i am a black box


  • 2013
  • interview of David RIley
  • by Jane Boyer

David Riley is an artist’s artist – he works with raw ideas and even when these concepts have attained [an ‘outcome’], as David calls them, they are still wide open for interpretation, further development and wide ranging tangential possibilities. His work could be seen as a springboard to so many other ideas in so many possible media. I continue to be amazed by his output and the sheer magnitude of his inspiration pool. David also is a keen blogger and has written several blogs on Artists Talking. Two of his blogs have been chosen as ‘Choice Blog’, the most recent by Linda Stupart. FORMAT is a unique blog, as Stupart points out in her article, and it is uniquely David Riley. FORMAT is an artwork. It uses the a-n blogging platform to explore the “facilities and limits within the context of an a-n blog,” as David writes in his intro. He explains, “this should not, in any way, be taken as criticism. The intent is to explore the limit of the facilities offered by an a-n blog (implied and actual) as a form of visual enquiry.” Stupart says, “Riley’s collapsing of form and content then is notable within the collective blog imaginary, which often fails to be critical of its own formal structure in a way that other types of practice could never get away with. Through an explication of limitation FORMAT also reminds us of the incredible potential of blogs as medium, as well as making visible the otherwise invisible restrictions of the institutionalized blog – a very big, fairly convoluted white cube, but a container nonetheless.”

See what I mean – a springboard wide open for possibilities.

Jane Boyer: The statement on each of your blogs reads, “I am a black box, an abstract device evolved to hide the complexities within. Given the appropriate stimulus, I can be triggered to display a transient pop-up model of my inner self and disclose a little of what would otherwise remain secret.” Beyond the stated reason ‘to hide the complexities within’, why do you present yourself as an object and your inner self as a ‘transient pop-up model’?

David Riley: I don’t intend to ‘present myself as an object’; a black box is a system metaphor so I use it to present myself as a system, a complex system that no one can fully understand (not even me). The ‘pop-up model’ idea was planted by Richard Taylor when he interviewed me for an a-n Degrees Unedited Blogger Profile back in 2010. The idea meshed quite naturally with my experience as an engineer, where I often analysed systems that were new to me by treating them as a black box in order to understand their true function. At art college we were encouraged to self-analyse our output and I found myself not fully understanding how I travelled from initial concept to final outcome. So, now I find it useful to think of myself as a black box where every new line of enquiry has the potential to reveal more of my inner (often hidden) self and my motivations for doing what I do.

JB: Your blog REMNANTS could be seen as a companion piece to FORMAT in its use of the blogging platform limitations. Your introduction statement is a philosophical one and reminds me of Deleuze’s observation “Underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift.” You state:

“Everything is T R A N S I E N T.

Although the tools here at a-n (and in general on the world wide web) try very hard to make everything permanent, this is not the natural order. Any impression of permanence is illusionary. The nature of the universe is for everything to return to the universe for reuse. I have removed (from this blog) everything the a-n system allows me to delete. I could hide the rest by unpublishing it, but this does not release the storage space for reuse.

So here we have a new outcome based on everything that has gone before: the R E M N A N T S.”

Can you comment on that existential triumvirate – memory, transience and reason, in relation to your enquiries and do you feel they are as present in your work as for someone who is working in more traditional media?

DR: If memory is knowledge and experience; if transience is the coming and going of a new influence or a loss of knowledge through lack of use; and if reason is the use of knowledge and experience to filter the infinite possibility into a manageable focus; then yes these factors are most definitely present in my work. I cannot speak for others who work in a different way or in different materials, but I certainly can see these qualities in the work of others. However, I am not in a position to judge the relative levels of presence nor do I aspire to be.

JB: On occasion you create physical objects. Is there a certain impulse which stimulates this physical output and does it satisfy a sensory need?

