An Unknown Error Has Occurred: New Media and Glitch Art

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally posted January 26, 2011

Yolanda Green

In a world that seems to find beauty in perfection, what role do imperfections play in the art scene? Glitch, a specific form of New Media art, aims to explore that very question.

Chicago has proven to be a home to glitch and New Media art. For example, Chicago hosted a five day conference last year entitled GLI.TC/H. Artists from all over the world were able to talk about glitch art and showcase their work in several settings, including a gallery show and an online show, as well as other performances and screenings. “Chicago was a perfect location for a festival/conference/gathering like GLI.TC/H,” Jon Satrom, one of the organizers expressed. “Along with the ‘Let’s do this!’ DIY ethic, there are quite a few local folks exploring signal, noise, failure, and the aesthetics of digital artifacts.” Another curator for the GLI.TC/H event, Nick Briz, said that the reason he came to Chicago was because of the very prominent glitch art scene. I had the pleasure of opening a dialogue with Briz, Satrom, Nicholas O’ Brien, and Brian Khek (who are all participants of the GLI.TC/H conference) about New Media/glitch art and its place within the art scene.

"k00n5 4 w1ld1n9 2" by Nick Briz

"k00n5 4 w1ld1n9 2" by Nick Briz

When asked what makes New Media art such an exciting art field, Nicolas O’ Brien explained that exploring the art, discovering its limitations, and asking questions about those limitations are the things that interest him. “I think the excitement I have for New Media art right now lies precisely in how to solve these questions. One way that I like to think about how to address some of these concerns is by expanding the scope of what can be considered ‘New Media Art.’ For instance, how can painting, sculpture, and performance all be considered within the scope of New Media?”

There is an aspect of labeling here which, as I expressed in a previous article (“Is Time Really Everything? Time-Based Arts”), can be very tricky in any creative genre. We can only try to give a generalized definition and scope of a certain discipline, but we can never really grasp the totality of it when artists are constantly evolving and changing the genre. O’ Brien went on to say, “I think the fact that New Media art is usually a very open and generous medium and that this lends itself to interest and intrigue to large audiences. Most of these new forms contain vibrant communities of technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs that exchange and share ideas on a regular basis. Due to the support networks that accompany New Media art (mostly built/assembled from lack of large institutional support in the States), these new emerging forms are becoming more interdisciplinary.”

Because New Media is so rooted in technology, exploration and expansion is expected. Technology itself is constantly evolving and integrating into different aspects of our lives, why wouldn’t we expect this of the art itself? Brian Khek explains, “I think it’s also important to remember that New Media art isn’t limited to digital or online works either. New Media related concepts and dialogue can be expressed in any medium. With that logic I’ve always had some problems with identifying things as New Media art. For me, it tends to behave as a term for work that involves current technology and phenomena associated with it. Others use it specific to work that utilizes New Media as a material.”

Screen capture; by Jon Satrom from the GLI.TC/H bumper video

Screen capture; by Jon Satrom from the GLI.TC/H bumper video

Yet the concept of New Media art is also institutional as well. “This is something that internet art has traditionally attempted to break down but I think ultimately engages in,” Khek continues. “Institutional critique isn’t always involved with an online based practice. Many people create work online and digitally out of financial necessity or sheer convenience. I think, in an era after net.dot and hyper self-reflexive online art, the spectrum of an artist’s practice can be expanded comfortably. An artist’s augmented identity online is simultaneously an extension and mirror of themselves. Online there is space to share work very quickly, be it notes, sketches, or completed works. It has advantage of engaging a highly democratic community.”

It seems as though then, that the online and technological community is a completely different yet developing world. Considering this, however, what place does New Media have in contemporary art? Is there even a distinction? With glitch art, specifically, there is a focus on technological imperfections. Could we see more of this inside a gallery that also exhibits the ‘perfection’ of a certain painting or sculpture? For Jon Satrom, imperfection is what draws him to New Media art. “I’ve always loved taking things apart to see how they work,” Satrom says. “The funny thing is: I am not so great at putting them back together. As a result, I’ve become interested in working with things that don’t work and intentionally making things not work ‘correctly.’”

Satrom goes on to explain that art is “informed and inspired” by error. “After all, to fail is human. With New Media, there’s so much promise of things being perfect and so much potential for things to go wrong. I feel that glitch inhabits a sympathetic space within a machine or system. A glitch is a moment that snaps the user/viewer/consumer out of the context of using/viewing/consuming and reveals the system(s) at play. At this moment, one is able to consider not just the image on the monitor, but how the computer is rendering or mis-rendering the image. Glitch speaks to process. Glitch art, for many, is about the process of creating, representing, and capturing glitches. Often, the result can be jarring, frustrating, confusing, and aesthetically beautiful all at once.”

"Arrowhead" by Nicholas O'Brien composed of user generated textures for video games.

"Arrowhead" by Nicholas O'Brien composed of user generated textures for video games.

In addition, there is a reason why imperfections and “noise” can be aesthetically beautiful, according to Briz. “One might be for its nostalgic value,” he explains. “Compression artifacts are reminiscent of early 8bit video games (NES, Atari, etc.) which would often crash and glitch. Others have pointed to this as the reason why most glitch artists are in their mid 20’s early 30’s… they’re children of the eighties and grew up with this new gaming technology. In addition to this I think there’s something about the glitch aesthetic that humanizes machines. In the West especially, we’ve got a kind of cynical view of machines… fearfully bracing ourselves for the robot apocalypse. Some kinds of glitches, like the kind found in datamoshing (arguably the most popular form of glitching now) has a very organic feel–pixels flow across the screen like water or paint. These moments break the rigid/geometric frame we normally place around technology. This kind of glitch is also called ‘pixel bleeding,’ intentional or not I think the existence of that term echoes my sentiment.”

In addition, for Briz, glitch art has a more definitive place not only in the art community but in our culture as well. “We’ve got a culture interested in ‘upgrading,’” Briz states. “And I mean constantly upgrading. This applies to material consumption just as much as it does to computer software. Glitch art is constantly fighting against this upgrade-culture. While special interests and the ‘powers that be’ attempt to eradicate glitches in search for their version of ‘perfection,’ glitch artists are constantly searching for new bugs and exploiting the cracks within these systems.”

New Media and glitch as a genre continues to grow and transform within the art scene, expanding into more contemporary efforts as well. “This cross-modal/cross-medium trend has garnered a lot of excitement within the art community – since you are seeing engineers and computer programmers working with painters and dancers,” O’ Brien notes. “This is not something particularly new (i.e. Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score), but it nevertheless is gaining larger support both in America and abroad with institutions dedicating their gallery space or yearly programming to New Media art.”

You can check out the GLI.TC/H conference and learn more about the artists that were featured there at http://gli.tc/h/ . There you will find an active blog about glitch art. Also, check out Pixel Pandemonium: GLI.TC/H Cinema on DIY-Film.com.