GLITCH/NO_GLITCH

On: February 26, 2012
Print Friendly
About Martijn Dorresteijn
Freelance illustrator, visual artist and media enthusiast. Loves to travel, cook, draw, read, paint, photoshop and more. Interested in transformations in traditional and new media cultures.

Website
http://martijndorresteijn.com    

The following report covers two sessions on the theme ‘Error’ for the MA New Media course ‘critical media art’. The first session was a presentation by Rosa Menkman, showing a lively mix of portfolio work and critical theory on the phenomenon of the glitch. The second session was held at movie-theatre de Uitkijk and consisted of discussions arranged around thematic video presentations and the recurring question; glitch or no glitch?

Something went wrong

The Glitch Moment(um) was published as part of the Network Notebooks series in 2011. Fascinated by the works of the Dutch/Belgium artists collective Jodi, Menkman’s taste for glitch started in 2005 and focuses on the potential to interrogate conventions through crashes, bugs, errors and viruses. Compressions, feedback and glitches and their respective artifact-based correspondences can be found throughout the digitally mediated artistic spectrum; from audio to visual, video, interface, gaming and communication technologies.

Shannon and Weaver’s information theory is used as the starting point for developing a framework for theorizing these (digital) noise artifacts. Information theory reduces communication to a mathematical process of transmitting information, and distinguishes information from the category of the message. External noise enters the equation in the process of transmission and obscures the purity of the signal by adding variation and random error. However, signals are not only obfuscated by noise, they are also dependent on it. Without noise there can be no information. The ideal to optimize the signal to noise ratio can also be found in the tendency to make interfaces and media as transparant and immediate as possible. But as Bolter and Grusin describe the double logic of remediation, our culture wants to multiply its media and at the same time erase all traces of mediation and technology (2001). The failure of media to disappear completely is exemplified by the glitch; artifacts of noise that break the flow of immersive and immediate mediation and foreground the inherently technological (mal)functioning of the medium.

Menkman is also involved as co-organizer and co-curator of the GLI.TC/H festivals (Chicago 2010, Amsterdam & Birmingham 2011) and an active participant in online communities that gather around everything glitchy. The Glitch Studies Manifesto from 2010 argues in favour of more critical attention to the aesthetisizing of glitches in standardized design. A Vernacular of File Formats (2010) is a technical fieldguide for creating digital glitches through data-insertion, which was followed by the release of Monglot in 2011; a piece of generated glitch design software, co-developed with Johan Larsby. The title itself is a combination of the words mongrel (cross-breed, bastard) and monoglot (monolingual person).

Underlining that there is more to glitch art than simply design and aesthetics, Menkman states glitch art addresses themes such as planned obsolescence, built-in nostalgia, critical media aesthetics and the gentrification and continuing development of glitch art as a genre. She describes the glitch as; “a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communications systems that results in a perceived accident or error.” (2011; 9). Glitch is the absence of functionality, whether understood in a technical or social sense. However, it is not restricted to technical malfunctions; every form of glitch, whether breaking a flow of mediated content or specifically designed to be experienced as such, is destined to become a new fashion because of its inherently critical moment(um). The potential any glitch has to modulate or break the norms of techno-culture lies in the fleeting moment at which this potential is first grasped. Only to be usurped again by the regular flow of events; joining the ranks of already unstable flickering signifiers.

In Software Studies; a Lexicon (Fuller 2008; 113) Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin locate low-tech aesthetics such as 8bit music and graphics at the moment when the limitations of computer technology produces distinct aesthetics. These aesthetics are in turn appropriated by contemporary communities celebrating the nostalgia and romanticism of the imperfection associated with these obsolete technologies. Outside the realm of digital media, they also look at preceding aesthetics produced by “…errors, inconsistencies of vision, of method, and of behavior become popular modernist artistic methods used in Dadaism, Surrealism and other art movements.” (2008; 114). Introducing chance and irrationality into art and life; simultaneously opposed to and embedded in rationality and functionality. Moving back into the digital realm;

“A glitch is a singular dysfunctional event that allows insight beyond the customary, omnipresent, and alien computer aesthetics. A glitch is a mess that is a moment, a possibility to glance at software’s inner structure, whether it is a mechanism of data compression or HTML code. Although a glitch does not reveal the true functionality of the computer, it shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized.” (Fuller 2008; 114)
On the topic of modernism Menkman quotes Virilio’s The Accident of Art (2005) and how after WW1 formal realist conventions of art are no longer reproducible, leading to destroyed or mutilated forms of figuration that can be found in cubism, dada and surrealism. Virilio claims the accident shows a system in a state of entropy and aids towards an understanding of the functioning of that system; creating room for research through the practice of arts. Within this larger context of cultural meaning, the digital dimensions of error, accident and disaster are located in glitch art (2011; 32).

