Neil Gilchrist is an artist and designer working with illustration, code, virtual reality, sound, film, zines, papier mache, and probably your grandmother’s old toaster, too.
Thanks for speaking to us, Neil. I’m interested in how you got started creatively.
It began at school really, doing fine art and being introduced to different methods of production. I went to a screen printing class which was pretty DIY looking back at it, and through this I became interested in print making and graphic design.
It was really just looking at what other people were making, like Olly Moss. I always wondered how people were making that sort of stuff. It was so clean and precise compared to what I was attempting to paint, and from this frustration I was drawn to graphic design.
Did you begin by trying to imitate other people’s style?
I definitely started by trying to imitate people and this was a learning process as I’d find out small parts of how they were making the pieces I was interested in and try to replicate that. You quickly realise it’s not that simple and take parts away that worked for you and were producing the results you wanted.
This is how I got into using computers to make work. I really got into using Photoshop and Illustrator as the basis for screen printing and then when I started my graphic design degree I became fixated on it being a starting point of the process.
I was drawing a lot at the time and it was so satisfying digitalising the illustrations and then you could colour and shade them however you wanted without having to draw them over and over again.
Yeah, that sounds like the dream. I used to draw and paint, and I eventually stopped because trying to get it right when one mistake could ruin something – my heart couldn’t take it.
A lot of your work now (most?) is created using code – when did you start moving from digital illustration to more complex digital work?
It was in my final year of my graphics degree. I wanted to learn more about the web development side and just wasn’t getting it on my current course. So I looked elsewhere and found the Interaction Design course at GSA.
I turned up on my first day not really knowing what to expect and was introduced to tools like Processing and Max Msp which have completely changed the way I work. Writing code gives you a whole new way of approaching projects.
I still like to tie it into more traditional print-based media though, and that’s where my old degree comes in.
The medium as an art form is still relatively new to most people – could you tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on using code?
Yeah, I feel it’s become a lot bigger though and it’s surprisingly been around for quite a while.
I’m really interested in music so wanted to try work a project around using code to analyse lyrical flow in hip-hop from the early 90s to current day. Originally it started off as trying to develop speech to text but you realise the limitations of these new inventions pretty quickly, so it turned into writing the code from scratch.
It worked pretty well and ended up resulting in a series of old computer programming style punch cards. They give you a really clear breakdown of how the tracks are structured and how that’s evolved over time.
You also worked on a project turning sound into images – is music, and the relationship between sound and image, a recurring theme in your work?
Yeah, we have 3D printer in our studio and I always wanted to use it. So for 6 weeks I looked at ways of turning sound into 3D prints and it ended up becoming a VR landscape you could physically move around in.
Music is definitely a recurring theme, there’s so much data captured within in it and computers combined with code are really good at unpacking this data.
I also did a project which was turning colour into sounds after reading about Neil Harbisson. If you break colour down to numbers, there’s quite a strong relationship between it and Midi data.
OK, so I just googled Neil Harbisson and holy shit. He’s an actual cyborg.
It is crazy, I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it but I thought I wonder how that thing is working? So I tried to break it down and create a simple version. The sounds that came out of that project aren’t easily listening.
Oh my god, I can imagine. I just read that his friends can send images, videos and sounds directly into his brain, and that Ruby Wax was the first person to call his skull on the phone.
It works by turning colour into a frequency which then is sent to a chip in his head that converts it into a musical note.
He must have an interesting perspective on life. He did a video where he’s telling you how a room sounds.
Essentially digital synaesthesia. Incredible!
It is amazing. Must be slightly terrifying. When do the sounds stop?
You’ve mentioned Neil and Olly Moss – are there any other artists who’ve shaped your work? Any that you’d recommend for young artists who’re just getting started?
People like Robert Henke, Ryoji Ikeda and Maotik. They’re all audio-visual artists and produce very different work from each other. I recently went to a Ryoji Ikeda exhibition in London which is one of the best things I have ever attended, so if you ever get the opportunity to see his stuff then go!
I am still a huge fan of traditional graphic design and if you’re looking for a book, get Raster Systems by Josef Muller-Brockman.
I’m also strangely into weaving and this guy Faig Ahmed’s work is amazing.
The Ryoki Ikeda exhibition looked incredible – super immersive. Is building grand-scale projects like that something you’d like to do?
Yes, definitely. I had the opportunity to do an installation recently and it was just a completely new way of working. It was a multi-screen film so it was a little break from the world of code. It makes you realise how much you can get done in a short space of time.
