Error | Glitch | Noise | Observations on Aesthetic Forms of Failure

Introduction

We see the world through different forms of projections – cinema, digital, print and also nature (extending Feuerbach’s notion of God being the outward projection of human nature). Characterising the post-modern shift in space-time, computer programs as digital projections have added virtuality in the space-time consortium, transforming its perception. The scope of sharing videos, images, information and knowledge digitally has changed our understanding of the medium and outreach, contributing to the culture and ecology of distribution and communication. Simultaneously, the gap between mediated experience and reality is becoming difficult to identify. Mnemonic images from mediated experiences create a better experience, many times leaving us disappointed with actuality. At such an intersection, an error in the medium intervenes with instability, mistake and inaccuracy.

Making use of the scope of error in the transfer of information or data, a glitch confronts us with new possibilities and dimensions. Rendering a safe system ineffective, the error advocates the simultaneous provocation and expansion of a medium. The error annotates the space-time of an event with a mark that disrupts the (perceived) expected flow, instilling doubt and fear of instability. A closer look to the poetics of error gives an insight into the medium’s possibilities and propels the development of knowledge.

Through this article, I propose to look at the variety, nature and aesthetics of error in forms of the earlier experiments in cinema – flicker films, expanded cinema – to the current forms of glitch art and hacktivism, while exploring the different meanings of glitch, error, interruption, noise, failure and accident in both technical and social senses. While looking at the metaphorical and cultural dimensions of glitch, the article concludes with some thoughts on the future possibilities of glitch.

Types of Failure [i]

Accident : : Mistake : : Weakness : : Inability : : Incorrect Method : : Uselessness : : Incompatibility : : Embarrassment : : Confusion : : Redundancy : : Obsolescence : : Incoherence : : Unrecognizability : : Absurdity : : Invisibility : : Impermanence : : Decay : : Instability : : Forgetability : : Tardiness : : Disappearance : : Catastrophe : : Uncertainty : : Doubt : : Fear : : Distractability

Flicker Films

The experimental film sub-genre, flicker films, illuminates the existence of a single frame. Bringing forth the gap between, flicker films simulate error in film projection. By inverting the phenomenon of viewing 24 frames per second, the fluttering films confront the viewer with possibilities of error in film projection. In Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer, rhythmic alternations between blan/ck and white frames are like flashes of memory. Traces of each frame can be found in the next, as the sounds are interrupted with silences. The idea of movement is created with the next frame, many times giving a stroboscopic effect. Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad are others who use flicker as an aesthetic tool in their films. The black frames and interrupted sound make way for a gap in the audio and visual. The flicker and gap between each frame is the error.

Taking us back to the basics of cinema, flicker films challenge the idea of gap, movement and silence, bringing to light thoughts and images that we otherwise won’t see. Michael Arnold’s films, like Pièce Touchée and ALONE. Life Wastes Andy Hardy, evolve from flicker films. His films analyse other films by slowing them down frame by frame; slowing motion; repeating, reversing and embedding flicker. Stretching time in all of his work, his films confront unobvious and suppressed tensions. The otherwise conceivable error confronts the viewer as a tool to announce the cryptic.

Kubelka_Rainer
Wall installation of Arnuf Rainer, Peter Kubelka, 1960

Arnuf Rainer was presented as an installation where the entire reel of film was laid out one after the other to look like this.

Communication

A Mathematical Theory of Communication by mathematician Claude E Shannon is an article written in 1948 that lays foundation to information and communication theory and the field of cybernetics. Also known as the Father of the Digital Age, Shannon’s paper was path-breaking. A few observations on the communication model:

  1. It is mathematically impossible to get an error-free communication.
  2. The medium is just a tool to get the message across.
  3. The capacity of a channel to transmit information is called the Shannon limit. Theoretically, it is possible to transmit information below the Shannon limit with zero error, if a channel’s capacity to transmit information is greater to the rate at which information is being transmitted.
  4. Data compression through source coding is based on the objective of removing redundancy and repetition in a message.
  5. The signal received can be understood only if the decoding tool or software understands the encoding.

The diagram depicts the relationship between information, power and noise in cybernetics. Information is directed towards a desired output. By inducing noise, the flow of information can change the output.

Claude E Shannon, Communication Model, 1948
Claude E Shannon, Communication Model, 1948

In Post-digital Aesthetics, Lev Manovich talks about a model for cultural communication; he highlights the importance of the medium (channel), adding the component of the author’s and reader’s respective software [ii] in the post-digital communication model. The communication model can now be considered as

Sender – Software – Message – Software – Message – Receiver

Hamartia

Aristotle, in his the Poetics, talks about hamartia, meaning flaw, mistake, error, failure or, as the New Testament has it, sin. In literature, it denotes the hero’s tragic flaw, a misjudgement. T.C.W. Stinton discusses the interpretation of hamartia as a moral flaw in Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. Stinton groups the meaning of hamartia into three meanings: to miss the mark (literally); to fail in some object or make a mistake; and to offend morally or do wrong.[iii]

An inherent flaw or misjudgement is manipulated to get the figure of a ‘tragic hero’. Hamlet’s indecisiveness and Othello’s jealousy led to their downfall. While philosophers and literarians can debate over the ethical, moral and intellectual meanings of the word, it certainly represents error. An error in or by a person so grave that it leaves them exposed to the most tragic ends of our times.

