THE EARLY INTERNET
The week of March 22, 2015

The long, twisted history of glitch art

By Miles Klee

Glitches are headaches—technology coming apart at the seams.

The term, which may derive from Yiddish words conveying slippage, was fittingly popularized by NASA engineers and astronauts. Into Orbit, a 1962 account of Project Mercury, provides one of its earliest usages, courtesy of John Glenn, the first American to circumnavigate the globe outside its atmosphere.

“Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was ‘glitch,’” he explained. “Literally, a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical current,” an occurrence with extreme, unpredictable, and potentially fatal results.

In other words, it’s where the art happens.

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Pre-Internet beginnings

If you’ve spent any time on Tumblr—or taken deep dives into Flickr or Pinterest—you know what glitch art looks like. There are devoted Facebook pages and subreddits, too. YouTube is overflowing with tutorials on how to make your own.

Nick Briz, a Chicago-based New Media artist, educator, and organizer, expanded on Glenn’s definition of “glitch” in an email to the Kernel: “an unexpected moment in a system that calls attention to that system, and perhaps even leads us to notice aspects of that system that might otherwise go unnoticed.”

“Glitch art, then,” he wrote, “is anytime an artist intentionally leverages that moment, by either recontextualizing or provoking glitches.”

It draws back the curtain on our sleekest devices and virtual constructs to reveal raw pixels and code, a surreal landscape of unformed possibilities.

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The medium, however, actually dates back to Web 1.0 and well beyond. Dutch artist and theorist Rosa Menkman, in 2011’s Glitch Studies Manifesto, traces the aesthetic of decay and disruption back to “the magnetic distortion and scanning lines of the cathode ray tube,” explored by Nam June Paik in 1965’s MagnetTV, and experiments involving “the scratching and burning of celluloid,” as in Len Lye’s 1937 abstract short A Colour Box, which involved painting directly onto film stock.

Briz goes back earlier still in search of primordial ancestors, to the Dada art scene that flourished at the outset of the 20th century. In his paper Glitch Art Historie[s], he writes:

Dada art was playful, absurdist, and often times intentionally nonsensical. Dada art could take the form of a complex collage or a simple found object (readymade). Glitch can be instigated complexities or stumbled-upon accidents. In many ways Dada was a response to the paradigm shift of the industrialized WWI. The digital/information revolution is (could lead to) a paradigm shift of its own—glitch art responds to this by questioning the stability (or efforts towards an idealized stability) of such a shift.

These and other disparate examples corroborate a few truths. One is that without the Industrial Revolution, there is no glitch—or, rather, only those resulting from flaws of our own senses, à la hallucination. A wheelbarrow may break, but such an event doesn’t give us an intuition of reality itself imploding. The fact of increasingly swift mechanical evolution is a crucial aspect of glitch’s effect.

There’s an undeniably sacred aura around glitch works.

As Menkman, the Glitch Studies Manifesto author, puts it in her somewhat polemical fashion, glitch art is “the product of an elitist discourse and dogma widely pursued by the naïve victims of a persistent upgrade culture” based on planned obsolescence. “It is now normal that in the future the consumer will pay less for a device that can do more, but at the same time will reach a state of obsolescence faster … The user has to realize that improvement is nothing more than a proprietary protocol, a deluded consumer myth of progression towards a holy grail of perfection. Every (future) technology possesses its own fingerprints of imperfection.”

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Another idea explored at glitch art’s origin point was beatified violence. There’s an undeniably sacred aura around glitch works. There’s untitled-game by the art collective Jodi, a dissolution of the bloody first-person-shooter Quake, one in a series of video game first-person shooters that began with titles like Wolfenstein 3D in the late 1990s. In employing a technique akin to décollage (English: “to come unglued”), slicing and shredding the source material until nothing is left but amorphous line and movement, they make gamer gore submit to its own brutality. In Quake, you’re meant to kill everything. The artists opt to break the artificial world apart instead, and they take their destruction seriously. Consider what Jodi’s two members, Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, said in their five-word acceptance speech for a 1999 “net art” Webby Award, directly attacking the annual event itself: “Ugly commercial sons of bitches.”

In that moment, the political nature of glitch art crystallized. For the next 15 years, the genre would manifest as an anarchic, destabilizing force. Artists flayed brands and logos till they were unrecognizable. They revealed the digital quicksand beneath seemingly solid foundations. They forced us to wonder what, if anything, was not a clever illusion.

The virtual gallery

In the 1990s, online art—not unlike the Internet itself—was frequently seen as a passing fad. “Net art,” as it was then called, struck most as garbled, tiny, and meaningless imitations of the overwhelming masterpieces on display in museums and galleries. It lacked a raison d’être.

It’s true you don’t hear the phrase “net art” too much anymore, but that’s because there’s so much of it. It’s no longer a novelty. Every day we wake up, log on, and look at visual artifacts that not only wouldn’t exist were it not for the Web but may be impossible to represent outside of it. And, as with so many other cultural arenas, from politics to literature, the Internet has opened doors for those the old establishment might otherwise exclude, obstruct, or ridicule.

