I’ve been working with ASCII Art again this year. It’s been awhile since I was active in the old ASCII art groups or wrote about it for WZ.com as a newsletter. I can’t even find a mention of my ASCII art section with the Wayback for WZ.com. Anyway, too long ago to keep track of I guess. ASCII art itself is considered pretty old fashioned in the evolving world of online art/ digital illustration. I miss it. Those days before HTML email and Flash on websites. ASCII art gave the Internet images without clogging up the loading speed for email or web pages. It was nice. The irony is that we have so much faster speeds now but it really doesn’t load much faster than I remember from 10 years ago with a 14K modem. The bloated files slow it down.
ASCII art is basically keyboard art, text art, created with the characters on the standard computer keyboard. The letters, numbers and range of punctuation available at the touch of your fingertips. Some people use more characters and create ANSI art. I’ve always felt that was a bit of a cheat, adding more characters takes away the challenge of sticking to the limits set by the keyboard.
Back when IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was popular people used the ASCII Art to add images to their lines of chat. Using some Java and some HTML they created ASCII pictures in colour. The downside was that they used ASCII art, coloured it and then claimed it as their own work. This caused friction between the original artists and the colourists. The artists didn’t want their work reclaimed, with the artist initials removed (forgotten). The colourists said they just wanted to make pretty pictures. Of course, I’m a bit biased.
ASCII art began with typewriters, before the computer age. If you search online you can find some examples for typewriter art.
I’ve been using my own ASCII Art (old and new) as well as the art of others on my blog, Word Grrls.
I first met Sam at Tumblr, where I immediately was attracted to the dark yet whimsical works…
Mr. Gerald Beaufort, the rat, making plans to break in:
A robot suicide:
A dog who finds scary movies too scary:
But Sam, it turns out, is more known for his role as The Otter Keeper, the creator of I Am Otter.
Tell us a little about yourself, Sam… Did you go to art school? How long have you been doing I Am Otter?
I’m 28 and have an office job by day but also work as a freelance illustrator. I graduated from Derby University with a degree in illustration in 2005. I’m obsessed with otters and I enjoy putting sweets in the freezer so they last longer (especially jelly tots). I’ve been doing I Am Otter for about 2 years now!
How would you describe I Am Otter in terms of a project?
I am Otter is a website dedicated to a modern day domestic otter who lives with her Otter Keeper in the London suburbs. Nobody (not even me) can quite remember the day I became obsessed with an otter and decided to dedicate a rather unhealthy amount of time to her. I have a theory it happened when walking to work one day but you can’t be too sure about these things.
It’s a basic html site but I have also got quite into flash recently, so there are games and interactive elements too. At first you could be mistaken for thinking the site is directly aimed at children, but upon closer inspection you’ll find there is plenty of humour that will appeal to adults too. The site also has a built in blog where you can find lots of mini Otter stories, which I update frequently.
When did you start your shop? When did you feel you (and Otter) were ready for a shop?
People would ask me to buy prints so I decided eventually a shop was the best option, sadly me and Otter don’t get too much custom these days and there is a monthly fee. I keep meaning to change over to etsy or a free service but I spent quite a long time customizing this one so I’m reluctant to change for that reason.
What’s the story behind your Tumblr… Not only is the art different, but it’s rather orphaned from the rest of Otter’s world.
Well believe it or not I haven’t always drawn an Otter and her Teddy!
I’m actually very fond of a darker palette and enjoy more sinister and serious themes. There is just no place for that in otters world and so I really wanted somewhere I could be more myself and not be tied down. There is also the fact that lots of kids follow Otter and I wouldn’t want to scare anyone.
It’s gone well so far, but I’m still getting used to using Tumblr which is very different from WordPress.
The otter series is rather unusual… It’s almost like a graphic novel, more than an art series, isn’t it? Did you plan on this narrative sort of storytelling from the start, or did that evolve more organically?
It all sort of evolved organically to be honest. I Never set out with a master plan. I just started drawing otter and after a while my imagination just took over – I then had to keep drawing her to get the stories out of my head!
I never thought I could write particularly well (and I’m not saying I can) but it was quite a surprise how much I enjoy writing the text that comes along with the picture. I now feel the pictures require the story and vice versa. It does take me a while though – I’m constantly re-writing sentences to get the pacing right and I’m very picky over the words I use.
Do you have any plans to do this sort of presentation with the darker works? Any plans to sell prints of these works?
I would always sell prints to anyone who wanted them. I have my special printer I invested in and it creates great prints.
Sadly printing, packaging and trips to the post office take up time! And after doing otter shop for a while I’ve begun to find the whole process a bit tedious. But, unfortunately, I also have a bit of a dislike for the third party printers. “We print on anything and post to your customer” – great! “We also take 70% of your profit” – not so great. And I don’t like to use them either.
If I sell anything, I like the customer to be happy and get a good deal. It’s almost impossible to do this and make it worthwhile with the middle man too!
How do you feel the commercial aspects, selling prints, running sites, etc., have affected or impacted your work?
The creation of the websites and learning software like Photoshop are half the fun for me, if I’m honest. I guess they have impacted on my work in so much as I don’t do as much drawing because I’m learning WordPress or trying to make a new flash game for Otter. But If I didn’t do this, then it’s not like anyone would know about Otter in the first place!
And, like I said, the process of selling prints is a bit of a pain. I’d rather spend the time learning/drawing something new.
Do you feel more obligated to produce new works or, in the case of blogging, new posts?
I start to feel guilty after a week or so goes by with no Otter story. Half of this is because I know a few fans really enjoy the stories and are waiting for the next; the other half is that I actually feel bad for Otter! I need to make up her next adventure to keep her world alive… and I take this responsibility very seriously.
