Glitch-By-Number: Insufficient Data For Conversation

"Glitch Art" Google Image search, accessed April 15, 2017.
The File System Is Corrupt" 2014, Nathan Sharratt
Nathan Sharratt, The File System Is Corrupt, 2014.

P. Seth Thompson’s current show, “Insufficient Data for an Image” at Sandler Hudson Gallery received two polarized reviews, this one on ArtsATL by Meredith Kooi and this one on BURNAWAY by Jeremy Abernathy. Kooi’s review in particular sparked some dialogue that brought up larger issues about what it means to contribute to a “conversation.” For Kooi, the focus was whether or not Thompson’s work succeeds in furthering the art historical conversation on glitch art. Her review was rigorous, but some took issue with her critical stance resorting to ad hominem attacks, while others considered her line, “I have a feeling that this show can only work here in Atlanta” condescending and disparaging to Atlanta’s cultural creators. Many jumped in to defend Kooi, calling out sexist remarks questioning her credentials after Kooi made public an email she received, while still others attempted to remain neutral-good by asserting their support for both Thompson and Kooi and criticism in general. In the days that followed, Facebook was awash with the back-and-forth insults that have come to define social media discourse. Through it all, very little room was left to talk about the one thing we’re supposedly all here for: art.

And so the cycle will continue: an expression is put in the public view, the public reacts emotionally to the expression, a social media flame war ensues, schadenfreude, boredom, repeat ad nauseam.

So in an effort to contribute to “the conversation,” I will attempt to leave the cult of personality to the personalities and present some thoughts I have about glitch art and nostalgia culture as related to Thompson’s work and Kooi’s review. I’m not a glitch scholar and don’t purport to speak for all glitch artists nor the movement in general, but I was making what would be considered glitch art in mid-1990s during my time as an undergraduate at Pratt Institute when I and others first got our hands on digital imaging software and hardware.

To begin with, one of the issues I have with most contemporary “mainstream glitch art” (if such a thing can be said to exist) is that it is often a highly contrived and forced effort to be oh so painfully cool in its aesthetic appropriation. Kooi links to work by jonCates, so I’ll use him as an example. His _5kU77/\/\ØU̶┼̶|̶-̶|̶g̶L̶1̶┼̶>̶|̶-̶|̶_z (2014) is a prime illustration of what I’m talking about. If this work were created in the mid-1990s, then sure, it contributes to, say, the conversation about the subversion of convenience tools through de/reconstruction and proliferation of imagery as proxy for the ownership of identity as it relates to changing cultural norms in an era of exploding technological innovation (or insert your particular flavor of artspeak theory). Twenty years later, though? It’s the same gifs in the same style with the same content, except then the pixelation and low frame count was a limitation of 8-bit digital imaging and low-bandwidth Internet technology, and now it’s sentimental nostalgia endlessly reconfiguring a limited set of variables. Glitch-by-number, if you will. However, it could be argued that this is jonCates’s intention, that he is re-performing technology performance of days gone by as a way to enter into a heuristic conversation about techno-human relationships.

The question is, are artists able to contribute to a conversation about nostalgia and sentiment while occupying the same space as its subject in any kind of meaningful way? For the sake of brevity at the risk of reductivity: Kooi believes Thompson’s work does not, and that he should take notes from jonCates and his collaborators on what “real” glitch art is. I don’t believe Thompson’s work is true glitch, or that he considers it glitch himself, but I understand where the criticism comes from: it occupies, at least aesthetically, the same space as glitch.

Sentiment and nostalgia have been art historical staples for decades, and mass production and commercialism factor heavily into the equation. Nineteen-eighties kitsch art by Jeff Koons and his ilk helped elevate that subject into the art historical canon, but not without resistance. To this day, many view Koons’s kitsch art as irrelevant nonsense. Personally, I feel that kitsch and other nostalgic-leaning art is important not for the objects themselves but for the space those objects occupy in our collective consciousness and the social friction they create. They were a chimera of high and low art, but also neither when considered from a purist’s perspective. Likewise, art (glitch included) can sometimes speak to nostalgia and wear its polyester pixel clothes without succumbing to the rash of frivolity. Or sometimes the rash is the point. But to consider whether something contributes to a particular “conversation,” we need to first understand what that conversation is and how it came to be.

Speaking for my own localized group of budding glitch artists, back then goth and industrial imagery prevailed in glitch because that’s the music we listened to. There was very little frame of reference for new media art, so we looked to other mediums. To create a visual representation of a Skinny Puppy or Autechre song was the epitome of glitch wonderfulness. The point wasn’t to reveal some universal truth about the world, but to see what this new technology could do and what we could do with it (which ultimately did reveal some universal truths, but the point is it wasn’t always the original intent). Glitches sometimes occurred naturally as files were sent back and forth on unreliable networks and bits and pieces of code became corrupt or lost. And when we ran into other technological limitations we quickly embraced them and started to see how fucked up we could make shit look in new and exciting ways.

