The Process: Dirt in Art

People say they miss the analog era of physical media. But is what they really need just an authentic human touch?

Computers have democratised creativity. In the 2020’s we not only have the means to produce art cheaply, we have infinite prefab assets to use, and software to make it faster. But because of this ease, our creative process suffers and so does our art.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Increased access means more competition, which makes us focus on results. We jump as many steps as possible in an effort to get to the end. What we though need is to get our hands, or the digital equivalent, dirty, and make something less polished but more creative. And by this process, we will find the dirt we’ve been missing. Dirt is human, and shouldn’t be sprinkled on a cheap product to trick us.

Thinking about dirt in our art is more important now than ever. We are about to quit production work forever, skipping the making entirely. AI will help us spend more time on concepts and meaning. We’ll soon be able to ask for finished assets, but we’ll leave behind completely the soulful connection we used to have with our art.

This is the context I present to you this Theory of Dirty.

New Rules

But before I get into it, I’d like to tell you about my new creative rules. I can use digital as much as I like, but I will perform or create as much as I can myself, so that the process will be evident. I will avoid any of the fake analog tropes of digital. All up, embracing digital in a naive but human way.

VSCO filters are right on the borderline for me. They finish my photos in a way that feels part of the process, but yet they are filters you whack on your art after the fact. They make your photos look analog, but they also make them look… better… and here lies an important distinction: the intention behind your digital process.

Dirt is in the eye of the beholder

The point of this ‘theory’ isn’t become the dirt police. It’s to encourage more enjoyable creative processes, the kind that might bring dirt into your digital art. It’s to help you broaden your creative toolkit and get you thinking and making. Dirt is not an end in itself, but thinking about how to find some might be the start of a creative journey for people like me, who developed their creativity just as digital production bloomed.

What is Dirty?

Dirtiness is an elusive concept. You know it when and where you see it, but it’s completely contextual to each work, so hard to define. This is my effort to break down the concept of dirtiness into taxonomies, to help talk about and understand it.

Elements of dirtiness…

  • production and/or performance
    • skill
    • care
    • intention (as opposed to incident)
  • capture
    • distortion
    • framing
    • adjustment
    • digitisation (bitrate / compression / resolution / glitch)
  • background (the medium)
    • degraded / old
    • noisy
    • textured
    • not isolated
    • limitations (eg. color, b/w)
  • amount
    • sporadic or constant
    • a lot or a little
    • random or predictable
    • homogenous or different
  • post
    • adjustment
    • treatment
    • texturing
Basquiat

Why do we like it dirty?

Humanising

It’s the same reason we like anything: it makes us feel good. It brings things closer, humanising them. It’s unpretentious, redirecting focus to the intention, rather than execution.

Care and time

Dirty is evidence of process, and digital affords faster processes. So dirty makes us feel that something took time, and that it had thought and care put into it. Conversely, clean digital, or fake dirty, makes us feel that a thing is cheap, and meaningless.

Storytelling

Imperfections tell a story, a story of the making, and over time, a story of the using. It lets us feel the weight of honest human endeavour. It connects us to the artist.

It also foregrounds non-technical aspects of the artwork like meaning and intention.

Stimulation

Dirt, or imperfections, invite us to use our imagination. Our eyes are stimulated. Questions arise where otherwise there would be nothing. There is more to look at, more to feel. There is greater context around the subject, even if it is not explicit.

Baking

Homogenous dirt bakes elements together, especially in digital art where elements can have no real relation to each other. It unifies the elements in a piece and makes them feel like they belong to each other. This is an aspect of dirt that is easily achieved in post process, like adding grain to a photo, or paper texture to a digital artwork.

“Filled with Grace” – The naive art of spiritual teacher Supreme Master Ching Hai

What isn’t it?

It’s not retro, romantic or hipster

We’re talking about a human appreciation for naturalness and imperfection. Maybe it makes things feel natural or accessible. It’s not hat-tipping to the past. These are all things that aren’t bad, but in terms of creativity and creative process, they’re a little… bothersome. 2010s were influenced by the hipster aesthetic, which was completely surface – the mainstreaming of otherwise hard to reach artistic perspectives and aesthetics. They were very annoying and very stupid and or false. We don’t go for this or that aesthetic for surface reasons. Dirtiness it the result of what we do, and if we specifically like it dirty, we do things in a way that will be dirty. But the medium is not the message.

It’s not analog

Later Steely Dan is 100% analog. But it’s not in any way dirty. Its tight. I remember dad using it to show me how tight the bass was in his new speaker setup (1990). In this theory we’re not arguing digital vs analog. Both can be clean or dirty.

I don’t blame digital, really, or even the computer. I blame the race to the ‘finish line’ they enabled.

