'Glitch Art' as a Movement?

story © Michael Betancourt, July 10, 2017 all rights reserved.


Recently, I was asked during the Q&A after a talk if I think “glitch art” is a movement. The problem with calling the amorphous collection of people working with “glitch art” a movement is precisely its shapelessness: the things being done and called glitch art have been around and in use by artists since the late 1970s and first started to become prominent during the 1990s, emerging more-or-less independently in places as diverse as London, Chicago, Oslo and Miami—all places also associated with the use of glitches in electronic and avant-garde music. This plurality of origins makes any suggestion of a “movement” highly questionable: there were no manifestos, no proclamations that circulated across all these origin-sites. Instead, the use and embrace of glitches appears to have happened more or less simultaneously, as a result of the faults and failures of digital technology in the 1990s, especially the vagaries and interruptions common to dial-up internet access and the slow speeds of download that would often result in partial and damaged files. The embrace of glitch by this initial collection of artists (whose work from 2003 and earlier was collected in the Glitch: Designing Imperfection book) was highly dispersed geographically and aesthetically, even if they shared formal similarities because of the technologies involved.

In these early years, before social media and photosharing, the people working with glitch tended to be isolated, often in spite of the communications possibilities of the internet. The highly-European focus of the Glitch: Designing Imperfection book, for example, demonstrates the advantages of geography—while there was a great deal of experiment and “play” with glitches in Miami, there was not much visibility outside Miami for the works being made there (this was before Art Basel arrived, bringing the art world along). This early isolation was true for other places as well. The Oslo, Norway conference organized by Motherboard in 2002 was, in part, an attempt to overcome that isolation; those of us in Miami heard about it after it was over. These same limitations have restricted the availability and writing of histories around “glitch art.” The disappearance, and generally poor visibility of works made during or even before “web 1.0” fosters an the mistaken belief that glitch art didn’t emerge until after 2005 due to photosharing sites such as Flickr.

Movements tend to emerge around new aesthetics, either prompted by new technologies (as with video art and computer art in the 1960s/70s, or in the 1990s) or the embrace of theories that result in radically new conceptions of the work (for example, the historical avant-gardes—Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism being obvious instances—all have a strong connection to new theories of vision, motion, and mind respectively). Even Impressionism is partially a response and exploit of new technology (paint in tubes). With this historical framework in mind, the strongest case for being a “movement” would then be the artists responding to web 1.0 or even the early days of web 2.0—those artists working between c. 1995 and c. 2006. But the problem then arises: they are a disparate, motley group whose organization into a movement would necessarily be a post hoc description, not in itself unusual for art history. It is a misleading grouping, one whose visual focus ignores the overlaps of ideation with experimental music, electronica (techno) and the innovative graphic design work of record labels such as Warp Records in the UK during this same period.

In the case of glitch art perhaps a better understanding is to see it was a specific engagement with technology, rather than as a movement. With the lack of manifestos during its formative years, it is better identified as a shared tendency or collection of concerns driven by common experiences, and part of a general engagement with then-new technology during the transition from analog media to digital media. Understood in these terms, “glitch art” retains its historical foundations and gains context as a continuation of artist-engagements with the possibilities of new technology beginning in the nineteenth century. In a history of technology-art, “glitch art” would come at the transition between one kind of media and another, a shift comparable to the changes developing out of photography a century earlier.

What this means for the question about a “glitch art movement” is that there wasn’t one. Much like the invention of abstraction, glitch art may be best understood as a transition between one conception of art-technology and another, a symptom rather than a cause. The historiographic issues of artists and movements are best left for later, more disinterested analysis: it is likely that there is not one “movement” but potentially several, separated by the geography and spatial distance that the early years of Internet connectivity hoped to erase but didn’t.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  July 10, 2017  all rights reserved.

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