“In the achievement of economy, we have lost the permanence of the form cut into stone, the monument: in the architecture of light, like the pillars Albert Speer erected out of searchlight beams for the Zeppelin Field at Nuremberg, the greatest virtue of high technology is the economy of means. It is too feeble a signal to maintain itself for long: archives fade into the radio snow of universal magnetic fields.” Sean Cubitt
Faster: Editing a student Television show in 1987 on U-matic format required the use of hulking, noisy, mechanical devices. The room is hot with heat from cathode ray tube monitors and the U-matic edit suite. A preview of each edit decision requires the machines to rewind for a 10 second tape pre-roll time, and committing to an edit is an undoable action. Less than a decade later the process of digital video editing will be silent and screen based. The editing process will be non-linear and have instant playback.
Clearer: It’s 1996 and I’m speaking on a mobile phone, on a network that uses analogue technology. The signal is weak and I need to shout to make myself heard. Finally the signal drops out and the call ends. Forward a decade to 2006: I’m on a digital mobile phone. The signal is again; weak, and digital distortions are making me ask the caller to repeat himself. No use in shouting. I hear metallic syllables as the system digitally stretches sounds to fill gaps in transmission. The caller’s voice either takes on a robotic timbre or there are gaps of total silence. Finally, the gaps are becoming too big and the automated error correction system relinquishes the call.
Smaller: An international DJ of two decades experience speaks of the growing popularity of digital deejaying equipment in which the vinyl turntable and vinyl record no longer feature. “We have gone into an age where sound quality is secondary to expense, a shame, but an understandable progression.” His playing of ‘dub plates’ (very limited edition 12” record sides cut from metal instead of vinyl used in the industry as test disks) extends the dynamic range of the music into the bass frequencies. This, he says, is due to the deeper groove you can cut on a dub plate. “You can actually push the levels of any track harder when cutting into metal due to being able to cut deeper grooves, thereby getting a louder, bossier cut [than digital equipment can reproduce].”
A simple analogy for the comparison of analogue and digital technology compares a set of steps to a smooth, bell shaped hill. The analogue device uses a signal measured as a curve on a logarithmic scale. The digital signal represents the incline of the hill in fine, even steps, the smaller the step, the closer to the analogue curve that digital technology offers. The greater the resolution, or ‘sample rate’ of a digital file, the closer it is to reproducing a continuous curve. In comparison to analogue technology digital technology offers a more efficient and exact reproduction of a signal. However, while the fidelity, efficiency and the reliability of a digital signal can readily surpass that of its analogue equivalent, the market forces that govern the development of certain standards tend to limit, to a great extent the potential for quality. In the above examples relating to telephony, video and sound, where the envelope of digital media is stretched to it’s thinnest by capitalist concerns the consumer invariably shoulders the burden of a lowest-common-denominator solution as a consequential loss in quality. As noted by Sean Cubitt (1993), near the end of the VHS era,
“Capitalism does not, cannot understand the delivery of quality as a central motivation: the profit motive alone provides its drive. In consequence, most domestic playback is poor, and the sound in particular execrable. We have paid for domestic convenience with a major drop in standards from the clarity and scale of sound and image in the heyday of the cinema.”
A similar comparison of quality between television and cinema was voiced four decades earlier in 1953 when Bazin doubted that television, (its drastic effect on the movie industry closed 5,000 cinemas across the U.S. in that year alone) which was “irremediably cruder than the cinema”16 would ever reach the aesthetic heights of film and was perhaps more suited to the documentary form than narrative fiction. The popularity of live broadcast variety shows (which could be said to be ‘radio with pictures’) and the advertising opportunities within them gave television an undoubtable advantage over film. The relative immediacy of television suited the needs of commercialism. Though the crude technical specifications of early television could not match the cinema, market forces brought about the enculturation and acceptance of a lower quality image.
In order to maximize sales and marketability the designers and engineers of every new generation of media aim to produce media higher in quality. Higher quality means higher resolution, greater brightness, greater colour depth and more efficient means of transport and dissemination with the goal of a denser more seamless reproduction of the image and sound. Despite this relentless evolution in picture and sound quality the glitch remains a potent force that constantly asserts itself in each new media. Each time the glitch appears it is in a way that is unique to each media form or format. Such signs of error, malfunction and low quality image such as the examples given above lower the value of a product as they are seen as highly undesirable, if not totally abject by both the maker and the consumer. It could be assumed that in the formulation and development of new media developed for the marketplace and – dependent on sales through popular uptake that it is the express aim of designers and engineers to eliminate glitches altogether. The reality is that the device, at the cheaper end of the scale especially, usually delivers less than ideal performance.