Today’s glitch aesthetic comes primarily from both code manipulation (e.g., opening image file code in a text editor and partially breaking it) and from analog manipulation (e.g., putting shit like our faces or random objects on scanners and moving them while they were being scanned). We were experimenting and learning from each other in between the classes where we learned how to make all the supposed “real” art. Then the process became aestheticized and fetishized—as most subcultures do—by the mainstream, and now we have “glitch art” (Google “glitch art” and you’ll see what I’m talking about). Here, I’ll do it for you:

"Glitch Art" Google Image search, accessed April 15, 2017.
“Glitch Art” Google Image search, accessed April 15, 2017.

So to say that Thompson’s work doesn’t contribute to the “conversation” but jonCates’s referenced work does seems like a disconnect. Thompson’s work has been, to me, about that sense of nostalgia that permeates our social and cultural mores through mass media, and how our sense of self can be manipulated through this symbolic imagery. The endless repetition of image “hooks”—that is, carefully calculated visual symbols that tap into broad emotional triggers—occupies space in the middle of the bell curve, while Thompson’s manipulation of these symbols occupies space slightly off center. In this way, it feels connected to the work of artists like jonCates. Not quite mainstream, but borrowing heavily from that space.

The early days of “naturalized” glitch was a response to the newly-commercialized Internet and it’s infinitely reproducible content, and as such the vast trove of newly freed content was appropriated as a subversion of corporate control of information and occupied a firm stance as outliers on the bell curve, invisible to the mainstream and statistically off the charts. The contemporary version of glitch aesthetic appears to be naturalized, but behind the scenes it’s a carefully crafted and considered affirmation of the bell curve’s existence: it embraces the mainstream and is comfortable existing within the confines of previously defined processes and products. In other words, it executes an aesthetic prescription with predefined boundaries and form but leaves a token amount of the creative labor up the the practitioner, a la paint-by-number.

In this sense, it’s representative of a new form of glitch, which I’ll call neoglitch for lack of better nomenclature (some have called new glitch “dirty new media,” but that expands into other theoretical realms, so I’ll stick with neoglitch). This isn’t to say that Thompson makes generic neoglitch art, I don’t believe he does, but that there are some overlapping characteristics that can serve as a springboard for a broader conversation.

There is a resistance in the art world to art that speaks to emptiness and confusion, as if the art itself were empty and confused (not to be confused with art that’s actually empty and/or confused). Some of Thompson’s work seems more substantive because the content is more overtly substantive (e.g., the Challenger work), while others are about the battle to find meaning in an increasingly noisy and trademarked world through manipulation of those very same noisy and trademarked images. When an artist chooses to examine this meta-conversation in their work they have an uphill battle and must stave off accusations like they’re “reproducing culture but not contributing to it,” as if the Pictures Generation closed the loop on that topic.

With so much confusion and horror in the world demanding our attention and energy, we naturally gravitate to simple, quick, feel-good expressions that are effectively dopamine fixes. Subtlety of meaning that requires time to process is increasingly less tolerated in favor of eliciting emotional reactions to things that will immediately make us feel good, or get us attention (which makes us feel good). And we delegitimize ambiguous or subtle work that requires an investment of time to fully appreciate the artist’s intent, dismissing it as empty or irrelevant drivel. Especially if it resembles in any way a “superficial” populist aesthetic or connects to an existing conversation sans novelty—for example using glitch aesthetic to discuss something other than glitch. First glance is last chance.

This leads to what I call the Frozen Lake Effect. To paint an analogy, the art experience is like a lake. In ideal circumstances—say summertime with clear skies, warm weather and crystal-clear water—a viewer who wishes to engage with an art experience can dive right in and receive the full effect of the art. Or, the interested but less-adventurous viewer can sit on the dock or in a boat and peer into the vast ecosystem the artist has created beneath the surface with little trouble. However, artists who choose to create in non-ideal circumstances—in this analogy that would be wintertime—must reconcile what these new conditions mean for the viewer. Namely, that there is now a barrier of frozen water above their rich artistic ecosystem; ice so thick you can walk on it. This barrier is not impenetrable, but neither is it immediately surmountable. It requires an act of radical slowness on the part of the viewer to reorient themselves in this new environment. New tools and the effort to use them are now required to access the entire art experience. Viewers who expect to immediately jump into the waters will find themselves stymied, and end up concluding that the lake is nothing but what’s viewable on the surface. They assume there’s nothing underneath the ice and dismiss the art experience as empty and not worth their time. Or, they may reluctantly acclimate to the weather but introduce purity tests as a way to shift responsibility back onto the artist. They berate the artist for not providing every necessary tool for them to get through the ice in a convenient box on the shore. Besides, they say, real artists make work in summer, as if the artist was somehow unaware of what season it is, or that they (as a real artist presumably) would approach this subject in X, Y, or Z fashion, which would be better (more pure).

