A History of the Glitch

Each generation of electronic visual media technology brings new modes of recording, delivery and display and each of these modes offer extensions of the language of aesthetic expression available to the artist. Media artists often experiment by modifying hardware and software, creating new combinations of technological components and often creating imagery under conditions never imagined by the designers and makers of these components through deliberate error and misuse, pushing devices and media to record, translate and playback in ways engineers and designers had never intended them to. By placing part of the creative process outside of their control artists seek to involve an element of chance and ‘the happy accident’ or ‘glitch’ in their works. ‘Glitch’, meaning malfunction or error was first used in writing in ‘Into Orbit’ (1962) by American Astronaut John Glenn to describe technical problems during space missions. In his words “a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it…A glitch is such a minute change in voltage that no fuse could protect against” (OED Online8) Initially a technical term, glitch then went on to being a catchall term for an error or malfunction in equipment and a hitch in processes. The OED9 indicates the word may also appear to have origins in the German word ‘glitschen’ (to slide or slip) and so it is possible that the large number of German scientists and technicians recruited by the U.S. military in the post war period and subsequently working at NASA introduced this word to the aerospace vernacular. The word entered the lexicon through media coverage of the American space program. Time Magazine’s need to define the word no doubt indicated that use of the word was by 1965 becoming more commonplace either in print or in television sound bites out of NASA mission control. The brief, clipped militaristic nature of NASA communications perhaps also contributed to the use of ‘glitch’ in Astronaut communications. Transmissions so often marred by dropouts in transmission strength and static used many shortened and abbreviated words that for strict clarity also avoided synonyms and homonyms. The numerals 5 and 9 were made less alike in sound by adding an ‘er’ sound to create ‘niner’, for example. Subsequent appropriation in the early 1990’s as a title for an experimental music genre simply called ‘Glitch’ could further emphasise the distinct connection between the onomatopoeic properties of the word itself and the clipped sounds generated by digital noise and other sonic artefacts native to digital media. As a music genre, “Glitch is characterized by a preoccupation with the sonic artefacts that can result from malfunctioning digital technology, such as those produced by bugs, crashes, system errors, hardware noise, CD skipping, and digital distortion.”10 In the last 15 years the term ‘glitch’ has come to mean as much a malfunction or error in proceedings, perhaps because many public services (including audio and/or visual media and

7 Time Magazine citation initially sighted in Modra, Iman (2004) Glitsch Aesthetics, University of Huddersfield 8 http://www.oedonline.com Oxford English Dictionary Online 9 Oxford English Dictionary (2006) Oxford University Press, UK 10 Gascone, Kim (2004) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music pp393

6communications) are provided and managed by digital hardware. In terms of the production of visual media ‘Glitch’ has come to mean “an error or undesired artefact in audio visual media arising from software or hardware manipulation”. The practice of ‘Glitching’ in the video gaming world involves exploiting a loophole or a programming error for gain within a game world. These glitches in game construction also often allow the player to move or see beyond the structures intended for game play.

As the popularity and ubiquity of the Internet and bandwidth continues to expand the ease and economy of displaying short personal video works through visual databases of audiovisual material such as vimeo.com and youtube.com becomes increasingly familiar to more people. The revolution that Walter Benjamin recognised in the ability to reproduce artworks in print (“Artists could now contemplate and study the works of their international contemporaries at close range, in the comfort of their studios”11) has intensified incredibly through rapidly increasing means of electronic data transfer. This global accessibility of video has made possible a vast growing online presence of people creating works through the use of filters and hardware in such a way as to deliberately manipulate and experiment with the aesthetics of the glitch. The instantaneous sharing and appreciation of these works, the “unprecedented plastic universe” that Felix Guattari in 1992 foresaw could result in a post- media reawakening through “a reappropriation and resingularisation of the use of media”12 can only serve to intensify the use of glitch by visual artists and thus the enculturation of errors as ultimately humanising effects and signs.

A search on ‘glitch’ in these online visual databases shows an appreciation in underground video culture of the glitch in digital and analogue video media. Filters, patches and plugins that emulate analogue video glitches, VJs whose work consists entirely of glitched video signal only, music videos that appropriate experimental techniques and a continued use in main stream screen media of the glitch as a signifier of the era, and even as a narrative prop are all aspects of the continuing birth and rebirth of the glitch.

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About Lindsay Cox

Lindsay Cox Biography In addition to his own practice as an independent animator as a community artist he has facilitated many animation, short film and live performance projects with diverse community groups of all ages. As an animator working in a mixture of traditional and new techniques he has had work broadcast on the Comedy Channel, Channel 31, SBS TV, ABC2 TV and SBS and ABC websites. Recently he worked as Props and Set Construction/animation assistant on the Adam Elliot stop motion feature film ‘Mary & Max’. Currently working on main project at Footscray Community Arts Centre in the ‘Artlife’ program’ working with People with disabilities to create a surreal comedy TV series pilot that employs animation, live action and composited video.
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