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Cyberformance in the Third Space: A Conversation with Helen Varley Jamieson

“Overlapping and fluid spaces… spaces emerging between physical realities and the ethereal digital / electric space: a third space grafted from the real-time confluence of the stage + remote locations.” – Helen Varley Jamieson

Cyberformance artist Helen Varley Jamieson is creating a new Internet performance work, “we r now[here]”* for the Art of the Networked Practice | Online Symposium (March 31 – April 2). The title and description of the work poetically articulate her thinking on networked space (third space) as a medium for online theatrical experimentation: “‘we r now[here]’ is about nowhere and somewhere: the ‘nowhere’ of the Internet becomes ‘now’ and ‘here’ through our virtual presence.” (* Special thanks to Annie Abrahams who provided the title for the work: “we r now[here],” and to Curt Cloninger who inspired it.)

To set the “stage” for this new work, we discuss Helen’s pioneering achievements in the genre she has coined as cyberformance: the combination of cybernetics and cyberspace with performance. Helen has created a rich body of online theater work dating back to 1999, when dial-up modems were still the operable connection, long before Skype and Google Hangout became popular Web-conferencing tools. As one of the founders of UpStage, an open source platform for online theatrical presentation, Helen is a leading catalyst, researcher, director, and maker who for years has been reimagining the Internet as a global space for theater and performance.


Randall Packer: You coined the term cyberformance in the early 2000s after discovering the potential of the Internet as a medium for live performance. What were your first steps in rethinking live theater for ethereal, networked “third space?”

Helen Varley Jamieson: When I first started working with Desktop Theatre and experienced the intense liveness of our interactions despite being physically separated by thousands of miles, I understood that it was possible to feel a quite visceral sense of presence and real-time connection via the internet. We were improvising and performing in The Palace, a graphic-sonic chat application, and our audiences were mostly other “Palatians” – who weren’t always particularly interested in what we were doing. I began to think about how we could bring this work to a theatre audience, people who wanted to see a performance. The first time I tried this was at Odin Teatret in Denmark at a Magdalena Project festival, with a short performance that aimed to demonstrate the possibilities of cyberformance. Adriene Jenik and Lisa Brenneis from Desktop Theatre were performing with me from California, in The Palace which was projected onto a screen. I was using someone’s mobile phone for the internet connection as this was 2001 and there wasn’t internet throughout the building at that time. Afterwards, a heated debate erupted amongst the audience (who were theatre practitioners) about whether or not this could be called theatre. This experience challenged me to question whether or not cyberformance was “theatre” (which of course required first answering the question, what is “theatre”?): how is technology changing our definitions of “theatre”? and what place does cyberformance have within theatre?

Online meeting preparing for the CyPosium – organisers discussing facilitation and moderation (2012). From left to right: Annie Abrahams, Helen Varley Jamieson, Suzon Fuks and Christina Papagiannouli

RP: You define cyberformance as “utilizing Internet technologies to bring remote performers together in real-time for remote and or proximal audiences.” How does the distributed nature of cyberformance differ from live, traditional theater that situates actors and audience in a single, physical location?

HVJ: Obviously there are many interactions that are not possible, and the entire context is different: instead of sitting together in a darkened auditorium, hearing the rustles and breathing of your fellow audience members and smelling whatever smells, you are (usually but not always) alone in front of a computer. There are time and seasonal differences, as well as cultural and linguistic, for individual audience members. There might be a knock at the door or a phone call or other outside events that intrude on someone’s experience while online. So there is much more variety in how the performance is received than there is in a proximal situation. To give one example, during the 101010 UpStage Festival, one performer and some audience were located at a museum in Belgrade; it was the same day as the gay pride march there, which was disrupted by rioting anti-pride protestors, and the museum staff had to lock the doors to keep everyone safe – cars were burning in the street outside. Inside the locked museum, the performer kept going and the festival continued with the riot raging outside, and those of us online were getting updates about the situation from those in the museum.

