The Glitch as readymade: Bricolage

“A digital artwork may be part scanned photograph, part computer synthesized shaded perspective and part electronic “painting” – all smoothly melded into an apparently coherent whole. It may be fabricated from found files, disk litter and the detritus of cyberspace. Digital images give meaning and value to computational ready-mades by appropriation, transformation, reprocessing, and recombination: we have entered the age of electrobricolage” William Mitchell

In 1915 at the Armory Gallery New York exhibition Marcel Duchamp, using the pseudonym ‘R. Mutt’, anonymously entered a urinal renamed ‘fountain’, for entry into an open exhibition. Though not allowed to be a part of the show (although Duchamp, as part of the selection committee, argued for the inclusion of ‘Mutt’s’ work) the work caused a storm, many arguments arose and the definition of art was altered forever. Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ represented a pointed argumentative question – if a mass-produced urinal, selected but not crafted by the artist, could be art then could not art be anything, any object at anytime?

John Cage’s Avant-garde work ‘4’33”’ is a work in three movements, each comprising complete silence. The piece, composed for any instrument, was first performed on piano in 1953 in Woodstock, NY. The pianist sat in silence, acknowledging the movements by opening and closing the lid of the piano. During the performance the ‘readymade’ sounds of the ambient environment, wind, rain and chatter of the Music Hall that the work was performed in delighted Cage. In the flowering of experimentation throughout the 20th Century, Cage’s composition was as significant an event in music as was Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ in visual art. Both artists made it clear that the traditions of art, previously limited to the gesture or singular genius of a skilled artisan, were being eroded by the noise and light of wide spread industrialization in the modern world.

If Cage’s appreciation of the minutiae of the concert hall’s ambience was a lesson in ‘sound as music’ then the hiss and pop of low ambient static native to the recording studio and the internal workings of its machines is now re-defined as an analogous but nonetheless new space inside a computer. Glitch music is a sub-genre of electro acoustic music that grew popular as the Internet became accessible to artists. The relatively small size of sound files enabled file swapping, sharing and broadcasting and assisted the “post modern inclination to mix styles and genre including historically disparate styles”. The ability to sample and sequence sounds means that the newly discovered glitch always has potential as an instrument – a loud induced “Pop!” as a drum sound, or a hiss of distorted static for a cymbal, for example. The advent of digital sampling has its roots partly in the manual sampling of so-called drum ‘breaks’ on vinyl records that turntablists of the late 1970s and 1980s used: isolating and repeating these short sections of a song on a turntable and simultaneously blending them with other records to create hitherto unheard tracks. Playing only certain sections of a record “Many of the ideas and methods from early vinyl sampling were reconfigured into digital sampling once that technology became available, especially at affordable prices.”

Born at the advent of digital sound editing, Glitch music has its cultural and theoretical roots in musique concrete; a form of music that uses sound that is abstracted from its source as a compositional resource mostly using recording and playback manipulation techniques. In common with musique concrete, source material and instrumentation used is not restricted to the sound produced by musical instruments or voices and can include manipulated recordings. Time-stretching vocals and reducing drum loops to grainy 8 bit fidelity to induce distortion were some of the first techniques used to create artefacts for their timbrel qualities. The experiments and works of Musique Concrete composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgar Varese, Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage made use of the electronic instruments and technologies that were available to them in their era. In addition to the idea that “noise is music” as expounded by Luigi Russolo in his ‘Art of Noises’ manifesto in 1917 (which saw the sounds of the industrial era as a new phenomena, of sound as music) was later expanded by Cage to include all sound, even the relative silence of a performance hall (4’33”). So the error, or sounds that signify error or even the intrinsic trace artifacts of media have an enormous popularity for experimentation.

The contemporary composer is nowadays surrounded by electronic hardware capable of manipulation of sonic nuances and characteristics on a micro level. The sounds produced by malfunctioning devices, the pops and distortions produced as sound gear is turning on, the crackle in a signal as voltage fades or fluctuates, the sound of a needle dropping into a groove, digital files corrupted by misuse or damaged storage are all sources for glitch music.

The current development of video glitch culture through direct sharing of knowledge and aesthetics can be compared to that of the Glitch music culture in the early 1990s when sound files were swapped and sampled over the Internet. The increase in bandwidth has allowed video sampling, sharing and exhibition over the last 3 years to increase rapidly. Sampling often involves the collection of media from different generations of video technology. In the process of collecting the glitched aspects of the media are able to hitch hike as an appealing texture for the palette of an artist.