Those that persevere, however, and head back to town to gear up with proper equipment before coming back to the lake may find that the frozen surface is no longer a barrier, and in fact can lead to a unique art experience that opens up new perspectives and ideas that weren’t possible in summer. Content and subjectivity being what it is, YMMV.

To introduce a purity test of my own: aestheticized neoglitch art is no more glitch than Good Charlotte is punk rock. That is, it is to some, but not to others, depending on when you grew up and what your socio-cultural anchors are. That isn’t to say that neoglitch isn’t art, just that it’s evolved away from it’s original source code into a new paradigm. We no longer break things on accident, but because we want to, maybe because everyone else is doing it. Image editing tools have reached their apex and have evolved to the point that there have been few, if any, significant innovations in the field for at least a decade—the main thing that comes to mind is the explosion of good-enough mobile imaging and social media, where everyone with a cell phone in their pocket now has a camera and an immediate distribution channel via the Internet. With slick perfection so easily achievable, the only way to assert a measure of authenticity seems to be to look backward. However, looking backward is not without its pitfalls.

Neoglitch is about perpetuating the status quo, and as such it feels repressive. It latches onto a once-meaningful expression and reduces it to aesthetic process. But, it also accurately reflects our current social climate. I feel that Thompson’s work should be viewed through this lens, though whether he goes far enough is another conversation. We are obsessed with recreating those feel-good moments from our youth. Whether it’s the proliferation of watered-down IP reboots, or the socially regressive #MAGA, we want what we used to have, but only the good parts that we remember and that were beneficial for us and our in-group. This mindset perpetuates oppressive unilateral thought by heightening supremacist values and excluding marginalized ones. Glitch art was about breaking the status quo. It was about refusing the state of convenience and comfort by using tools that were supposed to make image editing less labor intensive and more aesthetically pleasing, and made it more labor intensive and less aesthetically pleasing (by traditional standards).

Tourist Rain" 1997. Juvenalia glitch art by Nathan Sharratt
Tourist Rain, 1997. Juvenalia glitch art by Nathan Sharratt

When you break a thing open, you gain greater understanding of the systems that cause that thing to function, and thereby regain a measure of control and power over that thing. Whether it’s recontextualizing visual code à la Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth on a Beatles album cover or corrupting social contracts à la Sophie Calle or circuit-bending an electronic toy.

However, as censors well know, you cannot expose the inner machinations of a thing from afar; you must get intimately involved with it, you must, in effect, occupy the same space. Glitch was about using mainstream commercial technology and subverting its intended use. By breaking technology in ways that elevated the bug to feature status, the user became free of prescribed restraints while simultaneously celebrating the natural flaws and mutations that make each of us unique. As technology more rapidly took over our lives, and globalism made our world smaller, we became less certain of objective truths. Glitch allowed us to reclaim some of those truths by asserting our influence at the seed level and reforming the world in new ways — ways that were just as broken as we felt. We took a thing that was given to us for passive consumption and flipped the script. A small change in code or a little too much of a color-correction filter could have a huge effect upon the subject’s ultimate form, and so glitch became a metaphor for the importance of small, individual acts of agency.

Today’s glitch art is not the cacophony of tract-house rainbow pixel smears proliferating on ASCII-named blogs owned by multibillion dollar corporations. Or maybe it is. Glitch is made by people using tools and systems the “wrong” way. This means that much of the glitch art we’ll be talking about tomorrow won’t look like today’s. It’s work that sits just slightly off center. Not enough to force it to the fringes of acceptable “wrongness,” which is itself a form of mainstream (think of the “distressed vintage” style), but that makes you uncomfortable because you can’t quite fit it into a convenient category. Glitch inhabits a system and uses its own structure against it. Think of the Instagram account that isn’t just a promotional tool for IRL art, but is an artwork in and of itself. Think of the art villain using Internet virality as a performance-art medium, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction, myth and mundanity (fakeartnews). Think of broken experiences, like viewing virtual reality art through clunky goggles in the middle of an art fair. Think of an augmented-reality smartphone app as both art material and primary viewing experience. Think of “successful” 3D printing, because no matter how accurately the object is printed, it will never live up to its mathematically perfect virtual counterpart.

Glitch is no longer an aesthetic, but a (reclaimed) mindset; a subversion of economic and social hierarchies that cares less about modes of beauty and more about breaking emergent systems in new ways to regain a little bit of the agency we were so eager to give up in the first place. If you have difficulty determining what’s “authentic” and what’s fabricated, that’s not by accident.

Nathan Sharratt is an artist and writer based out of Atlanta.

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