Clarity about the relationship between technical and metaphorical or cultural dimensions of glitch culture is a theoretical necessity, Menkman notes. A broader perspective provides ground for thinking about the political and social uses of the glitch within the field of (digital and new media) art. “Glitch makes sense differently in terms of noise, failure and accident. Moreover, glitch transitions between artifact and filter, between radical breakages and commodification processes.” (2011; 9) These paradoxical tensions lie at the base of glitch art and what could be dubbed glitchy design, and subsequently, the grey area of overlap in between.

Curatorial Statement

The second session focused mainly on the paradox in definitions of the glitch, providing food for debate. We reviewed glitches from a variety of media-perspectives and applied the technical and the artistic definition of glitch. The undefined area of overlap featured most in the ensuing discussions. The tension between the glitch as a concept and the glitch as a (visual) aesthetic resonates in the proposed dichotomy of ‘Glitch Art’ versus ‘Glitchy Design’. Glitch art can be seen as more involved with the concept of the glitch, and critical theory reflecting on its techno-cultural position that is very much true to its artistic roots of emphasizing the process through experimentation and breaking with conventions, whereas Glitch design is more about aesthetics, products and (proprietary) digital compression technology.

Selection of Works

Jackson Pollock 51 excerpt (1951)

Is it possible to locate predecessors of the glitch in modernist art practices? Can modernist experimentation and breaking with the conventions of realist painting, breaking with the medium and foregrounding the materiality of the painted surface, be seen as metaphorical engagement with glitches inherent to the medium of painting or sculpture? Of course there are no glitches disrupting a mediated flow of electronic or digital information in painting. Perhaps the bigger picture does show disruptions in the flows of signification and art history; whereby the disruptions that produce the most prescient noise have had the most impact on the surrounding context. For instance, Pollock’s abstract expressionist action-painting takes the accidental coincidence of paint splatters as structural elements for his personal deconstructing metaphors; the fleeting moments of expression, when the paint is mid-air, are ceased by gravity and the canvas, taken back into the medium and into the idiom of art. Not all is glitch, however it is important to recognize the de(con)structive and simultaneously creative nature of the accident (or plain sabotage) as a driving force of experimentation and innovation in the arts, science and technology.

Silver Sessions for Jason Knuth (1998): Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth formed in the early 1980s in New York. The noise band fit into the No Wave art and music scene. Combining the DIY spirit from punk/hardcore bands such as the Stooges and Minor Threat with other influences ranging from William Gibson to John Cage, Sonic Youth quickly became a household name for avant-garde indie/alternative post-rock. The Silver Sessions for Jason Knuth is a study in feedback. Recordings of all their instruments plugged in and amped up in a soundproof studio. The final production is a minimally mixed collection of noise, looped pulses, and other distorted patterns of randomness generated out of thin air. More on this album here.

Windowlicker (1999): Aphex Twin

In the late eighties of the last century, the only 14-year-old Richard D. James has begun squatting next to the synthesizer, experimenting and creating psychedelic atmospheric music. Simultaneously, other high-tech artists remain stuck in the cracks of public criticism, uncertain whether the prospects of electronic music market are indeed a thankless chore or not.
The way Aphex Twin produces music is unthinkable, or, unconceptualized. In our curatorial statement, we deployed his Windowlicker EP to scrutinize if there are any glitchy facets involved in his unique process of music making. “Windowlicker” not only consists of Aphex’s voice modulated on computer, but a digital image of a devilish face, which is secretly encoded in the actual sound waves of the music. This spooky face will be revealed when the song is played on a computer through special software that visualizes sound waves. This discovery is starting to make the rounds on the Internet, and is fast becoming part of the folklore surrounding hidden messages in pop music.

