// The Way of Their Errors: Glitch Art Chicago Style ░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ Paul Hertz
Over the past decade Chicago has enjoyed a reputation as a center for artists within a worldwide subculture of experimentation in electronic media. Knit together by global communications networks, the tendency known as “glitch” or “glitch art” centers around the noisy and colorful errors propagated when electronic media systems and digital encoding are unexpectedly interrupted or misbehave.
“Glitch” seems to have come into popular use during the 1960s, with the American space flight program. In a newspaper interview in 1965, Christopher Columbus Kraft, director of the manned space flight program at NASA, characterizes a computer malfunction as a glitch. (Bylinsky 1965) Pressed for an explanation, he says “A glitch is a transient.” He further avows that “A transient is a sudden change in the power being applied to a system. If your television set gets hit by lightning—that’s a glitch.”
As we might conclude from Kraft’s remarks, the characteristic element of glitch art, the glitch, is transient and unexpected, afflicts electronics and computer systems, and may be caused by outside influences, such as lightning—or by the purposeful intervention of artists. A glitch may erupt in various ways within a system: as the result of complex interactions of system components, as an outright error in electronics or software (a bug), as a degradation in quality in a system under stress, or from external factors such as electrical storms or artists. As lightning is also known to do, artists may strike twice or more in the same place. Probably in most cases they get the same results for each strike, but in some cases they get different results, a sign that the system has an unpredictable or chaotic response. This sort of response fascinates glitch artists.
For example, the blocky artifacts that appear on digital televisions during sportscasts are often a result of lack of bandwidth somewhere in the transmission stream. They reveal underlying characteristics of the digital encoding used to compress and decompress the video signal, such as its use of square blocks of pixels, the way it records motion, or its preference for continuous audio over continuous image. The software that controls the compression and decompression, called a codec, is based on a mathematically precise description called a specification. A specification is developed to satisfy various constraints, typically by panels of experts in electronic engineering, networks, software, and human cognition.
Compression comes in two basic flavors: lossy and non-lossy. Lossy compression throws out data in order to squeeze media into a smaller file size or transmission rate. What gets thrown out? If the media is intended to be received by humans, lossy compression theoretically throws out information we’re barely aware of anyhow. In audio, frequencies that are too high for most people to hear may be filtered out. In images, contrast is usually considered more important than color. Hence, JPEG compression of images shifts colors while conserving relative brightness, imperceptibly at high quality/low compression but more visibly as compression increases. In video, many pixels remain identical (within a specified threshold) from frame to frame, so only the pixels that change get saved in most frames. Removing the complete frames and leaving only the motion frames—a popular glitch technique known as datamoshing—results in smeared colors that follow the motion but fail to deliver an exact image of what is moving. Nevertheless, you might be able to recognize the motion of a basketball game imposed on a bowl of fruit, and find aesthetic pleasure and even insight in the idiosyncratic artifacts, in the recognition of motion and in the revelation of hidden aspects of the medium. Glitch art plays with all these aspects of glitch, and more.
// Critical Glitch
A glitch appears to be a simple phenomenon, just an accident, but further study reveals that it is reporting back to us all kinds of information about the system in which it occurs, including the design and underlying assumptions of the system. The design of compression codecs to suit human cognitive abilities suggests not just that people matter to software engineers, but that the engineers in turn are charged with maintaining certain qualities in media. If we look at media technologies as commodities and examine the publicity associated with them, we can see that perfect reproduction of image and sound, smooth and continuous motion and uninterrupted transmission all figure as historically desirable goals in models of technological progress that date back to the 19th century Industrial Revolution and continue through the 20th and 21st centuries. To perfection and continuity we must add one more goal, with the advent of wireless networks: ubiquity. Soon, very soon, you can rightly expect beautiful, continuous images everywhere you go, as real as real (for a modest fee). Seen from this perspective, a glitch is nothing less than an insult to our desire for perfection, continuity, and ubiquity.
