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Critical Glitches and Glitch Art

 

Michael Betancourt

 

'Glitch art' is ambivalent. It confuses the relationship of signal::noise, while at the same time establishing the glitch as a definitional precondition: it is a recovery of technical failure as the formal basis for media practice. These mechanical interruptions of the typical functioning of digital media—whether in audible or visible forms—have been employed in electronic media for decades (Nam June Paik's video processing effects initially appear in technical repair manuals for television receivers produced by RCA in the 1950s.(1)The aura of the digital's separation of the physical and digital dimensions of digital art from consideration is especially pronounced with media works; user-audiences for these technologies rarely become concerned by the interruptions posed by technical failures: just as the aura of the digital serves to strip the physical dimensions of media from consideration, the identification of these digital artifacts as 'glitches' equally insures that they vanish from consciousness, naturalized as momentary (transient) failures in an otherwise functional system. The theorization of 'glitches' in media art function as an index for the intersection of earlier Modernist aesthetic and theoretical priorities with more contemporary concerns with digital capitalism and its ideology produced in/through media. The fundamental issue for this analysis and its object, the glitch, is the status of the audience; in examining these issues, this analysis returns to a set of underlying problematics: the interconnection of active::passive conceptions of audience with the formal conception of media, the cul-de-sac posed by Formalist conceptions of glitch, and the potential for a critical media praxis.

 

1.

The appropriation of technical failure in digital technology is commonly theorized by writers on glitches, such as Iman Moradi in his thesis Glitch Aesthetics (2004), or artist Rosa Menkman in her book The Glitch Moment(um) (2011), as a critical activity that draws attention to the material basis of digital technology. Their claims that 'glitch art' is a critical activity originate with earlier, Modernist aesthetics,  and although unacknowledged in either work, Theodor Adorno's posthumously published book Aesthetic Theory (1970) in particular, where he argues that because art violates the functional demands of bourgeois society, it is inherently critical. The critical rupture described by theories of 'glitch art' claim that the 'glitch' reveals both the material foundations and processes of digital media, yet these dimensions only appear when an audience member chooses to interpret the glitched work critically—i.e. actively engages it. Theorizations of glitch (technical failure) as inherently critical bring this Modernist conception of audience's spectatorship as a passive activity into focus: while media is always interrupted by the glitch because it is a technical failure, its critical meaning depends on the role it has when compared to other, similar works (the glitch's semiotic function within a particular work), not the Formal origins of that glitch (ontological nature).

The understanding and theorization of glitches in digital art is uniformly concerned with Modernist conceptions of a passive audience rendered active by the disruptive affect of art. Problematizing this simple binary relationship of active::passive are the ways that the aura of the digital strips those technical failures from consciousness, naturalizing them as digital artifacts of various types (glitches of all varieties: compression, signal failure, momentary drop-outs). Critical interpretations based in a Formalist understanding of digital media are captured by how digital capitalism and the ideology of the digital develop from earlier Modernist theories of critical aesthetics. Disentangling these Formalist and critical interpretations becomes an essential theoretical activity for any media praxis that seeks a heuristic capable of either critiquing contemporary digital capitalism, or engaging its instantiation in digital media.

 

2.

The aura of information reflects the nature of digital technology as a semiotic system where each encounter has been produced anew, rendered specifically for the moment of its engagement by an audience. Digital failures in particular have become common, in part due to the rise of the internet in the 1990s as a mass medium, and partly due to their employment in art and music produced since that decade. Instead of being an exceptional occurrence, they are a commonplace part of using digital technology. Considering the datastream (information contained by/in the digital file) as the fundamental material for digital art—makes the emergence of 'glitch art' as a Formal demonstration of the datastream inevitable. The "digital object" becomes a human readable form (image, movie, text, sound, etc.) only through the conventionalized interpretations of the binary signals that are the digital object, and whose decoding follow an interpretative schema built-in to that machine to render this binary code into each human readable (superficially distinct) form; it is a semiotic process of immanent, automated facture. The term 'glitch art' is an attempt to distinguish between the specific use of glitches in an artwork, and those happening spontaneously in non-art contexts/works.

