Haptic Visions and Ambient Identity: DB Amorin Working in the Wake of the Glitch


Haptic Visions and Ambient Identity: DB Amorin Working in the Wake of the Glitch

By David A. M. Goldberg November 13, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

We live in an era when digitally processed imagery is taken for granted, from the filters in photography apps to video-production software to the real-time mapping of actual facial forms and functions onto those of virtual puppets. Creative uses of color replacement, blending, keying, and compositing are deployed in the service of commercial visual effects, as are all manner of kaleidoscopic and topological transformations, which are also rooted in experimental art, psychedelia, mathematics, and scientific visualization.

Every celebrated image produced by space telescopes, electron microscopes, and particle colliders is processed to translate that which cannot be directly perceived by an unaided eye into the relatively narrow range of visible light and to the scale of a hand that grasps. Meanwhile, neural networks built by artificial-intelligence researchers can recognize and even hallucinate objects found in the real world, thereby demonstrating that the meaning of vision is not entirely related to having eyes or the capacity to see.

DB Amorin. x-routes, 2018 (still from work in progress). Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: DB Amorin.

The Hawai‘i-born, Portland-based experimental sound and video artist, DB Amorin, is fully informed by and immersed in these complex networks of image making. When he quips: “I just want to make a room full of static and say, ‘It’s about my mom,’” he playfully belies the cultural, technical, and intellectual depth at which his approach to art making, history, and identity operates.1 Those looking for a theoretical frame for his work might find Laura U. Marks’s term “intercultural cinema” useful; she defines it in The Skin of the Film as “characterized by experimental styles that attempt to represent the experience of living between two or more cultural regimes of knowledge” and appealing “to a haptic, or tactile, visuality.”2

DB Amorin. a static-flavored shape (“street echoes ’ēheu—and it sure is”), 2018; Pacific-sourced sea salt, infrared lightbulbs, digital projection; 7:00. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: DB Amorin

A video work like Amorin’s x-routes, magnified (tho MOST SHARP as a WHEN) is first painstakingly edited according to self-imposed rules that dictate the frame’s contents and then hand-tweaked with bent-circuit audiovisual gear. The original HD footage is of crashing surf, passing waves shot from below, and boiling fields of bubbles captured off the coast of the Azores and various beaches of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. Sequences from these two locations are joined at points of maximized disorientation, where viewers cannot orient themselves according to the horizon or shoreline. The edited video was processed through chains of analog filters and modulators, some of which have settings that are so sensitive to initial conditions and subsequent signal fluctuations that no two sessions produce exactly the same results. 

excerpt from x-routes, magnified (tho MOST sharp as a WHEN), 2018, DB Amorin, x-routes, magnified (tho MOST sharp as a WHEN), 2018 site-specific digital video projection, 12:53. Courtesy of the Artist.

Amorin plays various intensities of signal processing against each other, transitioning the visual emphasis between the water’s captured motion, the camera’s position and focal depth, and changes in the image’s stability and granularity. The work’s title is an intentionally oblique reference to the artist’s meditations on and research into the migrations that brought his family from the Azores and Samoa to the Hawaiian islands. Amorin’s techniques demonstrated in this and other works privilege the cultivation of affective textures-in-motion over representational narrative or documentary. 

Amorin came of age as a queer Aphex Twin fan, living on the windward side of O‘ahu, in the bayside town of Kahalu‘u. He is of the dialup-internet generation that taught itself web and interaction design through use of the View Source browser option and pirated its image editors. His aesthetic sensibilities are informed by an intercultural landscape that included ocean sunsets honored in generations-old Native Hawaiian chants, experimental animation found on websites like Lockjaw, and contemplating stories of his grandmother “having the Samoa(n) beaten out of her” by Catholic nuns.

excerpt from a static-flavored shape (“street echoes ’ēheu—and it sure is”), 2018, DB Amorin, a static-flavored shape (“street echoes ’ēheu—and it sure is”), 2018, pacific-sourced sea salt, infrared lightbulbs, digital projection, 7:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

He understands modern life as unfolding in a unified field of signal distortions, modulations, multiplications, and attenuations, and engages it with a DIY methodology that he speculates was an inheritance from his “inventor-hoarder” Portuguese father. As a self-described “auto-ethnographer,” he knows the field can be organized by storytelling and representation, but he prefers to see what arises from engagement with transmission failures, broken equipment, unstable recording media, and encoding glitches. The resulting abstractions express what he calls an “ambient identity”—a phrase he first heard from Native artist Grace Rosario Perkins—that is informed by family and ethnicity but intentionally devoid of the kind of signification that would fix his identity and by extension that of any viewer who approaches his work. 

In a work like huli (‘once a plural, always’), Amorin extends this strategy away from an abstract plane of composition and toward the emotionally figurative. This work is structured by three systems of expression: high-frame-rate digital footage of a female performer, a layer of composited graphics iterating through color patterns, and an invisible transformation matrix that guides the video-processing software. Amorin directed the performer through a series of emotional expressions based on the psychologist Silvan S. Tomkins’s nine affects, and the two of them collaborated on a set of full-body gestures that index and translate memories of Amorin’s mother. 

excerpt from huli ("once a plural, always"), 2017, three-channel video installation, DB Amorin. Courtesy of the Artist.

Corresponding to the hand-tweaked video signals in x-routes, the transformation matrix in huli dictates how pixels are displaced by the processing software. The resulting cut-and-melt effect emerges when the performer moves faster than the algorithm can process changes in the frame: motion is abbreviated, transitions are skipped, and glitches spawn like foam churning in a ship’s wake. These ripples, tears, and delays are influenced by the performer’s tightly scripted and stylized motions, and it is the decidedly non-random technical failures, not the expressions, that Amorin invites us to consider as representative. 

DB Amorin. x-routes, magnified (tho MOST sharp as a WHEN), 2018; site-specific digital video projection; 12:53. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: DB Amorin.

Amorin’s emphasis is on teasing meaning and impact out of image-processing systems operating at their intrinsically chaotic boundaries, but if his artistic hand or intent is to be located anywhere, it is in the hidden transformation matrices he designs, within self-imposed obstructions (in the manner of Lars von Trier), and minute adjustments of knobs and sliders that are erased by the resulting image. In this way, Amorin occupies a hidden position that is between the inhuman algorithms, which indicate our everyday experiences with images, and the user who makes the best of the presets that any given app offers. He enriches this hidden space by consciously drawing on the complexities and challenges of his identity, but rather than converting struggle into artistic value, he probes the possibilities of becoming a machine that learns and dumps the data into eager eyes.

DB Amorin has been selected for inclusion in the 2019 Honolulu Biennial.


  1. DB Amorin, from an interview with the author, October 10, 2018.
  2. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke University Press, 2000).
  3. Personal Interview with the artist. October 10, 2018.

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