It’s not the meaning

Dirtiness of any form shouldn’t be the intention. For example, taking photos just so you can have a grainy photo. This is a part of dirtiness as a result of artistic process. The art would still be art without the dirtiness. The dirtiness just makes it more human, relatable, and hints at the process, the magic.

It’s not post-processing

There are effects everywhere to make something seem older. They usually take a finished process and apply the kind of destruction that you’d see in a particular type of medium, like VHS. These are all about the effect, like the hat-tipping mentioned above. And as we’re talking about creativity, we’re going to ignore these because they’re applied after the thing is made. Of course that’s not to say you can’t use them creatively, but let’s face it it’s a little cheap. Not that a lot of art in the digital sphere isn’t cheap.

The best examples of dirty are analog as analog lends itself more to dirty (but by no means exclusively). I have a book of posters from punk bands. This counts highly. From a purely design standpoint, these posters are pretty uninteresting. But their low-end production methods make them pleasurable to look at, to mull over. There are stories everywhere… the fingerprints of the artist are clear. Its unskilled, careless, on top of plenty of medium and capture noise.

From Punk is Dead Punk is Everything

Constructive vs Destructive

Now you can fake that in digital, getting most of the way perhaps. But it will be a destructive process, not a constructive one – and that’s different. And you’ll be going for a look, instead of making a thing. That’s different too. To someone looking at the results, perhaps it won’t matter how it was made (I’d wager that over time, the constructive process will be come out on top), but to the person making it, there’s a world of difference in mindset. In one case, you’re wagging your tail. In the other case, you’re chasing it. Wait- is that what ‘the tail doesnt wag the dog’ means?

Zines too – when made with a photocopier… not so much when they’re made to look like they’re made with a photocopier. But who has a photocopier?

Naive

It can be naivety (naive art), which I personally think of as art made by people who are inspired to make, but don’t have a high level of skill in the medium. This isn’t to say what they make is bad, people love naive art. It takes a fair bit of courage and also a fair bit of disregard for gatekeepers (they can really get in your head and stop you making things sometimes). To me, the underlying structures and meanings of art is more important than the competence of the production. When I think of this, I think of punk rock,

That brings us to our next topic….

Integrity

Dirty shouldn’t be a style, it should be come from the method. The process should be a dirty. Even if the results are the same (they won’t be), a dirty process is more fun.

At one end, you’ve got dirt as a completely incidental result of process, where dirt is incidental to the intention of the art. In the middle you’ve got encouraged or teased dirt, where the dirt is incorporated in the message. At the other end, you’ve got art that exists as a medium for the dirt, where the dirt is what the artist wants to achieve.

You can buy a photocopier photoshop template that will run your image through some processes to affect a photocopied look. Or, you can get a photocopier. One of those is easier and cheaper than the other. But one should not be an option. In design, maybe… whatever, I mean you’ve sold your creativity to business so what does it matter anyway? But in Art? Noooo.

Commitment

Making something in the computer, with no process, is easier, and requires less investment of time and material. The downside of this, artistically, this means a lack of commitment. I know in my own case, I was able to explore many creative roads, digitally, and that has effectively meant I never travelled very far down them – or at least not all the way. None of them needed to pay off because I had only really invested my time.

The upshot of all this is that I now have an incorrect understanding of the value of time. I think our generation is beginning to understand where we have gone wrong here, and we are starting to slow down a little.

Again, digital workflows are fine, but consider not taking advantage of all the shortcuts people tend to take with digital, and create your art with as much manual input as possible. It sounds like I’m arguing for absolutes here – but really I’m just looking for ways to improve my process and evolve my own creativity – and unlearn some bad habits.

Social Creativity

One of the advantages of real-world processes, is that they are more social. When physical resources are required, you need to get off your chair and out in the world. Sometimes you might need to do whatever art socially.

I feel like younger people get this, whereas people in their late 30s and 40s might be slightly damaged due to the infatuation with digital processes they that has dominated the last two decades.

While I’m not advocating explicitly for analog, I guess the workflows I think would work best with dirty are not computer-based, or are perhaps in and out of the computer.

In my early 20s I and worked in Melbourne while producing music late into the night in my bedroom. I would walk past many clubs on my way home, attracted, but shy. Even at uni for design in my 30s, I would avoid group work. As a creative loner, I would love to go back in time and be more social with my art.

Don’t be like me! Get out of the computer! Join a club and meet people who love what you love!

Zine artists at The Edge, Brisbane. Social creativity!

Mistakes

Wes Anderson films are dirty. The fingerprints of the filmmaker are all over them. There are subtle and human imperfections everywhere. Camera shots are always straight on to the background, but the lenses are wide, distorting the lines. You can see the flim-making – it’s not invisible like it ‘should’ be.

All this is deliberate. However in the directors commentary on the Darjeeling Limited, Wes takes a phone call. And leaves it in. Dirty bugger.