“To err is human and to glitch is machine”. [iv]

If you ask me how I feel today, Rosa Menkman, taken from Menkman’s Flickr Photostream.
If you ask me how I feel today, Rosa Menkman, taken from Menkman’s Flickr Photostream.

The Art of Noise (futurist manifesto) by Luigi Russolo (1913) [v]

Conclusions:

1. We must more and more enlarge and enrich the domain of musical sounds. Our sensibility requires it. In fact, it can be noticed that all contemporary composers of genius tend to stress the most complex dissonances. Moving away from pure sound, they nearly reach noise-sound. This need and this tendency can be totally realised only through the joining and substituting of noises to and for musical sounds.

2. We must replace the limited variety of timbres of orchestral instruments by the infinite variety of timbres of noises obtained through special mechanisms.

3. The musician’s sensibility, once he is rid of facile, traditional rhythms, will find in the domain of noises the means of development and renewal, an easy task since each noise offers us the union of the most diverse rhythms as well as its dominant ones.

4. Each noise possesses among its irregular vibrations a predominant basic pitch. This will make it easy to obtain, while building instruments meant to produce this sound, a very wide variety of pitches, half-pitches and quarter-pitches. This variety of pitches will not deprive each noise of its characteristic timbre but will, rather, increase its range.

5. The technical difficulties presented by the construction of these instruments are not grave. As soon as we will have found the mechanical principle which produces a certain noise, we will be able to graduate its pitch according to the laws of acoustics. For instance, if the instrument employs a rotating movement, we will speed it up or slow it down. When not dealing with a rotating instrument, we will increase or decrease the size or the tension of the sound-making parts.

6. This new orchestra will produce the newest, most complex sonic emotions, not through a succession of imitative noises reproducing life, but rather through a fantastic association of these varied sounds. For this reason, every instrument must make possible the changing of pitches through a built-in, larger or smaller resonator or other extension.

7. The variety of noises is infinite. We certainly possess nowadays over a thousand different machines, between whose thousand different noises, we can distinguish. With the endless multiplication of machinery, one day we will be able to ten, twenty or thirty thousand different noises. We will not have to imitate these noises but rather combine them according to our artistic fantasy.

8. We invite all truly gifted and bold young musicians to analyse all noises so as to understand their different composing rhythms, their main and secondary pitches. Comparing these noise sounds to other sounds, they will realise how the latter are more varied than the former. Thus will the comprehension, taste and passion for noises be developed. Our expanded sensibility will gain futurist ears as it already has futurist eyes. In a few years, the engines of our industrial cities will be skilfully tuned, so that every factory is turned into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.

Intonarumori, Luigi Russolo, 1914 © Luigi Russolo
Intonarumori, Luigi Russolo, 1914 © Luigi Russolo

Luigi Russolo built Intonarumori to produce sounds of machines. By composing pieces for the intonarumori, Russolo also develops a new, graphic form of musical score. In 1914, the first concert for 18 intonarumori, a work divided into eight different categories of sounds, caused a huge scandal in Milan. In 1914, the 12 concerts staged in London drew more positive reactions. After World War I, concerts for intonarumori were staged together with classical symphony orchestras.

Biohacking

In The Hackers’ Code of Ethics, Steven Levy talks about computer access, freedom of information and decentralisation of authority.[vi] By manipulating faults and changing the use and function of obsolete technology, hackers are able to use the system for their purposes. Building upon existing systems and ideas, hackers expand the capability and understanding of technology.

A new form of hacking gaining interest is biohacking. In an interview to Steven Levy in Wired, Bill Gates says that if he were a teenager today, he’d be hacking biology. [vii] Biohacking uses biology to change gene sequencing, effect body augmentation through machines and adjust biological processes in the body through chemical methods. Mainly working away from institutions and organisations, most biopunks are DIY scientists, sometimes using their own body to hack. Dave Asprey has upgraded his body to be more efficient through chemicals and surgeries on himself. Implanting machines in her body, Lepht Anonym is a biohacker with different practice. She uses instruments from the kitchen to implant different kinds of technology in her body for the purpose of sensory extension. In a video on YouTube, [viii] Lepht talks about her main reason for it – curiosity.

Based on hacking ethics, biohacking is encouraged, shared and passed onto people who are willing to try it. Many times, it is difficult to pin point whether biohackers exploit the faults or manipulate the properties of the biological system to achieve their goals. Many times, it’s both.

