Glitches in Art

story © Michael Betancourt, January 20, 2013 all rights reserved.


This is an excerpt from a new article (slated for publication in Hz no 19) on the use of glitches in art, and how that use related to a critically engaged media practice:

The term “glitch art” is an attempt to distinguish between the specific use of glitches in an artwork as opposed to those happening spontaneously in non-art contexts/works: it is also a term that describes a particular media practice identified as being critically engaged. However, the distinction between an unpremeditated technical failure, unstable and transitory, and the use of audio-or-visual artifacts that coincide with these incidental errors, stable and repeatably a part of a finished work may be difficult to identify when encountered in a work since they can (and in artistic practice often are) indistinguishable; the ontological origins of any particular glitch are not necessary apparent in the form of the glitch itself. Various writers on ‘glitch art’ have proposed terms to identify this ontological distinction between a transitory technical failure (always called “glitch”) and other variants that are then given a different designation, but which may have the same form—“glitch-alike” (Morandi), “domesticated glitch” (Menkman). These distinctions are problematic in art, as theorist Curt Cloninger has observed: “The term ‘glitch art’ might apply to all domesticated glitches and all wild glitches that have been ‘captured’ and recontextualized as art.” The “might” opens the potential scope of ‘glitch art’ beyond simply those glitches “captured” in a recording to include “wild glitches” orchestrated to occur on demand within a specific performace. Digital technology itself, based in sampling, enables the apparently ‘perfect’ reproduction that is the hypothetical ‘norm’ which allows the identification of the glitch. What is produced by the immaterial processing of digital technology is an always perfect new example of the work in question, made specifically for the moment of encounter; it is an “original.” This human-readable form is a pure product of the digitized samples (data) transformed by the decoding protocol. ‘Glitch art’ is a reflection of how artists have engaged with this underlying structure by looking for, producing or exploiting the “errors” emergent in any complex system.

All glitches are a product of the autonomous digital creation (semiotic production) of a given work whose physical characteristics lead to an identification of it as being “glitched” by the interpreting, human audience encountering it; the ‘glitch’ only exists because a human interpreter has identified it as a deviation (error) from the established, anticipated ‘norm.’ This contextuality renders the ontological distinction moot: discussions attempting to theorize glitch phenomena reveal that the ontological destinction is problematic for both ‘glitch’ and ‘glitch art’ precisely to the extent that there is an ambivalence in the use of glitches within/as art. Rosa Menkman’s Vernacular of File Formats (and its accompanying exhibitions) dramatizes this ambivalence directly. While there is a tendency to identify and discuss only those glitches placed within particular works and exhibited in an art context, at the same time there is a purely formal element to these glitched works. Menkman’s work is typical, developing and elaborating upon particular technical means in achieving the ‘glitch’ through a careful study and examination of transitory technical failures which are then formally documented as an essential element to the work/presentation.

The seeming paradox of an induced ‘glitch’ (i.e. a desired glitch whose production was the focus of the technique employed) as ‘technical failure’ is a different issue than the formal presentation of these failures, whatever their origins. This issue confronts all ‘glitch art,’ whether the glitches being seen are part of the work, a novel result of some kind of transient technical failure, or a mixture of the two (there is no reason a recorded glitch cannot also be subject to glitches arising from an independent technical malfunction). Thus employing an ontological distinction between these variants of glitches in/on glitch-based work poses specific problems: how is one to distinguish between a technical failure that produced a glitch, a recorded version of that same glitch (visual/audible), and a machine designed to produce that same glitch, ‘live on demand,’ as part of a unique performance when all three variants have the same semiotic function within a given work? When the ‘glitch’ assumes the same form and plays the same role in the work, any distinction between them depends on information that is absent from the work. For the interpreting audience, this distinction makes no difference to the form of the glitch or its meaning.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  January 20, 2013  all rights reserved.

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