Glitch and Error: Implications in Aesthetics and Communication

“To err is human and to glitch is machine.”

Phillip Stearns, ‘Error, Noise, Glitch – The Art of the Algorithmic Unconscious’, DeFunct/ReFunct catalogue

Watching the works of Jodi for the first time was an aesthetic shock. Later I realised that the realm of glitch art that has a solid community of artists, technologists and theorists. The idea of glitch to be used as an aesthetic tool challenged my standard way of thinking – glitch producing something pleasing, or anything other than noise and annoyance, is never encouraged.

Etymologically, the word glitch comes from a German word glitschen which means to slip. Glitch refers to a technological failure or error. It does not always have the same causes. Different settings can lead to a glitch. It can be induced or can be an accident. Nevertheless, it is a pre-condition of any given system.

Technology enables certain actions. The user can perform actions only in the way that the technology understands. There is an opaque way of functioning – one knows what to do to make things work but not necessarily why. There is a certain abstraction to the actions of the user when interacting with the machine. Errors are quite underappreciated for the technology that they reveal. Most of us don’t know that our ATM computers run on Windows until we see one that has crashed. In the way it is designed technology conceals many functions from the user while a glitch or error in the system exposes the system. Glitch in the system jerks it open, revealing it, making it vulnerable. Glitch is seen as a break, error, obstruction, noise, interruption in the flow. At the moment of its occurrence, it foregrounds the medium, unveiling the limitations of the machine more than capabilities, and with it unraveling the forms of control that the user unknowingly might be subjected to.

While it’s easy to see the failure of machine when glitch occurs, it is important to enable further improvement in the technology systems. As we evolve to make better systems and media synonymous with reality, glitch allows us room for improvement by hinting at the combination of events leading to the glitch. While exposing the limitations of the machine, a glitch leads to an alternative system(s). The machinic imperfection steers the course of the evolutionary cycle of technology.

Stating glitch as an accident is too simplistic. When glitch makes itself visible, it is also an accidental discovery of a hidden function.The instance of this unexpected outcome is not an accident; it is just a different result. After all, the video and audio effects that are widely used were first perceived as glitches.Techno-enthusiasts, gamers, media practitioners and visual artists use various combinations in a medium that can result in glitch, introducing it as a visual language. Using the properties of the medium (through software) and physical manipulation (circuit bending), a glitch can be invoked.

As technology is giving rise to new aesthetic experience, it is imperative to analyse and critique its impact on the cultural and social aspects. The basic issues and tenants of glitch aesthetics have been laid out by writers and researchers like Rosa Menkman, ImanMoradi, Nick Briz, Ant Scott and others. Apart from coders, game developers, technology enthusiast, media archaeologists, a number of artists are using glitch aesthetics in their works. Some do not refer to glitch as error but using it as an effect. My intention is not to challenge the insights articulated in the body of work that already exists, but to examine a few points in more detail and offer a different perspective, both to enhance our understanding of glitch aesthetics and to explore ways in which the discourse around it can bring into focus conditions of our living in the post media age. The use of glitch as an aesthetic tool becomes even more important in this context that opens space for critical interjections and readings into the present world. Definitions of glitch art, generative art/algorithmic art and other glitch creating strategies are not in the interest of this paper. The paper then is divided into two parts offering two perspectives. The first part looks at the possible meanings of glitch as a machinic property and the user response, and the second part is on glitch as an image and what readings does it offer.

Visual Glitch: Post-Digital Aesthetics (Software)

In communication theory, it is mathematically impossible to get an error free communication. In Post-Digital Aesthetics, Lev Manovich talks about a model for cultural communication where he adds the author’s software and reader’s software in the communication cycle. Considering most of our communication is now mediated by digital technology, the software has become an important tool in creating and understanding a message. This has opened possibilities of machinic error that can be an accident or can be created. The software not only shapes how the viewer views, but also defines the aesthetics of what is being viewed [1]. The computer or any screen lets us create and view glitch by the use of a particular software.

