The material and the immaterial Glitch.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

In 1896, when a film camera jammed mid-way through a static camera shot, Theatre owner and magician George Melies discovered ‘stop substitution’ trick photography. This discovery would go on to be a key principle of many special effects devised by Melies in his short trick films.

The photographs by war photographer Robert Capa of the Omaha beach landings of 6th June 1944 are iconic images of WWII. Capa’s gritty photographs are regarded by some as among the best war photographs of all time yet the ghostly images actually resulted from a darkroom accident. In the rush to get the images to a courier for delivery to the main office of Life Magazine a darkroom technician dried the film too quickly and the extreme heat melted the film. The emulsion was distorted beyond recovery on all but 10 of the frames from the 4 rolls processed. Those 10 frames yielded definitive images of an era of warfare.

In 1963, his first year of film making, Andy Warhol fogged one frame of film in the 16mm Bolex camera he was shooting on by not closing the viewfinder, thus allowing light to leak onto the film through the reflex prism linking the viewfinder to the lens. The one frame flash between edits, a kind of full stop for each scene, was a resultant signature ‘effect’ that he went on to allow to happen in many of his subsequent films of the 1960’s. The effect is still repeatedly used today, most notably as a divider between fast edits in Hollywood film trailers to add drama and excitement.

In 1967 when the proof of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Massage’ came back from the printer the intended title ‘The Medium is the Message’ had suffered a typographical error. McLuhan was excited by this mistake is said to have exclaimed ‘Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!’ Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: Message and Mess Age, Massage and Mass Age.”

In 1982, DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore was practicing at home when he put his hand onto the record to stop its playing so he could hear what his mother was saying. In doing so he noticed the ‘scratching’ sound produced by moving the vinyl record backwards and forwards under the needle. His accidental discovery of ‘scratching’ would rapidly develop and become an important textural instrument in hip-hop music in the 1980’s.

These examples of errors are those that were discovered as a result of a direct working and tactile relationship of humans with machines. Machines, which like their media and the consequences of their mistakes, belong firmly in the material world through their analogical nature. Machines that, in most cases, require knowledgeable co-ordinated operation in often-complex sequences virtually guarantee ‘errors’. The complexity and physicality of these processes multiply the chance for human caused error. For instance, correct exposure on the HR16mm Bolex 16mm film camera requires the film to be loaded correctly, the film gate closed, the correct aperture to be set, the correct exposure to be set, and a string of other procedures to be followed for correct exposure and shooting. Despite using a light meter to help gauge the exposure the user still has no definite indication that the exposure has been successful until the film is developed. Photographic film is a physically based analogue medium. Light streams through a lens onto an emulsion of photosensitive material on a transparent substrate which upon being chemically processed produces a physical record that can be held up to the light for viewing by one person or projected by a strong light source for viewing by many. This “isomorphic transformation” of the original image based on physics and chemistry delivers a record by using material based processes at every stage of its production. The lens, the film, the exposure, the chemical processing and the projector all offer chances for error or ‘effect’. While the machines and processes given as examples here are built for precise use, the designer and manufacturer can never fully account for human error or negligence (or the failure to read the manufacturers instructions!). It is statistical probability then that users everywhere, through the mere process of operating equipment could become the unwitting generators and possibly discoverers of new ‘special effects’. Discovery through error is, of course, not the only way in which film, or any technology or science has advanced. The experimental film genre has done much to widen the frontiers of what cinema is, and isn’t. As mentioned elsewhere in this document the materialist experimental film movement of the London Film Makers Co-operative acted on many of these constraints as starting points to investigate the boundaries of the film medium in an experimental project that eventually became a film genre known as ‘Expanded cinema’. The aims of this experiment were to try to create some sort of language with which to discuss the medium in terms of ‘film as film’. Artists carried an awareness of the material aspects of the media in their works, and sought to make audiences experience a cinema that was fully aware of its own ‘body’. To not so much look through the frame as look at the frame itself. As Malcolm Le Grice says, to work within the medium of ‘Film as Film’ meant an alignment

“…to the modernist view that the meaning and aesthetic base of a work derives from its material rather than from an illusionist representation….Meaning is formed in and by the work as it moves dynamically from the acts of making into its passage through the world.”

