“Surreal, that’s the only way to describe it. Like a young kid who’s just graduated from high school, the fact of being in front of my musical idol, for an interview of my job!, it was like my lovely little world was turned around completely. It changed my life.”
He is Rob Sheridan and his name began to gain notoriety in the NIN’s world when his fanpage, “Above The Trees”, was discovered by Trent Reznor. Just like that, the musician hired the junior designer to update the then new launched website of his band (nin.com). It was 1999, and from that point, Rob began to become a fundamental part of the creative DNA of Reznor, with each album and sound concept translated to the visual and real world through Rob’s creative brilliance, who, by then, was already the art director; album covers and booklets first, then tours, videos, box sets and ARG experiences as part of the promotion for “Year Zero” (2007).
Today the artist is taking a break from employment that took him to travel the world, to experiment with his creative processes and even to be on stage as part of the collective How To Destroy Angels, alongside Atticus Ross, Mariqueen Maandig and Reznor.
From Seattle, Rob makes the time to answer some of our questions about his next project, an illustrated book for children, and his involvement in matters of social and political activism facing the current situation in the U.S.
Over the past years, how complex has been for you to take Trent’s visions and to put them into a physical album / booklet, and then translate them to the stage, and then build an entire two hour show with different moments, and then, be able to turn that show into something different as the tour goes on and evolves?
It was always an immensely complex experience. Trent is very detail-oriented, I’m very detail-oriented, and most importantly NIN fans are very detail-oriented, so each project (album/tour cycle) had this unique double-edged sword: Unlike many design projects, anything we did with NIN was heavily scrutinized, so any extra thought and detail you put into it would be noticed and appreciated. Of course that also means that any mistake you make, any time you miss the mark, any time the work isn’t up to par, THAT gets noticed too. There wasn’t any opportunity to “phone it in,” so it kept me, as a designer, very much on my toes.
In retrospective what would you say has been the most challenging project or situation you’ve face in the last years working with NIN and what has been the one you’re most proud of?
The production design of the 2013 NIN Tension tour was probably the most challenging situation. Everything changed at the last minute, Trent decided to basically start over from scratch on a show we’d been planning for several months, and we had to adapt very quickly. We struggled many sleepless nights to reconfigure the show and make some sense out of the visuals before the start of the tour. There’s a little mini documentary about it on Vevo, you can see how frazzled we all are at rehearsals, it almost broke us. But the show had to go on, so we kept working until it was great.
In terms of what I’m most proud of, I think it’s still probably Year Zero. Not just the artwork, and the ARG, but the rich world that we created, and all of the work we put into the Year Zero TV show that never materialized.
Why are you currently taking a break from NIN’s world?
After 15 years, it was just the right time, for everyone. Fresh talent will be good for NIN, and I’ve been thinking about personal projects I’ve wanted to do for years that I now have the time for.
How different was be part of the HTDA collective from just be the Art Director of a project? Did you feel any pressure being on stage in front of crowds playing visual at the show?
I used to be very shy, so the entire experience with NIN helped me grow into myself quite a bit, and shed a lot of my introverted nature. But nothing, of course, compared to performing on stage for the first time with HTDA, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. The HTDA experience was different for me because I was able to put a lot of myself into it, from my own visual aesthetic to, of course, being a part of the live performance. The all-too-brief HTDA live tour is one of the things I’m most proud to have been a part of, it was really something special.
You are well known for the use of glitch art as an art form, but I always wanted to know, what lead you in the first place to start experimenting with glitch?, I mean, for example, how did you start to experiment with an old broken printer (for the Bleedthrough concept)?
It was really working with Trent that got me into glitch aesthetics, as I learned more about how he created music and how he used sound to invoke emotion. Trent would break things to change their sound, do things the “wrong way” musically to make sounds that were uncomfortable. His tapestry was a constant dance between beauty and terror. So in the challenge of creating visuals to match the music, I began looking at ways to do things wrong, to make beautiful mistakes, to create a sense of visual disorder. It wasn’t easy at first, as I’m a perfectionist by nature, but the more I got into it the more I found it a freeing antidote to the weight of perfectionism.
And then how did you get into the data bending process and how difficult was to get the specific final results you were looking for (for example, The Hand That Feeds video)?
Everything about the With Teeth visuals – from the album art to the ‘Hand That Feeds’ video – were about exploiting imperfections in technology. Particularly, at that time, relatively new consumer technology. Much of the artwork was derived from broken scanners and scanner glitches (an evolution of the broken typewriter from the Bleedthrough concepts), while ‘The Hand That Feeds’ video took advantage of all the glitches and weaknesses of miniDV tapes. A lot of people, myself included, take aesthetic advantage now of outdated technologies, like VHS, but for With Teeth I was taking aesthetic advantage of the latest technologies of that time.
Is there something would you like to try next in terms of glitch art (analog and digital)?
I have a new series of analog glitch art in the works, using similar processes as my previous analog glitch work. It’s a fascinating and chaotic medium, and I haven’t seen my particular method quite duplicated elsewhere, and I never finished fully exploring it, so it’s exciting to revisit it after a few years. In terms of truly new processes, I’ve been experimenting with glitching VR and 3D printing, we’ll see where that goes…
Last year you worked with The Black Queen in their tour visuals and also directed the ‘Ice To Never’ video, what did you wanted to try and accomplish for the project at visual level?