But perfection and continuity and ubiquity are not simply the sheen on a constantly receding future that lures consumers to buy goods in the present, they are downright illusory. Pop the hood on media technology and you find nothing but discontinuity, usually just below the threshold of perception, as in the graceful degradation engineered into a clever codec. Discontinuity is the very definition of digital, which is no less glitchy than analog was—it just has different glitches. Furthermore, cultural movements from the Romantics on—usually in the wake of the most recent war—have opposed the equation of technological progress with social progress, regarding it as little more than an ideological justification for the exercise of power by unenlightened if not outright destructive elites. Seen from this perspective, a glitch is more than an error: It is a rupture in our collective techno-hypnosis, a herald of underlying realities.
Though not all glitch artists work with glitch as a political statement, its quality as an act of rupture is present even in work that has no particular ideological bent. Glitch informs us that noise and error and strange behavior are not alien interruptions of our technological systems, they are products of the systems themselves. Entropy—the tendency of all physical systems to run down—is universal, it cannot be banished. Nor can chaos—the tendency of complex systems to display unexpected or emergent behavior—be sealed away or smoothed out by illusions. Nothing is more certain than the unexpected, including social change with all its risks.
// Sublime Glitch
The notion that glitch can cleave open a system to reveal its underlying nature, both as a human artifact and as a physical entity, suggests that glitch operates as a source of knowledge: rupture and revelation cleave together to generate insight. The suddenness of glitch and the revelation of an “other” reality induces feelings of vertigo. In this sense it partakes of the sublime, “the beginning of a terror which we are barely able to endure.” (Rilke 1958, 7) Video and audio glitch affects the senses in much the way that 1960s light shows at rock concerts did, with the added benefit of real-time transcoding of audio and video signals (you see what you hear and hear what you see). As a “calculated disruption of the senses” it immerses and alters sensory perception and shifts our sense of time. Immersion has long been a metaphorical stand-in for transcendental experiences which cannot be accessed with any certainty. It only takes a leap of imagination to understand that life is a glitch: Existence is a transient artifact brought about by error conditions arising in non-existence.
// The Glitch Debate
Visually and audibly, the productions of glitch art resemble earlier work that identified itself as “chance operations,” “noise music,” “chaos,” “complexity,” “feedback,” “transcoding” and “hacking.” This has left the door open to a wide range of imagery and sound being offered as glitch, to the point where any noisy or distorted image may be called glitch art, even when the connection to transient system errors is absent or at least debatable. In his book The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2002) Lev Manovich singled out transcoding—by which he meant the protean capacity of digital data to be represented in any media format one chooses—as a fundamental aspect of digital culture. One of the artists in glitChicago, Benjamin Berg, began his experiments with transcoding in the mid-1990s, eventually recording his music and performing under the name stAllio!. Kyle Evans and James Connolly’s “Cracked Ray Tube” installations developed from experiments with using audio signals to drive video. Harking back to ASCII art (images created from text) from the early days of computation, glitch subculture has also delighted in creating illegible texts/textures using the vastly expanded character set, known as Unicode, that is available through the font technology of current operating systems. Arguably, this craft is more unpredictable than chaotic or glitchy; nevertheless, it is identified with glitch. stAllio! has software online that will let you try your hand at Unicoding. Antonio Roberts created a (free) glitch font, Dataface. A. Bill Miller has experimented extensively with type and gridded design in wall installations, videos and performances. Melissa Barron has been working with glitching and remixing gridded images that considerably antedate digital technology, working with needlepoint samplers and weaving using a Jacquard loom. In the late 1970s, Paul Hertz was using chance operations, sometimes in performances as the dysfunctional fortuneteller Ignotus the Mage, to generate tiling patterns and music.
Hardware hacking and circuit bending also preceded and influenced glitch. Sometimes the modified gaming modules, video processors and electronic toys typical of this tendency are truly glitchy—other times the modifications lead to noise and images that are certainly full of chance artifacts but all under the performer’s control. Modifications don’t have to be complicated to yield glitches. Jeff Kolar’s “Smoke Detector” performance for glitChicago involves remaking/remixing smoke detectors by installing and de-installing them. Lisa Slodki’s process doesn’t even require modification. She works with short analog video loops that she digitizes and then records again as analog. The process results in “disjointing” and other artifacts that reveal the instability of VHS and of the process itself. Curt Cloninger has employed similar strategies with text, moving words from a text editor to speech synthesis to speech recognition back to text to image to text recognition to text again. By making language speak itself through technology, Cloninger reveals slippages in information transmission that also oblige language to reveal its own discontinuities—it’s a kind of inverse Socratic sleight-of-hand, where the speaker reveals an ignorance we did not know it possessed.
