Nostalgia and Kitsch: The Glitch as ugly duckling

‘The History of Art is simply a history of getting rid of the ugly, by entering into it, and using it. John Cage

Taiwan is a fast changing country, one of Asia’s so called ‘Tiger economies’. At the time of my first visit to Taiwan in 1997 there was a large problem with theft of scooters and bicycles. Many owners would resort to ‘theft proofing’ their bike with the application of an ugly polka dot paint job, hastily splashed on, that drastically reduced the attractiveness of their rides to would-be thieves. On a later trip in 2006 I noted an absence of this anti-theft device and locals confirmed that this paintwork was now in fact a rare sight. While shopping for a bicycle I saw a designer’s homage to this era of DIY protection – a 2007 model with a blotchy polka dot paint job carefully rendered in high gloss. I’m unable to definitively state what the designer’s intention was but it appeared an effect previously regarded as ugly was appropriated and recycled as a ‘cool’ design.

‘Kitsch’ had its early beginnings as a term used to describe trite and crass, mass-produced art heavy in melodrama and emotion, ‘art characterised by worthless pretentiousness’. Prominent art theorist Clement Greenberg saw kitsch as a result of the machine age and the era of mass production. Ease of production and a disconnection from cultural sources had produced an empty art form, an “ersatz culture”, one that overstates themes with nauseous superficiality and containing no profound meaning. In order for ‘kitsch’ to exist, says Greenberg there must exist a “fully matured cultural tradition” from which signs and technique can be plundered, usually in low quality mass-produced knock offs. Kitsch reproduces the most obvious signs to deliver “vicarious experience and faked sensations”. In other words Kitsch promises cheap thrills as a hollow shell of “genuine art”. While not Greenberg’s ‘genuine art’ the original splatter paintwork, like many styles of street art and graffiti, enters public consciousness. As a signifier of a particular era in Taiwan’s history – when rustic pragmatism overruled concerns of fashion and appearance, the reproduction splatter paintwork is, like most kitsch, loaded with nostalgia.

The cultures of ‘Punk’, ‘Street’ and ‘Grunge’ are heavily imbued with a DIY aesthetic. When blended with nostalgia through marketing, they are signs that give the consumer access to cultural cache involving ‘rebellion’, ‘individualism’ and ‘risk-taking’ without having to actually engage in any such real action. The glossy splattered-painted scooter is presented as a sign (which may well trigger nostalgic associations) that the consumer is buying as well as a mode of transport.

To Celeste Olalquiaga, kitsch represents the “decayed crystallization of an imaginary experience”. As a residual aspect of cultures gone by, the experience of kitsch is one of a vicarious venture into a mythical world that nonetheless resonates in the present.

From the time of the French revolution until the late 19th century, ‘follies’ – elaborately constructed garden settings in which ruins were simulated – were a popular attempt to grasp onto previous greatness in the face of rapid technological and societal change. The ‘follie’ was a sign of “historical transformation at a moment when the speed of events disabled such temporal perception”.

In terms of ‘Moore’s Law’ of computer development the 8-bit technology of the 1980’s is now ancient history for many of the artist/programmers who literally grew up with those games. Home video games produced in the 1980’s, for platforms such as the Atari 2600 or Commodore 64, operated on ‘8 bit’ graphics systems. The limited processing power of the computer chips within the games led designers to work with a low resolution and the crudity of the sprites in these early home video games was far removed from the seductive airbrushed artwork on their box covers. The 8-bit graphics memory limited palettes to a maximum of 256 on-screen colours at any time and led to a sometimes noticeably heavy stepping between tones and colours.

Aside from the more heavy handed DIY aspects of circuit bending – where hardware is rewired or permanently altered to produce a real time visual instrument, the coding knowledge within 8 bit games system, ‘as they are’ has become available to the wider community. The current level of knowledge in online communities and forums means that the technology within these games is one that is available for deconstruction and experimentation a practice also known as ‘glitching’. A virtual simulation of the process of circuit bending allows technology from the 1980’s to blend effortlessly with current day creative tendencies. The Blip Festival in New York, 2008;

“…aims to showcase emerging creative niches involving the use of legacy video game & home computer hardware as modern artistic instrumentation. Devices such as the Nintendo Entertainment System, Commodore 64, Atari ST, Nintendo Game Boy and others are repurposed into the service of original, low-res, high-impact electronic music and visuals — sidestepping game culture and instead exploring the technology’s untapped potential and distinctive intrinsic character.”

The “distinctive intrinsic character” and apparent nostalgia for video games of the 1980’s means that the beautiful simulated ruins of dead media are respectfully resurrected. These ‘glitchers’ engage in a playful interaction with and mastery of early consumer-level technology and control over machine language.

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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