It takes a lot of guts to get into grad school at RISD, more so to drop out after “about three days of being on campus” to set up your own studio. But for Kristel Brinshot (or Kriztonian, as she is online, an elementary school nickname that stuck), the move paid off. “I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says. “I knew what I wanted to do, so why wait?”
Brinshot went back to Los Angeles, where she’s lived since she was 17 and where she studied at UCLA’s Design and Media Arts program. Her work—a bonkers retro-meets-future melange of acid brights, net art weirdness, textural digital, analog image disintegration, and cute/weird character design—sits at the intersection of fine art and design.
Brinshot originally assumed she’d go to school for art, not design. “When I went to UCLA I kind of had no idea or concept what design would mean—I didn’t even know how to use Photoshop at the time; that’s how disconnected I was.”
It ended up being a fortuitous turn of events, and she learned from people who thought in a more design and tech-led way. “I found a way to use those tools and apply it to my own artistic practices. A lot of it came from using tools and making things look highly ‘designed,’ and breaking it down. That’s how I found my personal style.”
Most of Brinshot’s video work is formed through creating the story and its environment to make it look “very clean and perfect.” Then, she starts “tearing things apart, purposefully using programs in ways I shouldn’t be.” This often means using a VHS camera and distorting the images physically and digitally, then filtering them through Photoshop again, bringing them into Illustrator and destroying them until they become a texture. “It’s a lot of breaking stuff,” says Brinshot. “A lot of happy accidents, and just accepting whatever happens—a tape might get jammed, and that can create a certain effect, or you’re working on a certain program and it fails. Sometimes that can be a good thing.”
As such, her work delights in a deliciously ’90s net-style aesthetic; one popularized by the likes of Richard Turley and his design coterie, and one that’s unsurprisingly rounded off as a “trend,” though we’d warrant that the majority of those practitioners employ a far less complex processes. I suggest there’s a certain comfort and nostalgia in glitches and moving image “mishaps,” even when they’re deliberate. “It humanizes it,” Brinshot agrees. “It can seem like such a non-human process in general, so it feels that visually many creatives are on a path where they want things to feel hyperreal and glossy and perfect, and I think that’s beautiful, but it doesn’t speak to me. Seeing imperfection in people’s work is exciting.”
At the time she started up on her own after returning to L.A. from RISD, jobs were slim pickings (this was around 2009, not long after the global recession), and in a positive spin on the whole thing, it gave Brinshot—who is entirely self-taught in animation and moving image—time to experiment and figure out what she wanted from her life and work. “At college [UCLA] I felt like I’d lost hold of who I was creatively,” she says. “I struggled with conversations around whether people are ‘artists’ or ‘designers’; is one more significant than the other? I struggled to think about if I should pursue one or the other. Eventually I realized you’re still creating things, and it’s about establishing purpose. You need to have a purpose and vision and that’ll guide you along the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re designing a booklet or pamphlet or illustrating a cartoon or making an animation, it’s still part of a broader expression.”
That wisdom served her well. Making small-budget music videos for friends and friends of friends lead to MTV and Adult Swim approaching her for work. Brinshot also spotted the work of Ricky Jonsson Jnr in a magazine, fell in love with it, and the pair ended up as partners forming The Great Nordic Swordfight, an agency working on consultation and direction across AR, VR, animation, installation, games, and emerging technologies. “At the time we set up in around 2009, no one was really thinking about motion graphics as a career choice, and I didn’t see it as that either. I just thought, ‘This is something really cool I want to do.’”
What began as a collaborative art practice snowballed into more commercial work; and the popularity of the style the pair work in soared with the likes of Turley et al. So how does Brinshot feel about her weird and wonderful approach becoming a “trend” of sorts? “In the last four or five years the aesthetic we built has become more commercialized, and I never thought that was going to happen,” she says. “When I was pitching weird net art videos people were like, ‘What are you doing, this is crazy! It doesn’t make sense!’ Now, those are the things people want from me. It’s good and bad, as it’s easy, but at the same time there’s so much more room for a shift in developing a new creative image.”
She adds, “There’s a huge clusterfuck and a lot of junk that’s out there. When there’s too much of it out there, at a certain point in the creative industry you want to questions about what makes work good or bad; or what makes you an artist; or if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.” Such wrong reasons, she suggests, are using art as a mode of online grandstanding. “They see a certain type of art and want to know the formula to bypass all that hard work, to have a feeling that they’re popular and will make money. They aren’t the things that drive me, and they shouldn’t drive you, either.”
Luckily for Brinshot, there are swaths of people who feel the same—ones who make great work, and for reasons she aligns with. She discovered this when starting up Ghosting TV with Jonsson in 2013, billed as a “hangout for experimental animators, video artists, and everyone else looking to interact with art and tech in unconventional ways.” It started off as an IRL meet of around 40 people in Brinshot’s backyard, which quickly became 200 people, who would clearly no longer fit in any normal person’s backyard. Ghosting TV is now an online (and occasionally IRL) platform that acts as an agency and incubator for artists, many of which have gone on to score their first television work, having been spotted through Ghosting. “One of the most inspirational times of my career is being able to connect artists to each other in a very unique and personal and genuine way, and watching their careers blossom,” says Brinshot. “If you don’t help out your community, you’re not helping yourself.”
Brinshot is now focusing on working in new technologies, including AR, VR, and AI, which feel like an “organic transition” from character-based animation. She continues to champion female creators in similar spheres, saying that much of her drive to do so stems from bad experiences working in VR as a woman, and far worse ones working in the gaming space and finding that the cliche of misogyny within it is painfully true. “Gaming was 20 times worse than any experience in art or design or VFX,” says Brinshot, “Sometimes they can be passive aggressive, but gaming can just be a very aggressive space for women to be in.” So, she wanted to reach out to other women in gaming for their perspective, “and see if they developed tools to survive in that space.” One of the major issues was the vast pay gap she discovered between men and women; and as such, she makes a point of working with and supporting female creatives, as “I truly believe they bring a very unique voice and point of view to everything we do. There’s just a feeling when I’m working with other women of being understood, but also supported in a very emotional way.”
In a way, it all feeds into the same raison d’etre for Brinshot, that spans not only creative work, but working creatively and within a community. “I am super passionate about world-building in every sense of the word, and creating work that challenges people to question their own world—especially women,” she says.