September 24, 2012
The Staying Power of Glitch Art?

"I’m not sure why glitch art is so amusing." — Mark Wilson for Co.Design


If not amusing, it certainly is intriguing to a growing number and is receiving increasing coverage among tech and design blogs this year.  A question that is asked both by those practicing the art form and those observing is whether it is simply a fad, a fashion that will be worn out and forgotten.  Like all things that are swept up into the mainstream, they must move aside to make room for newer tastes and trends.  The question is how soon will this happen, and what shape will the art form take once it makes the mark it’s meant to make?


Is mathematics beautiful?  After all, it is a form of human expression.  It can certainly be argued that there is a kind of beauty to mathematical visualizations, and that forms we may consider naturally beautiful can be described using mathematical equations, expressed mathematically.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that all mathematics is beautiful or that beauty is always expressible in mathematical terms.  In fact, the term beauty itself is very problematic, and perhaps significantly less relevant to the discussion of art than aesthetics.  If we take aesthetics to be more than a favorable attitude to certain surface characteristics, that it is a socially constructed criteria by which something is appreciated, then we have some sort of framework to begin approaching the question of Glitch Art.  We’ll return to the issue of mathematics a bit later.


The details of Glitch Art’s history are still being worked out (as the form itself is still developing, who is involved and how they came to it are still in flux), however it’s clear now that there are a few key moments which can provide us with contextual clues for understanding its aesthetics.  Glitch Music arrived with artists’ increased access to digital audio technologies for production and playback.  The artefacts produced by these machines malfunctioning or operating other than as intended were taken as raw sonic material for the creation of music or sound works.  The traditions from which this practice originates are outlined in detail by Caleb Kelly in “Cracked Media” and by Kim Cascone in “The Aesthetics of Failure”.  The short story is that extended techniques, a staple of experimental music in the early 20th century had been applied to new audio technologies which were gradually being accepted as musical instruments.  As in the case with turntables, it is, more often than not, through preparation and extension of prescribed use that a particular device/technology becomes re-imagined as a musical instrument.  The application of extended techniques to electronics and electronic media form the basis for cultural practices such as Dirty Media, Dirty New Media, Circuit Bending, and Glitch Art.


Glitch Music was a genre developed when the compact disc was a primary vehicle of distributing audio releases.  Album art developed for these CD releases could be identified as some of the earlier self-aware forms of Glitch Art.  The characteristics of the visual forms took analogous representational forms to the digital audio artefacts.  The stutter, click, skip, and the broken file were paired with repeating structures, fragmented abstractions, and the use of text/code as a formal element.  However, it’s currently accepted that the artist Tony “Ant” Scott is the first known for operating as a self-aware glitch artist.


What is today commonly accepted as glitch art has a great deal to do with digital artefacts.  These artefacts are the products of entropic processes altering the structure of data.  Data exists within digital systems in several forms, including permanent structures (hardware configurations), abstraction layers, instructions (programs/code), and file data (numerically encoded values).  By perturbing this data, you’ll eventually produce an artefact (an explosion of pixels, a screen full of strange characters or broken lines of code, a stream of chirping static from your speakers, the blue screen of death, a total system lock up, any combination of bizarre and unexpected behavior).  Although these artefacts are not the whole story, they are a big part of where the glitch in Glitch Art comes from.


What is it about these artefacts that garners so much attention and has seemingly launched a new genre of art?  In the case of visual artefacts, we are already familiar with their basic formal elements from previous forms of art history.  In fact, the whole history of art (illusion/perception) has been referenced in creating today’s visual technologies (“Ideology of the Interface” by Andy Kopra).  The grid of pixels found in our digital displays is structurally similar to the grid of warp and weft threads in weaving, or stitches in simple forms of knitting.  The orthogonal structure of pixels is mirrored in the organization of memory blocks used to create images from data.  The whole foundation of computer programming and memory storage is primarily based upon 2-dimensional arrays containing strings of binary bits of information.  Any artefact which may easily be produced on a digital display already bears resemblance to any art form which deals in some way with rectilinear or simple geometric forms.  Certain styles from Modernism—Cubism, De Stijl, Bauhaus—set the stage for recognizing as strangely familiar the visual vocabulary of broken lines, blocky pixels, jagged edges, found in much of the visual mass of Glitch Art.  The raster of video imagery breaks sequences of pictures into lines of dots, each read out in a linear fashion.  Artefacts which result from disruptions to the way in which data is displayed line-by-line on the screen is rendered familiar due to the similarities with video noise/artefacts.  Perhaps it’s going a bit too far in stating that 8-bit graphics was informed by textile arts and the particular approaches developed within that ancient practice in depicting subjects/objects/scenes/texture, but the parallel between the two is undeniable.


