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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architecture as media archaeology as retrofuturism

This is certainly not among the usual family of topics I blog about – dead media, media archaeology, archives, media poetics, etc. – and I know very little indeed about architecture. But I found out about these unrealized plans for a “modernized” Bagdad from my colleague Janice Ho and I couldn’t resist scanning the plans as I found them in Architectural Forum in 1955 and posting them here as a pdf. And in fact, there’s more resemblance between these architectural plans and the work I usually do than you would think – media archaeology as extended to architecture, for here we have a kind of conceptual dead-end for what Bagdad could have been…perhaps more retrofuturism than media archaeology. (And then, in an alternate future-as-past, try to imagine the U.S. invading Iraq in 2003 and destroying buildings designed by its most revered, most canonized architects.)

Wright Baghdad Plans 5 Wright Baghdad Plans 6

As far as I can tell from “Frank Lloyd Wright Designs for Bagdad,” Wright was invited by the Development Board of Iraq to Bagdad in 1955 to first design a Grand Opera and a Civic Auditorium. After all, these were the days of tremendous wealth in Iraq as a result of its profits from a deal made in the early 1950s with the Iraq Petroleum Company, headquartered in the U.K. The history of U.S./Iraq relations is too complex for me to attempt to understand here – but I do note that while a bomb exploded in the American Cultural Center and Library in 1951 (targeted at Jewish intellectuals using the library resources), at the same time Iraq was also already understood as a country of vast wealth and resources, for the Development Board had “at its disposal 70 per cent of the country’s enormous oil revenues [equal to $1.4 billion in a six-year program]. Already, the Board’s completed projects of irrigation and flood control are causing the flat desert plain to bloom again, as it did in the days of the hanging gardens and ziggurat towers of legendary Babylon”).

But, as easy as it is to be critical of the article writer’s clear desire to exoticize Iraq, it’s hard to fault Wright for his ambitious desires to design not just a Grand Opera and Civic Auditoriam but also plans for the University (a “circular campus free of cars” yet still with radio and TV studios at the center of campus) as well as the preliminary plans for a new Baghdad Post and Telegraph Building. Yet, even he gives in to exoticizing…but a strange kind of exoticizing that seems to want to acknowledge Iraq on its own terms as a more fruitful, more hopeful alternative to the west. Lloyd Wright writes,

“These designs demonstrate that if we are able to understand and interpret our ancestors, there is no need to copy them. Nor need Baghdad adopt the materialistic structures called ‘modern’ now barging in from the West upon the East. The designs shown here revive the natural beauty of form, the ancient crafts of ceramics and metal, and the use of the ground that produced the architecture of the Middle East.”

“Computers and the Arts”, Dick Higgins (1968)

from “Computers for the Arts,” by Dick Higgins

About a year ago, I was working on the third chapter of Reading Writing Interfaces – “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics” – during which I discovered, among other things, the mutual influence of concrete poetry and Marshall McLuhan. One figure I promised myself I needed to research further once I’d finished my book was Dick Higgins – self-proclaimed ‘intermedia poet’ and publisher of Something Else Press. Higgins, I found, was one of the most obviously influenced by McLuhan, no doubt in large part because Higgins published McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations the same year as his press published the first major anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Invested as he was in poetry that situates itself between two or more inseparable media, Higgins’ notion of intermedia is obviously saturated with McLuhan’s notions of the new electric age and the global village; as he wrote in his “Statement on Intermedia” in 1966, the year before publishing the two volumes by McLuhan and Emmett:

Could it be that the central problem of the next ten years or so, for all artists in all possible forms, is going to be less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly?

Higgins also published his own pamphlet, “Computers for the Arts,” in 1970 (written in 1968, pdf available here) which I’ve just now had a chance to track down and scan. What interests me most about this little pamphlet is how it anticipates so much of the digital art/writing and network art/writing to come in the next forty+ years–experiments in using computers against themselves, or against what Higgins describes in 1970 as their economic uses in science and business. “However,” he writes, “their uses are sufficiently versatile to justify looking into a number of the special techniques for the solution of creative problems.” In “Computers for the Arts,” he goes on to explore how FORTRAN in particular can be used to generate poems, scenarios, what he calls “propositions” that can work through these creative problems in, for example, “1.64 minutes, as opposed to the 16 hours needed to make the original typewritten version.” But the larger point is about understanding tools as processes, just as Alan Kay, Ted Nelson and others advocated for throughout the 1970s and 1980s:

When the artist is able to eliminate his irrational attitudes (if any) about the mythology of computers, and becomes willing not simply to dump his fantasies in the lap of some startled engineer, but to supply the engineer with:

  1. the rudiments of his program in such a language as FORTRAN or one of the other very common ones;
  2. a diagram of the logic of his program, such as I just used to illustrate…
  3. a page or so of how he would like the printout to look

then he will be in a position to use the speed and accuracy of computers. There will be few of the present disappointments, which are due usually more often to the artist’s naivete than to the engineer’s lack of information or good will. The onus is on the artist, not his tools, to do good work.

