The art of (making) mistakes: on glitch aesthetics

Upcoming: Gli.tc/h noise & new media festival, September 28 thru October 3, 2010. The international conference and gathering will take place in Chicago to celebrate the aesthetics of the glitch.

A glitch is a short-lived digital or analog error. Such errors mostly occur when there is some sort of mistranslation in the transmission of data between different domains in a computational system. A visual glitch is not the error itself, but its visual manifestation of it. They appear as a malfunction (a voltage-change or signal of the wrong duration) in an electrical circuit. In software a glitch is something unpredictable, something that changes the desired or expected output of the system. Things go wrong. I think Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin describe what a glitch is all about in a nice way in their contribution to the Software Studies lexicon: “A glitch is a mess that is a moment, a possibility to glance at software’s inner structure…it shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized”.

Glitch #9 from www.beflix.com

The unexpected and the dysfunctional nature of the glitch lend itself well for artistic explorations. Glitch aesthetics is the visualization or making visible of errors, it is a way of organizing perception that emphasizes the artificiality of representation. The aesthetics of glitch makes the functionality and dysfunctionality of software appear. It interrupts the event and breaks down the expected.

Skyscraper #1 from www.beflix.com

Glitch art is an art form that plays with these manifestations of errors, these ruptures and cracks. According to artist Rosa Menkman, glich art shows how destruction can change into the creation of something original. Glitch art is not just about errors produced deliberatively by the artists but also about a way of expression that depends on multiple actors contributing to the creation of unexpected events in computational systems. Menkman describes her artistic practice in producing glitch art as uncanny and sublime. “The artist tries to catch something that is the result of an uncertain balance, a shifting, un-catchable, unrealized utopia connected to randomness and idyllic disintegrations”. She says: “I manipulate, bend and break any medium towards the point where it becomes something new”.

Glitch #19 from www.beflix.com

The artist Nick Briz compares glitch art to cubism. The logic of cubism he says is that of reducing natural forms into its basic geometric constituencies, glitch art does something similar by attempting to expose the algorithmic processes into an aesthetic form. Glitch art also resembles pop art in his view. Like pop art, glitch art shows an interest in popular culture by appropriating it. What’s being appropriated are the errors occurring in software, video games, images, videos, audio and other forms of data. Unlike Menkman, Briz seems to think that artists primarily search the digital landscape in order to catch, grab and record a glitch, rather than intentionally create them.

The question is whether a glitch is still a glitch, that is an unexpected result of a malfunction, if it is intentionally created? Is it possible to make a mistake on purpose and still call it a mistake?

One of the most prominent glitch theorists, Iman Moradi, distinguishes in his dissertation between the “pure glitch” of the unexpected malfunction and the “glitch-alike” which is a result of an intentional human decision. Moradi together with Ant Scott, Joe Gilmore and Chrisopher Murphy just last year published one of the first books (if not the first) solely devoted to glitch aesthetics – to the art of loss of information, the frozen uncertainty, and the revenge of the machine.

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