just the nature of the sound. Especially the Atari, it’s just raw. The Atari doesn’t have a special sound chip in it; they just found some extra registers you can write data to and then wired that to an audio output so it’s all square waves, really crunchy. The commodore has an analogue synthesizer in it.
Is that the SID chip?
Right. It still has a really crunchy sound, which keeps them pretty immediate. So the way the record worked was that one side was all done on the Atari 800xl and the other side was done on a Commodore 64. The sides both match so you’d have samples, a series of locked grooves, a song, and then the data track. The data track is software that you can dub to a cassette tape. In the early 80’s floppy drives were really expensive and they used audiocassettes for cheap data storage. So if you have all your old gear you can boot the audio track software on your machine.
So did how did you move from records to developing the hacked Nintendo cartridges?
In 99 I had this light-bulb go off in my head. I realized I wasn’t just limited to home computers I could actually reprogram game cartridges themselves and then use that to do video. So for my senior year thesis project at Oberlin I hacked a game cartridge and presented my work. I guess everybody was into it and so we took the stuff we were doing as Beige records and realized we can make art out of it too. When we got out of school we decided to have two strands of it: the record label and an art collective where we’d share ideas and develop work together.
How did you approach doing that with the Nintendo cartridges, did you just think ‘let me give this a try’ or was there a long period of research?
Basically I was already into video game sounds and was interested in having more direct control over them. In 98 I’d learned about EBay and I just kinda went nuts. I realised that if there’s a sound chip for the music I like in these old Atari and Commodore computers, and you can programme these computers, I’m just gonna fill my room with computers that I get for ten bucks off EBay. That was the start of learning about how these older systems work. Then I thought: computers are cool but not that many people have them, but a lot of people have game systems. Then I realised that it’s the same gear on the inside: same processor, same sound chip. The only difference is that in the game’s system the software is already made for you, in a cartridge, whereas with a computer you can programme it yourself and save it to a floppy disc or whatever. So I just thought, I’m sure people are messing with these cartridges and if I could make my own cartridge then it’s like a whole art medium bursts open for me.
I looked on the Internet and emulation had just kicked off at that time. There was a group of super nerds who were reverse engineering all these games systems and posting documentation. They weren’t doing it with any artistic value judgements, or anything at all, they were just nerds who wanted to figure out how to put two hundred games on one cartridge. I already appreciated that kind of home computer, hobbyist, nerd vibe, coming from BBS’s and the stuff I was doing earlier in my teens and I thought there was art there, it’s just they weren’t thinking about it in those terms – it was just their little thing that they were doing. I just basically learned from them, the technical stuff, followed what they were doing and taught myself assembly language, how to de-solder the chips, what chips to get, and how to make it work: just sort of appropriated this technical knowledge into an art practice.
It seems like an incredibly complex process.
It’s the kind of thing that’s very intimidating to approach if you don’t know anything about it. That was the thing, it was like I had this idea and then I had to figure all this stuff out. It’s not that hard once you figure it all out but it is an intimidating technological and conceptual leap. Basically the deal is: inside the cartridge, if you open it up, there are two chips, one has all the code that runs the game and the other has all the data that draws the graphics to the screen. They come in standard sizes so you could buy an exact same chip that’s blank, fill it with your own code and put that in place of the chip already in the cartridge. Then the Nintendo runs it like its just software.
So you’d write the code on a computer and then transfer it to the hardware via a blank chip?
That’s the key technological thing that happened. Because people had been writing emulators, or the first generation of emulators, you could write the code on your PC, compile it and then test it in your NES emulator on your PC. Then if it worked, you’d put it on the cartridge and then into the machine.
This is the point when people really start to hear about what you were doing right?
