One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. That is also true in the digital world. The celebration of failure and destruction has never been so colorful, enthusiastic and diverse as it is in Glitch Art. The Glitch genre challenges the viewer’s relationship to the virtual realm by disturbing the intended, expected and mainstream consumption of digital content.
Glitching is about exploiting the weaknesses of the digital medium: it is about torturing it, poking it with a stick, just to see what else we can get out of it beyond of what is expected. It is about exploring the medium from the deconstructive point of view, and dissecting it along the lines of its fragile, virtual complexities. It is about taking advantage and instigating failures inside the very strict digital system for a variety of personal, aesthetic, and political purposes. It seems that some of those purposes have become increasingly commercial as well because elements of the ‘glitch’ look in its various version are now frequently used in mainstream consumer culture.
Although Glitch art is still described as an ‘emerging’ field, the density of information already existing on this topic is so great that you have to stop and think: how could there possibly be more insight to contribute? Well the answer is simple. There is as much potential contribution as there are minds willing to explore the genre, because everyone holds a unique perspective, background, and a set of skills that enables them to investigate the constantly changing and evolving field of new media technologies. As long as new file formats are created, new software is developed, and new platforms are built to make our digital existence increasingly more streamlined, there are those who want to digitally vandalize them for aesthetic purposes.
It is difficult to thoroughly discuss important aspects of the entire Glitch Art scene in a short essay because of the complexity of the field. Instead I’d like to discuss the narrower topic of digital images and bring up some of my personal discoveries on the genre at large.
Glitch Artists are all aware that code is the underlying and one of the most important formalities of the digital medium that makes Glitch Art the genre that it is. The various artificially produced (Glitch-alike) or natural disturbances (Pure-Glitch) injected into the code – whether executed via hardware or software misuses – are responsible for the seductive visual characteristics and unexpected appearances of the glitch.
In general, code in various forms and contexts, has been an integral part of the image. Looking back in history we can observe that “[Images] are always ordered, coded, and styled according to conventions which develop out of the practice of each medium with its tools and processes” regardless if it is an analog one “such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, or an electronic one such as video or the computer.” In the twentieth century, initiated by Derrida’s thought, various works of art and literature have been deconstructed along the lines of their code. This is now happening literally with Glitch art. However, the code here is the practical, computer-dependent digital information.
The traditional art of Classicism, Renaissance, Neo-Classicism and Realism always repressed the medium of paint to be invisible. With the development of perspective in XV century, the artwork was discussed in terms of a window onto another possible reality, a frame through which the viewer could observe a scene happening on the other side of the wall on which the painting was mounted. The artists who painted the real most accurately were the most veneered. In later centuries, however, when photography was invented, the art world took a dramatic departure from its previous practices and reacted in dynamic, colourful and sometimes eccentric ways of Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism and the list goes on.
Because photography could represent the real most faithfully, art was free to become something else. Art began to see the world not for what it looked like to the naked eye, but what it felt like, and for the stories it told in indirect ways. Our hunger for copying the world exactly as we see it was satisfied. Photographs took on the role of windows, however the nature of those windows was even better connected to the real than any medium before. The photographs were authentic records of a moment in time, places, people and events that happened at a specific hour, and that’s why their use as documentary information was popular. Photographs were then labeled as indexical, because they contained a ‘trace’ of what they represented – an imprint of light that reflected of the subject onto the light sensitive material.
Therefore, in some of the XIX century theories, photography was synonymous with seeing the truth. As Marien points out in her book Photography and its Critics: A Cultural History 1839-1900, the “analogy between human sight and infallible perception expressed a wish for permanence, stability, and control and implicitly challenged arbitrariness, fragmentation, and disorder.” However, the trust towards photography and the celebration of its unprecedented authenticity was proven short-lived when it was discovered that it too was a malleable medium.
When Photography was re-invented in digital form in the last decade of the 20th century, it came to be as a copy of its analog ancestor. It contained, and mimicked the same characteristics that film photography had, except, it did it all with 1’s and 0’s rather than chemical agents. Even though retouching and photo manipulation was known and sometimes practiced in film photography (exemplified by the site fourandsix.com), this became infinitely more potent with the digital medium.
Photo manipulation has always been a dangerous practice because, in advertising, it fools the average viewer into believing a message that is constructed on falsified evidence. Until the US government mandates warning labels on advertising imagery that uses too much Photoshop editing, the majority of us will continue to be deceived with potentially significant psychological effects. Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock talk about truth vs. trust in digital photography in the Editors Introduction to the anthology Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image:
“As digitally generated image, it has no original, even while it may have,
as part of its electronic interpretation, translation, or in Rosen’s term,
mimicry, a notional referent that makes its content recognizable.