Any attempt to wholly establish market control of a medium generally fosters circumstances in which the glitch may exist. Piracy and home copying has long been a concern for the motion picture industry and manufacturers of domestic video equipment – often one and the same corporation. The ability to create good quality copies at home is contrary to the market place exclusivity of a product and various hardware and software encryption systems have been devised in an attempt to prevent this practice. However, consumers and pirate marketeers invariably find ways to circumvent copy protection systems. In cracking a copy protection system, or making a copy, image quality may be noticeably degraded. At the time of writing, due to the relatively high expense of DVD media capable of holding the 6-7 GB of an average Hollywood film, pirates compress the content to suit the much cheaper 4 GB size DVD media available to the consumer. In order to view movie files over the internet – through sites such as Youtube, or to transfer whole movie files between peer to peer clients such as Bittorrent or Kazaa a compression codec (Flash codec in the case of Youtube or usually DIVx codec for peer to peer transfer) illegal copiers compress the file to suit bandwidth limitations. The resulting degradation, a glitch produced through clandestine media production, manifests as rougher texture and quality of the image and ensures the enculturation of those signs of tampering as a cursor of cheap and even clandestine media. In the Hollywood feature film ‘Syriana’ (2005) set in the present day, a Lebanese terrorist demand delivered to American government officials on VHS video is seen playing from a video tape recorder. As stated, analogue media, unlike digital media cannot produce exact copies. Professional analogue systems worked on a hierarchy that still allowed a product of high quality for the end user. However the VHS system’s main deterrent against copying was the obvious loss in quality that happened in just one copy generation. In the terrorist video message in ‘Syriana’, VHS video is represented in a de-saturated image with rolling video tape dropouts. This ‘3rd world’ context reinforces the low, shoddy value of VHS (and vice versa) and serves to reinforce Hollywood’s own domination of the media. In the words of David Humphrey “outmoded technologies linger as an abject support to the high self-esteem of “state of the art”.17
As still and motion picture technology has developed there has been a constant reference to the high quality of professional work, with the ultimate goal being the emulation of a professional product – be it Hollywood or Vanity Fair. In response to a growing sophistication among consumers, and a rise in the general level of technology a sales niche created by manufacturers for those who wish for more manual control over the medium than the ‘amateur’ has come to prominence. The so-called ‘prosumer’ product promises higher quality for budget productions yet terms such as ‘broadcast quality’ and ‘prosumer’ are a more sophisticated version of the hegemony that media corporations have held since the 1930’s. From the Box Brownie still camera (sold in its millions from 1900 through to the 1960s), and 16mm film (initially aimed at the amateur market from 1923 but gaining a foothold in education and news through its portability and economy) through to VHS Video (launched 1977) the consumer has been prevented from producing an image of an ‘industrial’ quality approaching that of the motion picture goliaths.
The history of the motion picture industry has many examples of control and suppression that outline Bazin’s description of the art and industry of film as more like an “industrial art that is likely to vanish into thin air as soon as the industry’s profits disappear.”18 The motion picture colour system, ‘Technicolor’, was an attempt by big business to monopolise the whole process of motion picture production. Much like the Kodak Box Brownie era of the 1920’s (‘You push the button, we do the rest’) the studios sought to control all aspects of Technicolor film cinematography, processing and projection. Though complex and cumbersome and expensive, Technicolor persisted.
“The controlled way in which it was used constituted a very effective barrier against outsiders…this was an industry which had already totally retooled for sound. It was happy to contain the potential disruption of colour by continuing to use an antiquated and complicated technology.”
