"I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. These were not good times there. Sectarian conflict in a police state had made the place a mess. My parents, like most others, carried on regardless with the usual life of wage-earning and child-rearing. Terrorism could not stop the banality of scraping-by. Escapism in television, escapism in music, escapism in the early days of home computing. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was an inner world, one of mathematical logic, pixels and beeps. And all of it a tiny miracle dressed in black. I remember clearly trying to write programmes which sought out the limits of the machine. I wanted to provoke it to return error messages. These were great, these proved that the computer and I were conversing. It said, “Invalid Argument,” and I replied, “But I’m not here to argue.” It would tell me, “Nonsense in BASIC”, but I understood what was going on. It was not until 15 years later, after reading Wittgenstein, Turing and Chaitin, that I realized I had been searching for the demarcation between computability and incomputability, which is, to me, also the place between technical manuals and poetry. I feel my project is to live there too." 

Mike Johnston studied Philosophy and Politics. Mike in Mono has been his solo musical project, but it was a collaboration with Brian Duffy which ignited his move into digitalism in music and visual work. Old computers from the early 1980s enable the synchronization of sound and vision. In 2003 Johnston completed Look + Listen, created in Z80 machine code (as all his animations), which was shown around the world when included in the Optronica film and music festival. He is currently preparing his sixth animation, writing a second ZX Spectrum Orchestra album and continuing the production of a Mike in Mono album.

Look + Listen, 2004
Animation for Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Look + Listen was Mike Johnston’s first attempt to animate. Inspired by Norman McLaren, what you see in this piece is also what you hear as the visuals create sound and vice versa.

Watch it on Youtube

The Red Square, 2006
Animation for Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Having left the British civil service as an overworked file clerk, Mike Johnston took his love of Modernism and made what he describes as his Orwellian piece.

Delia on Stage, 2007
Four frame digital drawing

A heroine of Mike Johnston’s is the BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneer Delia Derbyshire who used tape techniques to create hugely enjoyable electronic music. The upbeat feel of her music often disguised the fact that it was created with an astonishing attention to the details of sound. In Delia on Stage, Johnston has re-cast her as a music-box figurine slowly spinning forever as he mourns her loss.

The Barmouth, Portstewart, 2007
Drawing on graph paper

Sometimes the process of creating animation transcends the end product. The Barmouth, Portstewart is a drawing on graph paper (a technique used by early game programmers) of a pier on the north coast of Ireland – a place of strong personal resonance for the artist which is why he chose it as his first bitmap.

The Organist, 2007
Animation for Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Computer music has its origins in 19th century mechanical street organs, and needless to say, Mike Johnston is fan. The Organist is a short animated tribute to these fascinating early attempts at popular audio-visual entertainment.

Alpha Omega, 2009
Animation for Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Inspired by the mathematician Gregory Chaitin, Jesuit mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Frank Tipler’s Omega Point theory, and a recurring dream of endless sea voyages, Alpha Omega is Mike Johnston’s latest work for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Clive 600 Demo, 2009
Animation for Sinclair ZX Spectrum

In many ways this piece is the epitome of the original ZX Spectrum Orchestra dream: to turn the old computer into a visual drum machine. The Clive 600 programme which uses a mere 10 kilobytes of memory, is a remarkably versatile musical instrument.