Unitxt excerpt (2008): Alva Noto

Alva Noto is the pseudonym of the audio-visual artist Carsten Nicolai. Nicolai first studied architecture and landscape design before engaging an interest in the theoretical properties of sound and space. Nicolai, who established the experimental music label as a platform for his conceptual and experimental musical concerns, uses art and music as complementary tools to create microscopic view of the creative process. Nicolai transforms sound waves and audio files by looping oscillator and tone generator. Electronic information transmission sounds such as fax tones, modem sounds, telephone pops and clicks are frequently sampled and organized by him.

I Am Eboman (2007): Eboman

Due to the Sample madnesS, the collectives of Eboman’s works which is processed through investigating the possibilities opened up by the medium of sampling, proposes another grey area: is this glitch or remix? The way Eboman is able to include video of the audience – recorded live during the performance – by cutting up, modifying and mixing the images and sound is unique. This leads to a great leap of not only the advanced software packages in his studio, but also clarifies the conceptual fleeting feeling of the glitch, both acoustically and visually.

Adele vs. Super8, Thor & Black Eyed Peas (2011): Eboman
Super Mario Clouds (2002): Cory Arcangel

Cory Arcangel was one of the first to work with hacked video game cartridges, his masterpiece being Super Mario Clouds, a Super Mario cartridge wiped clean of everything but its slowly drifting, pixelated clouds. Gone is the main character, Super Mario, who the player had to guide through a labyrinth in the original jump and run game, just like the obstacles, landscapes and opponents that lend the game its narrative structure. Those people who are familiar with the game can imagine them on the empty background; everyone else will just see the cartoon-like display of a sky. The work was created on the basis of a manipulation of the hardware and software. Cory Arcangel had to open the cartridge, on which the game was stored, and replace the Nintendo graphics chip with a chip on which he had burned a program he had written himself.

Red Dead Redemption (2010): Donkey Lady

Red Dead Redemption (2010): Psychotic Unicorn

These videos show screencasts of the Xbox 360 videogame: Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare. In the first video a gamer encounters a faulty programmed bot. This bot has all the physical features of a regular woman apart from the evil donkey head sticking out of her face. The behavioral code is completely donkey and with it forms an unintended and unexpected entity of its own; Donkey Lady. Donkey Lady can be used as transportation, comic relief and virtual love interest.
The second video has more of a machinima feel to it, with some rough editing, color correction, camera movements and the choice of music all adding layers of expectation and suspense, building up to the reveal of the psychotic undead unicorn (note the undead unicorn is a normal feature of the game, as are the butterflies surrounding this mythical zombie-warhorse). Throw a bunch of tomahawks at your unicorn and it starts soaring through the sky aimlessly. Again the combination of editing and music add poetry and hilarity to this glitch. However poorly produced as these videos might be, they show how much glitches inspire and are spreading throughout the gaming and youtube vernacular.

Destroy It Yourself

During the presentation we tried to show thematic videos that were connected to glitch. These videos covered different moments in time and different types of media. Starting from expressionist Jackson Pollock to the Silver Sessions by Sonic Youth and Cory Archangel’s Super Mario Clouds and ending with the (very) wrongly programmed bot named Donkey-Lady.
Our aim was to show the audience different types of media that were glitched (or not) and through discussion we wanted to debate what glitch is and where glitch can be found. During the discussion it was clear that glitch is a difficult phenomenon to work with and the samples shown all displayed room for error but were difficult to describe as purely glitch or no-glitch.
The presentation ended with a glitch of our own and we showed a just made video of the students using YouGlitch, a piece of software that generates continuous glitches of the desktop. As Menkman points out in her presentation: “A broader perspective provides ground for thinking about the political and social uses of the glitch, within the field of digital and new media art”, the field of glitch is still very small compared to others but interestingly covers all forms of media as was shown in the videos.

Martijn Dorresteijn, Zhang Duohai, Wouter Timmermans

References:

Bibliography

Serres, Michel. “Genesis”. The University of Michigan Press, 1982

Fuller, Matthew. “Software Studies A Lexicon”. The MIT Press, 2008

Cramer, Florian. “Nettime”. 2002

Leave a Reply