Various writers on 'glitch art' have proposed terms to identify this ontological distinction between a transitory technical failure (always called "glitch") and other variants designated differently, but which may have the same form: "glitch-alike" (Morandi), "domesticated glitch" (Menkman); what is identified with the term "glitch art" is a reflection of how artists have produced and exploited the "errors" emergent in digital technology. Rosa Menkman's Vernacular of File Formats (and its accompanying exhibitions) is a specifically Modernist and Formalist response to digital technology. It dramatizes the tendency to identify and discuss only those glitches placed and exhibited in an art context.(2) The Vernacular of File Formats is typical, developing and elaborating a purely Formal engagement with glitches. Her project demonstrates the dependence of such Formal approaches on definitions of necessary and sufficient characteristics for any given medium. The particular technical means in achieving each 'glitch' is subject of a careful study and examination, which is then formally documented as the essential element to the work/presentation. As with the other glitch presentations and explorations visible online, Menkman's Vernacular of File Formats is organized to identify and describe specific failures and their results when rendered by digital technology.

The foundation of digital facture in semiosis renders the entire distinction identified with 'glitch art' questionable: the human-readable form of a digital work is fundamentally different than the machine-readable code that generates it. The distinctions between 'glitch' and 'glitch art' are problematic, as artist Curt Cloninger observed in The Glitch Reader(ror):

 

The term 'glitch art' might apply to all domesticated glitches and all wild glitches that have been 'captured' and recontextualized as art.(3)

 

The "might" opens the potential scope of 'glitch art' beyond simply those glitches "captured" in a recording to include actual technical failures, "wild glitches," orchestrated to occur on demand within a specific performance; thus, the distinction between an unpremeditated technical failure, unstable and transitory, and the use of audio-or-visual artifacts that coincide with these incidental errors, stable and repeatably a part of a finished work may be difficult to identify when encountered. As the aura of information demands, these categories of glitch can be, and in artistic practice often are, indistinguishable: the ontological origins of any particular glitch are not necessary apparent in it because the meaning presented by a work is separate from the physical representation of that work. The accompanying and implicit denial of the distinctions between human and machine readable objects, as with the passive conception of audience, all emerge from this same Modernist foundation. The 'unmasking' it appears to perform—in the use of the glitch itself—develops from a confusion of operation of the digital machine with the codes that organize its automated facture. In refusing this distinction between machine- and human-readable forms for glitches, the implied fantasy is that the glitched human-readable form is somehow more "pure" (closer to the machine- readable form, the digital code) than a typical product; in fact, both works are rendered with the same processes, and are simply human-readable forms of a digital work that exhibits unanticipated formal characteristics to that human audience. Instead of enabling a consideration of the ideological dimensions of these media, it acts to hide them. In this regard, 'glitch art' belongs to the same category of symptom emergent in the arts as the 'new aesthetic'—both develop from a physicalization of what was/is more commonly purely digital—a realization of immateriality as physicality. Both develop from the same displacement of human agency: in the new aesthetic, this takes the form of production, while in glitch, the attempt is to create an autonomous, critical aesthetic form independent of the human interpretation, reflecting the law of automation's elision of human agency and its replacement by digital, autonomous processes.

 

Screen capture of a video glitch

 

 

3.

Digital sampling is a fundamentally distinct phenomenon from continuous experience—it is precisely those aspects of continuity that are lost in between the samples that become masked in the encounter with the human-readable form of a digitally- generated object. Menkman's discussion in her book The Glitch Moment(um) is typical of how glitches have been theorized as a bringing to consciousness of this fragmented (im)materiality of digital media:

 

Another example of the intentional faux-pas, or glitch art that is in violation of accepted social norms and rules is Untitled Game (1996- 2001), a combined series of 11 modifications of the first person shooter game (FPS) Quake 1 by the Dutch/Belgian art duo Jodi. Jodi makes subversive glitch art that battles against the hegemonic flows of proprietary media systems. They work to reframe users' or consumers' perception of these systems. The duo's work is often simultaneously politically provocative and confusing. This is partly because Jodi never originally prioritized attaching explanations to their work, but also because of the way in which their practice itself overturns generic expectations. They challenge the ideological aspects of proprietary design by misrepresenting existing relationships between specific media functionalities and the aesthetic experiences normally associated with them.(4)

 

Menkman's argument for a "critical materiality" (a Formalist digital art based on technical failure) is the assignment of a critical function to the glitch qua glitch. In her argument, the glitched game produced by Jodi achieves a critical position through a formal manipulation of the functionality of the work in question mediated by the glitches which are her primary interest in the work. The shift from a game that can be played to one that cannot is a direct effect of how the technology has been "broken." By transforming a functional video game into a dysfunctional (non-functional) version, Untitled Game acts against the conventional 'bourgeois functionalization' of the video game; thus, in Menkman's discussion, the work is 'critical.' However, it is the rupture with the normal function of the work—its nature qua game—and not the glitching per se that results in this critical potential. It is the "violation of accepted social norms and rules" that is the significant part of this work, not the means employed to achieve that result.

