Glitch as an Algorithmic Art

Daniel Temkin

Independent Artist

Daniel Temkin presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

Daniel Temkin presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

Writing on glitch art makes it seem more monolithic than it is, in both concept and execution. Individual works of glitch are often described as being set in motion by an initial error—whether a discovered error, or one intentionally induced by the artist. The idea of the mysterious bug in the system has taken on a near-mythological status within the form; one can see this by poking around online and reading the first paragraphs of glitch art statements, manifestos, and critical essays. However, this is not a very accurate representation of how most glitch artists work. Yes, there is some glitch art that begins with a single touch; we might call this form ‘minimal slippage glitch.’ It’s a familiar exploratory, contemporary art scenario; the artist sets a complex process in motion with a single gesture to discover something unexpected in the result. But how accurately does this describe the works of the thousands of currently practicing glitch artists?

I argue that there are several strains of glitch practice with different modes of working, different aesthetics, and different concerns that are worth teasing out. Along with the minimal slippage approach described above, there’s a more direct digital materialist practice that often uses a series of digital manipulations to function, noise-based work (such as the Chicago-based Dirty New Media school), glitch aimed to undermine the authority of the machine, and what we might call Algo-Glitch, a glitchy take on algorithmic practice. The last is probably the least often described, so it is what I’ll explore here. Of course these categories are broad and nearly always overlap. It is worth exploring them individually, especially as they reflect artistic concerns in New Media work more generally.

How does algorithmic art function as glitch? Jon Cates of the School of the Art Institute explains it this way:

The system is in fact functioning as it was designed to be…aspects of the system’s functionality are being exploited by the artists in order to bring out unexpected reactions on the part of those that witness – aka audiences, participants, those that are in a receptive state to these projects – have a sense of surprise and wonder, excitement about the apparent glitches, which are not actually deep malfunctions, are not actually preventative malfunctions, do not lead to crashes. [1]

Glitch artists intervene within algorithms by introducing noise, or by simply applying them in ways unintended by their designers. We can see this in one of the classic glitch art examples: sonification, where sound effects are used on image data, distorting photographs to create new patterns. What makes this practice fall outside of minimal slippage is that the algorithms (in this case, the sound effects) are nearly always applied repeatedly, in different combinations, and deliberately, with a loose idea of what the result may be. The artist does not completely give up control to this error, but uses it as a somewhat random tool (a “brush with a mind of its own” as Curt Cloninger describes it), to shape the work.

Traditionally in glitch, this is done to produce results that are broken in appearance, but this is not the only aesthetic glitch can take. The “unexpected results” Cates describes do not have to have a distinctly digital visual character. Clement Valla’s “Iconoclashes” series, for instance, (mis)uses Photoshop’s photostitch to combine together artifacts from the Met’s collection to create new artifacts. [2] Just as the originals come from cultures where they are considered divine in origin, the new artifacts are created by the machine, rather than by human hands. It is this melding of human and computer control, the giving up of agency to the machine, that creates the distinctly glitch flavor of Algo-Glitch.

Similarly, in my Glitchometry series, I create images through the sonification process, only instead of using a source image like a photograph, I begin instead with simple circles or squares and process them sonically. In glitch, we often describe entropy of images. However, this process makes it clearer that the process is both breaking it down and allowing new patterns to crystalize. This crystallization is the opposite of entropy; the patterns that emerge correspond to algorithms that shape the wilderness within the machine. The algorithm is repurposed, hijacked to build a new aesthetic; in this case, one that does not recall computer error.

In Software Takes Command, Lev Manovich describes how, during high modernism, we explored the limits of a single medium – expecting painting to have a very different character from sculpture, but in the digital world these lines are blurred. [3] It is no surprise to find a tool designed for text editing (e.g. cut + paste) to become a corresponding tool for sound or image editing. In glitch we break down these barriers, allowing the patterns borrowed from one medium to manifest in others, shaping data in a way that has a regularity to it (a pattern), but one which is complex beyond what feels rational. By intervening in algorithmic systems, without manipulating it toward a glitchy aesthetic, we can open these avenues of exploration in our relationship with the digital and with logic systems in general.

For more information:

I continue this argument with more technical examples in “Glitch && Human / Computer Interaction,” http://nooart.org/post/73353953758/temkin-glitchhumancomputerinteraction. A summary of my presentation at NMC/CAA 2014 by Sid Branca can be found at: http://blogs.colum.edu/caa/new-media-lightning-talks-highlight-daniel-temkin-on-algorithmic-art/. An interview in response to the presentation can be found at Vice/Motherboard: http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/theres-not-much-glitch-in-glitch-art.

References:

1. Jon Cates, “GL1TCHYST0RIES,” http://vimeo.com/7946606 (accessed 3/24/2014).
2. Clement Valla, “Iconoclashes,” http://clementvalla.com/work/iconoclases (accessed 3/24/2014).
3. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 120.

Bio:

Daniel Temkin makes images, programming languages, and interactive pieces exploring our inherently broken patterns of thought and the clash between human and algorithmic irrationalities. He has discussed Glitch Art on PBS’s Off Book series and at academic conferences such as Media Art History Re:Wire (2011) and Re:New (2013), GLI.TC/H (2010 and 2012), and the New Media Caucus, as well as hacker conferences such as Notacon and HOPE. His writing, published in World Picture Journal and Media-N Journal, has been taught at schools such as Bard College, Penn State, and Clark University. His programming language Velato, which requires programmers to write music to control code, belongs to the runme.org software art collection, and his Dither Studies and Glitchometry are archived by Rhizome-at-the-New-Museum’s ArtBase. His work has been shown at Mass MoCA, American University Museum, Christopher Henry Gallery, Transfer, Higher Pictures and Carroll/Fletcher among others.