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The Glitch Moment(um)

12/04/2012
Rob Myers

The Glitch Moment(um)
Rosa Menkman
Institute Of Network Cultures, 2011
ISBN 9789081602167

Rosa Menkman’s book “The Glitch Moment(um)” is a comprehensive study of the theory, practice and social context of contemporary digital Glitch Art. Glitch Art is similar to the ironisation of the noise of old media into cultural signals seen in Trip Hop and that is the basis for the nostalgic image-making of Lomography or Instagram. But it is based on current digital technology, rather than past analogue technology.

Glitch Art is growing in popularity and critical attention, and is already being recuperated by the mass media (for example in a recent Calvin Klein perfume television advertisement). Analogue glitches have been part of art and popular culture for decades, for example in Nam June Paik’s television-based art or the titular character of the cyberpunk TV show “Max Headroom”. Digital glitches and their simulation featured in the postmodern graphic design of the early 1990s created by groups such as Designers’ Republic. But between a history of analogue media and a future of mass media recuperation there is the current Moment(um) of digital glitch aesthetics that Menkman identifies.

Menkman begins by explaining the basics of Shannon/Weaver information theory as the basis for a theory of what glitches are. In information theory, messages are sent as a signal from a transmitter to a receiver over a channel which is disrupted by a source of noise. This “noise” is the crackle on analogue telephones or on vinyl records, the static on analogue TV and radio, and the corruption that sometimes affects digital images or audio streams (nowadays notably Skype chats).

Where kinds of noise are associated with a particular we can recognise them as particular “noise artifacts”. We can also recognise compression artefacts in digital media such as those seen in over-compressed lossy image and video files (JPEG and MPEG artefacts). These noise and compression artifacts are experienced by the users of communication media as glitches. Menkman describes these phenomena in detail, providing the reader with a firm foundation in the sources and expression of Glitch phenomena.

How artists can deliberately create these phenomena is the subject of the next section of the book. Titled “A Vernacular Of File formats” it is a condensed adaptation of Menkman’s 2010 artwork of the same name. It is a thorough and accessible resource for both understanding the production of and creating visual glitch aesthetics. Each picture demonstrates a technique for modifying the data of an image file format so that a computer can still parse and render the file but it will appear corrupted to a human viewer. Starting with an uncorrupted (but unnervingly contrasty) “RAW” image, Menkman explains the production and principles of corrupted digital images in sufficient detail that the reader can recreate and build on these techniques themself, or use this knowledge as the basis for understanding and appreciating the work involved in the Glitch Art produced by others.

The next two chapters cover the phenomenology and philosophy of Glitch. The theories of Paul Virilio and Alan Liu are usefully deployed here to give Glitch a philosophical grounding. But there is also a recognition that Glitch is an inherently open concept that is difficult to define. Menkman rightly considers the work of Beflix (Ant Scott) as a leading Glitch Art figure. The diversity of Beflix’s work illustrates the problem with categorizing Glitch neatly, or at all. 5VOLTCORE, JODI, and others provide alternative views of what Glitch can be. This builds to Menkman defining “Glitchspeak” as the vernacular, or in possibly the creole, of Glitch Art.

In “From Artifact To Commodity”, Menkman turns to Glitch aesthetics in music, particularly the glitches created through circuitbending, and the precedent this has set for the creation of standardized tools for glitching visual media. As such tools have been created for images, Glitch aesthetics have found their way into the artistic mainstream and into music videos and other mass media. Glitch may be impossible to categorize but it is all too easy to commodify. This marks its emergence as a genre, and Menkman finishes this section by considering Glitch as a recognizable but still problematic genre that relies heavily on spectators’ technical, aesthetic and theoretic literacy.

Having given the reader a solid grounding in the theory, practice and philosophy of Glitch, Menkman finally moves on to its sociology. Using a tool that looks like Gephi but isn’t (Issuecrawler), Menkman models the social network of relationships between Glitch artists that exist on the Internet. Clustering blogs and other Internet expressions by the number of links between them allows the tools of social network analysis to be used, revealing who is central to the Glitch artworld as judged by the clicks of their peers.

Finally Menkman sums up Glitch aesthetics in a section called “The Emancipation of Dissonance Glitch”. Starting with a quote from Jackson Pollock:

“I don’t use the accident. I deny the accident. There is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.”

Menkman concludes that “Like the best ideas, glitch practices are dangerous because they generate awareness”. By which point the reader is perfectly placed to understand just how and what kind of awareness Glitch generates, and how they can appreciate or produce Glitch art themselves.

Glitch Art has been long overdue serious critical attention. I cannot remember the last time I read a book that so thoroughly and concisely presented the theory and practice of a contemporary art movement in as does “The Glitch Moment(um)”.

You can download a PDF or order a print copy here

The text of this review is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 Licence.

"self-defined artist, writer and hacker" – MakeTank

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