The guys in The Black Queen are very good friends of mine, and I was really impressed when I heard the album they’d been working on. It has this perfect blend of nostalgic yet forward-thinking sound. They asked me if I wanted to help them with a video, and it seemed like a great opportunity to use my VHS aesthetics to create nostalgic yet contemporary visuals. The guys in the band had several disparate sketches of ideas, and no budget, so we decided to just mix them all together and spend some time experimenting in my studio, filming in the streets, and edit it all together in a sort of neon 80s-flavored visual mixtape. We wanted it to feel like an unlabeled VHS tape you find at a yard sale, and you play it and find this distressed video artifact and have no idea what the hell you just watched.
We get to know artist that present their work, their final pieces, but they never show you how the piece is done, or the work behind it. In the other hand, you’ve published in web some tutorials and detailed explanations about the process behind your work, actually, last week you post on Twitter that people can “drop you a line” about tech or art tips. So, what led you to be that open about your process and share the ways you work and create as an artist?
For me, exposing the process, showing the parts behind it, even giving access to the parts, helps push me to move forward and make new processes. When I did The Social Network soundtrack art, I spent a lot of time glitching JPEG images by messing with their code in a hex editor – a long, meticulous process. Not long after that, JPEG glitching apps and tools that were very easy to use started popping up left and right. Which is great, but it made the JPEG glitch aesthetic less unique, anyone could do it so you were seeing it more and more. So it pushed me, for How to Destroy Angels, to come up with a new process. And I’m happy to discuss that process because as it becomes more common, more imitated, that will push me to devise something different for my next glitch project. Competition drives creativity.
You’ve been off the social networks for some years and a couple of months ago you returned to speak not just about art, but also about the current America political situation. Why did felt this need to speak through social networks again?
A couple years ago I had a lot going on in my personal life, and at the same time NIN and I parted ways, so I was suddenly left with a lot of big open spaces in my life, a blank canvas of sorts that I hadn’t had for many years. So I took the opportunity to focus on my personal life, and on the outside world in general. I found that social media and the internet suddenly wasn’t making me happy. In a chaotic point in my life, it was real-world friends and experiences that I was drawn to, and it made me realize how much time I was wasting online, and how little joy it was actually bringing me. Last year I sold my house in LA, put my stuff in storage, and spent most of the year camping and traveling, exploring, being in the outdoors, meeting amazing new people, writing and drawing… all offline. It was cathartic, it was freeing, it refocused what’s really important to me in life. And the daily frenzy of the Internet that I had been such a junkie for… I didn’t miss it. Nor did I miss the massive piles of stuff I had accumulated over the years. Spending some time living a minimalist, offline, outdoor life changed me, for the better. But then the increasing madness of the 2016 election drew me back online. The news junkie in me couldn’t keep ignoring what was happening in my country. And, ever since we elected that disgusting old babyman tyrant, I’ve become politically activated again, which means spending a lot more time online. But even in these frenzied times where staying informed and connected is vital, I’m trying to retain everything I learned from my adventures offline, and remember to disconnect as often as possible.
As part of the team that created the background story behind the dystopian Year Zero and as an American artist what is your personal perspective of this strange time we’re living in?
We created Year Zero as a projection of what could happen to America if the policies of the Bush administration continued to move in the wrong direction for 15 more years. It was meant, like most dystopian fiction, as a warning. It’s unsettling to see so much of that fiction becoming a reality, and how close we could actually be to fascism in the United States. We’re careening towards disaster now, on top of the disgusting national embarrassment we’ve already created by allowing Trump to get elected. He and his policies, or should I say Steve Bannon’s policies, embody everything we warned against in Year Zero. On the bright side though, a big part of the Year Zero experience was encouraging people to resist; to pay attention, to stay informed, to fight back. In our future world, it was called “The Resistance.” It’s inspiring to see the same term being used now by the millions of people protesting the Trump/Bannon administration. There’s more activism, more awareness, and more outrage now than I’ve ever seen. I’m glad we’re not taking this one lying down. And I think, as long as we don’t lose this incredible momentum, The Resistance is going to win.
Are you agreeing with that phrase that reads, “during ugly times the best art emerges”?
Absolutely. I think a lot of the best art comes from pain, from anger, from loss, from oppression. It’s the one shining light that’s consistant with all dark times. Many artists channel negativity, internal or external, into creativity. And in terms of protest, art and music and entertainment have always served as the best methods of communicating ideas, whether that’s through satirical comedy or a subversive song or just a great piece of art with a strong message. So many people have been woken up by what’s been happening lately, and it’s already inspiring some amazing art. One of the warning signs of fascism is “a disdain for intellectuals and the arts.” There’s a reason for that: Art is resistance.
You’re currently working on a new book in Seattle, what’s this book all about? Are you planning to release it this year?
The book I’m working on right now is an anthology of old folklore stories, retold as dark fairy tales. It’s going to be a lavishly illustrated storybook of creepy, morbid, and fantastic tales. I’ve been wanting to write and illustrate children’s books for many years, and now I have the time to actually make it happen. This first book, as it’s evolving, is becoming more of a book for adults and older children who like creepy things. I’m planning to finish it this year (the large illustrations are detailed and very time consuming, so it’s going to take a while), and hopefully release it this year, depending on how things play out with publishing.
You have an impressive body of work, is there any plans to put together a Rob Sheridan art exhibition in the near future?
I had started planning an art installation around my glitch work back in LA, but I ended up going exploring instead. I’m going to start talking to some people in Seattle about maybe making it happen here, I have a lot of really cool ideas for it.