Glitch artists themselves have questioned whether any glitch that can be repeated is a glitch at all. You can modify an image file in a text editor and then reopen it as an image (a practice known as databending) and you will get unpredictable results that are the consequence of imaging software attempting to read a corrupted file. You can also learn precisely where to modify the file to get predictable results, even if the images still look glitchy. Both situations obey a strict logic, for computers are logic machines, but in one instance we can visualize and control the outcomes. As artists gain control over glitching processes, do they cease to make glitch art in any true sense? If they aim for a particular personal “style” of glitch art, have they turned glitch from an unscriptable event into an aesthetic value?
Aware of the humor in these sorts of questions, Antonio Roberts and Jeff Donaldson (a circuit-bending artist also known as “notendo”) created “Glitch Safari,” a Flickr photo group dedicated to the capture and admiration of “wild” glitches. In his essay for glitChicago, “A Swing and a Miss: Knuckleballs, Abstracted Affect, and the Glitch Art Process,” Curt Cloninger argues that as long as the chaotic and unpredictable processes triggered by glitch artists continue to confound and delight the viewer, questions as to the strict definition of glitch will remain moot. (In the spirit of glitch you should read that essay right now, at least the first paragraph.) If current glitching settles down into an aesthetic groove, that’s just the way culture operates, bringing the uncanny into our ken and then hanging it over the hearth. As long as there are new technologies, there will be new glitches. Whether we admire it or try to ignore it, glitch is a cultural constant.
// Chicago Glitch
Three festivals of “noise and new media” took place in Chicago from 2010 through 2012, with international reach. GLI.TC/H 2010 took place from September 29 to October 3, 2010 and billed itself as a “noise and new media event/conference/symposium/festival/gathering in CHICAGO.” GLI.TC/H 20111 took place in November 2011 in Chicago, US, Amsterdam, NL, and Manchester, UK. The most recent festival, GLI.TC/H 2112, happened in Chicago in December 2012. The festivals owed their success to the organizational efforts of Nick Briz, Evan Meaney, Rosa Menkman, and Jon Satrom, a core group collectively known as the gli.tc/h/bots. The expanded 2011 festival counted on significant contributions from William Robertson, Kim Asendorf, Theodore Darst, Antonio Roberts, Jessica Westbrook, jonCates, Jake Elliott and others. Enemy Sound (now TriTriangle), a venue for experimental audio performance started by Jason Soliday, Nightingale micro-cinema, Club Foot, Transistor, Roxaboxen Exhibitions, MBLabs, Rodan and other venues in Chicago provided space and equipment. Some assistance from Kickstarter campaigns and a grant from Chicago’s non-profit Propeller Fund supported various editions of the festival in Chicago. Nick Briz provides a more complete summary of the festivals in Chicago and abroad at http://gli.tc/h/faq/.
Chicago’s long history of alternative venues and distribution networks for art and music prepared the ground. The city’s lively electronic and noise music scene, DIY apartment and cooperative galleries, and early roots in open culture distribution of video and digital media directly contributed to the festivals. Chicago’s new music, free jazz and improvisation scene undoubtedly paved the way for experimentation in other areas. The historical messiness of Chicago art, from the Hairy Who on through “dirty new media” and over-the-top laptop audio and video improvisation nurtured a small but receptive audience for glitch. Rob Ray’s DIY new media exhibition space DeadTech, which ran from 1998 to 2008 in the Logan Square neighborhood, and organizations such as Upgrade!Chicago (also known as Chicago New Media) and Dorkbot hosted presentations and work by many of the local participants in the 2000s. Enemy Sound provided space for many of the local experiments with audio glitch. The Electronic Sound Studio, a critical venue for new music and recording, also fostered glitch with its hardware hacking and circuit bending workshops.