Wrong notes, bumps and static, these things let us feel the humanness of art. Electronic musicians not quantizing their melodies to the beat. Or not even quantizing their beat to the time.

Batman

The dirty frame in Batman.

Perfectly Inhuman … or humanly imperfect?

Digital production can give us things that technically correct and realistic, but we’re waking up to the fact that realism ≠ immersion. We can suspend all kinds of sensibilities when it comes to the surface level of things, but what we can’t suspend is a need for deeper connection with art.

The more perfect and correct we make our digital productions, the gap between the results and what we can accept as ‘real’ keeps getting wider. The goalposts are shifting. This is because technical perfection is inhuman, and so doesn’t seem real. We have uncanny valley, the sense we get that something is off when looking at artificial faces that other people tell us ‘look real.’

The sooner we let go of the ambition to recreate the real world in the digital world, the better for our art, not to speak of our minds.

Dirty Framing

This applies to capturing images, but could be translated to other mediums. Dirty framing means things like dirty lenses, shooting through windows or other imperfect screens. It distorts the image, but is wholly natural and often translates to a sense of place and time.

Wong Kar Wai’s films are dirt extravaganzas. The dialog is only loosely connected to the ‘plot,’ as if everything is slightly off tangent. Aside from questionable white balance and saturation, his frames are often abstracted with refraction, reflection, angles, and what looks like diffusion filters the kind which are becoming popular in photography. Handheld camerawork with no or little stabilisation. It’s not like there is no care put in. The compositions, lighting, it all looks very deliberate. But once the scene is set and the camera is rolling, things play out very naturally and freely.

Wong Kar Wai’s cinematographer is Andrew Doyle. Usually there is no specific shot list, instead the crew turns up to a location with a script (or not), and looks for inspiration in the location. This means going over time and budget, but leads to unique synchronicity.

Wide angle, distort faces

Check out Why THE BATMAN Is So Beautiful | A Cinematography Video Essay.

Reproduction

Reproducing things, for example digital to analog and back again – a technique used in many mediums, is a good way to introduce dirt – usually a constant, slight dirt, unless the margins are captured in some way.

The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails was recorded in the mid 90’s on an early version of Pro Tools running on Mac. Reznor digitally captured analog performances which were treated and arranged the software before being recorded back to analog tape (or something like that – more on the process here). The main point is the back and forth between digital and analog, using both or either when it suited the creative vision. This made The Downward Spiral unique and as timeless as it is hard to listen to in parts.

Photography

This medium is a great one to explore dirt because the mainstream still thinks a good photo is “technically perfect,” and there are so few creative photographers compared to the rest.

There’s a lot of ways to do it: grain/noise, ICM (intentional camera movement), focus, off-framing, dirtying the frame, diffusion (or other filters), off white balance, long exposure, resolution, saturation, and multiple exposure – all ways to dirty up your image.

A dirty frame – shooting through wet glass (maybe) – screen grab from Fallen Angels

The most common way to achieve dirt in photography, is to use grain or noise. This is mimicking older mediums. Most digital photos are so clean these days that most apply noise it in post, but you can also shoot at higher ISO to achieve noise. Some cameras also apply a noise filter automatically, which I use without too much guilt. Shooting at high ISO isn’t always practical. This is why other ways to achieve noise are perhaps better.

Glitch

You could think of glitch art as the art of digital destruction becoming creation. It’s great because not only is it all about the process- how things are copied, transferred, displayed, it’s about stressing the underlying system in ways that produce unpredictable results: the process is an attack on the medium itself. It’s a great conceptual example of dirt, because the dirt becomes the actual art (there is no art without the dirt here).

Glitch art is pretty technical – you’re screwing with digital systems in ways that are much more likely to break them completely than result in some pleasing artefacts. But you could translate the interruption into other mediums. Any level of jitter in the “background” of the medium might be a way:

  • underpainting in ways that will show through
  • tape garbles
  • phone call interruptions to your director’s commentary

Dirtiness is hard

I’ve been longing to get back to a more natural state in my creativity. But with the conveniences of digital, it feels weird to be going out of my way to make something more natural. The more I do this though, the more I learn that it is worth it.

I’ve been wondering what it is I like about analog – and specifically, dirty analog.

Digital as the transfer medium, not the medium.

Feedback

Being dirty in production means the dirt of one stage will feed into the next, so dirt accumulates – here hidden, here poking out.

In Electronic Music

Sonic Youth is dirty. The dirtiest, maybe, if you don’t count the 5,6,7,8s who sing with no regard for frequency, in their second language. But it’s not just loosey goosey analog music that can be dirty. Electronic music is evolving this way too.

In the 90s you needed a room full of heavy, power-hungry and prohibitively expensive equipment to make professional music. But in 2005, I had a track released that I had made exclusively on a computer. I would not be able to have done this in the 90s without a next-level level of commitment.