Glitches are incidental to the critical dimensions of Untitled Game: by transforming the function (use value) into dysfunction (glitch) it becomes critical, not through a Formalist self-referential use of the "materials" of digital media which an "intentional faux-pas" implies. The glitch is not the point here, it is the inability to play the game in the typical, established fashion that produces its critical dimensions—the particulars of the failure in relation to its use, not the formal device of introducing glitches. It is worth remembering that Untitled Game is a modification of a relatively low-resolution graphics-driven game, Quake 1, released by id Software in 1996, so while the particular failures are essential to the non-productive dimensions of Untitled Game, their significance depends on how they break the game for the player (audience) and not the transformation of the graphics in particular. Menkman's implication is that there is a physical, self-evident distinction between everyday "technological failure" and the "technological failure" employed in an art work. It consistently returns to an inherently critical formulation of 'glitch' dependent on an a priori distinction between a 'real' and 'unreal glitch' that transcends the actual form either might take. However, there is no consideration of the audience's role in this recognition:

 

At the same time, however, many works of glitch art have developed into archetypes and even stereotypical models, and some artists do not focus on the post-procedural dialectics and complexity of glitch at all. They skip the process of creation through destruction of a flow and focus only, directly, on the creation of new formal designs for glitch, either by creating the final imagistic (or sonic) product, or by developing shortcuts to recreate the latest-circulated glitch reformation.(5)

 

These "post-procedural dialectics" are problematic. Her discussion simultaneously suggests an argument for an exclusively performative conception of glitch (i.e. glitch as part of a limited and constrained performance created/by an artist) and, at the same time, a rejection of such performative dimensions entirely. Employing an ontological distinction to describe these glitch variants poses logical problems: this contradiction appears clearly when the underlying performative nature of all digital media is acknowledged—that every digital work is specifically produced "live" at the moment of encounter.

Digital technology itself, based in a semiotic process of facture, enables the creation of an always "perfect," new example of the work in question, made specifically for the moment of encounter. This digital technology makes an idealized "original" possible, even when the work encountered is imperfect: the actual human-readable form is a pure product of the digitized samples (datastream) transformed by the decoding protocol; its specifically imperfect character is elided from consciousness by the aura of the digital. However, the errors and imperfections in the digital reproduction tend to disappear from perception precisely because that encounter is secondary to an idealized digital perfection: the audience "tunes out" errors as they occur. The seeming paradox of an induced 'glitch' as "technical failure" (i.e. a desired glitch whose production was the focus of the technique employed) is a false paradox: it confuses the intentions of the machine operator with the operations of the machine itself. This issue confronts all 'glitch art,' whether the glitches being seen are part of the work, a novel result of some kind of transient technical failure, or a mixture of the two (there is no reason a recorded glitch cannot also be subject to glitches arising from an independent, later technical malfunction).

The discrete samples that produce digital media are emergent through/hidden by the fragmentary nature of the digital itself: everything "inside" the computer exists as numerically encoded data that when 'replayed' for a human audience appears continuous. The glitch makes this apparently perfect 'reproduction' become a contingent phenomenon, as glitch artist/theorists Hugh S. Manon and Daniel Temkin noted:

 

Glitch art does not "dirty up" a text, but instead undermines its basic structure. Glitch damage is integral, even when its effects manifest at the surface.(6)

 

Again, a Formalist conception: the breakdown that glitch imposes on a work (the "text") is totalizing, a failure that is a transposition of the material itself—unlike analog or physical texts, the digital "work" encountered is an immaterially generated work where the glitch is a "breach" in the underlying instructions made apparent at the "surface"—the moment of human encounter. Their description reflects the aura of the digital: the datastream as the 'real' form of the work, the human-readable (or physical) is thus simply an epiphenomenon, inconsequential. By discounting the physical dimensions of the encounter, in favor of the "pure" error that resides within the code, this Formalist dimension becomes evident as the aura of information. The indeterminate nature of glitches comes into focus when all three variants of "technical failure" have the same semiotic function and formal appearance within a given work: a 'glitch' can emerge from either technical failure or not-failure, and still play the same role (have the same human- readable form) in the work's interpretation; thus, there is no meaningful difference between a technical failure that produced a glitch, a recorded version of that same glitch, and a machine designed to produce that same glitch 'live on demand.' The ontological origin of any particular 'glitch' prioritizes the immaterial foundations within the instrumentalist code, in the process eliminating the encounter from consideration. Yet, for "glitches" to become critical, the audience's recognition of "glitched" must allude to a deviant engagement with the anticipated "norm"—whether at the level of datastream, software or hardware (if not all three).