Hence in digital photography there is no longer a question of truth per
se; rather its capacities problematized trust.[…] we have now to ask
of every image: has what we are seeing a ground in historical time
and space at all? Can we trust what we see to be what it shows?”
Also as indirectly inferred by the above quote, with the emergence of digital photography, Walter Benjamin’s discussion on the reproducibility of art from the 1930s is now seemingly irrelevant. While film photography’s ability to reproduce copies was seen as an event that diminished the aura of an original, now the concepts of original and copy cease to be relevant in digital imaging. The more applicable term to replace the ‘original’ would be ‘source,’ but because the source can be copied in unchanged form an infinite number of times, what we have to watch for is not which image was first, but which one has been modified and differs from its source. Therefore, referring to the source image only matters when there is a process of difference taking place between the original digital image and its duplicate.
Even though film photography, and other analog media are still in existence, increasingly the production, storage, manipulation and retrieval of images is moving into the virtual domain of computing devices. “The image is now an information structure which has no physical presence in the real world.” The image instead of being a tangible object has become a spectacle, or an event, made possible only through the functionality and strictness of the computer system, which visualizes the binary data when the image file is opened in an appropriate application. This event has a beginning and an end as opposed to a print that is always there.
At times the increasing transparency of the digital medium is a reason for mourning. With the ever-increasing resolution of TV displays, monitors, and digital camera sensors, pixels are forced into hiding as if they were shameful. New methods are constantly invented to make their presence increasingly less apparent, their distinct, abstract qualities less prevalent over the image. The pixel is condemned into invisibility, as it is forced to follow the old medium’s metaphorical window-like identity. However, there is a way to reveal what is hidden under the illusion. While the world pushes on to employ digital imaging to mimic the truth of the real world, there are those that ‘encourage’ the digital medium to break free from this slavery and instead reveal truth about itself. The collective Glitch genre has found a way to rescue the pixellated disorder, and build a community to celebrate this event as exemplified by the second installment and the expansion of the GLI.TC/H festival.
The qualities of digital images that employ deception and mass proliferation are significant invitations for deliberate glitching because they are hostile qualities that most of us want to react against. In commercial culture, advertising, and fashion, we “have become seduced by images that are signs of nothing but themselves” without a real referent, built on a formula that simulates reality-like symptoms. The digital manipulation of human physicality is astonishingly widespread, as it is the cheapest and fastest method to improve any appearance. Human bodies are being turned into a distorted commodity, to be purchased as an ideal with a specific product. The hyperreal, crisp and amplified detail that characterizes advertising and fashion imagery is the kind of thing many Glitch artists vandalize. The digital photo does not even have to be airbrushed. It is the sheer potential of deception that instigates a revolutionary attitude in a Glitcher like me.
Figure 1. Subtle digital manipulation often present in advertising and fashion imagery (editing by me).
In my explorations of glitching portraiture and fashion photography I’ve explored a variety of already established effects by glitching known file formats. I have also discovered new effects through experimenting with proprietary file formats like the CR2 (Canon Raw version 2) possible because of my access to a high-end professional camera. I have broken with the ritualistic and the conventional image editing methods of cloning, patching, cropping and curve adjusting known so well to me from my practice as a photographer. During my personal and unaided discovery of corrupting file formats that I later discovered was called ‘glitching’ and ‘databending’ I have thrown myself into the unknown willingly, looking for alternative treatments of digital imagery that produced unpredictable, and visually stunning effects, and which drastically broke with the norm.
Figure 2. The same corrupted CR2 file opened in Mac Preview (left) and Adobe Photoshop (right).
During my experiments I have found myself zooming into the bent images, exploring the abstract detail that emerged from the corrupt and dysfunctional code. These details alone, singled out and framed throw back the perfect, transparent structure of the digital photograph back in time to the days of pixel art and early computer games. There are illusions of depth and layering, and juxtaposition of brilliant color, not found in the realism of the original source imagery. The metaphorical window so integral with traditional painting and now carried over to digital photography is transformed into a surface, which almost seems to have a texture, decorated by the colorful abstraction that is the Glitch.
Figure 3. Two detail panels extracted from corrupted CR2 images.
Figure 4. Magnified detail of two corrupted CR2 images.
By opening image files in TextEdit (Mac OS X) and unconventionally editing their code, I am making the editing action violently apparent, instead of concealed like in the traditional digital compositing practices. I try to shove one source image into another by copying and pasting large fragments of the automatic text-encoded information (other encoding can be specified). It is a kind of a digital collage, but from the wrong end of things. Instead of manipulating visual elements, I am manipulating what lies behind them. The images merge in unexpected ways, as the visual fragments mangle and arrange themselves in random ways, while also causing severe discolorations.
Figure 5. TIFF (left) and BMP (right) image, glitched by inserting smaller versions of the image into source image.
