Written by 11:00 am Blogging Fellows, Feature, The Art of Thinking, Visual Art

When the Bug is the Feature

Glitch artists remind us that the limit of the quantification of art is the banal.

I had a moment of panic the first time I saw one of Sabato Visconti’s glitch artworks, because I thought my beloved writing laptop – an ailing gaming PC from the early 2010s that, in its twilight years, churns through web pages with reluctant weariness – had finally given up the ghost. Instead of the photograph I’d expected, I saw the wreckage of a flower, sheared and shredded the way mechanical or processing errors mar an otherwise innocuous image, and immediately concluded that the wiring behind my computer screen had snapped. It wasn’t until I tried again on my much more cutting-edge smartphone that I realized my mistake. There was that same plant, mauled in the same places as it had been on my sad little computer.

And suddenly, the glitch art approach clicked for me.

Glitch art, broadly speaking, is when artists exploit the limitations and failure points of digital media technologies – be they still images, videos, or sound files – to produce unexpected results that wouldn’t surface in normal usage. (For example, one approach involves opening an image as a text file, deleting a bunch of the jumbled letters and numbers found inside, and then reopening the now-distorted file in an image viewer.) Its practitioners, to name a few, include Visconti, along with Rosa Menkman, Jeff Donaldson, Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Marini, and Phillip Stearns. In the PBS documentary short The Art of Glitch (2012), Stearns suggests that the movement is “a reaction against the hyperrealism that is portrayed in contemporary media [such as] super high-definition images saturated beyond real resemblance to actual color.” In practice, glitch art initially seems the victim of technology gone awry, connoting the distorted outputs that follow bugs in camera hardware, file-encoding hitches, or physical damage to monitors and screens.

Courtesy of Sabato Visconti. From Images Adrift.


When it comes to visuals, glitch art raises the specter of once-recognizable images lost to the stretch and smear and shatter characteristic of corrupted data. My personal favorite of Visconti’s, “Images Adrift #4,” ostensibly depicts a human face in prismatic shreds, streaked with half-formed copies of itself like the best efforts of a busted CRT. Elsewhere, in “Anatomy of a Glitch #14,” Visconti tessellates the frame with slanted rectangular shapes (I suspect that they were bricks or cinder blocks originally) that seem to lose shape the longer you observe them, stratifying into high-contrast colors and pixelated static. The impression is less that the images are breaking down than regressing, reverting bit by bit to the fundamental unit of the digital image.

Despite its adventitious veneer, glitch art isn’t always a happy accident. In Visconti’s case, it’s a deliberate investigation of what technology can do for – and to – photography. “Glitch photography is a beast with two backs,” he writes in the essay “Glitch Photography as a Practice in the Age of Postphotography” (2017). “On the one hand, it is a practice that interpolates glitch into the creation of photography. On the other hand, it can also be the practice of capturing the visual manifestations of a glitch within the apparatus, much like the way one captures a candid moment or a fleeting gesture.” The subject of Visconti’s interest is less the object photographed than the myriad ways its capture can fail. Glitch artists like him rip the image at its seams to obtain a clearer view of its stitching.

The point isn’t necessarily the thing you’re looking at or listening to, but what holds it together. In part, this means the string of bytes behind any given music file, or the mosaic of pixels that constitutes every digital image. But it also includes the assumption that there exists some unit of data that, in the right formation, will cohere into art.

The search for the most basic unit of something is to break things down in the hopes that they may be rebuilt under other circumstances. The promise of chemistry is that, if you start with a few atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, you can assemble a water molecule. The dream of digital art is similar: with the right arrangement of pixels or bits, you can put together any conceivable visual or sound. In this mode of thinking, the same addends will always yield the same sum.

Yet the notion that a work of art might be in some way measurable carries uncomfortable aesthetic implications. The Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), in particular, bristle at the prospect. In their wide-ranging treatise of cultural criticism, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1969), the two discuss the many ways that Enlightenment thinking (the intellectual and philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that, among other developments, brought about the American and French Revolutions and their ensuing political systems) has led to a stifling, spiritually bankrupt present. Their critiques primarily target the ways in which capitalism has created seemingly impregnable mechanisms of social and cultural control. But from an aesthetic perspective, Horkheimer and Adorno are concerned with how these systems (what they term the “culture industry”) flatten the wide range of human experiences and expressions into interchangeable – and therefore meaningless – denominations.

