How Glitch Art Creates a Sense of Chaotic Beauty – an Essay

A ‘datamoshed’ video created by myself using ‘Avidemux’

Earlier this month I was asked the following in an assignment brief for an essay in my university course Introduction to the World Wide Web as a Creative Medium:

Taking the last three weeks of theory lectures into consideration, students are expected to respond to ONE of the following essay topics. Students are expected to find at least THREE extra readings/articles/videos etc. that will support their argument throughout their essay. 1) “Malfunction and failure are not signs of improper production. On the contrary, they indicate the active production of the “accidental  potential” in any product. The invention of the ship implies its wreckage, the steam engine and the locomotive discover the derailment.”
– Paul Virilio

In the quote above, Paul Virilio speaks about the creation of beauty that comes from the destruction of an object. In an essay between 1500 – 2000 words, explain how glitch art creates a sense of beauty when it is created from the destruction of an image or video. In addition to the write up of this essay, students are expected to create a piece of glitch art or datamoshing, as we have done in class. Throughout the essay, students are expected to reflect the theory of glitch art onto their practical creation of the glitch art.

This was my response:

Glitch Art is a practice whereby digital artefacts are introduced to create distorted media such as images and videos. Similar creative misuses of technology and art have been recorded throughout history. Glitch Art focuses on exposing the underlying technology of analogue or digital media for aesthetic purposes. The concepts of how art imitates life in chaotic beauty, mistakes and solutions, and the techniques of glitch art will be explored through examples of paintings, videos as well as the practical piece of art.

The following terms are essential when describing glitches and Glitch Art: “failure is a phenomenon to overcome, while a glitch is incorporated further into technological or interpretive processes. Accordingly, when the glitch opens to the realm of symbolic or metaphorical connotations, the interruption shifts from being a strictly informational or technological actuality, into a more complex post-procedural phenomenon to be reckoned with.” [4] An example of a failure would be a video game crashing unexpectedly, while an example of a glitch would be allowing the player an advantage as of messing with the mechanics of the game in a certain sequence. Glitch Art includes “Practices [that] are invested in processes of nonconforming, ambiguous re-formations.” [4] This is a very broad definition. The specific Glitch Art being referred to in this essay is the use of digital or analogue errors for aesthetic purposes. General examples of this would be corrupting digital data or physically manipulating electronic devices. Noise refers to a “disruptive, external factor” that “obscures the purity of the [original] signal” that enters into signals as “unexplained variation and random error” [4]. An example of this would be the shaking of your arm when taking an image on a smart phone. Unintended artefacts would arise not because of the inherent quality of the camera. It would arise as of the shaking arm disrupting the camera’s ability to take a clear image of a subject. An artefact is “…Noise, which reveals itself on the surface of the information” [4]. i.e. the manifestation of noise in a specific piece of media. An example of this would be a hazy image produced by a smartphone camera as of the photographer’s arm shaking. Another example of this would be a black bar in the middle of image of sunflower.  Databending is “A deliberate attempt to subvert the usual course of conformity and signal perfection.” [4] An example of this would be editing the contents of an image in the text editor Notepad++ and seeing how the addition and removal of lines in the file distorts the image. The result is appropriated and accidental. Datamoshing is best described as “The datamosh artefact is located in a realm where compression artifacts and glitch artifacts collide. The artifact caused by compression is stable and reproducible, as it is the effective outcome of keyframes being deleted. The outcome of this deletion is the visualisation of the indexed movement of macroblocks, smearing over the surface of an old keyframe. This makes the video morph in unexpected colours and forms.” [4] Datamoshing can be seen later in this essay with the A$AP MOB music video as well as the practical piece of Glitch Art. This is some of the important terminology used when discussing how Glitch Art is created.

This interesting movement (Glitch Art)  is not much of a surprise considering that technology is evolving to imitate life, and art, too, imitates life. This has been true since the times of Aristotle, when it was theorised that art must imitate nature. However, many scholars wonder why an unintentional ‘error’ has the potential to enhance art to such a great degree, and why humans are so fascinated by the imperfect. An example of this would be Jackson Pollock’s No.5 painting done in 1948. This painting is a huge, 8ft by 4 ft, rebellion against ‘pretty’ art, displaying violent splashes and flecks in brown, yellow, white and grey paint [5]. That artwork shows that an artwork does not need to be ordered and calm to be considered skilful and beautiful. All of the flecks of paint seem to accept that some things are ugly, and this does not disqualify them as legitimate or artistic. Perhaps there is an attraction to chaotic/ugly pieces of art because there is a certain magic and allure that comes with interesting, unusual pieces; homogeneity and conformity can become boring. Or perhaps it is because life itself is chaotic and unpredictable, and that makes imperfect art imitate life more accurately.

