This essay documents the research process undertaken by the authors in early 2017. The aim was to explore the potential of remediating a digital-to-analog television converter box, or television tuner, as an artistic tool for intervention with the digital broadcast image. Specifically, we were interested in examining the potential of hacking digital television converter boxes, so that we might create a tool for real-time datamoshing of an incoming digital television (DTV) signal. Borrowing from Richard Dienst, we define the broadcast television transmission as a ‘stream of pulses’, or electromagnetic signals, that travel at the speed of electricity to a receiving apparatus (i.e., a television set). Unlike their analog counterparts, DTV broadcasts are compressed and encoded prior to transmission across the digital television spectrum, creating a more complex convergence of both signal and code. Our goal was to create a tool that would not only distort the incoming broadcast images, but that would also provide artists with a level of control over these alterations, enabling a responsive aesthetic engagement with the broadcast signal that could critically alter the meaning of media images live and in real time. The tool would be designed for use in exhibition or performance, whether on its own or in combination with other systems (i.e., software, apps, image processing machines) live and in real time.
In early experiments with the analog broadcast transmission, pioneering media artists either disturbed the incoming signal prior to its being received by a television set, or modified it as it travelled through the apparatus to the screen. By causing the incoming signal to ‘behave badly’ — to look and sound different from commercial television standards — these artists not only revealed its potential as a raw artistic material that could be modified, but also gestured towards a responsive aesthetic engagement.
While there was no DTV equivalent to these early analog experiments with broadcast signals when we initiated our research, several contemporary media artists have modified and distorted pre-recorded and live camera digital video through a process called datamoshing. Datamoshing is the manipulation of a digital media file’s code and compression rates in order to achieve visual modifications in the image. The DTV broadcast transmission, which similarly carries digitally encoded and compressed images in real time, therefore seemed ripe for datamoshing as a real-time interventionist strategy.
Datamoshing focuses on manipulation of code to modify the digital video image; analog interventions concentrated on distorting the video signal. We posited that digital television converter boxes, also known as television tuners, would offer us the freedom to explore how both code and signal might be utilised as materials for intervention into digital broadcast signals. A television tuner is a digital-to-analog converter device that allows analog television sets to receive over-the-air broadcast television programming without a cable or satellite box. The digital television signal is decoded and converted into an analog signal that can be displayed on an analog television set. For datamoshing to occur, we would need to interrupt the incoming digital transmission (the encoded image) before it could reach the decoder and be converted to analog video. We found converter boxes to be the ideal device to explore the potential for datamoshing digital broadcast signals: inexpensive and easily available, converter boxes are also devices in which analog and digital, signal and code, collide, and converge.