DR: I do quite a lot of physical work. I prefer to make work for a specific installation space. The web is an installation space and I make work for that space. Given the opportunity, I enjoy making work for a physical space, but I see little point in making lots of physical work unless that opportunity to exhibit exists. On the surface, I am a pragmatic practical person and I enjoy the physical sensations of handling and manipulating materials. However, I have a second side; I am a dreamer. I enjoy ideas and finding the most appropriate accessible way to realise them. Many of my ideas result in a series as output. The virtual world has many qualities to support displaying a series. Very large series can be shared at negligible marginal cost in terms of time, logistics and finance. So, much of my output becomes tailored to the virtual world. Every idea has an alternative real-world possibility, there are many recorded in my journals just waiting for the right opportunity to exhibit.

JB: You work in three modes of communication simultaneously, visual, textual and binary code, most of us struggle with each of these singularly. Are creativity and communication synonymous for you?

DR: I don’t think of communication when I am exploring, my only thought is about what must be the next step. In making that decision I consider what I found interesting about the last step. It is very much one step after another. Creating something visual is my way of recording those steps. I don’t see a distinction between text and binary. A character is a code, a word is s sequence of codes, and text is a sequence of words. I see text as code. I have nothing I want the audience to understand. Everyone is allowed to make their own connection between my output and their own experience.

JB: If the recording of your exploration is the primary goal in creating your artworks, can you explain the relationship you have to your work?

DR: My work is riddled with me. I made the decisions about what to explore and how to record that exploration. I made those decisions based on my own knowledge and experience. The outcomes must expose a little (or a lot) of me. I don’t see how it could be any other way. To me, it really is a process determined by my experience and environment, both past and present, with the outcomes shared in public as punctuation points along the way. I never set out to achieve a specific end. I don’t even think of outcomes as end points, they are just another step along the way. I do think the work is totally of me, that is, without me being me it could never exist exactly as it exists now. However, once an outcome exists it exists in its own space and doesn’t need me anymore. It is then up to the audience to bring their own experience and environment to their viewing and interpretation.

JB: You have two works in This ‘Me’ of Mine, Twitter User Names: Coded and Transcribed (follow the link on David’s page to see the virtual version of twitter names) and Bar EP Blues (kinetatic), tell us what is behind the further coding of what is often already a code name in the twitter piece.

DR: I chose to translate the Twitter user name into a different form, a form that would retain the full meaning but hide it in plain sight. As I wanted to use twitter, this had to be in a form that would still fit within the limitation of a tweet. If you can read my code then you can read the name, the meaning hasn’t changed. But even this is little more than a side-effect. My concept was to take the names and present them in what is to me a visually interesting way while at the same time engaging new people who might interact with me and stimulate new paths of exploration.

JB: You describe Bar EP Blues (kinetatic) as “contemplating a perceptual boundary between what is considered static and what is considered kinetic; and how sound may contribute to the balance of that perception,” what have you discovered about perception and this boundary?

DR: Everything changes with circumstance. Bar EP Blues (kinetatic) started as Bar EP (kinetatic), I was experimenting to see what pace of change in a visual stimuli might force us to question if we had witnessed the change, if we were aware. I found myself unable to distinguish the different stages of change and unable to know where in the sequence of the work I was at any one moment. I also found myself looking for rhythms and found the blues. In making the next step, it seemed natural to add a blues style sound track, so I did and I liked what this added, so I shared it.

JB: I admire the ease with which you move between codes and systems. One of your enquiries, stringing words , are stringing bungee cords which represent the alphabet, short phrases and now names. You mentioned earlier that you see text as code and so all language is code to you, does this affect your notions of communication and how you relate to others?

DR: My life has been riddled with codes, as a systems engineer I see them everywhere; consequently I am very comfortable with codes. On reflection, using codes may be a strategy, being an artist is relatively new and I prefer to keep an aspect of the process familiar while I explore other aspects for the first time. Changing one variable at a time is a familiar strategy for experimentation, working with the familiarity of codes allows me to handle the unfamiliarity of materials and reactions to my work. It helps me focus on the new connections I make with people and ideas through sharing my output. I am always absorbing new things and this feedback can influence and encourage something new further down the line. It is rare for this process to change my own perspective on the work, but it does happen on occasion, when it does this can lead to a new line of enquiry or a variation on an old one. Maybe there will come a time when I move on and explore a different aspect, one that takes a step away from code into a less familiar territory. Although experience suggests codes will always be there somewhere.