All glitches are a product of the autonomous digital creation (semiotic production) of a given work whose physical characteristics lead to an identification of it as being "glitched" by the interpreting human audience encountering it. The hypothetical perfect reproduction is reified as 'norm' in digital reproduction, making the identification of a glitch as a 'failure' possible only because a human interpreter has identified it as at variance from both the anticipated imperfections of the immanent work and the ideal form. It is by making the fragmentary nature of the underlying medium—the unseen, unencounterable digitized data of the machine-readable form—become a part of the audience's immanent encounter that the critical dimensions alluded to by Menkman, Manon and Temkin become apparent in place of a seemingly continuous media presentation. This context-dependence renders ontological distinctions irrelevant to critical interpretations.

Digital technology is instrumental, its coded instructions specifically determinate: the same set of instructions will decode in the same way by the same software every time it is run, whether those instructions themselves contain mistakes (glitches) or not. Thus, an ontological distinction is irrelevant to the consideration of a glitch's meaning in any particular work, because that distinction depends on information that may not be apparent in the glitch itself. This use of ontology to define the 'glitch' does not clarify interpretation, it confuses it: what appears as 'glitch' is a product of the digital machine functioning properly (either at the level of hardware or software), but producing results that in a human readable form may appear anomalous—this fact remains true for all glitched works, perhaps most especially in those cases of 'glitch art' where the hardware (or software) has been specifically modified to 'short circuit' and generate the glitch form—it is producing what it is designed to create. The treatment of glitches as idiosyncratic ruptures with the mechanical functioning of the digital machine reflects the aura of the digital's mystification of digital technology as a magical realm beyond constraints and human control.

 

4.

Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory argues that art is an inherently critical mode of production, where the emergence of the material basis of art brings the audience an awareness of the reality of its production. It is this dimension of his theory that provides the "inherently critical" claim for Formalist media; it provides the unacknowledged supports for Menkman's argument that glitches are a revelation of the digital artifice. Aesthetic Theory gives this revelation a specifically political dimension, inherent to 'art' itself:

 

Art, however, is social not only because of its mode of production, in which the dialectic of the forces and relations of production is concentrated, nor simply because of the social derivation of its thematic material. Much more importantly, art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art. By crystalizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as "socially useful," it criticizes society by merely existing, ... a denunciation of useful labor, the strongest defense of art against its bourgeois functionalization ... the ends-means- rationality of utility. This is enciphered in art and is the source of art's social explosiveness.(7)

 

Adorno's argument for certain forms of media being inherently critical depends on a specific conception of 'art' that places this concept outside of the social frameworks ("its opposition to society") that enable its identification: his description of 'art' follows the specifically avant-garde formulation common prior to World War II. This dimension is readily apparent in his statement that art "criticizes society by merely existing" because, for his argument, art necessarily has no function at all: art exists in a separate domain from use value. Such a definition ignores the anthropological role of art as a social status marker—both for distinctions between different classes, and within the same class: "art" is not a neutral designation. Instead, the readily apparent stratification of the art world into distinct markets focused on promoting, distributing and presenting various works whose formal characters are quite divergent, are nevertheless united by a constant social function—art as marker of distinction. Art serves to separate different classes into subgroupings whose status and membership in those groups is reflected by the art they embrace: art's function depends on its social context.(8)

Whether this social function for art is a formally apparent is irrelevant; any argument for an emergence into consciousness of the productive dimensions of art depends on a monolithic conception of all audiences as passively manipulated consumers. Manon and Temkin describe this passivity as an implicit element, essential to the inherently critical meaning for glitch:

 

Paul Virilio is often cited in discussions of glitch art; however we need to be clear that glitch art is most often not, strictly speaking, an effort to "[p]enetrate the machine, explode it from the inside, dismantle the system to appropriate it." (Sylvère Lotringer and Paul Virilio, The Accident of Art (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 74.) Real sabotage cannot be undone. Indeed any instance of real sabotage risks spinning out of control to the point of harming the saboteur. In this way, the prevalence of the undo function in glitch practice renders it a kind of pseudo-sabotage. This is not to say that the resultant file—publicly exhibited in some venue—does not disturb, vex, or interrupt the flow of its beholder, and thus work to "dismantle the system." Indeed, despite its simulation of sabotage, glitch art nonetheless loudly announces the hegemony of digital representation and the passivity of its subjects. (9)

 

