Glitch Aesthetics

Below is the entry on “Glitch Aesthetics” I wrote for the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. As always, so much more could have been and should be written…

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Glitch Aesthetics

‘Glitch’ was first used in the early 1960s to describe either a change in voltage in an electrical circuit or any kind of interference in a television picture. By the 1990s, ‘glitch’ broadly described brief bursts of unexpected behavior in electrical circuits but it also more specifically was used to describe a style of electronic music that was created from already-malfunctioning audio technology (or from causing technology to malfunction) as a way to explore the life of the digital machine and as a reaction against the push in the computing industry to create a ever-more clean, noise-free sound. The term has since been appropriated by musicians, gamers, artists, and designers as a name for what Olga Goriumnova and Alexei Shulgin call a “genuine software aesthetics” (111). (Ssee NET.ART, GAMEPLAY) Glitch aesthetics, then, involves experimentation with the visible results of provoked or unprovoked computer error. (Such glitches could include aestheticizing the visible results of a virus or even provoking the computer to take on a virus in order to explore its underlying workings.) (see VIRAL AESTHETICS)

Its relation, then, to an aesthetics of failure and to the embrace of chance means that glitch aesthetics clearly finds its roots in early twentieth century avant-garde experiments in art, writing, theater, and music. These experiments on the one hand sought to disrupt the status quo which was supposedly maintained by tranquil, harmonius art and on the other hand they reflected a search for a new realism – one that represented the noise and chaos of a rapidly industrializing world. Luigi Russolo, for example, wrote the Futurist manifesto “The Art of Noises” in 1913 in which he declares that “Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds…This musical evolution is paralleled by the multiplication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front. Not only in the roaring atmosphere of major cities, but in the country too, which until yesterday was totally silent, the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound…no longer arouses any feeling.” Russolo believed, then, that noise – random, dissonant, machine-based sounds as opposed to what he called “pure sound” – was fast becoming the only way to experience the world anew.

Glitch aesthetics also finds its roots in early twentieth century Dada experiments to escape the out-dated notion of the romantic, individual geniuis whose art and writing was seen to be driven by a singular, self-reliant author with a clear intent. Instead, Dadaists such as Tristan Tzara attempted to open writing and art to the chaos and unpredictability of everyday life by, for example, advocating in “To Make a Dadaist Poem” that we cut up words from a newspaper article, randomly draw these words from a hat, and copy them “conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.” It was an attempt to redefine the role of the artist/writer by taking away authorial control and seeking to move away from the egotism of the individual romantic geniuis. More, it was also an attempt to redefine the nature of an aesthetic object. If a poem could consist of randomly chosen words and if, as Marcel Duchamp demonstrated with his ready-mades, a sculpture could consist of a urinal turned upside down or a bicycle-wheel affixed to a stool, then a whole range of traditionally unbeautiful, everyday objects and sounds are available as art.

Glitch, then, takes this radical shift in what counts as an aesthetic object or aesthetic experience and asserts that its disruptiveness (in that a glitch constitutes a moment of dysfunctionality in the computer system) defamiliarizes the slick surface of the hardware/software of the computer and so ideally transforms us into critically minded observers of the underlying workings of the computer. As Goriumnova and Shulgin put it, “A glitch is a mess that is a moment, a possibility to glance at software’s inner structure…Although a glitch does not reveal the true functionality of the computer, it shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized” (114). One of the best-known creators of glitch art and games is the Dutch-Belgian collective Jodi (whose members are Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans). Jodi has, for example, modified old videogames such as Quake – reassembling the original game so that its architecture no longer functions according to the conventions of *gameplay. For example, Jodi is well known for exploiting a glitch in Quake that causes the player to be entrapped in a cube; the glitch is provoked every time the Quake software attempts to visualize the cube’s black-and-white checked wallpaper. (“jodi,” “untitled game”)

It is worth emphasizing that glitches may be provoked or unprovoked. In addition to Jodi’s provoked glitch described above, glitch artist Jeff Donaldson writes that one might also provoke a glitch by sending “an audio signal through video input” or by “opening image files in word processing applications. JPGs become text, which can then be randomly edited and saved again as images to be displayed through the filter of codecs.” An unprovoked glitch, then, captures a moment in which an error in the computer system is made visible; it therefore exploits randomness and chance as a way to disrupt the digital ideal of a clean, frictionless, error-free environment in which the computer supposedly fades into the background while we, as creators or workers, effortlessly produce without any attention to the ways in which the computer (or software) determines what and how we produce. As Donaldson puts it, “[i]t is chance made manifest and a spontaneous reordering of data, like the wave function collapse of quantum theory. In its pure, wild sense, a glitch is the ghost in the machine, the other side of intention, a form that is hidden until it manifests itself of its own accord.”

SEE ALSO: hacking, interface, randomness

References and further reading

  • Donaldson, Jeffrey. “Glossing over Thoughts on Glitch. A Poetry of Error.” Artpulse Magazine.
    Glitch.” Wikipedia.
  • Goriunova, Olga and Alexei Shulgin. 2008. “Glitch.” In Software Studies: A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Boston, MA: MIT Press), 110-119.
  • jodi.org.
  • jodi.” okno.be.
  • Krapp, Peter. 2011. Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P.
  • eds. Moradi, Iman and Ant Scott, Joe Gilmore, Christopher Murphy. 2009. Glitch: Designing Imperfection. New York: Mark Batty Publisher.
  • Russolo, Luigi. “The Art of Noises.”
  • Tzara, Tristan. “To Make a Dadaist Poem
  • untitled game.” jodi.org.
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One thought on “Glitch Aesthetics

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