Delhi based artist Hemant Sreekumar [2] made a series of plotter prints called Icon Rot in 2013. The series consists of three glitched prints of major political parties in India that are slotted into categories ‘Left’, ‘Right’ and ‘Centre’ confirming their ideological stands. The decay of the prints is a metaphor for the decaying ideologies of the three major parties. For this work, Sreekumar uses a glitch software on low resolution images resulting in the rotting icons. The software determines the meaning of the work. The extent of the ruin is designed but its aesthetics are visible only once it is printed.

Lacklustre Narrative (2012), a work by Prayas Abhinav, analyses human action of typing. If the rhythm of typing on a computer keyboard is changed, the words that are typed break into individual letters. The text-editor has been designed to gather the speed of typing and any variance in this result in glitch. Here the user is well aware of the glitch and in complete control of its occurrence. The user directly works with the software provided by Abhinav to induce or prevent the glitch.

Software plays a crucial role in creating the final form of the techno-cultural text. The users access it and also re-mix existing meanings [3] . Sreekumar uses glitch in technology portraying how meaning making happens in modern culture. The use of a plotter to print the work gives it a low-tech feel which adds to the historicity of the icons.

Glitch art does not have any properties in itself. It is intangible and unpredictive (even if glitch is induced, how it presents itself is unpredictive). The glitch aesthetics are a result of the software used to create, present and access [4]. Many glitching softwares like Stitch n’ Glitch, You Glitch and iphone apps like iGlitch and Glitché are available that are programmed to glitch image and video. Such softwares add glitch as an effect, in the same way as one simply adjusts the contrast or brightness of an image. This has added to the commodification and fetishization of glitch aesthetics which has been reduced to popular designed glitches in standardised automated softwares. Reflecting upon the trend of glitch image generation tools in Vernacularof File Formats : A Guide to Databend Compression Design, Rosa Menkman says “Glitch has transformed from cool to hot. It’s no more than a brightly coloured bubblegum wrapper that doesn’t ask for any involvement, or offers any stimulus. Inside I find gum that I keep chewing, hoping for some new explosion of good taste. But the more I chew, the less tasty / rubbery it gets. Glitch design fulfills an average, imperfect stereotype, a filter or commodity that echoes a “medium is the message” standard.” [5]

Glitch Art: User Response

The use of software in creating glitch leads us to the questions of viewers and audience who interact with the glitch artwork. To go back to work by Prayas Abhinav, there is a certain response that is demanded out of the audience while interacting with the work. This is an affective response that deals with the bodily reaction of the user. The user is performing anxiously to prevent the breaking of words by maintaining a consistent speed of typing. An eventual falter and the program disintegrates. Encouraging imperfections, misreading and manipulations, glitch art tricks the audience into a flow of certain expectation that the artwork never fulfils [6].

The unexpected nature of glitch makes the encounter with error very special. The reaction to glitch is that of shock, frustration, surprise and fear. The error makes other ways of seeing not only possible, but necessary.The audience becomes aware of the possibilities of a break down and system crashes in a machine and lives in the fear of it happening anytime. The moment when the user will encounter glitch lies suspended till it reveals itself. The experience of rupture moves beyond its sublime moment(um) and vanishes into a realm of new conditions. When the image glitch appears, it takes its own life into account so that it is no longer grounded in a direct connection with a thing but is produced and reproduced as it flows through networks [7]. The glitch has become a new mode; and its previous uncanny encounter has come to register as an ephemeral, personal experience of a machine [8]. The event created out of this encounter invents an arrangement that leads to re-evaluation of existing values. The virtuality is added in the encounter through the medium, as it is the capability of the medium to produce the error. The quality of the encounter depends upon the medium as it is the interface between the error and audience. The event then “is not the solution to a problem, but rather opens up what is possible” [9] beyond the medium. Biopunk, transhumanism and Bruce Sterling’s idea of new aesthetics are a part of these emerging possibilities.