The interruption that the glitch poses is the breakdown of the "perfect surface" of digital works, a signifier of violating what Adorno calls "bourgeois functionalization." The ontological concern is raised by Manon and Temkin as the difference between a "pseudo-sabotage" and a "real-sabotage." An indeterminate ontology provides the foundations for their assumption of passivity, supported by an assumption that the digital is a perfect, immaterial, other-world remote from the constraints and material limitations of analog media. Their analysis succumbs to the same stripping of the physical from consciousness (the aura of the digital) that their discussion attempts to critique. Digital 'production' is the autonomous action of a machine, rather than the particular labor of a human: the difference between the anticipated form and the one produced suggests (and is understood as) a discrepancy between incoding and decoding, rather than as an event emergent from human action; this issue is both immediately obvious and well known when considering both sampled data and the secondary use of compression algorithms in digital technology. The "reappearance" of the underlying digital material whose assembly creates the perfect surface can also be understood in terms of a rupture in that work's functionality—in their argument the glitch is a break in continuity only if the audience is passive in relation to the work they encounter; however, as Umberto Eco has noted, "It is evident that even the most banal narrative product allows the reader to become by an autonomous decision a critical reader."(10) The assumption that the audience is passive does not mean this is how audiences engage media: to assume a passive audience mistakes physical immobility for a lack of mental activity.

Adorno proposes these breaches as inherently political because they interrupt the functional continuity of the media work and in its place substitute an awareness of the work as a product. One constant in these discussions of glitches is that they can make the fragmentary nature of the digital apparent through how the technological presentation becomes 'visible' in its failure. Cloninger observes in the Glitch Reader(ror) that

 

The attempt to regulate and filter out the irruptive "noise" and return to the ideal of a pure signal is the same metaphysical/Platonic attempt to downplay the immanent and maintain (the myth of) the pure transcendent. Subverting (literally "deconstructing," in Derrida's original sense) this dichotomous, binary metaphysical system is a radical (root level) "political" act.(11)

 

The subversion that Cloninger identifies as a political act is one based in rupture experienced by the audience, and does not inhere in the formal material of the work itself.

His assertion of an inherently political dimension for glitch (and interruptive/disruptive techniques generally) is the heritage of the Modernist aesthetics that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century apparent in the conceptualization of rupture itself. This interpretation depends on an assumption of singularity, one that is both normative and standard, where any deviation from that 'norm' necessarily carries a political charge; this singularity assumes a passive audience that is not/cannot be engaged with the work in an autonomous fashion. This issue lies with aesthetic semblance (Schein), as theorist Peter Burger explains in his book The Theory of The Avant-Garde:

 

[Herbert] Marcuse outlines the global determination of art's function in bourgeois society, which is a contradictory one: on the one hand, it shows "forgotten truths" (thus it protests against a reality in which these truths have no validity); on the other, such truths are detached from reality through the medium of aesthetic semblance (Schein)—art thus stabilizes the very social conditions against which it protests.(12)

 

The political failures of the historical avant-gardes all originate with the idea of an autonomous aesthetic, separate from social function, one that finds its most direct support in the Formalist theories of Modernism. The paradox for glitch to be an inherently critical practice (as with political art generally) is the distinction between aesthetic resemblance (Schein) and reality. However, this "veil of nature"—the creation of a natural appearance in which the glitch is understood as simply "technical failure" (Schein)—traps aesthetic objects in a position where their forms cannot directly engage in political action. This limitation has been internalized for interpretations of digital works as the aura of the digital, so the earlier neutralization posited by exhibition in gallery spaces has become a function of the audience interpreting the work. In contrast to this dynamically adaptive audience, the proposal of an inherent critical Formal structure depends on a passively receptive audience to whom the meaning of a work is dictated a priori. For this conception, there is a singular meaning contained by the work, by which the audience is manipulated and responds autonomously.

The glitch may serve as an interruption of the aura of the digital's illusion of perfection, at the same time, it is countered by—as Manon and Temkin observe—the readily reversible nature of the semiotic: in place of destructive noise, the glitch is more often simply a transient limitation that is quickly elided from consciousness following the aura of the digital, actively "tuned out" by the audience: non-functional (broken) technology is not engaged critically; it is trashed and replaced. The problematic inherent to glitch is not readily resolved through an examination of the instance of the glitch; the wild/domenstic distinction requires prior knowledge of origins. So long as the reassembly process follows a standardized protocol, the human readable work remains 'coherent' (i.e. matches an anticipated formal 'norm') masking that underlying semiotic procedure. The indistinguishabilityof wild/domestic glitches further reinforces this ambivalence for glitch as a class of works, a failing that can be generalized to any critical praxis simultaneously linked to a specific Formal structure; critical interpretations depend on the precise context of a glitch's generation/use. This 'break' results from a violation of established (anticipated) structures within the work—an unanticipated variance from the audience's expectations: the necessary factor in this process is an actively engaged audience that is challenging the work as it proceeds and whose violated expectations produce the glitch. There is no formalist mode that can present an inherently critical meaning—the emergence of a specifically critical meaning depends on active choices made by the audience encountering the work, not the formal design of that work.