Colour film was available only on ‘amateur’ 16mm stock, for at least two decades before becoming a professional standard. The continued sale of Black and White film for 35mm motion picture format (as what could be said to be an outmoded product) Brian Winston argues, suited industry profitability. Winston’s ‘Law of Radical Suppression’ states that when a new communications technology is released, its growth is suppressed through the constrictive economic influence of already prevailing institutions and other mechanisms.20 There is evidence that this suppression existed from the very early days of cinema. The unexpected surge in popularity of film as an entertainment medium ensured that economic forces held power over the destiny of the film industry from the very beginning. Edison and other individuals involved in the birth of cinema endlessly pursued control over all methods for creating cinema through the purchase of patents and through lawsuits. A stream of lawsuits and patents eventuated in the demise of many other gauges and film playback systems and finally ensured that 35mm became the standard.21
Over 100 years later the situation has changed little. In 2008, the independent post- production firm ‘Company 3’, who offer all-digital post-production color correction encountered “tremendous opposition in Hollywood” to their services. Digital onlyprocesses manipulated on licensed software systems, threatened studio control over the product. The mutable nature of the ‘image as data’ and the decreasing cost of digital systems enabled an escape from the restrictive in-house systems of the large players. “There were people who literally said, ‘We will never let you do this,’ ” Steven Sonnenfeld, founder of ‘Company 3’ says. ” ‘We want to have total control, and this gives filmmakers too much flexibility.’ “The capitalistic drive to control all aspects of media production and broadcast foregrounds the aesthetics intrinsic in the lower cost equipment that artists with limited economic means are compelled to work with. These ‘dead’ media, considered of lower quality, no longer economically viable or to have failed commercially are often the toolset and the aesthetic domain of artists generally constrained by budget and opportunity. Their creative use in unlikely combinations of media and altered technology, aided by digital media as a unifying medium can allow a glitch or glitches exclusively native to discarded media to return to mainstream media or even to move sideways through concurrent generations of media, and also medium. To re-deploy the technological detritus left in capitalism’s wake is to adopt a polemic stance subversive to corporate hegemony. By refusing or being economically unable to work within defined ‘industrial quality’ zones, the artist is seeking a mode of expression that is contrary to capitalist forces. To re-use and recycle the cast-off technology, the video mulch, the detritus of previous generations of media, is to adopt a stance against a commercially led culture ever seeking seamlessness and pristine beauty. As Rhodes states “low budget sound technology – referred to as ‘lo-fi’ – is seen by some as a politicised expression of limited economic resources”. The DIY aesthetic of the mid 1970’s punk era saw the self-production of music, magazines and film in a similarly politically motivated movement against a media environment where corporations that appeared to hold total control over those media markets. Artist’s early use of video – in the 1960’s and 1970’s – was mainly in response to the tight reign the few networks could hold on content and “in many countries artists video often deliberately took up a position critical of broadcast television and sought alternative strategies for production and distribution” Early video art was confined mostly to consumer level cheap systems bought by collectives and individuals. Artist Steve Partridge commented about video at the time of its introduction to the market in the mid 1960’s:
“Everything about the nature of half inch video seems to make it ideally suited to individuality and creativity. Artists are able to use video equipment either completely alone or in small groups. No specialised professional skills are needed to operate the equipment, and tape costs far less than film. All of this seems to make video a truly human sized medium”
The ability to post-produce video art works of a professional level without the aid of a corporation however couldn’t happen until the early 1980’s when broadcast technology filtered down through the economy to the educational institutions, as a replacement for the medium of film. High band U-matic format allowed editing and copying on a par with broadcast standards of the time. The availability of such broadcast level equipment in educational institutions allowed a movement called ‘scratch video’ to flourish in Thatcher’s Britain. The ‘scratch’ label came from the frequent use of the jog shuttle function on a U-matic video deck. Video could be played forward and backward at will, and these manipulations could be recorded on to a second machine. The scratch video movement re-appropriated and re-contextualised propaganda footage from file as well as taped television broadcast footage. By creating a fast cutting repetitive montage with juxtaposed imagery a new era in video manipulation was born. MTV style broadcasting (which fore grounded production with a seemingly slip shod fast paced format) and the newly born music video would run with this punk take on television. Rik Landers of legendary scratch duo ‘The Duvet Brothers’ defines the scratch aesthetic;
“Scratch was about raw critique of the meaning given to the footage we plundered. The lies on TV news were so blatant and the scratch technique enabled us to expose the lie and reveal the true meaning within by repetition and juxtaposition.”
In the early days of video art, works were referred to as ‘tapes’, as a pointed differentiation from ‘films’. Currently digital works maintain a physical presence on DVD disks and digital videotapes but the digital image, immaterial in transit, is increasingly a format-less medium, one that permanently exists doubly as an archived and directly playable file. Digital media in particular, with this format-less state and its encryption algorithms, appears especially capable of locking out creative manipulation of the ‘medium’. When John Cage said, “The methods of industrialism displace the handicrafts” he couldn’t have predicted the extent to which video, and later digital media could displace the ability of the artisan to change and manipulate media on a handcrafted level.