Here, then, is a pdf of “Computers for the Arts.” Enjoy!

from Apple Basic to Hypercard, or, Translating Translating bpNichol

[reblogged from the Media Archaeology Lab]

As a result of a number of recent researcher visits to the MAL, the question we’ve been mulling over lately is whether, or how, works of digital literature can be said to have “manuscript versions.” Here is the background to this question: on 7 June 2012, I blogged about the 5.25″ floppies of bpNichol’s “First Screening” that had been donated to the lab by Canadian poet Lionel Kearns.

Happily, just a few weeks ago, the lab hosted a visiting researcher from Dalhousie University, Katherine Wooler, who is an English MA student and a graduate fellow with the Editing Modernism in Canada project; Wooler is working on a thesis in which she explores the differences in these versions of “First Screening.” I knew that the Javascript and Quicktime versions online were of course utterly different from the Apple Basic versions I had been looking at via an Apple II emulator. What I didn’t realize, until Wooler worked methodically in the lab for several days, is not only that the floppies donated by Kearns are earlier and incomplete versions of the Apple Basic published version that came out in 1984, but also that the lab’s Hypercard version, on 3.5″ floppy published by Red Deer Press in 1992, is even more starkly different. Wooler has written some tremendously illuminating paragraphs in her thesis, explaining the differences between these versions and trying out the term “beta-phase” instead of “manuscript” as a way of naming the earlier, incomplete, and unpublished versions of “First Screening”:

The Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder has two 5 ¼-inch floppies with incomplete versions of First Screening on them (along with the requisite Apple IIe for viewing them). These beta-phase versions of First Screening not only differ from each other and from the published version (which is available online as an emulation of the software running on an Apple IIe) in content, but also in metadata. The two disks contain different selections from the eventual First Screening line up and this variation in primary text content affects the underlying layers of text that are intrinsically tied to the properties of the software. For example, typing the CAT command for catalogue of disk contents brings up a list of programs on each disk and the amount of space occupied by each. While one disk indicates that the poems claim 013 sectors of space on the floppy, the other—which has more of the final selection of poems—requires 045 sectors of space for the First Screening program. Additionally, by entering the command GOSUB 500 on the latter disk brings the user to the dedication at the end of the poems, while executing the same command on the disk with less poems calls up the piece “Tidal Pool.” The message that greets readers when the disk is first booted up and prompts them to type the RUN command claims its own 002 sectors of space and appears as a program titled “Hello” when the CAT or LIST commands are executed. The metadata also confirms that these two floppies are not complete versions. A quick consult with the Apple IIe manual reveals that the lack of asterisk beside the list of programs recalled with the CAT command means that these programs are unlocked and open for edits from any user.

In 1992-93, J. B. Hohm attempted to replicate First Screening in Hypercard format using HyperTalk programming language and he published the finished translation on 3 ½-inch floppy disks. A greater range of machines could read this version of First Screening, yet, at the same time, a couple of statistics about one possible computer that could be used for viewing the work indicate the accelerated rate of media evolution that accompanied the increase in available options for personal computers: I popped Hohm’s re-creation of First Screening into a Macintosh Powerbook 160, which was released in 1992 and discontinued in 1994. Loading this translation of First Screening highlights how it is impossible for anyone working with Nichol’s concrete poetry to avoid the material nature of his work. In the section titled “Fonts and Bolding” in the introduction/menu section of the disk, Hohm makes special note of typography in the section titled, an element that is of paramount importance in most of Nichol’s print concrete as well. Options in the menu allow users the choice between viewing First Screening in bolded or un-bolded text, and users can also choose between three fonts: Chicago, Geneva, or Monaco. Hohm implies that users may have an even greater font selection depending on the model of computer they are using. He writes, “At the very minimum, your Macintosh should support Geneva, Chicago, and Monaco fonts.”