We were really lucky basically. I showed Cory how to do it, we started collaborating on some pieces and I think we did two things: one is that we made work that was accessible to people, the second thing is that we were learning about the current state of new media art when at university. I found things that appealed to me like Jodi.org and Vuk Cosic, but there was a lot of stuff that I hated and a lot of the stuff that I hated was, you know, interactive installations made from Flash. It was stuff where I just thought the connection between the artist and what is happening was so nebulous. I mean, I don’t know if they put that thing on the screen because they actually wanted it there, or because the software led them to put it there, or if the programmer that they hired had come up with the piece. The Nintendo stuff was really direct: everything that you see is there because I wanted it there, in that particular way. So the stuff was accessible and it also had a foregrounded, kind of, ‘fuck you’ to a lot of new media art that existed at the time.
We were also living in different cities. Corey had moved to New York and I’d moved to Chicago. We started having shows in each city and the 8-bit record came out (it had been finished a year before, but it didn’t come out until 2001). That became visible and then when people learned about that, they also learned about the Nintendo stuff, or when people learned about the Nintendo stuff they learned about the record: Dj’s were buying it but museums were exhibiting it too, so it was like this whole crazy interbreeding between art and music appreciation.
Where were you living when you were in Chicago?
First I lived near Logan Square with Joe Bonn, the fourth member of Beige but he moved to LA after a year. Then I lived on the North-west side, near Armitage and Western. There was a 24hr burrito shop that was right around the corner that’s really famous called Arturo’s Tacos. Some friends of mine, from Oberlin, and I were looking for a place (I was homeless at the time and living in the back of a friends art gallery) and we stumbled across this empty building, with an abandoned store front on the ground floor and apartments above. It was really cheap. We took it and converted it into a performance space called Camp Gay.
I was also attending graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, because I was thinking about how we were having all this work shown while I didn’t really have the language to talk academically about the stuff, or even theorize what I’m doing. It was all intuitive, which I think is good to create, but you can’t really explain what’s up. I basically just did that, and I had no intention of being a solo artist. I wanted Beige to just be a collaborative project where we contributed ideas and published everything collectively.
That happened for a couple years; then I guess we just drifted apart. I’d moved to London by 2004 and felt comfortable enough with art to be a solo artist. That was when I started to do different things, more video stuff.
Is this the point where you started experimenting with digital video, or ‘datamoshing’?
I was in a show with Takeshi Murata in 2005 I think, maybe 2006. It was a group show at Vilma Gold and I’d made some mix tapes for the show, and Takeshi was doing this glitchy video stuff. I liked it and had been experimenting with glitches in video files and photos when I was in Uni, but I never could control it very well. I’d just randomly mess something up and I think randomness is pretty uninteresting. I saw his glitches and I thought he seems to have some control over it, and then I learned about an artist called Sven König. He was doing the same kind of stuff.
Basically Sven wrote a programme where you could upload video files into the software and it would manipulate them beyond comprehension, so it was totally algorithmic. Takashi was saving a still image from a video that was a little bit messed up, then opening it up again and saving another frame and doing a lot of things to it in traditional video editing software. I liked the way both of their work looked, but I wasn’t happy with the process. I kinda wanted to do something in the middle where it’s not totally algorithmic like Sven, but it’s not totally unconnected from the data like Takeshi.
I started finding out where I could actually edit the video, not using a video editing programme, but just by messing up information in the video file. So there’d be a connection with the data, but I’d be doing it at specific times, for specific reasons, in specific ways. Things would mess up and unfold over time exactly how I want them to. I showed that stuff in 2007 at my first solo show, which was at Seventeen gallery on Kingsland road in London. Then I got tired of it pretty quickly.
This is where the Kanye West video comes in right?
Yeah these two things happened in the same week a couple years later. I got an e-mail from the dude who did a video for a band called Chairlift, which used the same glitch technique, and he was like ‘hey I saw this video that you did at the MOMA in New York and it totally influenced me, check out this video I made!’ Then apparently, I learned this through reading internet news, Kanye’s people had been working on a similar thing for his video and when he saw that the Chairlift video had been released he rushed his and it came out the same week. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard he asked Takeshi Murata to do his video and Takeshi said no.
