DEAFBEEF on (Im)permanence

DEAFBEEF reflects on themes such as the tension between permanence and impermanence in his work HASHMARKS, released through Bright Moments. He also ruminates with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) on celebrating the singularity of the present plus finding agency in life and art.
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Deafbeef - Hashmarks

DEAFBEEF on (Im)permanence 

DEAFBEEF reflects on themes such as the tension between permanence and impermanence in his work HASHMARKS, released through Bright Moments. He also ruminates with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) on celebrating the singularity of the present plus finding agency in life and art.

Peter Bauman: Can you elaborate on the themes of your project HASHMARKS in conjunction with Bright Moments Buenos Aires? I'm particularly interested in the project as a representation of information through time and how this relates to the idea of mark making.

DEAFBEEF: Like many of my works, HASHMARKS grew out of a seed and the work started to become more elaborate as I was working on it. At the time Bright Moments approached me, I had just finished a big, very intensive code-based project. So I had the idea to make something that was very physical. I'm a blacksmith. I've worked as a hobbyist blacksmith and as a professional jewelry maker for a number of years. I really like repetitive work. I like that meditative process of repeating things and working with my hands, working with things that are tactile. These things come together because working with code and blacksmithing may seem like opposites but they actually overlap in certain ways.

What I like about working with metal is that the tools don't change.

It's the same tools that have been used for hundreds of years. They're very simple; they're replaceable. You can fix them. I'm interested in working with material like that like how I also work with low level code.

I've chosen my tool set for writing code using C as a programming language because it’s not expected to change. It's less about permanence and more about agency. I want my tools to remain constant so that I focus on honing myself and my craft, at my own pace.

I think a lot about time and about things changing. I tend to not like the speed at which the technology we use changes and becomes obsolete. It's too much for me. I think about time and about information through time. With HASHMARKS, there's a bunch of themes that are tying these things together. Blockchain is a decentralized ledger and we have this idea, perhaps dogmatic, that it's permanent and immutable, transferring information through time. We've seen that with many other mark-making events throughout human history such as markings on clay tablets that were the first writing systems. They were also used to record transactions, for economics and trade. So that's really fascinating to see those connections.

Still from video "HASHMARKS ##.." by DEAFBEEF, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
Still from video "HASHMARKS ##.." by DEAFBEEF, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

With the site in Patagonia, I also think about geological processes and trying to figure out what happened in the past from prior events. We only have part of the story. You can guess what happened before that but all that's left from the passage of time is residues, only pieces of the information. With blockchains and cryptography, the idea of one way processes is critical. You can verify something. You can go forward but not back. HASHMARKS is then a mashup of all these themes that are within different processes: geological, societal, artistic and cryptographic.

Patagonia is also the site of the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), showing stenciled paintings of hands on the rock walls, made by hunter gatherer groups thousands of years ago. It's some of the oldest traces of human artwork. Importantly, it didn't just happen once and then was later discovered. The stencils took place over thousands of years, with generations of humans making imprints of their hands after seeing the imprints of their ancestors. The connection across time between those human marks is fascinating. I think about mark making processes of vital information, what is preserved and what is lost.

Peter Bauman: What does your work hope to preserve? Can you also explain the significance of the 10x10 grid of sculptures and why it will only be viewed together once at the event?

DEAFBEEF: I like making serial things; I like the repetition. I've made 3,000 handmade wedding rings. I like the idea of making small, incremental changes to a process over time; it’s meditative. The result is similar in some ways to the visual generative art of recent years; however, these are not generative sculptures and not produced by a coded algorithm in any case. It’s whatever comes out as I make them, one after the other, over a long period of time. But grids are interesting for many reasons, not the least of which because they contrast the surrounding, natural environment.

There's a land artist, Walter De Maria, who made large, land-based metallic installations in remote areas. That you can only experience them by traveling to a remote site makes them special in some way. This idea of remoteness, of singularity, serves as inspiration for the collection in its entirety only being viewable once during the event. This is how I conceive of it: There's a grid of one hundred unique objects that form a whole, and the elements are secrets in a way, like De Maria’s remote sculptures, or like a cryptographic hash, or the identity of the hand painters, or like the mystery of how a glacier erratic (boulder) came to be.

Still from video "HASHMARKS ..#." by DEAFBEEF, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
Still from video "HASHMARKS ..#." by DEAFBEEF, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

This is about secrets; this is about cryptographic systems, about revealing things and hashes and traces. The grid will only ever be seen at that one time, in that one place by the people that are there. After that, everybody's going to take a piece and go off to the corners of the world. Those pieces and those people will never be together again. I feel like we tell ourselves stories. I harbor this idea that one day I'm going to see all my friends from school again. We're all going to get together. But if you force yourself to think about it, it’s clear it will never happen. There was a day that was our last spent together before we went our separate ways. We will not meet again in Valhalla.