When First Screening was translated from Applesoft Basic to HyperTalk programming language it was published on a different size of floppy disk, it became viewable on a whole new range of personal computers, and the underlying layers of text behind the viewing text transformed. The programs on the disk that execute the poems are measured in new units, and the commands that call up metadata have changed. In fact, the viewer’s ability to communicate directly with the program through simple command lines is impeded by the presence of a user menu that requires the viewer to communicate with the program by selecting options with the cursor instead. The cursor function builds up the layers of text (in this case HyperTalk coding language) between the viewing text and the initial text that was input by the author. Now the placement of the cursor in the table of contents initiates a command sequence instead of the user perusing the location of individual poems with the LIST command and manually entering a GOSUB command to jump ahead to a specific poem in the sequence. Nichol was aware of the subtleties of these layers of text and how they were dependent upon their medium. A text file (provided by Jim Andrews and co.) of Nichol’s original First Screening created with Applesoft Basic reveals that Nichol imbedded a bonus poem in the programming language. Using the REM command as a prefix he created a poem about the biblical flood that includes word play such as “REM ark.” In the Basic language REM indicates a line of text in the code that will not be executed as part of the program and is only visible when the code is being read in its raw form. Like the HTML of today’s use of the forward slash and the asterisk, REM preceded lines within code that were essentially references for the programmer. In Nichol’s hidden poem, “ark” is the primary text, but “REM” couples with it to form a larger word that is a hybrid of command and content. Since REM is not a command in HyperTalk, Hohm must include this poem as a bonus feature that is purely content, thereby losing the play-on words and an integral part of the poem’s identity.

Below are photographs Wooler took of the Hypercard version of “First Screening” housed in the Media Archaeology Lab as well as the lab’s still functioning Macintosh Powerbook 160 from 1992.

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from “Web Stalker” to the Googlization of Literature

I’m nostalgic for a moment I never lived through – when we were concerned enough with monopolies over access to information online that not only did we call the competition between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator a “browser war,” but there were even competitions such as the Amsterdam-based “Browserday” to design new, innovative browsers.

Nowadays, while there are a few more choices for browsers and still many reasons to be concerned about how our experience of the Web is being framed for us, search engine algorithms are the new, more obvious information gatekeepers. In fact, the 21st century version of Internet Explorer’s monopoly is now so obvious that it’s nearly no longer noticeable, for when we search for data on the Web we are no longer “searching” – instead, we are “Googling.” And so, in line with what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “The Googlization of Everything,” a new mode of writing is emerging that I call (in the postscript to my book Reading Writing Interfaces) “readingwriting”: the practice of writing through the network, which, as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network, constantly reads our writing and writes our reading. This strange blurring of, even feedback loop between, reading and writing, quite simply signals the end of literature as we’ve known it. It is the Googlization of literature. And readingwriters (such as Darren Wershler, Bill Kennedy, Tan Lin, and John Cayley/Daniel Howe) who experiment with/on Google are not simply pointing to its ubiquity; they are implicitly questioning how it works, how it generates the results it does, and so how it sells ourselves and our language back to us.

The impetus of this literary critique of Google is clearly aligned with that of early works of net art such as the “Web Stalker” from 1997 – an experimental web browser or piece of “speculative software” created by the art collective I/O/D (consisting of Simon Pope, Colin Green, and Matthew Fuller). “Web Stalker” essentially turns the web inside-out, presenting the viewer/navigator with the html code of a given page and all links leading to and from the page are presented to the viewer as a visualization. It is an artistic tool for drawing attention to the limits and possibilities of a particular reading/writing interface, the web browser. As co-creator Colin Green put it in a 1998 interview with Geert Lovink, “[b]rowsers made by the two best-known players frame most peoples’ experience of the web. This is a literal framing. Whatever happens within the window of Explorer, for instance, is the limit of possibility.” The foregoing is then followed up by Matthew Fuller’s clarification that “Web Stalker” “is not setting itself as a universal device, a proprietary switching system for the general intelligence, but a sensorium – a mode of sensing, knowing and doing on the web that makes its propensities – and as importantly, some at least of those ‘of the web’ that were hitherto hidden – clear.”

Since “Web Stalker” was created sixteen years ago, and runs only on Windows 95 and Mac Classic OS (which in turn usually requires an equally obsolete dialup connection), it’s fairly difficult to get it running and there are also very few high quality images available of it online. Thankfully, Matthew Fuller generously provided me with images which I’m making available here. If you have the technical know-how, you can still download “Web Stalker” here and get it to write a reading of the Web like you’ve never seen before…or at least, not seen since the late 90s.

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It’s Not Digital Humanities – it’s Media Studies

Thanks to the generosity of people at the Library of Congress such as Trevor Owens, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst on the LOC’s blog The Signal. I especially wanted to talk with Ernst not only about his Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF), which bears a strong affiliation to my Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), but also about whether he sees a connection between his archival approach, the MAF, and preservation. Ernst responded by explaining that the emphasis in the MAF is more on training and “enforcing” media research through excavation and even a mathematical mode of thinking than on preservation. In terms of the latter, then, it’s no surprise that Jussi Parikka points out on his blog that “Ernst is very reluctant to call this ‘Digital Humanities’: it’s media studies!” While DH is certainly deeply invested in doing and making as thinking, as (and as a response to) theory, I think that Ernst is still coming out of a Kittlerian project to “drive the spirit out of the humanities” and in this sense, no matter how inclusive DH becomes, perhaps media archaeology will steadfastly remain media studies, not DH.

You can find the entirety of the interview with Ernst here. As always, comments welcome.

Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeological Fundus