Essays and musings on Glitch including writings from an Exegesis submitted by Lindsay Cox April 2009 as a component of a Master of Arts by Research Project (Animation and Interactive Media), School of Creative Media, RMIT in Melbourne. NB: Footnotes have not been preserved in this version.
This investigation of the glitch in electronic media, previously disregarded as errors in the medium and therefore often begrudgingly tolerated by viewers rather than considered a form of artistic gesture, will discuss the role and function of mistakes and imperfections in the evolution of digital and analogue electronic screen media aesthetics. The formal tendencies of artists who incorporate glitch, sometimes as a side effect of their activity, in assisting the cultural acceptance of these ‘artefacts’, will be discussed. I’ll briefly discuss a history of the word glitch from its early uses in the aerospace industry in the 1960s, as a music genre in the 1990s to slang in the gaming world of the 2000s. A discussion on the nature and differences between digital and analogue media, associated formats and glitches is undertaken from a historical perspective. Historical breakthroughs where the glitch has played a major role in the creative and scientific fields are also profiled.
Each new generation of media brings with it new modes of recording, display and dissemination and thus new potentialities for mistakes and errors. If the ‘eclectic medium’ that is the computer (Le Grice, 2001), stores audio and visuals as digital media and contains ‘previous media within it’ (McLuhan, 1967), it will also therefore contain all signs and reproductions of the mistakes and glitches common to each media generation that preceded it. In ideal situations digital media offers the perfect copy with definitive information to the pixel, in contrast to the ‘debased descendent’ (Mitchell, 1992) of lower quality that unavoidably results from copying in the analogue realm. In reality the rapid pace of development in the image production world ensures that changing standards lead to problems in reading, copying and translating digital files. In addition, the quality of the image is dependent on the quality of the input device (scanners, cameras and other visual capture devices) and the prevailing capture standard of the era. The ephemeral ‘discrete nature’ (Mitchell, 1992) of the immaterial – supposedly ageless – digital file in transit, is counterbalanced by obsolete and decayed storage media, hardware specific codecs, out of date and corrupted operating system protocols and other issues that place in peril the integrity of the original data.
While the inevitable decay of the physical substance of film and analogue video tape leads us, the audience, into a “spectatorship of death” (Rodowick, 2007) where each film scratch is a memento mori, each tape dropout a permanent scar, in a spiral toward complete loss of the image, the prognosis for digital media seems, perhaps surprisingly, even more grim. From an archival and storage point of view we might consider the “questionable benefits of digital media” (Cherchi Usai, 2001). While the devices such as video monitors and printers on which imagery is displayed may wear out or fail the image is still intact as data. However this numerical data that makes up digital media image information could, through the errors described above, become entombed and leave old stores of ones and zeroes forever encrypted. If a file thus becomes unreadable the image is lost, and to the consumer ‘trash and reformat’ would seem to be the only option. More recently however, as consumer level technology has become more sophisticated, the harsh schism of read/not read has muxed to create an uncertain territory of data recovery. This is a space colonised, inhabited and expanded by the glitch.
A growing reliance on digital delivery systems such as broadband, telephone and satellite requires that built-in error correction systems attempt to prevent loss of image and sound, and software designed to rescue data will allow the opening of incomplete files. In this mechanical attempt to maintain continuity these files and data streams may be affected by this recovery and may be ‘glitched’. Images in virtual, immaterial form, digital and analogue media and their glitches are, we are told, crystallised in a precise, repeatable format. This infinitely replicable form nevertheless gives the artist potential for lossless overlay, composition and collage – and in itself is also subject to ‘glitching’ through some of the events mentioned above as well as deliberate, accidental or even serendipitous occurrences during the production of visual art.
With its hitherto unsurpassed replicating capabilities, digital media allows a meeting of glitch past, present and future. All previous media and associated signs can be encased within it, and as a matter of course, are stamped with digital media’s own signs. In his essay ‘The Abject Romance of Low resolution’ David Humphreys notes that the progressive development of moving image technology creates a hierarchy of image and equipment quality giving “lower and budget reproductions an increasing potential for affective or critical treatments by artists.” Live video as created by VJs creates unpredictable and unrepeatable imagery. Much of this live video was, for a time (and still is) generated using analogue video devices. The VJ culture, more than any other, sees an overlap of technologies with rigs assembled from found and discarded video equipment. The freedom to create works in real time using analogue video signals often allows the real time manipulation of effects beyond the parameters of the manufacturers intentions and also avoids the need for long hours of pre-rendering video works as illustrated by this quote from VJ John Power: “I found I was able to generate material of a particular type in the space of two hours, which would not have arisen from months of using conventional desktop software. Variation of approach at all times created respite from video image production problems centered on software.”
Glitch rides on our innate need to explore and experiment with our cultural environs. It embeds itself into its originating medium and hybrids thereof in what Roland Barthes calls “contortions of technique”. If “failure in art”, as Paul Virillio says, is a “profane miracle” then the immortality that digital media promises is humanised by the act of harnessing the creative potential of the glitch. This act broadens and multiplies the contemporary visual aesthetic palette with what Sean Cubitt, with a more Zen leaning, calls “aleatoric art which drives toward the dialogue of human and machine that lies at the heart of contemporary society.”