While we find some images aggressive, we exhibit counter aggression against them. In order to make the medium come to the surface and be noticed, it has to be broken, and its digital remains displayed. Luckily a corrupted file cannot yet fix its own damage, and so aesthetics of the wound can be freely explored. Databending and glitching effects render the death of the digital photograph aesthetically pleasurable.
Figure 6. JPG image corrupted with ‘Find & Replace’ of select textual symbols (TextEdit) and displacement of code.
Figure 7. CR2 image corrupted with displacement of large amounts of textual symbols within the file (TextEdit).
Figure 8. CR2 image corrupted with ‘Find & Replace’ of select textual symbols (TextEdit).
But the Glitch genre was not the first one to rejoice in the discordance and destruction of the medium. Pointillism, Cubism and Mondrian’s colored grids have already been mentioned in other articles but only for their resemblance in the effects of fragmentation and pixellation to the current glitched image. Many smaller art movements from the past are known for challenging the status quo in other interesting ways. It is important to note similarities between Lettrism from mid XX century and the current Glitch genre, specifically in relation to the production process and ideology. Lettrism explored the idea of “form over content” in the deconstructive sense as well. This avant-garde art making led by Isidore Isou emerged in the 1950s emphasizing “words, letters and signs for purely visual effect, without reference to their meaning.” The most important of the Lettrist practices was the group’s experiments with cinema. One example of the cinematic experimentation called Treatise on Slobber and Eternity was introduced at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival aiming to dismantle the commercial hierarchy of privileging the image over text, and breaking the transparency of narration. Much of the conceptual framework for Lettrism, visibly present in the Treatise, is based on the distinction between two phases of artistic medium development – the “amplifying” phase and the “growth” phase. While the amplifying phase is “characterized by the elaboration of basic formal conventions and vocabularies and the giving of expressive form to various thematic concerns,” the chiseling phase is concerned with the idea of deconstruction, where the “exhaustion with the terms of this ‘expressivity’ have set in and routine and formal stagnation are judged to have taken over.” In this instance, the process leaves behind the content that it once explored thematically, and instead foregrounds “the very conventions and vocabularities of the medium itself as its subject” (the digital medium in Glitch Art is often a subject in itself as well). Martin Jay describes this well in his Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought:
“In his Esthetics of the Cinema of 1952 and elsewhere, Isou
explained that chiseling involved a direct attack on or even
deconstruction of the medium in which the work was grounded,
for example the scratching or tearing of the celluloid filmstrip.
Along with disjunctive editing, in which the sound and the image
were out of synch, and chiseling of the soundtrack, in which its
integrity was also undermined, this assault on the seeming
transparency of the image, as well as on its primacy, was designed
to break the illusion of representation it provided.”
This may not be true for all Glitch artists but perhaps the urge to databend and corrupt the medium stems from the impression that digital images have reached the height of their formal development, and the glitch is a way to reverse the stagnation and begin to deeply question the nature of digital representation. Just as the Lettrists enjoyed tearing, washing, punching holes, overexposing, underexposing, superimposing, scratching, drawing and painting over the surface of the film emulsion in order to draw attention to the formal structures of the medium at moments of film screening, so do Glitchers damage the delicate organization of the digital medium by directly and randomly manipulating image code or other means, in order to reveal a computational aesthetic as a subject in itself. These actions ultimately break with the illusionistic qualities of the medium, and reveal it as a material in itself.
Figure 9. Frame from Treatise on Slobber and Eternity by Isidore Isou, 1951.
OBSERVING AND THEORIZING
I may sound like a broken record, but there still isn’t enough academic literature on the genre of glitch. Even though it has existed in one form or another for sometime, it is still identified as a rogue form of making interesting visuals, which go against the grain of mainstream computer graphics practice.
Even though the mainstream popular culture has adopted the visible characteristics of the glitch for a variety of commercial purposes, they are often seen as imitations, riding on the wave of a trend about to pass. Glitch is employed by many movies as originally pointed out by Iman Moradi in his 2004 thesis Glitch Aesthetics. In the Matrix, the glitch is represented in the form of a repeated sequence of a cat walking down the hallway, telling Neo which world he is now in; in Amelie, the little girl disrupts the analog TV signal to take revenge on a mean neighbour while he is watching an important football game; in Fight Club, glitch like effects are used to enhance the meaning of the scene when Brad Pit states important anti-consumerist themes in the movie; Glitch is used on DVD covers, as special effects, as design elements for mainstream branding and so on. I think the fleeting trend is here to stay and the glitch culture is very much alive, and growing. In all its instances the Glitch is a sign that exists as an opposition or an alternative to the governing body of flawless digital representation. It is a rebel for the sake of being different, thinking twice, and violently reacting against what others want it to accept blindly – that our multisensory imperfect existence is being inevitably and quickly transformed into a seamless and perfect digital experience. But perfect can be really boring.