Lev Manovich in his essay Avant-garde as Software talks about the radical aesthetic vision of 1920s becoming the standard computer technology of 1990s but without its radical politics. The vision of 1920s was built “to help the viewers to reveal the social structure behind the visible surfaces, to uncover the underlying struggle between the old and new, to prepare for rebuilding a society from the ground.” [10] In computer age the techniques became “the elemental work procedure” and “formal technique of artistic self expression.” Manovich suggests an absence of new forms than the ones of the 1920s, with the new technology of computers.

The making of glitch starts with inquisitive tinkering of the machine. It starts with the human-machine- digital interface, from the compulsive structured systems, a few venture into a conversation with the machines to fish out the unpredictive and unseen. Glitch aesthetics are machine’s vision. They use existing media, manipulate, disrupt and build it to create new images and experiences. Artists, hackers and other creators use glitch to uphold their conviction stated in Hackers Code of Ethics by Steven Levy that computers should be used to promote decentralisation and create art. I suspect the answer to Manovich’s question “Is new media’s avant-garde promise only an illusion?” [11] has its answer in glitch aesthetics.

Visual Glitch : Non representative Image

In contemporary art, glitch theorists and practitioners have drawn parallels between visual construct in cubist and constructivist art and glitch art. Iman Moradi [12] and Nick Briz have commented upon the breaking down of movements and reduction of forms in cubism being similar to the process of glitch. “Glitch exposes that process resulting in aesthetics reminiscent of Cubism. Cubist paintings were often 2-dimensional broken-up studies of motion, not dissimilar to the relationship a codec has to a video when it breaks down and studies motion vectors in the compression process. When these codecs are disturbed (hacked/glitched) what results can be easily formally compared to the cubist works.” [13]

It is important to note that glitch art is not a new phenomenon. The use of errors in sound and music is much older to its use in visuals. Technology has certainly made it easier to create and circulate glitch effects, but historically many artists and media practitioners have used various methods to use error as a visual language. Ingmar Bergman, when talking about the mechanics of films states “A tiny glitch in our optic nerve, a shock effect: twenty four illuminated squares a second, with darkness between, but the optic nerve does not register the darkness.” [14]

Experimental films by Stan Brakhage, Man Ray and Len Lye have used physical scratching and painting on celluloid. Nam Jun Paik, considered as the first new media artist, played with electronic signals to mark his aesthetic language. His famous work, Magnet TV (1965) distorted the electronic signals of a television by placing a magnet on top. Peter Kubelka’s flicker films use rhythmic alternation between blank/ck and white frames, exaggerating the darkness of the interval between each frame that Bergman speaks about. Martin Arnold’s films techniques in works like Pièce Touchée (1989) and Passage à l’ Acte (1993) can be studied as an extension of flicker films, pioneered by Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits.

Glitch art is not based on any object. If at all, then the object of attention is glitch itself. In Martin Arnold’s films, the repetitive actions as glitch is something that happens to an image, it transforms the image, giving it a new meaning and context. Rosa Menkman’s GIFs like Beyond Resolution: in the end it might be no more than a reflection of my imagination (2013) and If you ask me how I feel today (2012), can be seen as a series of glitched images put together. So can we consider glitch as image, and not only as a tool to make images?

In his projects like deFacebook (2011-2012) and Random People (2010), artist Nandan Ghiya incorporates digital glitches and computer errors in form of pixels in old portraits of Indian men and women. Ghiya’s works attempt to juxtapose the old with the new, but at the same time highlight the destruction of both. These works are not produced by machine. Ghiya hand paints the pixels on the photographs and paintings. A self induced glitch, the analogue mimics the digital. In Ghiya’s works, glitch does not interfere, but becomes a part of the image, it is the image.

Images signify something that exists and makes them comprehensible to us. They provide space for interpretations in a particular context. Can these glitch images be signifiers and representations of the world? Or can we explore glitch images as something more than the imperfect, decaying technological system?