Also, working for a client changes your approach to making work. It’s more about being a facilitator for someone else’s idea. There’s still creative freedom but especially when there’s a target audience in mind, it’s thinking about how to aim it at them.
You work with really diverse artforms – code, illustration, film, zines – does your process change depending on the medium too?
Yes, it changes depending on what project I’m doing. I really enjoy the zine stuff as that mainly comes from a folder that sits on my desktop of images and ideas, and occasionally I get around to making one. There seems to be a lot less pressure on those projects even though they end up being sold.
Then when it comes to code, it takes a lot of planning and writing pseudocode, as for me, it’s never as simple as I think it’ll be at the start.
I usually ask people if they find inspiration in art forms other than their own – film, books, music etc – but exploring those crossovers is clearly a big part of your practice. What would you say is your main source of inspiration?
I’m not sure I would say it’s my main source, but one of them is computer games. I’ve recently written a couple of essays about the British games industry in the 70’s – they were punks at the same time as punks.
There is a book called Britsoft: An Oral History I would highly recommend to anyone who has the slightest interest in gaming. I’d also recommend Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal and Masters Of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. They change your perspective on games and gaming.
Have you ever created any games yourself? I’ve seen quite a few text-based art/game/fiction hybrids lately, choose-your-own-adventure style.
I created one on the back of the 3D-printed sound project. It was a land generated by sound that you could move around in. It had points of interest like mountain ranges and water so the user could try and guess where they were on the map.
There’s also a thing called A-Frame which is like HTML VR which is fun to play around with.
We’ve talked a lot about the digital side of your work, but I know you also love physically creating things – I think the first stuff I saw of yours was at Glasgow Zine Fest. Zines have had a huge renaissance in the past few years.
I think it’s because you can make a zine so cheaply, and it may be a throwaway topic or it may be about something more meaningful and political, but it’s still spreading your desired message. They’re also fun to make and there’s no right or wrong way to make them.
Especially in art school, there’s always this pressure to justify why you’re making something and zines provide an escape from this. I know a lot of people at GSA are going to be selling their stuff this year at Glasgow Zine Festival.
You mentioned you keep your ideas for zines in a folder on your desktop. Is that how you collect all your inspiration?
I have a folder that’s called All Things and I just drag and drop whatever I’ve seen that I like into it. Every so often I go back to them and they give me a visual cue of what I was thinking when I found the image or read something I liked.
I’m a big user of Evernote for planning but I recently bought an Alexa so she keeps me on track now.
‘Alexa, tell me what I’ve got to do today. And also what to do with my life.’
She does have great advice but when she wakes you up at night, it gets spooky.
I’ve also just started posting more of my work on Instagram. I used to use it anonymously so that I didn’t have to care if people thought what I was posting was good or not, but I now see it as a good way of communicating with other people who are making similar stuff, and even finding possible commissions.
Getting paid for your work is basically the great artistic struggle. How have you found it?
It certainly is. It’s often when working with the bigger clients that it’s harder to get paid.
How do you find potential clients/projects? I know at one point you won a competition to design Massive Attack’s vinyl cover, which is fucking rad.
It’s mostly word of mouth and finding competitions to enter.
The Massive Attack vinyl was a competition called Secret 7”, which was an amazing experience as my work was next to people like Robert Del Naja and David Shrigley.
It made me realize that working inside music is an avenue I wanted to explore more. I like the idea of going to someone’s house and finding that record amongst their collection.
You’ve lived and gone to art school in a few different cities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds. Do you think your location has influenced your work?
Yes, definitely. In Leeds there’s a big music scene, lots of genres and people putting on nights and I think that’s probably where my interest in designing for music came from. Everywhere you go you’re bombarded with event posters.
It’s similar in Glasgow, but the community is a lot smaller and more tight-knit, which I’ve found slightly harder to get into.
Is there any city whose creative scene should be on our radar?
Montreal has a big digital arts scene with things like Mutek going on. Holland has a good design scene with people like Experimental Jetset, one of my favorite design studios.
Last question! Do you have any advice for young people who’re just starting out creatively?
I would say go to lots of exhibitions and galleries to find out what’s really doing it for you.
Try lots of different things before settling. These days you don’t have to be one thing, so don’t feel constrained by titles or even academic training.
It’s supposed to be fun at the end of the day.
Sweet. Thanks so much Neil!
Find more of Neil’s work on Instagram @evil_press.