This post primarily deals with issues raised by and my own responses to The Glitch Studies Manifesto by Rosa Menkman which can be found HERE.
As I’ve mentioned previously one of the emergent themes of this work has been that of glitch. While glitch studies and glitch art is a large area I’ve decided to focus for the time being on one of the more influential works in the field, The Glitch Studies Manifesto by Rosa Menkman. This post isn’t intended as any sort of rigorous academic essay or deep enquiry into the field, its intention is merely to analyse and respond to some of the themes which emerge in this paper and, for me personally, to help me clarify and crystalise my thoughts.
Whenever we use technology we are unknowingly engaging with a deep system of processes which construct what we perceive as the user experience. The image that we see when we open a .jpg file belies the complex code which is the catalyst which allows us to view that image. Glitch studies and glitch art in particular focuses on the boundary between that user experience and the underlying processes, allowing us a glimpse at the ‘man behind the curtain’ and emphasising the creative potential of those glimpses. In essence, glitches make the transparent apparent by bending and breaking the processes in question to create a kind of destructive generativity which invites the creation of new forms from that which has been destroyed.
“Even though the constant search for complete transparency brings newer, ‘better’ media, every one of these new and improved techniques will always have their own fingerprints of imperfection. While most people experience these fingerprints as negative (and sometimes even as accidents) I emphasize the positive consequences of these imperfections by showing the new opportunities they facilitate.” – The Glitch Studies Manifesto
What Menkman is primarily referring to here is the development of hardware technology. Essentially saying that the search for perfection is Quixotic because there are always imperfections inherent. Those imperfections, however should be seen as a positive because of the potential for creativity that they carry with them. For me, this chimes with a lot of my own work within music and the lo-fi music aesthetic in general. While it’s nice to have the option of a noiseless channel it is not always desirable because with hum and hiss comes an engagement with a certain set of creative ideas. I think there’s an honesty to noise. An acceptance that nothing can be perfect and it would be foolish to try and make it so.
In The Glitch Studies Manifesto rewrite for Video Vortex 2 (HERE), Menkman goes on to clarify this position by describing ways in which different types of video technology have been glitched for creative effect. Burn in on plasma screen TVs, dead pixels on LCD monitors and the like. The exploitation of flaws in the hardware is a little beyond the scope of my project though so I’m not really going to focus on that here.
Above, I mentioned the borderline between the user experience and the underlying processes. This is where glitch art lies, at the border between function and dysfunction. Not in a binary sense, but combining the two to create new senses of creative flow and challenge existing paradigms. Menkman describes it as the border between function and dysfunction. My question here is if you are creating work that uses function to flirt with dysfunction (a work programmed to create glitches for instance) is it really dysfunction? I would argue that it is not. The very definition of dysfunction is something that is not working the way that it is intended and by creating a system that is intended to creatively break, even though the end result of that break would be random (within certain confines), that system is still functioning as intended. It’s an interesting paradox and one which I’ll need to look into in more detail (though I can see it being a bit of a rabbit hole!).
This image, at the end of the document, is one I’ve found particularly interesting. Particularly the distinction between a ‘design’ glitch and a ‘true’ glitch. Here, Menkman is a little unclear. I’m not sure whether she’s referring to a ‘design’ glitch in the context I’ve mentioned above or in how she describes it below. Myself, I would place the definition below closer to the ‘order’ end of the spectrum.
“Nevertheless, some artists do not focus on the procedural entity of the glitch. They skip the process of creation-by-destruction and focus directly on the creation of a formally new design, either by creating a final product or by developing a new way to recreate the latest archetype. This can for instance result into a plug-in, a filter or a whole new ‘glitching software’. This form of ‘conservative glitch art’ focuses more on design and end products then on the procedural breaking of flows and politics. There is an obvious critique: to design a glitch means to domesticate it. When the glitch becomes domesticated, controlled by a tool, or technology (a human craft) it has lost its enchantment and has become predictable. It is no longer a break from a flow within a technology, or a method to open up the political discourse, but instead a cultivation. For many actors it is no longer a glitch, but a filter that consists of a preset and/or a default: what was once understood as a glitch has now become a new commodity.” – Ibid
This quote also raises another theme of the paper, that of breaking without breaking. In the example above, the user focusing on the end product and skipping the creation by destruction element is not breaking anything at all. His After Effects glitch filter is working exactly as intended (though the user may experience it differently, as I’ll touch on below). In terms of what might be referred to as ‘true’ glitch, however, the artist focuses on breaking something without breaking it. I wonder where the limits are in such practices. I could quite easily design my project so that it overloads by taking in far too much input (see my previous post!), makes a big nasty noise and then crashes the computer. Obviously though that wouldn’t be practical for the project that I want to create, one which focuses upon the end user experience but gives glimpses, via the medium of glitch, of the processes which underlie that experience. So my question here is: Where does the limit lie? I suppose that this is something that is different for every project. We can glitch something (or program something to glitch) just enough to disrupt the established flows or we can glitch it so heavily as to completely destroy them while still holding together enough to create a flow entirely defined by that glitch. This is a design consideration and one I have yet to decide on. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be defined by the audio with the visuals designed to reflect that.
Further to the above quote, Menkman states:
“But for some, mostly the audience on the receptive end, these designed errors are still experienced as the breaks of a flow and can therefore righteously be called glitches. They don’t know that these works are constructed via the use of a filter. Works from the genre ‘glitch art’ thus consist as an assemblage of perceptions and the understanding by multiple actors. Therefore, the products of these new filters that come to existence after (or without) the momentum of a glitch cannot be excluded from the realm of glitch art.” – Ibid
This quote further defines her meaning when she talks about ‘design’ glitches. What’s really of interest for me here is the part about the audience’s perception of that glitch. Without knowing the underlying processes which have created what they perceive as a glitch they cannot know whether or not that glitch is a genuine break in flow. This for me raises issues relating to actor network theory which I focused on in my essay for Public Making. While this is not a primary concern for my project as I will be focusing on creating my glitches as authentically as possible I think it will be useful to look through that lens at the end user experience. What this alludes to, in essence, is the fact that an important (if not the most important) part of all art is how the audience perceives it. Some work is deliberately ambiguous so as to allow the user to project their own conclusions upon it and some is very clear and obvious. I need to decide where I want my work to exist within that spectrum, though by its very nature I feel that it will be somewhat ambiguous. This also raises issues regarding how obvious the user’s interaction with the piece should be. Do I want it to be very obviously controlled by their movement (which may create heuristic interactions but risks going too far and making it seem trivial) or do I want it to be more mysterious (which carries the risk of it seeming like too much of a black box)? I’ve a feeling that these questions will answer themselves as the sound design evolves but my initial instinct is to veer more towards the black box end of the spectrum. I feel that there’s something magical about those sorts of experiences and that’s the overall experience I want to create.
This project was never one that set out to answer any very deep questions about art and design or to engage with anything beyond creating the end user experience. Through the process of designing it so far, however, I’ve found that that’s something that is virtually impossible to do! A number of concerns have been raised simply through that process that I’ve had to engage with on a theoretical level and I think that, so far, that has been beneficial to the project overall. What I will seek to do now is define the design questions that need answering as simply as possible in order to clarify my way forwards. I’ll do that in my next post.
Also, as something of an addendum, I’ve realised that I haven’t yet written up my thoughts on the first set of theory that I’ve read about, that of user interaction with art installations in museums and galleries. I’ll get around to that soon.