‘The Gleaners and I’ (2000) is a documentary by French filmmaker Agnes Varda that covers in detail a personal view of the history and nature of gleaning. Historically, gleaning was a practice occurring in 18th century France when the poor would meticulously comb recently harvested fields for left over turnips, potatoes or stems of wheat. Varda interviews various contemporary individuals in rural and urban France as they work with discarded objects and ideas and the political and moral implications of using something considered by most as trash or discarded as out-of-date. Her own practices as a film maker and documentary maker are revealed in the film – a sort of meta-documentation of what it means to be a bricoluer – a term given to one whose artistic practise derives mainly from tinkering, meddling and modifying available technology and discards to suit their own needs. In examining her own practise Varda brings to light the very personal nature that bricolage takes on for each bricoluer. The very act of cobbling together items of technology that are specifically available to each artist in a personal way is perhaps the first step in ensuring that each artist will create unique works. Each piece of hardware and each set of software implies a mode of production (and a specific mode of glitch) – and that effect is lessened when an eccentric array of production tools and processes are assembled, patched, cobbled together, in a variety of ways as to subvert any over arching effect on the outcome by any particular tool. Many video artists, however, do have a tendency to work with more than one item of equipment – especially those whose practice is based more in textures than in the figurative image. The practice of adding pieces of equipment and various modes of image production together, which William Mitchell, calls ‘electrobricolage’, means that the possibilities for the glitch to exist are multiplied. Electrobricolage creates a present tense in which multiple modes of technologies may co-exist and overlap in chronology. By cobbling together new image producing ‘machines’ the artist creates new combinations of uncertainty – the conditions in which glitch thrives. Creative improvisation with available objects allows what Carl Rhodes calls a “transfer across cultural domains of objects and artefacts as part of identity formation processes” The disembodied piecemeal nature of open source software allows a greater speed of transfer of ideas. The readymade nature of the glitch – the glitch as instant art, is investigated with a sense of irony in the work of programmer/artist Sven Koenig – his instant video art P2P (peer to peer) website82 neatly automates the repurposing of found footage (Koenig classifies video downloaded from p2p websites as found footage). The error correction softwares built into many digital communications systems become fertile ground for many artists and Koenig recognised a trend in digital codec error – largely created by errors in motion compensated prediction systems used in mpeg video.

Motion compensated prediction uses motion estimation to predict the content of parts of the current image by attempting to find, in a reference picture the image fragments that correspond to image fragments in the picture currently being encoded. Koenig’s ‘Download- completed’ requires the user to upload a digital video file in an mpeg codec associated with video files transferred online (DivX, MPEG2, H264 and others). The video file is then processed and filtered through Koenig’s custom software to simulate the image degradation that occurs during the playback of mpeg files that are partially corrupted by incomplete or incorrect copying or download. Here Koenig is subverting the sign of glitch as communication that has been broken – a ‘lost signal’. Koenig’s technique creates a ready made temporal collage through digital automatism. By alluding to the way that double exposure created superimposition in film Koenig is reminding us of the fragile nature of the image as code. The artefacts produced by this process take on the signs attributed to nitrate film decay and the artefact itself ‘stars’ in the film, a virus-like by product of Hollywood’s obsession with copy protection.

The feature film ‘Decasia’ (2002) showcases rotting and decaying nitrate-based films from the early years of motion picture production. An unsettling mesmeric score sets the tone for a sequence of shots with no apparent binding narrative. A slow pan through a motion picture film manufacturing plant is capped with a hand dipping into a vat to touch the film. A Sufi dancer twirls in slow motion. Traffic bustles through a nameless metropolis. Soon, however, the intrusion of decay looms as a filmic element and the long dead unknown actors often seem to interact with, and be affected by, fluttering and boiling textures that make us very aware of film’s mortality. ‘Film Ist 7-12’ (2002) travels a similar aesthetic path, especially in the chapter entitled ‘Magic’ where the alchemy of nitrate film decomposition melds with trick photography. The elevation to high art of these undead artefacts from the wake of media development illustrates an appreciation for the physical nature of film-image as lost world, the image as mortal, the image as reality.

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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