In an experimental collision of chaos and purpose, glitch art exists as a low-key but important form of new media that broadly encompasses works of photography, video stills, moving pictures, and other image data that has been corrupted. Glitch art relies on technological error to either present itself or be stimulated, in order to produce an artistic statement. Error naturally has the potential to become a powerful element of expression — and the glitch artist is equally capable of manipulating defect as a mode of conscious expression and submitting to the rather Zen-like qualities of accepting the purposelessness and serendipity that can be found in unpredictable errors.
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Aesthetics & Narrative in Glitch
Requiring only the inevitable failure of technology, glitch art does not naturally have a unifying aesthetic. Recognizable visual effects can be expected, however, due to the shared processes of discovering or creating glitch, as well as the common techniques for glitch manipulation. It is interesting to then explore how artists can maintain a stylistic presence within their work, without submitting to the “anonymity” characteristic of technological anomaly. How is chaos harnessed to express the self? The most reliable clues to this may be found in an artist’s choice of mediating technology, recreating effects, and even sourcing material. While none of these elements offer the same stylistic diversity as images created by brushstrokes, for instance, they do offer some insight into the perceptible differences between glitch artists.
Due to the accessibility of digital techniques in what was previously a predominantly analog process, there are varying degrees of visual complexity to modern glitch products. The works of Ant Scott, a multimedia artist from England who had been a recognizable name in glitch art since 2001, are simplistic color mosaics which pretend to be nothing more than happy accidents. Positioned within an earlier period in the artistic exploration of glitch, Scott’s work speaks to the more pure representation of anomaly than most, by relying less on the interference of artistic intention and more on the communication of accident solely through color and incidental shape.
By comparison, the works of Mathieu St-Pierre exhibit a much more deliberate aesthetic, with colors bleeding into extraordinary hallucinations, seeming to alternate between the geologic artistry of opals and agates, and the rippling distortions of liquids. In both cases, the artist’s touch is evident in the chosen source material and the final form in which the glitch is presented.
An initial source of narrative within glitch art may be found in the very nature of decay; an image’s corruption can appeal poetically to error, chance and brokenness. When personal or historical photography acts as the source material for image degeneration, glitch art is no longer limited to a self-referential identification in visual form; it is no longer glitch art for the sake of glitch. Deliberately corrupted photography enables elements of symbolism, thereby creating active dialogue between artists and viewers.
“I believe that there is Qi (energy) to every single work of art in the world,” explains Washington-based South Korean artist Yaejin Lim. “When I see a strong work of art, I feel that strong energy. I believe that if the artist put a lot of energy and time into the work, it will show. This also applies to glitch art.”
This energy can also be understood as the collective history made present through images and their composing elements, including where an image originated and where the image is encountered. When one considers an artist’s existing relationship to the source material and how he or she changes it by corruption, glitch images rooted in consciously-selected source material may actually express more about an artist’s intention and process than the final works themselves.
“Recognizable images are a reflection of my use of public domain stock,” explains Vancouver-based artist Stephen “Leafriver” Loftstrom, “but some figures, like Natalie Wood, have personal meaning to them. I like using really old pre-social movement photos, Native art (because of my Métis background) and anthropomorphic images, too. They hold a lot of untapped potential in their energy.”
By selecting photography of Russian-American actress Natalie Wood, for instance, Lofstrom highlights a significant inspiration. Natalie Wood was a daughter of Russian immigrants and gained fame as an actress between the ’60s and early ’80s. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko (Наталья Николаевна Захаренко), she was subjected to an insidious change of her name to an Americanized version, first by her family’s decision to choose the less conspicuous name of Gurdin upon emigrating to the United States, and again, due to pressure from film industry executives that she change her name to Wood.
Her story is one of not only a corruption of personal identity, but an attack on the cultural heritage of a woman whose identity did not conform to American prerogative. Russian immigrants are frequently confronted by the subtle oppressive systems within North American bureaucratic process for name registrations, including the removal of customary patronymics. For the image of Natalia, a pop-culture figure who became known by a name foreign to her, to then be used as a subject of Loftstrom’s glitch art enables dire conversation around the deliberate corruption of cultural identity, despite glitch art being an appropriately unanticipated platform for such discussion.
Emotional Validity in Glitch
According to Argentinian artist Tom Cabrera, glitch can empower the initial message of a photograph as opposed to simply corrupting it. Messages that were evident in the original photograph don’t have to be scrambled beyond recognition; in fact, distorted visual data facilitated by the glitch can allow messages to come through in more powerful terms. In this way, Cabrera’s glitch experimentation is not limited to solely to the presence of image decay, but explores the emotional capacity of destroyed image, communicating the energy that Lim and Lofstrom spoke of in a more overtly spiritual way.