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“The Internet itself is both a medium and a platform for media—a very accessible and flexible one,” Ben Baker-Smith, a glitch artist whose latest project combines “synaesthetic audio-video systems” with real-life choreography, wrote in an email to the Kernel. “So in one sense it functions like other mediums, providing a range of documented and undocumented material potentials that can be manipulated to artistic ends. And in another sense it functions as a sort of kingmaker for other media formats.”

Curation dies out when everyone curates themselves.

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It happened quickly. From the pioneering forays into telecommunications-based (or telematic) art—such as Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s Satellite Arts Project of 1977, a NASA-supported experiment that allowed dancers separated by oceans and time zones to “perform together in the same live image”—it was a short leap to thriving online hubs for creative collaboration. As soon as 2002, a digital lifetime ago, new media scholar Jon Ippolito set about debunking 10 “myths” about Internet art and assuring critics of its legitimacy:

Less than a decade after the introduction of the first image-capable browser for the World Wide Web, online art has become a major movement with a global audience. It took twenty years after the introduction of television for video artists such as Nam June Paik to access the technology required to produce art for broadcast television. Online artists, by comparison, were already exchanging text-based projects and criticism before the Internet became a visual medium with the introduction of the Mosaic browser in 1993. By 1995, eight percent of all Web sites were produced by artists, giving them an unprecedented opportunity to shape a new medium at its very inception.

Glitch, of course, is but a subset of the vast and eclectic oeuvre achieved by Internet artists in the last quarter century, so it’s worth asking what its practitioners want to say. They doubtlessly share with the wider community an interest in impermanence, fluidity, and process. Baker-Smith pointed to the legacy of “Yves Klein’s fire paintings and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings,” which explore a medium’s potential as an end in itself, and brought up Michelangelo’s observation that a sculptor must discover the statue hidden in a block of marble. But glitch explicitly deals with forms that take the shape of mistakes or flaws.

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An immediate tension, then, flares up in the gap between actively forcing the “error” or drawing a frame around something that emerges naturally. The latter impulse gives us stuff like Peder Norrby’s collection of deformed 3-D graphics in the malfunction-plagued iO6 edition of Apple Maps. Rather than create this imagery, he explores virtual terrain and finds it in the wild. These would be “pure glitches,” as opposed to what some critics call “glitch-alikes.”

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Photo via Peter Norrby/Flickr

On the other side, you have people who tend to manipulate the fields in which they operate. Dimitry Morozov built a handheld device he calls the Digioxide, which “sniffs” local air and senses toxic gases, then renders the spectrum of pollutants as colorful, pixelated patterns.

Glitch is predicated on exploiting wrongness to catch the sublime.

“The more pollution I get, the more beautiful the images are,” he told Wired. “It’s a little bit ironic.” Surely it isn’t that. Glitch is predicated on exploiting wrongness to catch the sublime.

That’s certainly the view held by artist Gustavo Fajardo, who in a 2012 interview with the Daily Dot spoke about “destroying” appropriated historical touchstones by forcing them through a glitchy filter. (Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans were among his targets.) “[A] whole new universe expands to you when you realize that every single little thing around you can be used to create art,” he said. The harvesting of ephemeral flickers is a good in its own right.

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But perhaps the unreality of glitch is absorbed more viscerally. Baker-Smith quoted Mark Rothko: “A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.” Altered photos by Sabato Visconti coax forth a subtle disquiet. They simultaneously please the eye and subvert its confidence. The art collective Jodi’s homepage, meanwhile, is a deliberate chaos: A visitor must click at random around the illegibly crowded and anti-verbal network of hyperlinks, many busted.

“A glitch, even when it is intentionally provoked, always maintains a level of chance, at least from a human point of view, because of the computer’s seemingly random and chaotic way of breaking down,” Briz, the Chicago-based new media artist, said. It has a way of making the viewer aware of their wave-particle nature. We’re all just masses colliding in space, but possessed of fluctuating thought.

Or, if you prefer, we’re nothing but bits of streaming data—fragile and corruptible.

Revisiting roots, pressing onward

Today, the GIF is the dominant glitch end product. And while artists including Baker-Smith shy away from allusions to “nostalgia,” it’s a strong pull for his peers. “Aesthetically, the GIF worked for us because it was a glitchy 8-bit reminder of the excitement we had when we first began using the Web as children,” Pamela Reed, half of the design duo Reed + Rader, said.

Has reminiscence then become glitch’s driving force? Is the past what pushes it forward? Or is this retreat into cheap sentiment, as with many other media, the death knell of the genre?

Writing for Gizmodo, Kyle Chaka described a wider “Great Web 1.0 Revival,” the drift back toward the spare and clunky but intimate and DIY-ish Internet that preceded the streamlining, consolidating influence of social media—the playground of the original glitchers. That’s good news for at least this reason: We get to revisit outdated equipment.