 

5.

Specific formal ruptures rapidly become assimilated as signifiers within the already established formal language of the medium being glitched. The incompatibility between the passive/active conceptions of audiences is apparent in how the spectator responds to failures and assimilates glitches following what critic Brian Larkin described as 'recoding' in his discussion of media piracy and the informal distribution systems of Nigeria:

 

If infrastructures represent attempts to order, regulate, and rationalize society, then breakdowns in their operation, or the rise of provisional and informal infrastructures, highlight the failure of that ordering and the recoding that takes its place.(13)

 

The failure of one system does not result in a wasteland, abyssal, but rather an emergent replacement—a reorganization of the (dys)functional elements around the precise (dys)function itself—what was a point of failure becomes the central feature of a return- to-normal: hence a recoding of the existing order to integrate the 'failure.' The glitch ceases to be rupture and becomes instead the signifier of rupture, and with this transposition to signification (recoding) is a regeneration of the "norm"—Adorno's 'bourgeois functionalization.' This transformation is an emergent phenomenon of perception and the always already imposed constraints of past experience on that immanent encounter: a glitch may provoke an awareness of the materiality of the medium when it is contained in an otherwise unglitched work; however, a work composed from glitches poses a radically divergent awareness, one in which the medium itself does not necessarily become physically present, suggesting the emergence of a different mode that is no less normative in its operation. The assertion of continuity is a feature of how the digital aura imbues digital works with their specific valence as immaterial, quite apart from whatever physical example may be encountered at any given moment, enabling the discounting of the glitch and technical failure, in a specific elision where they are always conceived as only momentary, a feature only of this presentation, thus irrelevant to consideration.

The transformations effected by 'glitch art' (in fact all re-enactments of the inherently 'critical' claim) depend on the audience recognizing the ritualized 'critical' position posed by the work's Formalist organization as non-function: a recoding of the 'failure' as a signifier for 'failure.' This understanding is a recuperation of failure as meaning, the assimilation of form to natural appearance (Schein). Recoding results in a normalization of this superficially disruptive element posed by the 'glitch'—whether its origins lie with technical failure or the 'domestication' of the "glitch-alike." Larkin observes that the resilience of the capitalist system that produces the conceptual and physical infrastructures of media utilizes this human capacity for adaptability:

 

The difficulty here is that much of the work on the transformative effects of media on notions of space, time, and perception takes for granted a media system that is smoothly efficient rather than the reality of infrastructural connections that are frequently messy, discontinuous, and poor.(14)

 

The duality he assumes in media between a seamless, perfectly efficient (digital) media, as opposed to a "messy, discontinuous, and poor" physicality, while perhaps especially obvious in the Nigerian context he describes, is also applicable elsewhere in the world; however, it is the capacity of the audience to ignore these physical traces in the media work that is significant—this disappearance of the 'noise' is the aura of the digital stripping that imperfect physical presentation from consciousness, a rendering- transparent of the technological failings (thus, meaningless and non-critical). The impact that the aura of the digital has on our encounters with all media—whether "perfect" or "imperfect"—undermines the potential of 'glitch' to function disruptively as a breach in the "(im)materiality" of media works. Glitches emerge not from "errors" but from the audience's interpretation of elements within a specific work as technical failure— 'critical' engagement does not depend upon the formal nature of the art.

 

"The Kodak Moment" (2013) by Michael Betancourt

 

6.

A contemporary semiotic model of interpretation is incompatible with the 'inherently critical' mode derived from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory—the particulars of any interpretation are contingent not only on the work, but on what and how the encounter with that work develops, a factor Menkman notes in The Glitch Moment(um):

 

The post-procedural essence of glitch art is opposed to conservation; the shocking perception and understanding of what a glitch is at one point in time cannot be preserved for a future time. The artist tries to somehow demonstrably grasp something that is by nature unstable and ungraspable. Their commitments are to an unconventional utopia of randomness, chance and idyllic disintegrations that are potentially critical. [emphasis original](15)

 

While interpretation is constrained by and focused through the apparent features of any given work, at the same time, it is dependent on past experience and expertise brought to that work: her implication is that the potential for criticality depends on the (momentary) disruption—but then fails to recognize that for functionally-motivated interpretations, the glitch is a stoppage, not a point of rupture. It is an interruption that requires action different than a consideration of the actual physical nature of the work itself. The critical element for glitch that is the underlying concern of Menkman's argument emerges from how the glitch interrupts the anticipated flow of a work, and the significance of those interruptions when they do appear: as noted before, all these are dependent not on the glitch itself, but on its meaning within a given work.