That was a couple years after my show at Seventeen and I was wondering where can this stuff go? I’d gotten tired of using existing cultural artefacts, even with the Nintendo’s, you know, Mario’s in there and that’s like a hook, but it really became the experience for everyone. For me the Nintendo hacking was almost like a political statement: opening up a computer system that’s closed and reverse engineering corporate hardware. All the back story is actually what the piece is about; Mario’s just an accessible overlay for all this stuff. It just became obvious to me that maybe one out of every ten thousand people get past Mario and care about the back story, so maybe I should foreground the stuff behind it a bit.
That was the thing with datamoshing, I wanted to use work that people recognised so they could tell the aesthetic choices I’d made, if I was just messing up some random thing maybe they wouldn’t have had anything to compare it to. So I did a Rick James video, the Matthew Barney thing, me and Jacob from Paperrad did this Rihanna and Cranberries mashup, I did a UFC one, and then I did a Bobby Brown one. Then I just thought: it’s interesting and I liked making that set of work, but I’m still an editor. It still relies on using cultural artefacts to make any sort of meaning. I wanted to be able to say I put this piece together from start to finish; it’s not just lowest common denominator, pop-culture references. So I started filming a dancer friend of mine and we started working on some choreography. I would make glitches at certain times to kind of push a narrative along. It was really in early stages, but that was what I was working on putting in the next show. Then all of a sudden this Kanye stuff comes out. I was using these glitches as a way to disrupt pop culture, or comment on pop culture, now the actual method I was using became the vocabulary of pop culture. I could just imagine people coming into my show and being like ‘oh yeah I saw that stuff in the Kanye video’. I would have killed myself.
I pretty much just scrapped the show. It was already scheduled at Seventeen and I just thought okay I’ll set a challenge for myself to come up with a totally new show in two and a half months. That’s what became ‘Define Your Terms: Kanye West Fucked Up My Show’.
Could you talk a bit about the Critical Space Headgear piece that was in that show?
Well I was looking at ways to have a distance between me and the technologies I was using. I think a lot of new media stuff is tied up with whatever new thing is out. Like as soon as Twitter goes online there are artists who are using Twitter; as soon as Facebook went online there were Facebook projects; there are projects on Wikipedia; people are talking about web 2.0 art and people are using YouTube as a medium for what I see as collage. I found that in using these cultural artefacts there was a lack of criticality, the technology is so new you don’t have to understand what you’re doing, or even have a good idea. I was struggling with it in the same way as I was struggling with using pop-culture references in my work. I wanted to figure out a way to have a critical distance. Something between me and the computer that keeps me from getting sucked in by the promise, which is in many ways untrue. Something to remind me that ontology is important, or that I’m only looking at a website that was setup for specific commercial reasons. So I got into these systems that the military were using, ‘augmented reality’ stuff, and I found a company that make sports glasses, with a little projector in there that projects video onto the glasses. I thought I could make a piece using that, but they turned out to be too expensive and they wouldn’t give me a free one. I remembered that one of my Goldsmiths graduates, Liam Fogerty, had done this piece where he’d mounted a camera on his forehead and then had some goggles that allowed him to wander around in this kind of video-mediated reality and I thought ‘Oh, it’s like Terminator vision.’
So I wondered if I could use a system like that, but overlay text. I called him up and we worked on it. I made this text overlay circuit and constructed this whole system: there’s a real-time first person perspective from a head-mounted camera, it goes into this computer that processes the video, there’s a couple modes and it overlays text on to the video signal, that gets sent to your video glasses and that’s what you see. So, for the show I did it with two modes: one has this piece of text that says ‘what does this tell me that isn’t already obvious?’ Then the other one, I called it a YouTube emulator, reduces the quality of the image in your goggles to 320×240, which was the standard video size at that time, and it puts the YouTube logo in the bottom right hand corner. It was like designing a personal technology to combat, or keep a distance from, commercial technologies
I really liked it. I mean it’s a lot different from watching a bunch of Marios running around on screen, in terms of accessibility, but it felt like I was actually making difficult work, not to be difficult, but because it was foregrounding deeper questions, which are ultimately what I’m interested in pursuing.