First published in the book: This ‘Me’ of Mine: Self, Time & Context in the Digital Age by Jane Boyer.
ISBN 978-1-4836-7006-5, available from Amazon and other book sellers.
The text of this interview is copyright © 2013 by Jane Boyer.

OUTCOMES FOR - THIS 'ME' OF MINE © revad David Riley
OUTCOMES FOR – THIS ‘ME’ OF MINE © revad David Riley

blogger profile


Richard Taylor talks to an ex systems engineer during his final year of Fine Art Drawing at Swindon College School of Art.

Creative cryptology and the story of a microprocessor

An art process is something of an engineered course of action, fused by language inputted to something made, through carefully balanced models of communication. David Riley, the artist, arises from over thirty years of specialist experience and self-taught knowledge, the veracity of which invents an embedded and systematic creative practice.

So what happens after the duration of Riley’s BA expires: does the ‘system engineer’ evolve to an artist having been taught ‘how’ for four years, or did he simply already know?

Codes of enquiry: Riley interprets his pre-functionary past

“I am fifty five. From age seventeen to fifty I worked in the telecommunications industry, where I actively participated in the microprocessor revolution. When I started in the 1970s, teleprinters were the data communication devices of choice, telephone exchanges were invariably mechanical and computers where very expensive, room-filling, specialist devices. In the late 1970s and 1980s I was a member of a small team responsible for introducing microprocessor training at my company training school. Indeed, the first microprocessor in the school was my own. The foundations for the course came out of my experience with that machine. I taught telecommunications related computing for fifteen years. In those days computer construction and programming was an art – a very creative process.

Now that creativity has been subverted by highly organised engineering processes. So, given the opportunity, I retired early to spend time exploring my creativity in a more direct way, at art school. Via a foundation course, I am now in my third year of a BA (Hons) Drawing for Fine Art Practice at Swindon College School of Art (validated by [University of Bath]), where I often find myself exploring the visual attributes of the theory and technology from my career as a systems engineer.”

Deciphering the decipherer

Richard Taylor: It seems that you already have a well-developed mode of language to make use of in your work. How important is the language as it translates to a visual aesthetic? Is the process of image making, symbols and code etc, something that overrides the result or do you enjoy how visual and ‘stand-alone’ the final affect is?

David Riley: The process leads and the aesthetic follows. The process (sometimes using code and symbols, exploring my life experience, and recording what I find) is the reason I do what I do. In a sense the outcomes are found. I do not set out with a result in mind. However, when I find something that has a pleasing aesthetic, I search for more.

RT: Is the methodology behind the process something that you keep as a ‘trade secret’, or do you seek ways to reveal it in a conceptual form, through language, as an accompaniment to visual results – which when alone appear predominantly abstract?

DR: As you can see from my blogging I am nearly always keen to share what is going on in my practice. I guess this has a lot to do with being a student and having to share openly with my tutors on a daily basis. What will happen once the course is done, and I am a lone artist, I don’t know.

I will probably miss the day to day sharing of ideas, so I suspect the urge to share online will be even greater. I certainly don’t keep any ‘trade secrets’, at least not as a matter of policy. However, neither do I regularly include any written accompaniment to my visual works. My preference is to leave the understanding up to the audience. My hope is that the work can be read on many levels from a stand-alone (often) abstract work to being just a small component of an ongoing line of enquiry; something that can be appreciated on its own or researched further if that is the wish.

RT: There is an element of propagation with your ideas and the visual enquiries that you emulsify: a certain ‘language-machine’, generating pop up models of its workings. Have you considered how different materials and dimensions can be utilised in approaching perspectives of the linguistic model? For instance, how about visual-sound pieces, or projection of image on to everyday objects – a sort of cross communication of understanding?

DR: I like your opening sentence in this question. It is a very good description of what happens during an enquiry. I am happy you see my outcomes as ‘pop up models’. They never give the whole story, but they do give another clue to the inner workings – dare I say ‘my’ inner workings! When I view them I learn a little more about myself.