I don’t think I’d ever be able to stop writing about Otter… It would make me feel too sad?
As an artist, what is your definition of success?
For me success would be to make enough money out of my art that allowed me to do it full time! This would be fantastic as I have so much in my head I want to get out, but just not enough time. I’m sure this is the same for most artists. And I envy the ones that get to that level very much.
It also makes me very happy that my work can affect people in a positive way. For example, I get really nice messages from people saying that reading about Otter has really turned around a bad day they were having, or similar things to this. I’m not sure my darker stuff has this affect on people but hopefully it still invokes a positive or inspiring reaction of some kind.
It sure does, Sam; it inspired this interview.
It is no longer difficult to take an adequate photograph. I say that with confidence, as a person who treats her digital camera as essentially a magic box with a button on one side and a USB port on the other. And yet, if I take enough pictures under good light, I can turn out clear photos of attractive subjects. And I am not alone. The natural consequence of photography become cheap and easy is that more people have taken it up. Between rechargeable batteries and online forums, more people are developing their abilities to a useful level. More people are deciding to try and make a little money from their pictures.
Enter the stock photo agencies. Stock agencies (such as Shutterstock and Istockphoto) accept digital photographs in large numbers, and sell them for a low price for non-exclusive use. At a few dollars each, stock photographs are an inexpensive alternative to hiring a professional-photographer-shot pictures. A few stock agencies, such as stock.xchng, even offer pictures for free. Many professional photographers are, predictably, not thrilled by this development. Some argue that people who sell their photographs cheaply or give them away for free undermine photography as a profession, impoverish working photographers and allow themselves to be exploited.
There is one glaring problem with this argument: they are essentially blaming the apple for gravity. Digital camera are cheap to buy, cheap to use, and automate much of what used to be a complicated process. The internet allows the products of these cameras to be shipped to vendors for free. Given these two technological development, the crash in the market for adequate photographs was inevitable. The destruction of the careers of adequate photographers could not be prevented. You may dislike this development, you may complain about it, but it will not be reversed.
Stock photographers are the absolute creators and owners of their photographs. As such they can give their work away, they can charge as much—or as little—as they like. And there will always be some teen settling for “exposure” or someone in a less developed country who can trade fifty American cents for a hearty meal. No professional can demand higher pay when they are competing with the unwashed masses for skills that are common using equipment that is cheap.
And as a member of those masses I am completely unapologetic. I take photographs for fun and I sell them for a small amount of supplemental income. As a creator of photographs that is my option, my right, and to my benefit. Any photographer who wants to charge full professional fees can no longer be merely adequate. They can no longer do what any member of the public with a compact camera and a steady hand can achieve. And no matter how much they complain about this new reality, it is not going to change.
Stock photography my have crushed the businesses of some photographers at at the lower and middle reaches of the professions, but that is not evil any more than gravity is evil. People will always buy what is cheap, do what is easy, and take what they can get. That is just one of life’s realities–and anyone who thinks berating stock photographers is going to make a difference needs to… well, they need to get real.
I subscribe to Modern Painters, but just now got around to reading the September ’09 issue — despite the fabulous John Waters on the cover.
Mr. Waters need not take it personally; I just have a plethora of magazines to get through, and if they aren’t in the magazine rack in the bathroom, well, it just takes that much longer.
Such reading habits, and the fact that my family refer to the bathroom as “the library,” won’t upset Waters either. If you don’t know that, you don’t know Waters. And you certainly haven’t read the magazine feature, which discusses his contemporary art collection, including:
Over the toilet in the bathroom is a Mike Kelley piece that “really pisses people off,” but Waters asks me not to say why, since he writes about it in his book. Also in the bathroom are a funny “Queer Batman” watercolor by Mark Chamberlain and “a Brigid Berlin tit painting; she painted with her tits.”
In Baltimore, he says, “I have the Michael Jackson print by Gary Hume looking through a glory hole right in my hall, which is really scary. Plus, you can see it in the mirror, which is even worse.”
But more interesting, to me, than the art John Waters collects is the art John Waters makes.
Waters calls his art conceptual and says it’s about writing and editing. “Hardly am I Ansel Adams. Or sitting around with a pottery wheel, like in Ghost. The craft is not the issue here. The idea is. And the presentation.”
And I love the ideas and the presentation. Like this piece, part of his Rear Projection series which combines parts of four film-title stills to spell out: contemporary art hates you.
The work’s title amusing title is …And Your Family Too.
In the article, Lawrence Levi describes Waters’ work this way: “Much of his work pokes fun at the art and film worlds he inhabits, allowing him to be at once an insider and a heckler.”
And if you think Levi or I are reading into the art, here’s what the artist himself has to say about it:
The art world “is a secret club,” Waters says. “It is a language; you have to learn everything. You have to learn how to dress, you have to learn how to see it, you have to learn how to talk about it, you have to learn how to read about it. All of it is impenetrable to a newcomer, and it was to me too.”
So let the art of John Waters speak to you, your insecurity over the intimidating impenetrability of the art world — go ahead and laugh, even. But don’t forget to just open your eyes too:
In his 1998 film Pecker, when the laundromat worker played by Christina Ricci tells her photographer boyfriend, played by Edward Furlong, “I don’t understand any of that art crap,” he replies sincerely, “You could if you just open your eyes.” But as his feelings about impenetrability suggest, Waters has no problem with elitism.
PS The book mentioned — which will contain the story of a Mike Kelley artwork above the toilet that “really pisses people off” — is Role Models; it’s to be published in May, 2010.
PPS I’d just like to say, that when discussing anything John Waters, you’re bound to mention bathroom artwork that piss-es people off, as well as “glory holes,” penetration issues, and the word “pecker.” And I loved it.