The glitch images are a result of a mechanical process, produced and viewed through a digital interface, they can exist without a user not only in terms of their production, but also in meaning. Glitch artist Ant Scott’s early works were created with mechanical failure, computer crashes and hacked games before he started incorporating photos in his work. His work Glitch Series, 2001 – 2007, was one made by pure glitches, i.e the images are of spontaneous glitches. These images do not exist in relation to the user nor do they derive meaning from or to anything. In their representation, they avoid any meaning making to take place. As a disruption they deviate from the path of meaning; as a feature they employ aesthetics of opacity – the conditions of being illegible, non-transparent. An image that exists due to a mechanical operation and not a meaning making exercise.

“The opaque is not obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such. It is that which cannot be reduced, which is the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence” [15[, says Edouard Glissant in his essay For Opacity. Glitch images embody the opacity of images that are opposed to meaning or creating knowledge. Image glitches supports the call for opacity invoked in the practices of The Otolith Group, Hito Steryl, Chris Marker and others, that seeks to prevent the viewer from producing knowledge from images [16]. Without the need to be attached to anything, the images glitches are the potentiality of creative processes. Different combinations in the software process and codes can produce glitch images that make it a latent aesthetic practice.

The opaqueness of the image rupture the meaning that we make by believing the technological apparatus that represents images as symbols of reality. It makes us aware that the medium is just a tool of representation and not the representation. It pulls out attention to the reconfiguration of social relations. In a society where the socio-cultural space is ever growing and forming previously unseen/unknown relations, glitch raises the fundamental question of not only the existing world, but the future that we envisage – do we form the digital systems or are we formed by it?

 

This paper was presented in ‘Video Workshop’ at Sarai CSDS, 21-22 February, 2015.

Notes

[1] Lev Manovich, Post media Aesthetics, 2001, http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/029-post-media- aesthetics/29_article_2001.pdf

[2] HemantSreekumar is a sound artist who uses glitch/noise in his sound performances. His sound performances are accompanied by live video, where he uses software coding and feedback loop to introduce visual glitches.

[3] Lev Manovich, Post media Aesthetics, 2001, http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/029-post-media- aesthetics/29_article_2001.pdf

[4] Lev Manovich, Media As Software, 2012 http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/073-article-2012/73- article-2012.pdf

[5] Rosa Menkman, Vernacular of File Formats : A Guide to Databend Compression Design, Part of workshop at ArtEZ, Netherlands, 2010

[6] Rosa Menkaman, Glitch Studies Manifesto

[7] Bridget Crone, Journal of Visual Arts Practice, Vol 9, No. 2, 2010, pg 124

[8] Rosa Menkman, The Glitch Momentum, http://sarah.creatiz.fr/things/stuff/the%20glitch%20momentum.pdf, pg 32

[9] MaurizzioLazzarato, Struggle, Event, Media, The Green Room: Reconsidering the documentary and contemporary art – I, Ed. Maria Lind, HitoSteyerl (Sternberg Press :Berlin, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College:NY, 2008), pg 213-214

[10] Lev Manovich, Avant-garde as Software, http://www.uoc.edu/artnodes/espai/eng/art/manovich1002/manovich1002.html

[11] Ibid

[12] ImanMoradi, Glitch Aesthetics, http://www.haraldpeterstrom.com/content/5.pdfs/Iman%20Moradi%20%E2%80%93%20Glitch%20Aesthetics. pdf

[13] Nick Briz, Glitch Art Historie[s], http://www.nickbriz.com/glitchresearch/Glitch_Art_Historie_s_.pdf

[14] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Trans Joan Tate, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pg 73

[15] Edouard Glissant, For Opacity, Poetics of Relations, Tran. Betsy Wing, pg 191

[16] T J Demos, Right to Opacity, October, 129, Summer 2009, pg123

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