Genealogies of artistic influence in a networked world display none of the tidy “family trees” of artistic styles typical of traditional art history. Networked media bundle diverse media types into continually shifting and evolving layers of file formats, codecs, communications protocols, distribution systems and online interfaces. Media contain other media, layers contain other layers: ancestral strands split and rejoin in a loopy web. Recombinant chaos rules network media, constant remix rules network culture. Sharing and appropriation tangle influence. Nick Briz’s Glitch Codec Tutorial has been the starting point for many a glitch artist. James Connolly and Kyle Evans have made a point of publishing tutorials on their techniques for glitching video. PoxParty, Briz, stAllio!, Joseph Y0lk Chiocchi, Hertz, and many other glitch artists share their software or publish it as their art. The software tends to bear the impress of the artist’s style — arguably, it spreads the artist’s influence — but its code is frequently available to be altered by anyone who cares to do so.
The concepts are no less tangled than the media. Prior to his involvement in glitch, jonCates, one of several artists in glitChicago who teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), already promoted “dirty new media” as a strategy for smearing excessively clean technologies with the stain of bodily experience. He credits the notorious/glorious entity Netochka Nezvanova and media artists JODI as influences. It’s not hard to connect dirty new media to the “set of dirty little practices” known as tactical media, too. Developed by political and media activists and artists, tactical media is as much an aesthetic act as a political one. (Garcia 1997, Lovink 2002) UK artist Antonio Roberts staged a Dirty New Media festival for “digital artists, hacktivists and new media explorers” in Birmingham, UK, that included work by Nick Kegeyan and Shawné Michaelain Holloway. Holloway’s practice of “dirty new media” uses appropriated media to examine the collision of machine culture with sexuality. Kegeyan, a recent graduate of SAIC, follows some of the same tactics of presenting remixed appropriated material in ways that cause an uneasy sense of complicity in the viewer (one thinks of Andy Warhol of the “Death and Disasters” series, for a precedent). Holloway, Kegeyan and other artists sometimes amplify this sensation by choosing to avoid contexts that would brand their work as “art.” Alfredo Salazar-Caro has complicated the issue of influence further by creating deliberately bogus artistic movements/internet memes, “DITHER_D00M,” and its companion “Mayan New Media.”
Open culture distribution schemes and a gift economy are typical of many artists working with glitch. Chiocchi and Briz developed 0p3nr3p0.net as a platform for sharing and archiving media links. 0p3nr3p0 is open for contributions from anyone throughout the glitChicago exhibition. Leaning towards the tactical media side of glitch art, Channel TWo use glitch as one more tool in their kit for social critique. Their work ranges from the humorous—a collection of computer viruses available on USB sticks (t14nt3d l0v3)—to the documentary, in a downloadable app for smartphones that tracks police violence due to misinformation and crime-tracking software errors with low-resolution 3D image overlays on geolocated camera images (polyCopRiotNode_, in versions for Washington, DC, and Chicago). Their distribution strategies are relatively direct compared with Salazar-Caro’s recordings of stealth projections of glitch art in major art museums ([STREET_TEAM], in various cities) or Jeff Kolar’s unlicensed experimental radio broadcast platform, Radius. Some distribution strategies such as BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer, a video projection event) or Speed Show (renting all the computers in an internet cafe for a networked art event) are closely associated with digital cultures. For glitChicago, jonCates is installing a wireless network router with 15 years of his collected archives freely accessible for download to anyone connecting with the router. In homage to a similar action by artist Joshua Davis, Nick Briz made the contents of his hard drive with a year’s worth of work available for download. Though glitch art has occasionally been sold, most of its distribution strategies mark its distance from the “art world.” Glitch has lately shown up in mainstream music videos, commercial television and movies, and fashion. Popularity is probably much more of a threat to glitch art than are steps towards its induction into art history through retrospective museum shows such as glitChicago.