Concluding thoughts

Error or glitch is a break providing a space on which various expressions can be projected. As seen above in various forms of error, glitch and noise, failure confronts the medium with its limitations. It destructures the systems of power and control behind the medium by exposing its gaps and faults.

Any system inherently contains a chance of error. That chance is generated into an evolutionary quality that needs to be grasped. Glitch Studies Manifesto by Rosa Menkman talks about the constant search for complete transparency brings newer, better media. Every one of these new and improved technologies will always have their own fingerprints of imperfection. [ix]

Using error and glitch as generative tools in visual and sonic art practice is increasingly becoming part of the art-making process. Many websites and projects are exploring glitch aesthetics. Rosa Menkman’s website, http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.in/, Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans’ (Jodi)’s website and works, http://www.jodi.org/, Dimitre Lima and Iman Moradi’s now defunct Glitch Browser, http://dmtr.org/glitchbrowser/, are just a few examples. One can even create your own set of glitch-y images at the ImageGlitcher, http://www.airtightinteractive.com/demos/js/imageglitcher/. Glitch aesthetics lends itself to a wide variety of manipulation and use. Iman Moradi in his 2004 dissertation on glitch art compares pure glitch and glitch alike, delving further into glitch creation. Similar differentiations between unexpected and designed glitch were also explored in Menkman’s essay, The Glitch Momentum, where she borrows Marshal McLuhan’s concept and introduces hot and cool glitch. An error that happens unexpectedly is a cool or pure glitch, unlike an error that has been induced through design and control, called hot glitch or glitch alike. Many consider the latter as just a filter or preset that has become a new commodity made popular as an ‘effect’. [x] It is no surprise that in visual effects history, a lot of effects were initially errors.

The unexpected nature of glitch makes the encounter with error very special. The error makes other ways of seeing not only possible, but necessary. The event created out of this encounter invents a space-time arrangement that leads to a re-evaluation of existing values. The virtuality added in the encounter is through the medium, as it is the capability of the medium to produce the error. The quality of the encounter depends upon the medium that is the interface between the error and the audience. The event then “is not the solution to a problem, but rather opens up what is possible” [xi] beyond the medium. Bruce Sterling’s new aesthetics, biopunk and transhumanism are a part of these emerging possibilities.

This article was published in Sarai Reader 09: Projections, 2013. For the publication see here.
A revised version of this features in Information, edited by Sarah Cook. Published by Whitechapel Gallery / MIT Press, September 2016.


Notes

[i]  “Institute of Failure”, www.institute-of-failure.com (last accessed 19 February 2013).

[ii] Lev Manovich. “Post-digital Aesthetics”, p. 15. Available at: http://www.alice.id.tue.nl/references/manovich-2005.pdf (last accessed 17 February 2013).

[iii]  T.C.W. Stinton. “Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy”. In The Classical Quarterly 25 n.s. (2), pp. 221-254 (December 1975). Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/638320 (last accessed 17 February 2018).

[iv] Phillip Stearns. “Error, Noise, Glitch – The Art of the Algorithmic Unconscious”. In ‘DeFunct/ReFunct’ catalogue.

[v] Luigi Russolo (1913). The Art of Noise: Futurist Manifesto, (trans.) Robert Filliou (Great Bear Pamphlet, Something Else Press, 1967, New York), pp. 11-12.

[vi] Steven Levy. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, New York), p. 458.

[vii] Steven Levy. “Geek Power: Steven Levy Revisits Tech Titans, Hackers, Idealists”. In Wired, 19 April 2012. Available at: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/04/ff_hackers/all/1 (last accessed 17 February 2013).

[viii] In the video, Lepht Anonym is talking at the 27th Chaos Communication Congress in December 2010, Berlin. You can see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-Dv6dDtdcs (last accessed 18 February 2013).

[ix] Rosa Menkman. Glitch Studies Manifesto. Available at: http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.in/2010/02/glitch-studies-manifesto.html (last accessed 18 February 2013).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Maurizzio Lazzarato. “Struggle, Event, Media”. In (eds.) Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art – I (Sternberg Press and Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 2008, New York), pp. 213-214.

Image Credits (in order of appearance)

Available at: http://www.see-this-sound.at/files/59/original/original.jpg (last accessed 18 February 2013).

“The Mathematical Theory of Communication”, Claude E Shannon.

Available at: http://cm.belllabs.com/cm/ms/what/shannonday/shannon1948.pdf (last accessed 18 February 2013).

Image taken from Rosa Menkman’s Flickr Photostream at: 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/r00s/7338853382/in/set-72157601001563058/ (last accessed 18 February 2013).

 

Risveglio di una cittá | Photography | © Luigi Russolo.

Available at: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/intonarumori/images/2/ (last accessed 18 February 2013).

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