According to Nicky Hamlyn the ‘revenge of technocracy’ has limited creative physical intervention. True media specific deconstruction such as the workmanlike investigations of film that personified such structuralist movements as the London Film Makers Co-op and the manipulation of analogue video signals by video artists through custom electronic devices have been supplanted to a large degree by those who are able to manipulate the digital medium through code and software, those artist/scientists whom Paul Virillio hopes will fight the good fight for aesthetic control over the machine.
“Here we are in a domain which is wonderful, but only provided that we fight against it. It’s Jacobs wrestling match against the angel. We must not lie down before the machine, we have to fight….This is an anti-idolatry fight. …I am waiting on those Jacobs who will wrestle with the machines, who will explode the software. But not in order to destroy the software”
According to Virillio these are the people who can “dismantle the system to appropriate it” in the struggle to not be dominated by what Sean Cubitt calls embedded “patterns of textural production which the medium seems to demand”. In other words a particular medium and its mode of recording and playback subjects each user to the same limitations and so defines characteristics of the imagery. Rodowick calls this stamp “a historically and culturally determined aesthetic purpose that is relatively independent of individual intentions.”31 The digital realm threatens a total control over a medium, and the lure of glitch shows that the mistake, the error, is attractive on one level as a sign that the machine can be manipulated and coerced creatively. The wall of code and codec leaves many outside but the speed of information flow via the internet ensures that techniques and artworks are shared at a rate never before equalled or imagined. However Virillio’s utopian vision of a noble stand against the digital machine too easily glosses over the lingering traces of previous media concomitant with current technology, as well as recording devices that sacrifice image quality for convenience of portability. Second hand and aged technology considered below current standards and defined ‘industrial quality’ zones co-exist with compact personal devices capable of recording low-resolution video. A recent news report relayed how it was almost automatic for plane passengers to record any in-flight drama. The unreality of the situation, the report seemed to suggest, somehow needed reinforcement by the action of recording video, as if video itself offered some legitimacy to the experience. Jean Baudrillard notes that Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age”, already strongly pointed out this “modern revolution in the order of production (of reality, of meaning) by the precession, the anticipation of its reproduction”. In June 2005 dominant media channels displayed, in very low resolution, mobile phone video footage of the dramatic events of the London Tube Bombings. The jagged edges of the highly compressed video defined the raw immediacy of the images taken seconds after bombs exploded. This raw effect would be labelled as ‘glitch’ by video broadcast engineers, and the inability to shoot high quality video on a camera phone could be viewed as a design limitation enforced by the manufacturer. Of course, a camera phone is never intended for the shooting of video for broadcast yet the aesthetic leakage, the enculturation, of this imagery into visual cultures, especially that of broadcast news, via such dramatic events where TV audiences crave any image above none, creates an acceptance of the personal as ‘professional’ and an ownership of the ‘professional’ by the consumer.
Sean Cubitt notes that lower quality and older media gain new life in cultural institutions such as community centres and public media organizations. Conversely, Lovejoy notes the tendency for government funding agencies to support ‘new’ art created by new technologies often beyond the finances of artists without funding, noting that in this situation “Through coercion, or cooptation the art work might be used as a toll to maintain institutional values rather than as a means of questioning them.” This obviously creates a barrier to artists and art forms whose work uses recycled media – a dynamic perhaps of artist against institutional forces. These associations with grass roots community, artist-led enquiry and inflation of personal-media-as-public-broadcast contribute greatly to an appraisal of the low-resolution, lower quality image as, at some level, a currency of honesty. David Humphrey notes this “crudity is understood as directness”. Low-resolution imagery and low quality imagery – i.e. those inflected with glitch, has great currency in digital media as signifiers of the real.
Yvonne Spielmann sees the major power of digital media as one of transformation. The ability to manipulate complex imagery in realtime greater defines video as a medium and creates “an openness toward systems, co-creative interaction with machines and the convergence of media forms on a level of higher complexity”. The digital realm, then, doesn’t swallow whole all that has come before but exists in a symbiotic relationship – feeding and being fed by other forms of media with the glitch as mulch and saliva, where eventually the recognisable technical limits of previous media become organs in the body of digital aesthetics. The convergence of media from many eras of motion pictures are made possible by digital technology and the technical archaeology that many artists undertake whether intentionally or not, is one that is reclaiming and re-contextualising media from the relentless forces of capitalist development. The glitch certainly maintains a constant presence, a continually reminder of the power of the new, existing as a by-product and a discovery as a result of these forces.