The process of investigation involved assuming there were no limits on the path which artists could take – with projector, film and screen all being manipulated in creative ways. The deliberate abuse of the ‘principles’ of filmmaking, which Amos Vogel calls “an international canon of regulations scrupulously obeyed by filmmakers and editors, immortalised in text books and further vulgarised by film schools” and Sean Cubitt a willingness to include “exigencies like misty eye pieces…in contrast to the commercial cinema, where the material support is effaced so that they don’t disturb the unity of the world of the movie”

Malcolm Le Grice, a principal artist in the London Filmmakers Co-op and author of several regarded books on Experimental film says of his own expanded cinema work, ‘Horror film’ (1971):

“I didn’t call it expanded cinema in fact I didn’t know what I was doing, I was working like a primitive. I wanted to get something that was something more to do with the condition of the work – the condition of the presence (of film), and something that I saw was working more with ideas that related much more to the contemporary world, and so in that way I wasn’t just interested in making films inside the frame, I was interested in the way they came out into the space.”

Guy Sherwin, another prominent experimental film artist from the LFMC explains;

“there was a strong tendency to explore every part of the film equipment and that meant the structure of the grain, the film, the way it passes through the projector, the projected light, the screen, the audience. Everything was up for exploration and became part of the dynamic of the film.”

The materialist’s line of investigation then, could be interpreted as an extreme attempt to create glitch not only in film, but cinema, the environment in which the audience is watching the film. However a question arises as to the veracity of a glitch that is intentionally created. In other words, can an accident be deliberate? In the materialist investigations where no stone is left unturned the glitch itself is undermined. Little room is left for error – as their intent is absolutely clear – they seek to control all aspects of the illusion, to the point that there is no illusion. As mentioned, a glitch is essentially an effect in embryo and the materialists in their search for truth in representation sought to sterilize the illusory power of the medium. In his 2006 dissertation on Glitch, Iman Moradi differentiates between intentionally produced glitches and “unpremeditated glitches” as ‘glitch-alikes’ and ‘real glitches’ “Glitch-alikes are a collection of digital artefacts that resemble visual aspects of real glitches found in their original habitat.“ His clarification stands only briefly however, as he settles, for the sake of convenience, on the term “glitch” as “an all encompassing term to signify mutual qualities of both areas.” This would appear to imply a control over glitch by artists who invite the unknown element of the glitch into the texture of their visual art. However, my own definition of glitch as “an error or undesired artefact in audio visual media arising from software or hardware manipulation” implies a ‘real time’ experiment where the conditions for glitch are created yet little more than a small degree of control is achieved. The essential nature of the glitch is that it is not controllable and at the point the glitch becomes a repeatable experiment, or an operator becomes a virtuoso in the methods of production of any specific glitch it has become something else – an ‘effect’.

In the digital visual arts to apply an effect is to apply a transformation of the image. By the examples listed above – cases where the mistake has ultimately become an effect, the medium of film would appear to be capable only of analogical effects determined by physics and chemistry. This “privileged indexical relationship to prefilmic reality” enjoyed by film, ensures a direct causal relationship that is empirically definable, and so, repeatable. The generated effects and artefacts all relate indexically to their sources – the causal nature of analogue film cannot be denied. A medium, as defined by the OED is “any raw material or mode of expression used in an artistic or creative activity.” The artist who works with film maintains that “privileged indexical relationship” however the introduction of the analogue electronic era, the age of magnetic tape media perhaps, saw a paradigm shift in the approach to experimentation with the ‘medium’. According to Spielman, the medium of analogue video is changed with each new pulse of creativity passing through its form or “as soon as it becomes the content of something new”. The medium of video exhibits metamorphic change that breaks direct links with the initial input. U.S. pioneer video artist Nam Jun Paik recognised the electromagnetic nature of video with his in situ manipulation of a pure television signal. A large magnet, placed on the top of a television set, distorted the flow of electrons within the cathode ray tube creating abstract patterns of light on the screen’s surface. (‘Magnet TV’, 1965). His application of magnetic force to the television recognised the need for artists working with new media forms to select tools that were native to that media.

