Introducing the Art of Failure

February 16th, 2012


You walk on the streets of London. You go about your business as usual, your head is so filled with whatever preoccupations you have for the day that you barely notice when you get on the bus.

Glitched billboard by chr15.eat0n

(Glitched billboard by chr15.eat0n)

Once you’ve taken your seat you look out the window and a bright colored light catches your eye. It’s some sort of electronic billboard, maybe it’s there in an attempt to convince you to buy some product or service you don’t need or have no interest in buying but instead the billboard displays these odd shapes, twitching, blinking, pulsing and spasming.

What’s wrong with it? “It must be broken” you probably think. But…is it really?

Today (16/02) Bus-Tops starts its Glitch Art season, running till the end of the month. Do not adjust your eyes, Bus-Tops only appear to be displaying  ”faulty” images and animations.

But what is this “Glitch Art”? Why not display just “normal” artworks?

To appease your confusion, let’s first examine the term “Glitch Art”.

By definition, a glitch is a short-lived fault or malfunction in (usually) an electronic device or computer system which interrupts or derails the flow of data or functionality of a device. The malfunction is most often transient, coming and going intermittently.

If you’ve ever played an old video game system such as an Atari or Nintendo console and left the cartridge halfway into the slot, you more than likely have experienced a glitch in those systems.

glitchtendo by elmer.o
(Super Metroid NES Glitch by elmer.o)

These days however, with technology so seamlessly integrated into everyday life, experiencing glitches in computers, cell phones, printers, TVs, etc is almost unavoidable since these systems (just like its creators) are inherently flawed.

From the mid-90’s onwards, there has been an increased interest in this phenomena from an aesthetic point of view.

Glitches can happen on their own, however it would be difficult to explore them if we were just sitting around waiting for them to happen. Therefore, people have found ways of instigating those failures so they could be better explored and understood.

Electronic musicians have been exploring glitches in music such as noise artifacts, CD skipping, distortion, bit rate reduction and etc.

In visual arts, glitch is explored mainly in computer image files that have been damaged (intentionally or not) or by converting non-image files (such as text, audio, etc) into image files. This practice is also known as Databending. Videos are also subject to these explorations through lossy compression, encoding/decoding in a practice called Datamoshing.

So why is this important and why should it be featured on Bus-Tops?

Glitches are mostly unpredictable, in the sense that once an image file has been corrupted, it’s difficult to know how it’s going to look. We know it’s going to look corrupted but we don’t know exactly how. However, if you know what you’re doing you may be able to reproduce the same glitch on the same image.

This can be accomplished in many different ways, from complex hex editing where data is inserted, removed or scrambled to simply opening an image file in a text editor and then simply hitting “save” and opening the image file normally.

At this point, it is clear that “Glitch” is the error and the exploitation and manipulation of that error is the “Art”.

Paradoxically, even for the experienced “glitcher” predicting the outcome of a glitched image prior to glitching is practically impossible. As Hugh Manon & Daniel Temkin (authors of Notes on Glitch) best put it; “The most provocative glitch art surprises not only its beholder, but also its creator.”

In her 2011 book “The Glitch Moment(um)”, Dutch visualist, writer, curator and hardcore glitch artist Rosa Menkman argues that:

“To some artists, myself included, it has become a personal matter to break the assured
informatic flows of media. While normally, transparent media screens generate conventional
impressions of immediacy, there is a desire to force the viewer to think beyond
his comfort zones. Glitch artists make use of the accident to ‘disfigure’ flow, image and
information, or they exploit the void – a lack of information that creates space for deciphering
or interpreting the process of creating (new kinds of) meaning. Through these
tactics, glitch artists reveal the machine’s techné and enable critical sensory experience
to take place around materials, ideologies and (aesthetic) structures. Their destructive or
disfiguring processes have no technological name, definition or explanation (yet). For this
reason, it is necessary to not only define and categorize glitch at technological levels, but
also to look closely at how specific media are exploited on a more complex techno-cultural

As mentioned before, the popularity of Glitch Art has been increasing since the mid-90’s. In 2002 the first Glitch Festival and Symposium was held in Oslo, Norway where Glitch enthusiasts met to present and discuss databending, circuitbending and other techniques in the audiovisual field as new elements of creativity and as a new aesthetic direction.

Since 2005 the Bent Festival organized annually in the US celebrates circuitbending and its related practices such as databending and Glitch Art.

From 2006 to present, the Blip Festival organized by the label/collective 8bitpeoples held annually in New York City (and more recently in Europe and Asia as well) couples chiptune music with presentations of Glitch visuals.

More recently, in 2010 and 2011 The GLI.TC/H Festival which was organized by Nick Briz, Jon Satrom and Rosa Menkman,  was held in Chicago (US), Birmingham (UK) and Amsterdam (NL) which showcased a lot of talent in Glitch and other DIY forms of art with presentations, workshops, video screenings, performances, artists talks and etc.

GLI.TC/H 20111 Chicago (YouTube)

Despite being avant-garde in nature (having parallels with the Dada movement for instance), Glitch Art still finds itself being pigeonholed into classic forms and genres of media and art and largely misunderstood.

With the mainstream media appropriating glitch aesthetics and largely ignoring it’s fundamentals, the fact that glitch will eventually become nothing but fashion is unavoidable. They do that by simply mimicking the glitch aesthetic through Photoshop filters, plug-ins or other forms of image editing without actually causing any failure, error or corruption to the image file which is the core of Glitch Art.

Evidence of that can be seen for instance in Kanye West’s “Welcome to Heartbreak” music video which features datamoshing. Another example is the artwork for the highly acclaimed soundtrack for The Social Network film done by Rob Sheridan and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame).

Glitch Art is easy to make, just like it’s easy to snap a photograph which makes it a very “democratic” art form. However, just like in photography, it requires effort and a certain degree of knowledge and skill to do it well.

Below you can check out some of the artists whose impressive and arresting artwork have been selected to be screened during the Bus-Tops Glitch Season:

Pixel Noizz
Ben Baker-Smith

At this point in time, Glitch Art has grown out of a small niche into a considerably large international scene. Not small but not assimilated into mainstream culture yet.

While that’s yet to happen, enjoy the moment(um)!

Glitched momentum!

Below are links for those with an academic interest or mere curiosity on Glitch Art and its derivatives.

- Flickr Glitch Art Group – Flickr’s largest group devoted to Glitch Art.

- Infinite Glitch – An endless online stream of Datamoshing by Ben Baker-Smith

- Glitch Bot – An automated Glitch creation and distribution program and persona by Ben Baker-Smith

- Notes on Glitch by Hugh Manon & Daniel Temkin

- The Glitch Moment(um) – book written by Rosa Menkman (it’s free!)

- Festival website

For those who wish to explore the world of Glitch but don’t know where to start, the following links may help:

- Databending Primer Part 1 and Part 2 – by Stallio

- Databending using Audacity – by Antonio Roberts (aka hellocatfood)

- A Vernacular of File Formats – by Rosa Menkman

This was a guest post by D0DD, administrator of the Glitch Flickr group.