By featuring cemeteries and religious symbols in his works, Cabrera further engages with the deeply personal layers of narrative that can be enriched through the use of glitch. Place is an especially prominent theme for Cabrera’s glitched photography, explored in deliberately abstracted form. Steel bridges are transformed into menacing arachnids, their feral pulse scratched into the skies by overhead power lines. Rooms and hallways, once environments that could be identified and sought for comfort, become distorted into a single continuum with surreal ambiance. Cabrera deceives our perspectives and orientations, making the focal point of his glitch art that of despair and discomfort, ripped out of nightmarish phantasms.
A Critical Reinterpretation
The intentional approach to glitch as a medium for narrative and emotional expression, however, meets some resistance from glitch artists, audiences, and critics who are skeptical about the enduring relevance of glitch art. Ant Scott expresses a sense of disillusionment with glitch art based on what he perceives to be a limiting plateau at which glitch has arrived — a perception he says was also considered by fellow multimedia artist and co-author of Glitch: Designing Imperfection, Shay Moradi.
“I’d hoped glitch art would gradually become more visually sophisticated and have something to say beyond harping on about the process by which it is made,” admits Scott. “Instead, glitch art is a stylistic effect, just a filter like Instagram, and even the more highbrow glitch art is all about process and nothing about content.”
Such an argument contrasts dramatically against the deliberate use of corrupted imagery for glitch-driven narrative by artists like Cabrera and Loftstrom. Criticizing the incarnation of glitch art that focuses on raw data error and absence of intentional narrative, Scott questions the capacity of glitch to communicate emotion at all.
“In general, I’m sorry to say that glitch art simply doesn’t ‘do’ emotion. It’s not a good match,” he asserts. “You might as well get teary-eyed while poring over a schematic diagram for a NAND gate.”
Scott’s inclination towards content-centric art reveals an antagonism towards the very premise of glitch art; capturing technological error does not on its own posit any artistic motivations. In Scott’s assertion, it would be absurd to attach an emotional vocabulary to the product of a form of glitch art that does not attempt to communicate a particular narrative.
As aggressive as this perspective is, it fundamentally incites artists and audiences to become more conscious of both stagnation and latent potential within glitch art. A critical line of argument towards glitch raises the issue of censorship over which artistic products are acknowledged as appropriate mediums to convey emotion. The reality which glitch art faces in its potential evolution is that much of its perceived relevance will lie in an ability to communicate with audiences on deeper levels. This would initially seem to require visual products that are not preoccupied only by the source or method of their creation. To what extent, however, does this focus on content actually sabotage not only the principle of glitch, but the very subtle critical commentary that relies on an absence of intentional narrative? Does the original purposelessness that early glitch artists played with still maintain a role in the artform, and is it really accurate to say that glitch art has reached a plateau?
Questioning Constructed Narratives
In his treatise Simulacra and Simulation, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard refers to signifiers as substitutions for reality. Anything tangible or intangible can be made to represent something else until it ultimately becomes identified as the reality itself — an oppressive and substitute hyperreality. In turn, Phillip Stearns cites Umberto Eco’s influential essay, Travels in Hyperreality, as reflective of such blurring lines between reality and artificiality. In this essay, Eco wrote about pop culture phenomena and the ways in which they perpetuate a world of illusion that has become entirely normalized. The primary concern identified by both Baudrillard and Eco is that these layers of representation are cultural constructs that are accepted as truth, so that a viewer’s perception is dictated by fabricated representations.
The acceptance of a precedent of meaning represents submission to the controlling motivations behind them or, as in Baudrillard’s words, as an abandonment of self. The expectation that artistic content be absolutely representative of something in order to be relevant perverts the individual experience of meaning. Emotional response, symbolic association and historical relevance within a work of art can then remain unchallenged, and the viewer becomes a tool of perpetuating the mechanisms of meaning. “Trying to second-guess what will produce an emotional response is a fool’s guessing game. [...] In my own digital work, before I went black and white,” Scott explains, “I tried to use color to convey themes and emotions. I’m not convinced glitch art was the right vehicle for this kind of treatment.”
Glitch art enables artists to not only experiment with the capacity to alter these meanings by visually channeling image distortion, but to also question the relevance of any absolute representation. When the same images are preserved in their original form, we unquestioningly accept the modes in which we receive their visual information; we interpret them based on familiar symbols, triggers and definitions. But corrupted image that contains no intentional signifiers is inherently useless. Glitch is naturally a strong vessel for communicating the corruption of reality through the experience of meaning. Not only do glitched images use the mediums that create the hyperreality Eco defines through pop culture references – such as television stills, photographs, and other digital artifacts – they actually subvert their constructed meanings through an aesthetic of destruction.