Paik’s ‘Magnet TV’ marks an important transition from the physical to the electronic, or ephemeral. His work explores the real-time interactive potential of the creative manipulation of the video signal. It has been argued that film, or more precisely, cinema,is also able to present the immaterial by the use of juxtaposition in montage. According to Lev Manovich the Kuleshov effect allows film to “overcome its indexical nature through montage by presenting the viewer with objects that never existed in reality.” Those disembodied ‘objects’ are more in the realm of imagination and illusion, however, and could not be said to exist in the same way for all viewers. The disconnection of the artist from the material, of disembodiment of the artwork from a medium begins with ‘Magnet TV’. An appreciation of the aesthetics of visual glitch, its rebirth as an electronic signal, begins at this point.

Video feedback, a pure glitch produced by filming the output monitor of a camera to create a closed loop, is another example of a format-less state. Steina Vasulka, pioneer video artist said, “Feedback was the first true image not related to pinhole.” As a medium based in a processual signal video has no substance and feedback is the purest form of that signal in glitch, an abstract image folding in on itself in real time. Its organic textures ebb and pulse and allow a direct interactive manipulation of glitch. In an early 1970’s leaflet on creating video feedback artist Bill Gwin comments: “Feedback…has two necessary elements for making art – a reasonable amount of flexibility and a reasonable amount of predictability”. However the ease with which complex imagery can be produced with video feedback ultimately leaves a “falsely aesthetic oneirism” a label that Bazin applied to over effected Hollywood movies without substance, sheer ‘eye candy’. A glitch that exists solely as a glitch is a garish paint without a canvas, an effect without a context.

The feedback effect described above was created using a tube camera. Vacuum tube technology disappeared from the domestic scene in the late 1980’s. The last VHS decks were manufactured in 2003 and in 2009, the time of this writing, with analogue signal broadcast being discontinued in 2011 and the sale of analogue receivers dwindling, analogue video is a ‘dead media’. Video feedback exists as a sign that is resurrected in digital technology through digital emulation software. Programmer artists such as Vade54 who code emulations and filters that reproduce the analogue video glitch are conducting a kind of electronic archaeology. The effects and devices exploited early in the history of video art by pioneering video artists such as the Vasulkas are artefacts locked away in dead media. The rarity of the hardware capable of reproducing these glitches ensures the rarity of its glitches. In addition to allowing these glitches new life this nostalgia for and re-discovery of effects is a starting point for further experimentation, this time in a digital realm. The challenge to reproduce and enact image processing sees the glitch exposed to the possibility of hybrid growth – digital code enables tweaking, adjustment and recombination in a way previously unavailable in an analogue format. With this rebirth in digital form it has transcended media.

Digital emulations aside, the rarity of dead media enable the visual artist to produce a unique style. If a product is only briefly available on the market, for whatever reason, the obscurity of that product in years to come is ensured. This could also mean the item will gain a ‘cult status’. The Fisher Price Pixel Vision PXL2000, produced in 1987, was a toy video camera system that recorded low-resolution black and white CCD video onto standard audio C90 cassettes. Sadie Benning’s 1989 film ‘A New Year’ (5:57, black & white video/ Pixelvision) is one of the more famous works made using the Pixelvision camera. Benning’s highly personal works, which predate Youtube video blogging by 20 years, gain credo from the gritty low resolution CCD technology that the pixelvision camera shares with surveillance cameras. Benning’s is an example of video art that carries just one; the low resolution image stamps the work with a ‘pure’ glitch.

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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