This is the English translation of my latest column at La ONG’s blog (it is available here). I only found out about Elizabeth’s (extensive) work a few months ago, and I was very excited to share a few words about her glitch art experiments. This also makes me feel optimistic that there might be more people making interesting digital art being made in the country that I don’t know about yet.
Elizabeth Cemborain (Caracas, 1959) studied Architecture at Universidad Central de Venezuela and later pursued a degree in Pure Art at the Cristóbal Rojas School of Visual Arts, majoring in Drawing and Painting. Nowadays, she develops an artistic practice mainly focused on electronic media and languages, and is probably one of the greatest exponents of glitch art in Venezuela. Her most recent piece –screened at the 68th Arturo Michelena Biennial– is a 42-second video entitled El Puente (The Bridge), and it serves as a starting point for this brief interrogation of Cemborain’s extensive work in the digital arts.
In The Bridge, Cemborain records the landscape as she transits the bridge over Lake of Maracaibo. Those images are later processed to generate interlaced patterns that, in her own words, establish “a dialogue with the abstract-geometric tradition … it is a landscape of a gray, disoriented, and transitional Venezuela.” The gray-blue landscape suddenly becomes a series of broken lines of color, and the underlying image reappears and dissolves over and over during the journey.
Elizabeth Cemborain’s work is closely related to displacements (physical and symbolic), and often stems from meditations on movement: movement as a recurring element of study in the history of Venezuelan art, the movement inherent to electronic displays, movement as the engine of dialogue. This term –dialog– also resonates through Cemborain’s work, especially since she employs mobile devices that allow her to create images that engage in “dialog” with landscapes and objects she encounters.
Trained an architect, Cemborain became familiar with digital technologies before their use became widespread in Venezuela, and though she employed CAD and Mac Perspective to work, her favorite tools were sketch paper and pencils. After 9 years of professional practice, she decided to enter the Cristóbal Rojas School and gradually abandon architecture. Finally, in 2003, two factors influenced a total shift towards digitality in her career: her growing interest in and participation in workshops on contemporary art and culture (including some promoted by visual artist Antonio Lazo), and her experience living outside the country for several months. Regarding this experience, Cemborain recalls: “(I had) no other expressive resource than a simple digital camera and a laptop. I began touring cities and towns while doing photographic and video recordings. My urban tours have unfolded like this ever since: I see them through the movement generated by my actions, and through the language generated by the computer when reviewing the material.”
Cemborain’s first approximation to glitch as an expressive resource was quite accidental. She explains: “I work with several programs open at the same time. I can have Photoshop, Adobe Premier, Camtasia, and Skype running simultaneously… I exchanged information between them, and glitches began to appear when I moved files from one place to another. After these random incidents, the system often “froze” –which was a prelude to the imminent death of my hard drive. I began to observe what movements could generate the glitches, initially to avoid their appearance and then to generate them intentionally.” Hers is, therefore, a truly organic approach to the technical error; a practice that stems from pure aesthetic experimentation and curiosity about the limits and failures of a device.
Since her first experiences with glitch, Cemborain has incorporated error into her work by using glitch simulators. She has also experimented with direct intervention in executable files: “I have performed ‘parallel experiences’ in which I introduce words in the binary files of the frames. I have also achieved interventions with sound factors through audio editing programs. Often the files are rendered unreadable, but on other rare occasions that can be opened with graphic editing programs.” In addition to producing and collecting glitches on her computer screen –and perhaps inspired by the transformative movement inherent to the intentional generation of technical error–, Cemborain has developed a discourse that unfolds as a sort of constant dialogue with her surroundings, the landscape, the Other. Glitch is then configured as an element of mediation; it represents Cemborain’s hand appropriating preexisting images to turn them into patterns of light and color.
Cemborain’s inclination towards abstraction –or an image’s deconstruction in chromatic patterns– is especially tangible in her portfolio and in her personal Instagram (where she shares short videos and images, “immediate works” created in her phone). Her “dialogs” with the work of other artists (for example, during her recent visit to Miami Art Basel), developed from encounters in exhibition spaces, are also frequent.
Aesthetically and technically, Cemborain’s work is a fundamental exponent of Venezuelan new media art, but it is tempting to draw a vague relationship with kineticism –the reference most contemporary Venezuelan visual artists must confront. For Cemborain, her own work is intimately linked to movement insofar as movement is the “generating principle” of her work from beginning to end. This reflection leads, in turn, to consider the concept of motion in the context of recording and processing data: the artist transits the space (the city, the landscape, the gallery) with the camera in her hand, performs a digital zoom into the object, and then subjects the file to a series of movements within the “post-production” device to generate errors and distortions.
Urban landscapes are also recurrent protagonists of Cemborain’s work, and it is important to note that her approach comes from movement even if the final result might be a fixed image. In her recordings, the camera (or cell phone in a horizontal position) becomes one with the body; after digital processing, the final work is usually a chromatic abstraction of the landscape based on the “sweep” generated by the camera. Cemborain says: “When reviewing my videos frame by frame, I discover areas of interest precisely in the lapses when movement has been present. When I expand these interlaced frames, new ‘synthetic’ landscapes arise, composed of fringes and rhythms that dialogue with the aesthetics of geometric abstraction. I am attracted to the moving image, and I feel that it is the central link and generator of my work.” The movement of the body (and therefore of the camera) is then seen as the aesthetic principle and main resource of her “synthetic” technique.
I have inserted below some images from the Displacements series that effectively illustrate this dynamic process: touring Times Square at dusk, between hurried crosses, Cemborain records the movement of her own body, the movement of the LED screens and flashing signs, and the movement of bodies around them. The displacement of the camera/body produces images that can be situated between pictorial abstraction and glitch art.
Elizabeth Cemborain shares influences and even thematic interests with certain traditions in Venezuelan art, but her approximation has few precedents. Landscapes, politics, dialogs with the past, are all addressed in her work from the mobile –closely related to the playful and the unforeseen– and from the digital-corrupt as a metaphor (a key factor to differentiate glitch art from a “natural” glitch). She is one of the few Venezuelan artists with a long career who have developed a profound discourse using digital technologies in each stage of their creative processes. Her work contains a fresh conceptual proposal in regards to thinking about the environment as flexible and malleable –the landscape that is manipulated by technology to reveal some of its multiple possible appearances. El Puente, the work at the top of this article, is a clear example: departing from Cemborain’s perception of Venezuela as a “disoriented” country, the camera’s horizontal movement might be a metaphor for a journey towards confronting the flaws and challenges that characterize this landscape/country –the conflicts and breaks that become visible in the glitches that interrupt her view on Lake Maracaibo.