We’re nothing but bits of streaming data—fragile and corruptible.

“Older formats are often easier to work with, as they tend to be built around physical materials and electrical components rather than code and processors,” Baker-Smith told me. “This can make them easier to self-service and modify, which encourages experimentation.”

Indeed, Briz got his start in glitch at least partly due to limited, malleable resources.

I started making glitch work in 2007 while i was doing my undergrad in film production in Orlando, FL. I didn’t call it glitch art, i called ‘em “binary videos”. i was really into structuralist films && other experimental cinema ( folks like Stan Brakhage && Hollis Frampton ). Brakhage was always concerned with the actual material of film, but as a poor undergrad i couldn’t afford to work with film, i was stuck with SD miniDV tapes, so i asked myself, “what’s the fundamental ‘material’ here?”… i figured the answer was binary code, so i started messing with that.

While plenty of blogs compile warped or “broken” GIFs, artists have also gone after glitches that predate or dispense with the Internet altogether. There’s a fascinating archive of the weird tracking lines and static grain that characterized degraded VHS tapes. Glitch has made the leap to the fashion runway with plaids that misalign and appear to disintegrate. Scan Rejects hosts an array of images stretched by photo scanners. Another blogger identifies tricky techniques and hiccups in classic animation, usually “smears” and “multiples.”

Smears are in-betweens that replicate a motion blur in live action film. While motion blur is something that happens automatically, due to the action being filmed moving faster than what the shutter speed can capture, a smear has to be created by hand. … Then there are multiples, where there it looks as if there are multiple pieces of the same thing moving because your eye can’t catch up (move your hand rapidly from side to side, it’ll seem like you can see two hands at the same time).

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Image via Animation Smears/Tumblr

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GIF via Mark Vomit/Tumblr

Throughout, however, the principal elements of glitch identified in GTLCH AESTHETICS, a seminal 2004 essay by Iman Moradi (now Shay Moradi) persist: fragmentation, repetition, linearity, and complexity. Because such qualities “can expose the power of computer technology, he wrote, “they reveal the background processes and are therefore positively fetishised.” Briz, for his part, sees the political resonances identified by Menkman (who, like Moradi, espies Karl Marx’s commodity fetishism everywhere in the genre):

For example, when u interact w/ur computer there’s a long list of assumptions made on ur behalf by the programmers of the operating system u use && the software u use, we’re generally unaware of this but it becomes xtreamly obvious when ur glitching stuff. technology isn’t neutral, it’s pregnant w/the politics && ideologies of the folks who made them ( often times straight white dudes from california ) + when we use these technologies we [un]conciously subscribe to these politics, glitch art can be a way to bring that hidden relationship to the fore. 

Menkman’s book, The Glitch Moment(um), goes a step further, making the case that glitch conveys meaning by directly tangling with our memories and expectations: 

The genre of glitch art draws heavily upon spectator literacy (references to media technology texts, aesthetics, and mechanic processes) as well as on knowledge of more “conventional” canons of media-reflexive modern art. Accordingly, glitch work prompts the spectator to engage not only with complex themes, but also with complex subcultural and metacultural narratives or gestures, presenting considerable cognitive challenges. Users do not consume but instead become prosumers, active participants in a culture invested in constant re-definition.

Baker-Smith would probably reject that notion, as he strives to eliminate any recognizable elements of his raw material that come with associative baggage. I’m personally enchanted with the expression of technology’s inability to efficiently compress or contain actual life, a thing too rich and full to be mechanized; it shatters every boundary of software and screen alike. What also thrills me about the genre is that this multiplicity of readings needn’t be reconciled. They coexist in their own vast, glitchy matrix.

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Photo via Richard Almond/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

That democratization has extended to the creative phase. Glitches don’t require coders these days. There’s a script that churns them out automatically. According to Menkman, it all shakes out the same: “An abundance of designations such as databending, datamoshing and circuitbending have come into existence to name and bracket varieties of glitch practices, but all in fact refer to similar practices of breaking flows within different technologies or platforms.”

Has reminiscence become glitch’s driving force? Is the past what pushes it forward?

Is the movement—niche, incestuous, and self-referential as it is—in danger of eating itself up? Three years ago, Moradi imagined so. “Ordinarily, a visual or auditory glitch rips through its host medium and interrupts a scheduled flow of information,” he wrote in a meditative blog post. “I’m prone to think its spirit is somewhat dampened when we harness it—to harness it is to destroy one of the very conditions that makes it valid and special.”

Even so, he envisioned a bright future for glitch, a time when all the backslapping is mitigated by harsher curation and fiercer competition for mainstream exposure—those exact conditions glitch once sought to challenge. Then again, stagnation may be worse than compromising any founding tenets.

We can say for sure that glitch is at its best when in evolutionary motion, adapting to every strange nook and cranny of the Web. It doesn’t concede to a changing landscape. It may explode, it may collapse, it may bleed out. But it always survives.

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GIF via Art of the Glitch/Tumblr

Illustration by Jason Reed