The problematics of glitch as a politically engaged media practice foreground these ruptures and conceptual differences, demanding an approach that accounts for the role of context, audience adaptation and the recoding of interpretation: this recognition does not eliminate the potential for an engaged media practice—instead, it places an emphasis on the actual form of that work. The construction of a work entirely from glitches would then seem to preclude the potential for any critical position, effectively transforming the glitched work into a normative (but still glitched) example of the same "bourgeois functionalism": since criticality is not an inherent property of a work, but a function of how the audience interprets that work, the issue of criticality must instead develop from the particular features of the work, its presentational context, and structured form—to do otherwise would be to reassert an a priori, inherently critical position for all works of a given class such as 'glitch art.' This difficulty may be a reason why so many discussions attempt to employ an ontological division between "glitch" and "glitch-alike."

Thus, the argument for an inherent critical mode is a false one; the transformation from functional to non-functional does not render the art object necessarily critical. These are issues not isolated to digital art and glitch, but inhere in art generally. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917) is a paradigmatic example of how assuming an inherent criticality to the form is to misapprehend the critical meaning of the work: it is not the non-functional orientation of this urinal that renders the work critical; it is the installation of a urinal in an art gallery that generates the critical meaning—a function of its specific exhibition context. Functional or non-functional, it is the frisson of object-versus-context that is the factor in its interpretation as a critical work. That Fountain can function as an aesthetic object independent of its utilitarian origins (urinal) demonstrates the contingency and ambivalence of critical modes and reveals that the interpretation of work via spectatorship is not a passive experience or activity. Instead, the audience for any work will dynamically adapt to the semiotic structures implied in the construction of any particular work(16)—enabling the recoding of 'glitch' as normative, as an aesthetic semblance (Schein) of technical failure; thus posing a paradox for any procedure that attempts to create a rupture purely via glitch. A Formal revelation of the medium as such is only a temporary phenomenon.

The self-similarity of 'real glitch' and 'simulated glitch' (domesticated or glitch- alike) demonstrates the contingent nature of how any particular glitch has been employed semiotically within the human-readable form: it is possible to imagine a reversal where the 'unglitched' serves the same disruptive role in the semantic structure as the 'glitch'— a bringing to consciousness of the process and transformations posed by the work itself—in a recoding of the already-recoded.

 

7.

Critical interpretations depend on the audience via established expertise and past experience for recognizing both the ‘glitch’—i.e. the acknowledgement that it is a feature of the work rather than a technical failure to ignore—and being able to understand the role it has as disruption within the continuous media work— the semiotic role that a specific glitch has in determining the meaning of the work compared with other works. In contrast to Jodi's Untitled Game (1996-2001) is Cory Archangel's Super Mario Clouds (2002), a work structured in similar ways—appropriated commercial video game altered by the artist to produce different-than-normative results. Where Untitled Game mimics the form of dysfunctional game (unplayable because of seeming malfunction), Super Mario Clouds is equally unplayable, but not from visible malfunction, but rather from an absence of function: the game elements have been elided, leaving only a scrolling background of white cartoon clouds. The sense of rupture in comparing these two otherwise superficially similar glitches of technology lies with the distinction between a 'glitch' that renders the work recognizably non-functional and a 'glitch' that transforms the work into something recognizable but afunctional—without the capacity for the original function.

A critical role for 'glitch' in creating a politically engaged media work of the type these Formalist theories claim for technical failures requires the glitch to make the political economy that produced the work to become apparent. This meaning is not dependent on the Formal use of the glitch qua glitch, but rather on the internal semiosis of the art object as understood by the audience. For the productive dimensions that create the work—its physicality, the material supports required for the production, the economic costs associated with that facture, distribution and presentation—to emerge only happens to the extent that those aspects of its production are the focus of the work itself: it is a question of content and context, not form. It is a matter of how the audience interprets the human-readable work. The foregrounding of the technical 'failures' in a recognizable fashion in Untitled Game assumes the readily recognized form of the non-functional. By enabling the potential interpretation of "broken," it returns the glitched work to the realm of Adorno's 'bourgeois functionalization' through exactly the potential recognition that it is "broken."