Though not the complete picture, the above comparisons to previously known forms illustrate there is already the seed of the familiar within Glitch Art.  What is clear at this point is that experiences create the foundation for understanding something as already familiar.  In the case of art history, we may not have directly experienced a Mondrian painting, and yet his distinctive style is already everywhere, explicit references without labels indicating provenance.  As youths, we wander the urban landscape absorbing the images around us, unaware as to their origin.  Modernism is already the unconscious of our culture, and although it’s not a given that we’d have already seen a particular style or piece, we can be sure that we’ve seen something that may have been influenced by it.  Now it really is going too far in making the connection between the organizational strategy of the grid used in early textiles and the development of modernism and the industrial revolution (or is it?).


In the case of communications technologies, it is possible that whole generations lack the experience of VHS, or the analog precursors to the digital technologies we have today.  So it may not hold that these glitches we see dominating Glitch Art are already somehow familiar.  What is clear though is that each particular technology or tool (sets of tools) have their own signature.  By this, I mean that they produce their own unique collection of artefacts.  Because the entropic processes responsible for artefacts across all mediums (in communication and otherwise) will very likely be present in some statistically significant quantity, we can make the conclusion that artefacts will happen regardless of the system.  This is another way of saying that if the Second Law of Thermodynamics holds true, there will always be noise, dirt, glitches, artefacts, behaviors which are beyond the scope of intention.  So it’s not a matter of whether or not Glitch Art will last—it’s only a name describing a certain collection of activities happening during a certain period of time when a certain collection of tools and cultural practices overlapped.  Though it’s not certain what will follow Glitch Art, or what Glitch Art will become, the history leading up to it indicates that this practice is not particularly new.  It is a continuation of a tradition of exploring extended techniques.  Here, rather than of particular musical instruments, the extended techniques apply to electronics and electronic media.  On the horizon, it’s likely that the digital fabrication technologies (CAD, CNC, Rapid Prototyping/3D Printing, Textile Fabrication, etc.) will be touched by this exploration of extended techniques as well, especially as the tools become more affordable and widely available.  What makes Glitch Art unique will likely emerge with the continuation of this exploration of extended techniques applied to developing technologies once they become more widely available.


Using the question of mathematical beauty as a way into structuring a framework for the aesthetics Glitch Art was doomed from the beginning but necessary to get us where we needed to go.  As far as aesthetics is concerned, a full assessment of what exactly Glitch Art consists in will have to wait for a more focused essay.  The underlying aesthetics of Glitch Art as they relate to certain historical art forms and to the structural nature of their technological substrate covered in the paragraphs above are simply insufficient to make a determination as to the future relevance of Glitch Art.  Aesthetics alone cannot hope to address this issue anyways.  As I understand things, the timelessness of an idea lies in its ability to cut through to some core essence of what it means to be human.


Since at the core of all digital technologies is essentially a binary system of mathematics, it seems reasonable to conclude that digital art involves expression through mathematics.  Whether mathematics is the subject or the means to and end, it’s difficult to reason mathematics out of digital works of art.  It’s there like the paint in painting, though in a way there is slippage in between these worlds of physical reality and virtual numerical world.  When the numbers must be expressed, translated across media, something interesting happens.  The borderlands between physical and digital seem to be a crucial aspect of Glitch Art.  In these borderlands, polemics are discarded in favor of pluralities.  Terms and definitions with clearly labelled categories are rendered fuzzy again.  When a slip occurs between communication systems, moments arise in which certainties are made fluid.  It is this fluidity, the slipperiness of surfaces that Glitch Art strives to maintain in its pursuit of noisy/dirty digital media.  Where meaning becomes multifaceted and subjective, we begin to see that there is a structure to the ways in which we communicate, and that it could be otherwise.  It is perhaps somewhere along these lines that Glitch Art contains within its noisy culture a thread capable of surviving the test of time.

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    In the case of communications technologies, it is possible that whole generations lack the experience of VHS, or the...
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    A fascinating and thorough essay about the style of art I am personally exploring through Tumblr. Worth a read.
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