“Culture today,” Horkheimer and Adorno wrote, “is infecting everything with sameness.” This remark comprises two distinct, but related, observations. First, Horkheimer and Adorno identify the tendency of mass-produced cultural artifacts such as movies and television programs to grow steadily more homogeneous over time. By way of example, consider how much of modern studio output consists of sequels, superhero films, or familiar media franchises – and how their continued sale only begets more of the same.

Yet this descent into the bland and unimaginative is symptomatic of the far more pernicious trend that constitutes the second half of Horkheimer and Adorno’s charge. They contend that sequel-itis occurs because, following the assumptions behind Enlightenment thinking, culture has devolved into a numbers game. The Enlightenment’s great triumph was that it made sense of the world by replacing superstition with reason, but reasoning, with its singular emphasis on logic and mathematics, carried its own assumptions. “Formal logic was the high school of unification,” Horkheimer and Adorno wrote. “It offered Enlightenment thinkers a schema for making the world calculable.” Here, they argued, was the crucial misstep. By assuming that all things could be conceived and dealt with mathematically – as a series of interchangeable data points – this mode of thinking papered over the meaningful differences that distinguish various entities and experiences. This assumption has only stuck with us, morphing over the years into the idea that everything can be distilled to some numerical unit like biometrics, engagement statistics, or dollar values. (It’s visible, too, in how Internet platforms stopped referring to creative entities as “art,” and migrated to calling them “content.”) As a result, Horkheimer and Adorno wrote, “[b]ourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities.”

Such is the problem of thinking of things in terms of units. Metrics exist to quantify, calculate, and above all, convert. For Horkheimer and Adorno, sameness is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the world trains you to abstract away variance so that everything fits neatly into equations, is it any wonder that the aesthetic texture of life turns out undifferentiated and disappointing?

Courtesy of Sabato Visconti. From Anatomy of a Glitch.

This is part of what makes glitch art so arresting. Our increasingly digitized world expertly disguises the calculations (both from a computing and marketing perspective) behind every image, sound, and virtual artifact in our daily lives. If it’s doing its job properly, you only perceive the song, the video, the advertisement; the bits and bytes and algorithms behind them remain as invisible as air. But when glitches arise – exposing the fundamental sameness at the bottom of it all – we’re jarred out of complacency. The failure of the mechanism in that moment betrays the deeper, underlying failure of a mathematically-tilted world, and alerts us to the aesthetic satisfaction it ultimately cannot provide.

Hence the glitch art battle cry in Rosa Menkman’s “Glitch Studies Manifesto” (2009/2010), in which “The glitch is a wonderful experience of an interruption that shifts an object away from its ordinary form and discourse.” Menkman observes that the ideal technological medium trends toward invisibility – what she terms a “noiseless channel” – so as not to distract from the content it’s delivering. But Menkman is convinced that’s a futile project. “Even though the constant search for complete transparency brings newer, ‘better’ media,” she writes, “every one of these new and improved techniques will always have their own fingerprints of imperfection.” Glitch art searches out those fingerprints as if it’s dusting a crime scene, aiming like Horkheimer and Adorno to capture the historical and societal forces that conspire to cheapen our aesthetic lives. A similar viewpoint leads Visconti to call our current moment “postphotography” – an era where, thanks to the worldwide saturation of recording devices and surveillance technologies, everything that can be photographed already has been, and visual experience more generally has been contorted into (if not replaced with) calculable data. By turning the apparatus into the subject and making it visible, glitch art provides us the opportunity to think through – and perhaps beyond – a frame where all the world is captured and compressed into data points.

In this regard, I often feel that Visconti’s glitch art teases viewers with the limitations of its medium, as if the point is to highlight what it cannot accomplish. The failure isn’t only the focal point. It’s the entire point. The subject matter is that special something, the meaningful difference that preoccupied Horkheimer and Adorno, that refuses to be quantified and packaged into interchangeable data, no matter how many calculations it’s wrung through – and that would slip between the cracks unnoticed when the mechanisms operate as they should. We’re supposed to see what the mechanisms don’t.

As I revisit “Images Adrift #4,” my attentions are always pulled to the black voids where a pair of eyes should be. An old cliché claims the eyes are the window to the soul (perhaps because Matthew 6:22 dubs the eye “the lamp of the body”), but “Images Adrift #4” gives us windows darkened and opaque. (I’m tempted to call the image “soulless.”) What’s shown is the digital image’s locus of failure – two big black spots indicating the spirit that the mechanism fails to capture. But it’s a hopeful absence. For if the digital image hasn’t caught it, there’s a chance that the regime of data and equivalence hasn’t yet seized control of every precious thing.

The Art of Thinking is a series of explanatory articles about aesthetic philosophy.

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