Figure 10. CR2 image corrupted with inserting fragments of code of many images into once source image (TextEdit).
There are many types of art that use the computer in conventional ways. Artists working in generative art such as Robert Hodgin and Jeffry Ventrella use the machine and a variety of programming languages to produce visually complex and “autonomous” simulations and visualizations, where the imagery displayed is inspired by natural and scientific phenomena such as chemical processes, laws of physics, movements of animals and organization of data. Here in order to simulate the real, the artist (and the computer) is trying to create a “new naturalness of the industrial object as a mirror of Nature.”
While generative art is trying to make the virtual world of the computer increasingly resemble the natural human world, Glitch Art positions itself on the other side of the coin. The Glitch is there not to give the computer and it’s outputs organic qualities but to release its distinctly computational characteristics. These characteristics are based on strictness of the digital realm – if things don’t add up, then they’re broken. We only notice the nature of the machine when something goes wrong. As N. Katherine Hayles notes in her essay “Traumas of Code”:
“As the technological nonconscious expands, the sedimented
routines and habits joining human behaviour to the technological
infrastructure continue to operate mostly outside the realm of
human awareness, coming into focus as objects of conscious attention
only at moments of rapture breakdown and modifications and
extensions of the system.”
The glitch distinguishes the signature of the machine from the human fingerprint. It is what still makes us notice ourselves as flesh and blood. Even though the goal of the glitch genre seems to be the fetishization and celebration of the age of technology, its purpose also lies in separating the two realms: the human and the digital. With the unstoppable, inevitable and exponential interference of technology into our lives and bodies, it is the Glitch that still prevents these two worlds from a total merger. The autograph of the machine is still recognizable, rising as a monument to technological progress and as a warning sign, shocking us awake from the hypnotic glow of the computer monitor. What happens when the errors, failures, breakdowns and digital decay disappear?
I think an important thing to note about Glitch Art is that it – unconsciously or with full awareness – attempts to break spells. These spells have many names, and exist on a variety of scales: overconfidence in our digital technology; mistaken assumption that digital files can be suitable replacements for printed materials; the illusion that digital materials can last forever; hyperrealism in photographs and advertising, where reality is easily manipulated and purposefully misrepresented; the spell of stable and reliable system of capitalism, promoted through the mass proliferation of hyperrealistic imagery, and so on. The paradox here is that although through glitching one spell is broken, another spell takes hold of the viewer – the spell of the unexpected, imperfect, colorful and random artifact. Some of the effects produced with glitching video, images and software facilitates a truly psychedelic experience with hypnotic tendencies. It can also induce nausea and soreness of the eyes, so it is not for the faint of heart or the epileptics.
In retrospect, perhaps Marshal McLuhan was right in his 1967 Medium is the Message: “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” The current mass media, which is thoroughly influenced by the digital world is an environment that “work[s] us over completely.” Putting it simply, you are what you eat. By consuming digital, we become digital. Although it is not yet reflected in our physicality, the digital medium definitely affects how we acquire, digest, store, and retrieve information. To go even further, perhaps the web’s hyperlinking is responsible for hyperactivity disorder – we go off on tangents all the time, trying to multitask, and instead of maintaining focus on one piece of information for an extended period of time, we often find ourselves extracting fragments of visual, auditory and tactile sensations in an erratic manner. “Media by altering the environment evoke in us unique rations of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world.” Just like the glitched images, our psyches, by gaining the characteristics of the digital medium, are in danger of becoming fragmented, discolored, pixellated, and ghosted when the system of representation becomes corrupt. We can take our time and be humans who fully engage in our physical experience but if we don’t keep up with digital integration, we also will become like the proprietary, old formats, which can no longer be rendered by today’s newest software.
Just as the digital image has an underlying coded structure, so will we and Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”, become “produced from miniaturized cells, matrices and memory banks, models of control – and [we will] be reproduced an infinite number of times from these.”
But – science fiction aside – what happens when this transformation truly does become physical? We will no longer be conscious of our atoms, as we integrate with the digital world completely. Our jiggly bits will become digital bits, and we will move through the network of connections at the speed of light. This may be eons away but it is a possibility. What if Star Trek’s teleporting device becomes common means of transporting not only goods across the globe but also people? At first as a new technology it will be vulnerable, and buggy, and until it goes through the same error cleansing as our digital content is going through today, there will be a period of time, a perfect opportunity for a rebel to attack.
We’ll know for sure that if there is ever a future captain Kirk yelling “Beam me up, Scotty!”, there will be a hardcore Glitch enthusiast waiting to databend the signal.
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