I would like to thank Nick Briz and jonCates for their assistance in making glitChicago a reality, through many conversations and messages, and Stanislav Gredo of UIMA and UIMA’s intern Annunziata Faes for their collaboration and patience. glitChicago is far from complete as a record of artists and events, but I hope it provides people from Chicago and beyond with an image of the vitality and international presence of our city in areas far removed from institutional culture. It is amazing what people can do when they get together.
// Works Cited
Bylinsky, Gene. “When the Countdown is 1...”, New York Times, August 15, 1965. Garcia, David and Geert Lovink. 1997. “The ABC of Tactical Media,” http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html Lovink, Geert. 2002. “An Insider’s Guide to Tactical Media,” Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture, Cambridge; MIT Press; 2002. Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1958. Duineser Elegien. Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt, Germany, 1958.
// A Swing and A Miss: Knuckleballs, Abstracted Affect, and the Glitch Art Process ░░░░ Curt Cloninger
Throwing the knuckleball in baseball is like making glitch art. If that already makes sense to you, you can stop reading now. The rest of this essay just unpacks the similarities.
You throw a knuckleball with your fingernails, not your knuckles or your fingertips. The goal is to throw a ball that doesn’t spin at all. Weird aerodynamics occur on a non-spinning ball moving between 40-60 miles per hour. It bobs around unpredictably. A fastball pitcher hopes to blow the ball past the batter before he can hit it. A curveball pitcher hopes to control the ball so that it spins out of the way of the bat, tricking the batter into thinking the ball will continue in one direction, while purposefully moving the ball in another direction. A knuckleball pitcher hopes to throw a ball whose trajectory is utterly unpredictable to the batter. In order to do this effectively, a knuckleball pitcher himself is unable to predict where the ball will go. With a curve ball, the pitcher knows its sneaky trajectory and hopes that the batter won’t guess it. With a knuckleball, nobody really knows. The knuckleball is a risky pitch, a collaboration with the chaos of non-linear aerodynamic physics. It’s a John Cage pitch. When it works, it’s like magic: no one can hit it, and everyone strikes out. When it doesn’t work, it’s like a catastrophe; it either fails to dance and just lobs so that everyone can hit, or it’s so out of control that everyone gets walked.
Really, Jackson Pollock paintings are kind of knuckleballish. It’s not that he didn’t know what he was doing (he did), it’s just that he purposefully allowed the physics of paint viscosity, gravity, and centrifugal force to have a say in how his paintings turned out. All material has its own agency. All artists know this. To cut with or against the grain of the wood? To collaborate with the agency of the materials or to fight them? Beaux Arts, modernist architecture, and Miley Cyrus audio recording engineers all try to control and master the agency of their materials. Glitch artists (in ways similar to Pollock and Cage) allow the agency of their materials more free reign.
Not that the materials ever have complete free reign. Complete free reign of digital materials results in what has been called “the wild glitch,” a glitch event that merely happens and is captured by a human who happens to observe it. But even then, did the wild glitch even (a crash, a buggy screen display, a corrupt digital TV signal) just happen in the wild? Is there even such a thing as a “digital wild,” a “digital nature”? Or is the digital realm (networks, hardwares, softwares) already a collaboration of human culture, human economics, and natural materials? When you get right down to it, are Pollock’s paints even “natural?” Are the dice that John Cage rolled and the i-ching he consulted while composing his pieces “natural?” Hasn’t all art (analog and digital) always already been a collaboration of the agencies of “natural” and “cultural” forces? Yes. Because we (computers, sand, aleatory, abstract expressionist painters) all share the same world.
The agency of digital materials is particularly unique, however. Digital media are able to abstract certain lived affects that aren’t usually abstractable via traditional analog media. For instance, 3D Google maps separate the visual surface of the environment from its underlying 3D volumetric dimensions. These two data sets are stored separately and then sutured together during runtime. Another example: the glitch art practice of datamoshing takes advantage of a certain video compression algorithm that separates the abstract vectors of video motion (its bones?) from the surface visuals of the video image (its skin?). Glitch artists working with digital media mung it up at a root level, well beneath its mimetic visual surface. Glitch artists tweak digital media at its functional, material level (sometimes by tweaking code, sometimes by tweaking hardware). In this sense, glitch artists are similar to structural/materialist film makers (working with the substrates of their medium rather than treating it as some sort of magic, mimetic surface on which float mere narrative symbols).