I have made one sound piece, but not related to my current enquiries: working with the vowels from Shakespeare’s sonnets I made a book of all the extracted vowels and chanted the vowels from sonnet #1. ‘Chanted’ is a loose description; I said the vowels rhythmically and then played around in a sound studio programme, tweaking parameters until I liked what I heard. I have since journeyed off down another path and haven’t revisited sound as a medium. However, there is unfinished business – the sonnets are an interesting source of data. I will return there post BA.

I have made data driven projections. An example is ’88 Weeks Near 300 Places’, which combined a largish drawing with a projected animation of a Google Analytics map. Animation may play a part in my degree show, it could be screen or projection based, we will see what the enquiry and installation space demand. Projection onto objects may even have a role, now that you have planted the seed!

Scale and materials are important points of exploration. Facilities for working various materials are often difficult to find. There can be a frustration when the logistics get in the way of an idea. This is, and probably always will be, a difficult area. Managing the risk and reward equation will be important, although not being able to do something can be a good motivator to try something different. I always try to find a way forward.

RT: So by learning a little more about yourself, through medium and also through facilities available (or faculties even?), where does the process fit in with the end result, your degree show? Or do you see this final destination as an ‘unreal’ finality, how much longevity will the process of image making in this way have past graduating – what restrictions will take you in different directions?

DR: This past couple of weeks I have become caught by the realisation that four years of dedicated work (foundation and degree) must reach a peak in June. A few nerves have crept in to add noise to my thinking.

When thinking clearly, I realise the degree show is not an end but just another punctuation point along the way. I need to deliver something that will satisfy the assessment criteria, but beyond that I must continue to make what interests me. As for ‘the process’ it will last until it (or I) becomes exhausted. Finance and opportunity will be the main restrictions, I’ll have to work to finance continued exploration and working can limit availability and opportunity. I don’t want to look too far ahead, so we will have to wait and see where the journey takes me post graduation.

RT: I have come across similar qualms myself. Upon leaving university two and a half years ago my creativity took a backseat in order to gain a little financial stability. I now stand at less of a financial gain through what I am doing, but this is out of choice.

Do you consider choice or necessity to be the deciding factor in your work when you graduate? Do you think your working pattern will develop regardless of its state – will your art work be more of a ‘back seat driver’ or something that just sits quietly until arriving at a cross road or change in opportune direction?

DR: Choice is more important than necessity. I choose to let the journey be self-driven. Having taken the first step I usually discover something that encourages the next, and so on. There will be times when the steps come easily and other times when I am sure to stumble and stagger. Usually the stumbles and staggers are more interesting, it’s in these difficult moments that the most important discoveries are made.

I mean important for ‘me’, even if they’re insignificant to everyone else. And, as I said before, ‘I don’t want to look too far ahead’. The only necessity is to find enough of a budget. Finance is about living and about making work, it is not about making money from the work.

RT: Your motivation is definitely in the right place. But do you allow for choice as there is such a solid foundation within process of your art making? Your work is so embedded within a knowledge base – your life experience as you say – that much of what many students still need to learn, you already have under your belt… would you agree?

Is this why being discursive as well as succinct comes easy to you? The blog being a natural extension and visual outlet…

DR: Letting things happen naturally is a choice and when this is no longer the right choice (for me) I will make a different one. When it comes to the organisational and writing components of a fine art degree, my time in industry has been invaluable. We used a Wiki type system to synchronise people working across diverse geographical locations (you could think of this as a multi-user blog). I was a home-based worker for the last five years of my time in industry and used technology to keep in touch. So yes I would agree, I already have much of it under my belt. Having said that, being ‘discursive and succinct’ is not as easy as it might look, I still have to work at it, but I don’t mind at all if you think it looks easy from your perspective! Public blogging is relatively new though and I am still trying to work out how best to use it.

I do like to share what I find and what I make – blogging seems to be one good way to do that.


First published as a blogger profile.
The text of this interview is copyright © 2010 by Richard Taylor.

CIRCUARE GRID © revad David Riley
CIRCUARE GRID © revad David Riley