Interview with a Teletext artist

We discuss with appeal of teletext art – and how you can start creating it – with artist Dan Farrimond.

We discuss with appeal of teletext art – and how you can start creating it – with artist Dan Farrimond.

If creating GIF or pixel art is still too modern for your retro sensibilities and you’re looking for an even more archaic technological form to work within, you should look into teletext art.

The form is one of the technically restrictive around, requiring you to really push your imagination to create all but the simplest images or concepts. However, there’s a lot of artistic potential to creating graphics in a format that viewers instinctual reaction to see it is one of warm nostalgia – and what you can do to subvert and ask questions of that.

Teletext artworks are currently being exhibited at the International Teletext Art Festival in Berlin – as well on the still-running teletext service of German public broadcaster ARD. Dan Farrimond is one of two UK-based artists showing work at the Festival.

We sat down with Dan to talk about why he – and we – are drawn to such an outmoded form for technology, and how to take your first steps as a teletext artist.

Use the slideshow controls above and right to read the interview and see more of Dan's work.

DA: Why Teletext art?

DF: “I’ve always been fascinated by teletext. You could load it up at any time of day or night and read stories, play games and generally be entertained at your leisure. Or perhaps it was the bright colours that kept my eight-year-old self transfixed?

“I wasn’t aware of teletext art as a medium until I was researching my university dissertation, when I discovered VBI Microtel, a project broadcast on Dutch teletext in 2006.

“Though I played around with my own experimental designs, I didn’t explore any further until I noticed the International Teletext Art Festival 2012 call for submissions. I threw together some designs and have been addicted to creating teletext graphics ever since.”

DA: Why are lo-fi forms such as Teletext, pixel art and GIFs popular with the art community?

DF: “I can’t speak for everyone, but there’s definitely a nostalgic element for me. I would stare at teletext for hours and wonder how it was all done. For the longest time, this medium represented the height of technology in my eyes. I grew up certain that one day, the whole world would revolve around teletext.

“On a more technical level, I think people see pixel art as something they could feasibly create themselves with the simplest of software. Incredibly user-friendly, it functions as a gateway to digital art in a wider sense.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap and treat teletext as obsolete technology, but it remains hugely popular in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Far from threatened, the medium thrives alongside the Internet and has been given a new lease of life by a hugely popular iPad app.

“In the UK it is representative of a particular time period, but teletext is still regarded as ‘current’ technology by artists on the continent, at least to some extent.”

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DA: How do the restrictions of the form help stimulate your creativity?

DF: “I love the simplicity of teletext and the challenge of converting images and text to such a limited canvas. A lot of things don’t translate very well even with a lot of work, so it’s often a case of trying things out to see what functions best. I enjoy that experimentation and the satisfaction when something does work, and still get a huge kick out of seeing my art broadcast on actual teletext as opposed to a website.

“In some ways it’s more fun to operate within the restrictions of the format because there isn’t that unconscious pressure to make things realistic. When drawing faces, for example, it’s always going to look a *bit* like a caricature, but that’s the whole appeal of teletext. My modus operandi is ‘as long as you can tell what it’s supposed to be’.“

DA: What advice would you give to artists looking to experiment with the form. What tools do they need? 

DF: “You only really need a teletext editor such as Cebratext to get started, but you can draft designs in your preferred image software. It’s as easy as creating an 80*72 image to import to the teletext editor for cleanup, which I like to do.

“Most teletext editors are broadly similar and easy to comprehend. Once you get the hang of a program, you can start having some real fun with flashing graphics and multi-page animations.

“Then all you need is for someone to agree to broadcast your work on teletext and you can watch your own artwork on television!”

DA: What are the technical restrictions of the form?

DF: “A single teletext page consists of a grid of blocks(or ‘character rectangles’) 24 high by 40 wide. Each block is made up of six ‘pixels’, making total grid of 80 by 72 ‘pixels’. Each block can contain a single letter, space, symbol or up to six ‘pixels’ of graphic information.

“If all that seems a bit complicated, think of it as an 80*72 pixel monochrome document in your favourite image editor.

“The teletext colour palette is made up of eight colours, which can be applied to the foreground or background. However, changing colours or switching between text and graphic modes takes up a whole character rectangle of the canvas each time, meaning that space has to remain blank. There are ways of getting round this creatively though.”

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Right: more of Dan's work.

Right: more of Dan's work.