Within a Formally glitched work ('glitch art') the unglitch has the same disruptive potential as a glitch in an otherwise normal work. It is equally capable of bringing the critical dimensions of media practice to the attention of the audience, as a violation not only of establisheda priori expectations, but of the semiosis internal to the audience's engagement (not the digital facture). It is this ambivalence that offers the potential for these eruptions of criticality: the capacity of the 'glitch' to become a redirection of meaning. However, these "openings" depend on an audience 'primed' for such an encounter, and engaged with a work already placed within a context (such as that of 'art') where this critical meaning can develop. The 'functionality' of a critical context does not necessarily result in a critical interpretation; not all interpretations developing from within such a space will necessarily be 'critical.' The choice to produce an engaged, critical interpretation is made by the audience: there is always the potential for any work to be engaged as distraction (entertainment product), just as there is always the potential for a critical response to even the most banal narrative entertainment.

While the glitch can be an interruption of the 'perfect' flow of media, these flows do not exist in actuality—in their place is the elision provided by the aura of the digital that creates this particular illusion. The conception of any glitch as inherently critical ignores the internalized procedures of elision (the aura of the digital) that accompany these illusions and are the defining features of both the glitch and the 'norm' in digital media. A work organized as critical offers an expanded consideration for active spectators because of the ways it introduces the glitched elements, organizes them within the whole, and then enables a consideration of the relationship between the glitched and the 'norm.' It is this tension between the expected form of the work (past experience) and the immanent example (encounter with a human-readable form) that identifies the critical mode and offers the potential for a critically oriented practice. Ambivalences are inherent to this type of interpretation: this critical mode suggests an excess apart from the observable content of the work, but dependent on what is observable in that work. The role of glitches within an engaged media practice is neither a purely formal experiment in technological failure, nor a stylistic 'decoration' that enlivens otherwise banal work, but rather an interpretation where the disembodied technological instrumentalism of the digital that is otherwise being elided from conscious consideration through the linked illusions of perfection, transparency, and immediacy becomes apparent.

A critical media praxis must therefore also contain a robust theoretical foundation, one capable of acknowledging the mediating role and dynamic action of the interpreting audience who will actively assimilate any technical failures into the 'normative' form of the media being examined. This activity has dramatic consequences for attempts at creating a critical media, and necessarily invalidates any claims of an inherently critical activity for any particular formal approach or device.

 

 

NOTES

[1] ^ Meagher, John R. RCA Television Pict-O-Guide, in three volumes, (Harrison: Radio Corporation of America, 1949).

[2] ^ Menkman, Rosa. "Vernacular of File Formats," Network Notebooks 4: The Glitch Moment(um) (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam: 2011).

[3] ^ Cloninger, Curt. "GltchLnguistx: The Machine in the Ghosts / Static Trapped in the Mouths," Glitch reader(ror), Nick Briz, Evan Meaney, Rosa Menkman, William Robertson, Jon Satrom, Jessica Westbrook (ed.), (Unsorted Books: 2011), p. 33.

[4] ^ Menkman, Rosa. Network Notebooks 4: The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011) p. 38.

[5] ^ Ibid. p.35

[6] ^ Manon, Hugh S. and Daniel Temkin. "Notes on Glitch" in World Picture 6, WRONG 2011, http://worldpicturejournal.com/WP_6/Manon.html, par. 29.

[7] ^ Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998) pp. 225-227.

[8] ^ Willats, Steven. Art and Social Function, (London: Ellipsis, 2000).

[9] ^Manon, Hugh S. and Daniel Temkin. Op. Cit., par. 25.

[10] ^ Eco, Umberto. "Serial Form" in The Limits of Interpretation, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994). p. 92.

[11] ^ Cloninger, Curt. Op. Cit., p. 35.

[12] ^ Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.11.

[13] ^ Larkin, Brian. "Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy," Public Culture 16(2): 2004, p 291.

[14] ^ Ibid., p 292.

[15] ^ Menkman, Rosa.Op.Cit. p. 35.

[16] ^ Eco, Umberto. Op.Cit. pp. 83-100.

 

Michael Betancourt is an artist, historian, theorist, and curator concerned with the convergence of digital technology and capitalist ideology. His essays have been translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Persian, Portuguese, and Spanish. He currently is a Professor of Motion Media Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. His book, The History of Motion Graphics: From Avant-Garde to Industry in the United States was published in 2013. michaelbetancourt.com

 

 

 

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