Humans are drawn to what appears to be errors because errors are an inherent part of nature. As Bart Lootsma once said, “Aristotelian philosophy has pointed out that the accident is not something that is added form the outside, but that it is immanent to the thing itself. This also implies that failure, friction, collision and collapse have to be viewed as characteristics of substance itself. The accident is an intrinsic property and part of the program of any product. It is present as a potential within the technological phylum. The accident is not an “event”, which happens in time: the accident happens as a sudden transformation as matter in space. Nor is the accident the same as “chance” which is brought to the thing from the outside, but something that realizes a potential that is inside, intrinsic to the thing.” [3] The idea that accidents are part of the essence of “the thing” is mirrored in the Japanese art of Kintsugi, whereby broken pots are repaired with gold/silver lining [2]. It is widely accepted that the ‘glitch’ of the broken ceramics is not a flaw at all, but rather that the ‘glitch’ adds to the beauty of the pot, with the interesting flair of the gold/silver.

Furthermore, errors are a part of the human identity and our world cannot be separated from these glitches whether we like it or not. Our world is full of unintended errors which have created solutions for other things. For example, the invention of the microwave oven was a mistake.  The inventor, Percy Spencer, was working on microwave radar transmitters during World War II when he noticed a chocolate bar had melted in his pocket as of the effect of the microwaves [6]. However, this invention is hugely valuable to society. Mistakes are so intrinsic to human life that they, of course, are imitated in art, and its why humans find so much value in creating intentional mistakes for the purposes of art. These errors better emphasise the message of the piece because of their authenticity. This is true of the A$AP MOB – Yamborghini High music video [1]. Editors of the video make use of ‘Pure Glitch’ and ‘Glitch-alike’ art to emphasize the glitched reality the protagonists of the music video live in. Pure Glitch referring to accidental, appropriated and real glitches while Glitch-alike referring to deliberate, created and artificial glitches. Glitch-alike artefacts can be seen in the colours of the cars and clothing changing and the unnaturally perfect coloured blocks appearing in the scenery alongside natural objects such as grass and trees. Pure Glitch artefacts can be seen in the ‘datamoshing’ of scenes in the music video bleeding together – with residual elements of the previous scene left unremoved from the current scene. These two glitching techniques emphasize the ‘acid-trip’ reality that the artists are experiencing in the music video as well as their strange new reality of excess and identity – with expensive Lamborghinis and mansions displaying an elevated class status. The distortion of the video is further mirrored by the name of the song: ‘Yamborghini High’, which appears to be a spelling mistake/glitch. Therefore, the use of the glitches in this music video is indicative of how Glitch Art can be a powerful tool to emphasise the message of the piece and imitate the chaos of life.

Creating errors in art may distort the original in a positive way. Just as accidental inventions have been beneficial to society, glitches in art might make the art more meaningful. For example, the practical piece of art created does not emphasize the original message of the video but distorts it. The trailer for a holiday YouTube video portrays jovial scenes with young people running around and smiling in a care-free manner. The glitching process – datamoshing specifically – adds an ominous, disorientating break in the flow of the video. This subverts the message of the video. Once a happy introduction to a holiday is now insidious and creepy. This adds tremendous depth to the video, despite changing its meaning. It almost seems to foreshadow an ominous event that will happen in the full video, thereby stirring curiosity in the viewer. Therefore, Glitch Art may alter art in such a way that the message of the art shifts into something more meaningful and authentic.

Glitch Art creates a sense of beauty through imitating the chaos of life and mirroring the long history of making mistakes into something beneficial for society or aesthetically pleasing. This essay has explored what Glitch Art is and how people make it. The examples of “Yamborghini High” and the practical piece were used to explore this further. It is fascinating, and sometimes confusing, that destruction can cause something beautiful. For whatever reason, however, it is clear that art and chaos go together and that is epitomised by the concept of Glitch Art.

A ‘databended’ Nike Swoosh glitched using Notepad++

     Additional ‘databended’ images. Note that most attempts to glitch an image leads to data corruption

 

References

[1] asapmobVEVO. 2016. YouTube. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt7gP_IW-1w [17 May 2019].

[2] Cotton, J. 2019. Kintsugi 金継ぎThe Book of Life. Available: https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/kintsugi/ [17 May 2019].

[3] Lootsma, B. & Brower, J. 2000. Art of the accident. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers. [17 May 2019].

[4] Menkman, R. & Lovink, G. 2011. The Glitch moment(um). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. [17 May 2019].

[5] The Artists. 2018. 10 Weird and Ugly Paintings Worth Millions. Available: https://the-artists.org/10-weird-and-ugly-paintings-worth-millions/ [17 May 2019].

[6] Wonderopolis. n.d. Who Invented the Microwave Oven? Available: https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/who-invented-the-microwave-oven [2019, May 17].