So I can’t say that we shouldn’t make things with computers. And I don’t want to! But maybe it’s fun to limit the involvement of the computer sometimes, and producing sounds in the real world, and use the computer to put it together. Great dirtiness is found this way – in play. Achieving dirtiness deliberately takes the fun out of it. It still might be fun to listen to, but I’d bet not as fun.

You can get dirty in sound by modulating digital sounds with analog ones. For example, changing the volume of a track by side-chaining in another loop. In my track Gravity in Space, I ran a noise gate over some of the sounds and modulated like that. Once I had setup how it worked, it was out of my control, and that’s what I wanted.

Electronic music is by default clean.

Using textured samples directly in your music is a bit cheaty and potentially not that dirty.

Tips for electronic musicians to get more dirty

In 2004 I bought a world music sample CD to help me produce the kind of music I liked. I was shocked to realise all the samples were already in my favourite music.

Try record your own sounds. Mix them with your digital sounds in weird ways, like modulating midi and plugins with side-chains. Skip quantization on some, or most, of your tracks, especially when it isn’t really necessary.

Stop buying plugins and sample packs to get more sounds and start working with what you’ve got.

Grunge

Strangely, a lot of metal and grunge isn’t that dirty. There’s distortion, but it’s well controlled and pretty consistent over time. Smells Like Teen Spirit (my actual favourite song) and much of Nirvana’s Nevermind fits this, especially in contrast with Nirvana’s other music. Metallica’s Enter Sandman is another example.

Hole’s Live Through This is a good example of a grungier grunge.

My favourite dirty musicians

These are some artists who make music that reveals the process. I love them because they didn’t have to go through whatever process to make their music, but they did, because they like it. Feel free to suggest a listen below.

  • MIA
  • Trentemoller (The Last Resort)
  • Nine Inch Nails (The Downward Spiral)
  • Flying Lotus (You’re Dead!)
  • Tycho (Awake)

Dirty web design

Dirty means different things when applied to different medium. If you take the laziness of Sonic Youth vocals and translate that to the web, what have you got?

Dirty on the web could mean raw, unrefined websites. It could mean graphically dirty elements, but I don’t like this because it would need to be done carefully to ensure the content is accessible. The web is a complex and volatile medium which you can break easily even when not being experimental.

I tried for a long time to make an authentic 90s website. It’s actually hard to do nowdays. What you see before you is my compromise.

Know the rules to break them. This website is an example.

Part of being dirty is being good enough at what you are doing to be able to relax a bit.

In writing

I admit, I’m not much of a reader. But dirty writing could be writing that gets distracted, that lets the author jump around a little….. disjointed plots, writing that maybe even shows some of the process. Of course, it wouldn’t be spelling mistakes etc, but it could be a relaxed use of ‘rules.’

The convenience paradox

It’s easy to produce in digital, but paradoxically, only when youre doing it in predictable ways. It’s sometimes harder to do something new, when you don’t have the ‘software’ for it, or the digital skillset. There’s a learning curve that isn’t there in analog, and sometimes that makes it harder, to the extent that a creative will choose to do something else, something they know how to do, and abandon their inspiration. This is fairly tragic, and I’d like to encourage anyone who encounters this feeling (because it is barely conscious most of the time), to think about how they might achieve what they want in weird, unplanned or analog ways.

In Typography

I received an email for a new font by Tom Chalky and followed the link to the page for a new font (left). I was struck by this hero text. But all I could think of was that using a different font doesn’t add honestly to a pixel perfect world. Honesty would be doing what James Victorie does when he scribbles his headings and scans them into his digital products (right)g.

MySpace

The peak of the early (1.0) net before Javascript fucked everything up.

The AI generated creative Future

In the long term, mainstream use of AI in the creative process will mean the art of human makers will be more valuable. Less people will be able to create new and unique art from scratch, and the ones that do will be those that value process. People interested in creating art will avoid the kind of shortcuts we take today because there will be no point in partial processes (why not just use the AI). The creative arts could even bifurcate, with means-to-an-end, commercially driven, AI assisted production on one hand, and more personal, process-driven art on the other. This isn’t a bad future at all, I just hope AI generated things will be labelled.

Takeaways

  • Don’t try to hide the markings of your craft. Don’t pretend your art is real. palm smudges, struck out words, clicks after samples. If it’s not ugly, or too distracting for what you’re trying to do, consider leaving it in.
  • Takeaway: prepare your production beforehand and with specific intention, so that when you’re in the act of producing, you can relax some control and be less analytical.
  • See how many levels deep into the production you can go. Can you stretch your own canvas? Make your own samples or synths? Every possibility to exert your own taste, and expose your process, adds yourself into your art.

Further reading & watching