I was thinking about the gravity, the importance of the present and how this is really a singular event. Every event is so singular and I wanted to draw attention to that. This is where we are now. After this, it will break off and it won't ever come back together.

The same way that there are pieces falling off the glacier, moving away. The sobering thought of irreversible climate change. There are rocks being moved from mountains to some distant location and then sitting there lonely for the rest of time. It's a meditation on these themes.

Peter Bauman: Another singular event in your life was the beginning of your journey as an artist in 2020 during the COVID Pandemic. Can you share about the circumstances that led to your artistic awakening during that time?

DEAFBEEF: At the beginning of the Pandemic, having our two young kids at home, my wife and I were overwhelmed with balancing work and childcare.

That incredible lack of agency motivated me to mount a small rebellion: despite the challenges, force myself to carve out the time for a creative pursuit.

What I decided to do was explore sound using code. I'd seen that modular synthesizers had come back in style after this long period in the trenches of childcare and not really paying attention to what was happening in the outside world. I missed this wave of modular synthesis resurfacing, which I thought was really neat. I used to run a recording studio, had studied electrical engineering and wanted to participate in this re-emerging synth culture. I found, however, there was a certain amount of consumerism in the new culture, a lot of it seemed to focus on collecting expensive audio gear as mystical black boxes. I decided to take an alternative ascetic approach. Having a background in electrical engineering and signal processing and music technology, I thought, “Why not start from scratch and see what can be done with ‘nothing’, just writing low level audio synthesis code on a cheap laptop without using any external libraries or expensive hardware?" So that's how I started.

I did that for six months in the evenings after the kids were in bed, just for my own amusement. And again, the goal was to explore sound. Do you need to have a lot of patch cables and expensive gear to explore sound? You don't. I wanted this malleable thing that was able to send signals every which way and do things you can't easily do within the paradigms of existing media production software. I wanted to make systems to directly explore the materiality of sound represented digitally as numbers. It had nothing to do with NFTs at that time.

Peter Bauman: One of those explorations, Glitchbox, reminds me of 1980s Roguelike games such as NetHack, especially the ASCII mode where there’s a lot of visual similarity. Can you talk about your experience playing Rougelike games and how that led you to programming and generative art?

DEAFBEEF: As a kid, I lived in a remote area in northern Ontario. We had a Mac Plus and we only had a few games. You couldn’t go and get more online or drive anywhere in town to buy any games.

This was all you got so you played the hell out of those games. Somehow, I think I got my first Roguelike game from my uncle who lived in southern Ontario. We'd take trips down once a year and I brought it back on a floppy disk. It absolutely fascinated me because it was replayable. Every time that you played it, it was generating a dungeon level that had different geometry, and items and creatures. All these emergent behaviors appear from the interactions between the randomly generated game elements, which lead to different playing strategies.

Playing Roguelike games was a really formative experience and I wanted to learn to program for that reason: to explore doing creative things with code.

The aesthetic of it I also really liked; that aesthetic is still just part of me from that age. They were all just ASCII characters that represented the 2D grid of your game level. I really liked the cryptic nature of those abstract representations; it felt like a mystery to be discovered.

I really enjoy working in a terminal. It's just really efficient. I don't like using a mouse. The terminal is fast and something I'm really familiar with. When I started writing code to make audio synthesis, I added animation and just thought about what was familiar to me, what fits in with this aesthetic of coding, working in a terminal and having these grids of characters. That’s just become part of my visual language, where I'm comfortable. I know that it's become more fashionable and stylish with the popularity of mainstream Glitch art, but that's where it came from for me: programming and terminal games.

A procedurally-generated dungeon in Rogue (1980), Thedarkb, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A procedurally-generated dungeon in Rogue (1980), Thedarkb, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Bauman: When you talk about your artistic choices, I can’t help but think of constraints and how generative art seems to attract artists with attachments to constraints. Your approach to making music and graphics using minimalistic tools seems aligned with this. Is that accurate? How do you see constraints shaping your creative process?

DEAFBEEF: Part of it is like what you said: It's interesting to have constraints and try to work within that framework to see what you can get. You see that in the demoscene. Rebuilding things from scratch on its own is something fun. Another reason that I chose those particular constraints, using a cheap laptop and a fundamental computer language, is also simply because I was fed up with the rate of change of media production software. The cycles of obsolescence that I’ve experienced over the last 20 years working with computer media have been extreme.

A lot of times I couldn't open the projects the next year or I couldn't run the digital audio workstation that I could the year before. If you wait even a small amount of time, the rug gets pulled out from under you. It just irks me and I got fed up with it. I was like, “You know what? I don't want to have to spend all this time and effort on things that are arbitrarily beyond my control.”