If, on the other hand, we are to perpetuate the systems through which we assign meaning in glitch art, then we are avoiding the potential of glitch art to initiate important conversation about the validity of these constructs. The resulting collision of intentional meaning and purposelessness within glitch art stimulates the potential of ambiguity. Instead of blatantly assigning narrative to visual works, artists can simply hint at it. It’s vague, it’s elusive, and it’s noncommittal, but it forces viewers to become active participants not only with the artistic product, but with the context that gives it shape. This shifts a sense of responsibility onto the viewer, as opposed to sustaining their role as a passive recipient of information. Here lies one of the most important aspects of glitch art — the viewer is no longer an accessory to the artwork, and there is no abandonment of self.
So while glitch artists are increasingly experimenting with ways in which they can communicate deliberate messages, the absence of meaning within glitch art is still equally relevant, even if its only form is as a catalyst for discussion. As a collective movement, glitch art is at a stage where participants, be they artists or audiences, can reconcile the paradoxes that have resulted from years of experimentation.
New Interdisciplinary Relevance
Based on the certainty of technological error and evolving media, some believe that the future of glitch will be one of expansion rather than a plateau. Whether this is done through deliberate aesthetics and narrative, or through the capture of spontaneous error, artists can encourage viewers to become more conscious of the role error plays across disciplines. This recognition of intersecting relevance for an artform based in data corruption is a necessary step for the glitch community to further evolve.
Both Stearns and Vienna-based artist Raffael Miribung have both expressed particular interest for glitch experimentation within the context of architecture. As an artform, architecture relies on a perfection of process, where artistic vision is balanced with finite calculation, resulting in ultra-controlled rendering and structure. But where is the room for anomaly? How can the physical structures that define the social experience of tangible place not incorporate elements of inherent spontaneity, error and chaos?
“I would love to see some glitched architecture,” says Stearns. “By this, I mean architecture that sets out with a specific goal, and then allows for its total subversion, or for a structure to be created which takes on its own purposefulness through utilization. Beyond giving shape to space, I view architecture as producing environmental form, and the environment as playing a major role in shaping activity. Architecture serves utilitarian functions but does so in part by means of scripting spaces — by making, enabling or facilitating certain forms of interaction or activities. Given the resources, I would love to realize some form of architecture which involves glitch processes to alter an existing plan or to generate a plan which involves glitch based processes in its design.”
“Modern architecture bears a high probability to cause cultural glitch, when confronted with a suitable environment,” says Vienna-based artist Raffael Miribung. “Theoretically, any setting can produce glitch, or already has produced one that waits to be identified.”
Considering the role that digital technology plays within the visualization of architectural schemes, error on the part of an algorithm, for instance, is only a natural part of the design process. By considering the inevitability of technological glitch during the process of design and visualization, error can become a deliberate part of the structural aesthetic. In approaching structure with the purpose of stimulating error in social contexts, glitch artists could challenge the utilitarian functions of architecture and notions of permanence.
Put simply, to deliberately incorporate resultant glitch would be to engage with the potential for buildings to shape environments in more accidental, serendipitous, ways. Unintentional elements of design would reveal a greater acceptance of chance, and the complex relationship between people and the technology used to realize creative vision. With such experimental spirit, glitch can be artistically incorporated in both structural and social aspects within the architectural discipline.
The evident optimism regarding the intersection of glitch art with architectural experimentation indicates the possibility for glitch to engage beyond its immediate scope. Using aesthetic confrontation and the inherent paradoxes of purpose, glitch art can become a powerful language for commentary on structural and utilitarian systems.
“For the artform to sustain itself, it needs to provoke failure into a wider array of systems, and in novel and interesting ways,” says multimedia artist Anton “vade” Marini. “I think glitch art as we see it and know it today is going to fade as a passing trend — and it should — but I think the ideas of provoking failure and testing assumptions is going to stick around, just with a new trendy name.”
“The pluralism in definitions of glitch and the rapid development of new techniques to glitch something was a rather firing environment for the community to grow and experiment,” says Miribung. “Yet, in my opinion, it lacks a clear positioning, and quite some computational education of the recipients to realize the importance and relevance glitch art might have for the society.” “My own feeling on the matter,” says Stearns, “is that glitch art as it’s currently being practiced, will continue to produce recognizable styles which could be easily integrated into mainstream design, but will remain radical enough that it is never completely co-opted. Of course, I’m making a safe bet against corporations embracing errors as part of their core identity.”
The nature of glitch may also give it a subversive power over commercialization, which in turn can be intentionally harnessed by artists to create statements to this effect. The fear of the uncontrollable and the chaotic, which stand contrary to the monumentalism of corporate structure, can act as stimuli for glitch as a potential mode of radical art. Since glitch artists do not fundamentally rely on a presence of purpose or a stylistic vocabulary, glitch contains no hierarchies, no agendas, no totalitarian truth. From its origins as passive commentary on the encounter of technological error, glitch art has gained a vocabulary capable of more deliberate criticism and, by finding relevance across disciplines, can serve as a catalyst for broader discussion surrounding its artistic and social contexts.