Back to the knuckleball analogy, glitch artists mung up root-level media in ways they are not altogether able to fully control. Like knuckleball pitching, glitch artmaking is not about achieving predictable outcomes (unless the outcome you are predicting is unpredictability). In this sense, glitch artists are like analog photographers experimenting with the (only semi-controllable) solarization process. They are like ceramicists working with (only semi-controllable) glazes, kiln temperatures, and kiln placements.
The “aesthetic” results of glitch art are often bizarre in ways that are new and uncanny in the history of analog painting, sculpture, and film (although not without precedent). Glitch artists enter a strange new dialogue with newly abstract(ed) material properties (motion vectors abstracted from one event and wrapped in the visual skin of another event, blank underlying volumetric 3D space abstracted from one city block and wrapped in the surface skin of another city block). Artists who datamosh and databend video, corrupting its source compression algorithms in various ways, are able to modulate video well beyond the standard analog film techniques of wipe, fade, jump-cut, and superimposition.
All this focus on uncanny, root-level tweaking makes it seem like glitch artists aren’t concerned with the aesthetic visual results of their processes, but nothing could be further from the truth. Glitch artists care a great deal about what the work ultimately looks like. Primarily, it can’t look merely mimetic. It can’t look like what the medium looked like prior to the glitch process, or else it wasn’t much of a glitch process. Likewise, a knuckleball pitcher is quite open to the ball traveling in any number of trajectories, as long as one of those trajectories is NOT a trajectory the batter is able to predict. In this sense, glitch artists and knuckleball pitchers create systems that invite the unintended: they intend the unintended and do not intend the intended.
Glitch artists and knuckleball pitchers both develop an affective feel for the right approach, because neither are simply throwing strikes in the strike zone. In baseball, there are two ways to throw a strike: 1) Throw it in the strike zone without the batter hitting it, or 2) Throw it anywhere you like, so long as the batter is lured into swinging at it without being able to hit it. Knuckleball pitchers rely on approach #2 (because they can’t control the ball enough to guarantee approach #1). Likewise, glitch art is a lure to the uncanny. This is why glitch art doesn’t have to be the result of a “real/true” “wild” glitch event. It just has to get the viewer swinging. Because neither glitch art nor baseball are science (although the “wildness” of physics plays a part in both).
So what does “getting the viewer swinging” look like? To return to some classic ideals, Glitch art seems to have more to do with Kant’s idea of the sublime than his idea of beauty. It has even more to do with Freud’s idea of the uncanny (unhomelike). Glitch art is something we recognize and think we are able to pin down just as it veers off into something that terrifies, delights, or baffles us. As long as we humans don’t know quite what to expect from glitch art (or the machines and networks that are its medium), it will continue to lure and confound us, we will keep swinging at it, and it will keep striking us out. Glitch art in ten years won’t look visually like glitch art does today, because we will have become used to what it looks like today, and because our machines and networks will have gotten even more strange and entangled with us. So new realms of the uncanny will have to be explored. But these realms will reveal themselves to us as we continue to (ab)use these machines in the world we share with them. From this perspective, glitch as a kind of artistic process will always be with us, because it has always already been with us, long before bugs flew into mainframe computers.
Artists have always had an affective feel for their materials -- its agencies and peculiarities. Why should the materials of hardware, software, and networks be any different? From this perspective, glitch artists are just artists who approach computers as normal art material. Glitch art currently seems novel simply because so many people have wrongheadedly approached computers as something other than what they actually are. People have thought of computers as immaterial virtual worlds and as pristine/errorless mathematical/metaphysical realms. And so people have used computers to make spreadsheets and Die Hard 5. Really though, computers are just material stuff in the world -- language, sand, electricity, logic, tubes, light, sound. Like the knuckleball, glitch art isn’t voodoo or magic. It’s just one more instance of the immanent world freaking us out.