The whims of companies and proprietary software, I don't want to deal with it. It's not necessarily about choosing a constraint arbitrarily. There's also a really practical reason. It could be interpreted as political or even just about how I want to personally engage with technology. That's where that stems from.

Peter Bauman: In a framework I developed to appreciate generative art, I think about generative work in terms of the locus of artistic intent. Resultists value results, Systemists value process or systems, Conceptualists value concept and Autonomists value autonomy. Where do you see yourself in that framework? 

DEAFBEEF: I think the framework that you've made is really interesting and I think there’s a number of dimensions there. It's cool to see all these different artists spread over this spectrum of elements and about where they see the artistic intent. Although some of the questions of authorship are fascinating, I’m not so sure about the notions of ceding control and autonomy, and wouldn’t consider myself an “Autonomist.” I'd probably look at it a different way for the case of my choice of tool set.

Whether it be for coding or making things out of metal, my intent stems from a desire for agency. The constraints, in a paradoxical way, give me more control of the way that I am interacting with technology.

When I'm using a software or operating system that might change the next day and require me to spend time reinstalling it or changing the way that I work to accommodate it, to me, that’s a loss of agency. I've purposely chosen my tools to avoid those situations. There are trade offs, of course. It's not like I can easily produce the same pristine results you could quickly get with Houdini or Autodesk Maya. But these constraints are my way of maintaining my little, self-contained world of how I make art. I have complete agency within this place.

DEAFBEEF, Series 4: Glitchbox - Token 195, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random
DEAFBEEF, Series 4: Glitchbox - Token 195, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

Peter Bauman: Your comment on the paradoxical nature of constraints reminds me of Harvey Rayner relating constraints to grammar and rules in language: You need them to say anything meaningful at all. You’ve said previously that you value aesthetics over concept. Where does process fit in and how do you think about aesthetics, process and concept in relation to one another?

DEAFBEEF: I think it depends on the particular work. I would value those things differently depending on what it was. It's really context dependent in my mind. It's really hard for me to rank them in general. When reading the framework, I was trying to place myself within it but that was really difficult to know where. I thought, “Well, sometimes I'm on this extreme and sometimes I'm on that extreme.” I can see validity in both sides and some individual works might even straddle that continuum.

Peter Bauman: It's fascinating because every artist has a different answer. Some say adamantly, “No, I'm always a conceptualist first.”

DEAFBEEF: I could tell you where I started and in my purest state I'm just making aesthetic work. I'm making sound and animation for sensory affect, for sensuality. There was not really any fancy concept behind that. There might be a concept in my process, in the choice of tools, but it wasn't something I was trying to put forward at the time. It's only now that I've gone back and contextualized these things, making sense of why I chose the activities I did. Now, if I'm making an artwork, I think much more about concept but, originally, aesthetics did play the largest role.

I like music. And music often doesn't have too much narrative concept. It's just how it makes you feel.

At the same time, context always matters and at times more than concept. Who made it? Why? How was it made? That's important to me. I've always been fascinated with things that were made by people through a singular, intense effort over time. Knowing that about the work makes it unique, whether it's Dwarf Fortress, made over decades by Tarn and Zak Adams while living an ascetic lifestyle, or the stop motion animation of Bruce Bickford, etc.

Peter Bauman: Vuk Ćosić gave me some feedback about the framework, saying there should be a sixth component, criticality, where “critique is the top priority.” Reading your previous comments on the role of experimentation in your work, would you perhaps also suggest adding a category, something like experimentalist? 

DEAFBEEF: Yeah, if I had to pick between those other things, I would probably say, in general, experimentalist is not a bad description because that's the motivation for a lot of the activities that I've done, whether or not it was even art. It's about experimenting, exploring and just about that being intrinsically motivating, regardless of the result or the audience, just as an activity.

Peter Bauman: You've stated before that your past academic research at University of Toronto has helped with your creative process; for instance, fluid motion research helped lead to Advection. Is there any other field of study or research that inspired your coding experience?

Outside of fluid motion, learning about systems formally, mathematical descriptions of systems, has inspired the way that I think about generativity. Originally, this all goes back to cybernetics, the study of feedback in a nonlinear system, which leads to deterministic but unpredictable events. You see that in many different systems so it's not specific to coding. You can go and use that idea and it's been used countless times. In fact, many of the interesting phenomena that emerge from generative systems are often characterized as feedback within a nonlinear system. It’s pretty general, but knowing about those things sometimes leads to looking in the right places, stumbling upon something that works and ends up being engaging.


DEAFBEEF is a generative artist, musician, programmer and blacksmith creating coded work with a minimal toolset.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.

Special thanks to Conrad House (Nemocake) for contributing to the questions.