There is also a different kind of relationship between audience and performers, at least in performances using platforms such as UpStage, where the audience have the possibility to chat with each other and with the artists. There is a level of familiarity and equality, as opposed to the separation of the 4th wall in traditional theatre. Different codes of behaviour apply – for instance it can happen that the online audience might start chatting about something unrelated to the performance, which then becomes a part of the performance; people seated in a theatre auditorium wouldn’t normally strike up a general conversation, audible to all, in the middle of a play. The response from the audience to the performance is in some ways more direct – they can comment in the chat and will often be very honest in their comments; and in other ways more distant – a standing ovation has to be typed into the chat, which is less of a loud emotional outpouring.

Dan Untitled streaming a DJ set from Wellington, New Zealand (top left) for the After Party of the 121212 UpStage Festival of Cyberformance (December 2012)

RP: I find it ironic that you named your performance group “Avatar Body Collision,” which seems to complicate the idea of net space as a virtual medium for disembodiment. How do you see “avatar bodies” colliding on the Internet?

HVJ: I don’t think of virtual space as being disembodied. We are still in our bodies, we are using our bodies to create the performance – primarily our hands and fingers (digits – we say “break a digit” before our shows instead of “break a leg”). The collision in the name is not about bodies colliding with bodies, but avatars colliding with bodies. Where does my body end and my avatar begin, and vice versa? And how do other bodies, e.g. the audience, respond to my avatar? The collision is one of flesh and technology, sweat and pixels.

“Dress The Nation” by Avatar Body Collision, 2003,
The Palace (response to the USA invasion of Iraq)

RP: Online, the audience or “cyberformience” plays a participatory role in the event, like the early Happenings from the 1960s. How does this non-hierarchical approach to theater impact the works you have created for the medium: how do you incorporate the audience into the work?

HVJ: It varies from show to show; some are designed for the audience to watch and respond, while others aim to actively involve the audience (cyberformience) to the point of co-authoring. One example at the first end of the continuum is “a gesture through the flames“, which was a webcam performance I created in 2008 for Annie Abrahams‘ “Breaking Solitude” series. I used a Victorian toy theatre and a soundscape to tell a story, and the online audience improvised a narrative in the chat. I didn’t interact with them during the performance (I was too busy to type) and it was fascinating to see how they read what I was doing. At the other end of the spectrum are works like “make-shift” or the series “We have a situation!” which can’t happen without the active participation of the audience. In “make-shift” (2010-12, with Paula Crutchlow), the audience were involved in writing texts, operating the webcam, answering quiz questions, building kites from recycled plastic, and ultimately performing on webcam. The event was structured so that they were “warmed-up” for their participation, and because we were located in someone’s home there was a very informal and comfortable atmosphere which made it possible for people to do these things.

RP: You are currently creating a new work entitled “we r now[here]” for the Art of the Networked Practice | Online Symposium. The title can be read as no(where) or now(here). Tell us about your concept of Internet space and time.

HVJ: Space and time in the online world are very fluid for me. I frequently work with people in different time zones, and travel physically between time zones myself as well, so I’m often calculating time differences and negotiating meeting times around all of this. In some ways time is irrelevant. In other ways, it’s highly significant – for example, precise timing is very difficult to achieve. Lag is unpredictable, sometimes it can disrupt a carefully planned sequence but at other times it can make something unexpectedly brilliant.

Helen Varley Jamieson performing “make-shift,” Brisbane, 2012; photo by Suzon Fuks

RP: A recent work, “make-shift,” unites domestic environments via the Internet in live, free-form conversation between online and onsite participants. How do you achieve a sense of intimacy and play in the online social space of the work despite geographical separation?

HVJ: I think of cyberspace as a space; apart from all the common spatial metaphors that are applied to it, when I’m working or communicating with people online in real-time it feels to me that we create a space through our shared presence, words, and whatever else we are using. It’s a space that extends into and absorbs a little bit of the physical environment of everyone present. “make-shift” did this very explicitly – we asked the audience (online and on site) to describe where they were, and this built a collaborative space or environment that everyone had a shared sense of.

In “make-shift” we created intimate and playful environments in two separate houses. the participants in the houses arrived half an hour before the show began, and during this time we warmed them up with a few activities and explained things about what was going to happen. Usually there was also food and drink, and often the people already knew each other so it was already quite friendly and informal. At the start of the show we began by introducing everyone. Each house called out a greeting to the other house and the online audience (which we’d practiced as part of the warm-up activities), and then we invited the online audience to tell us “what’s it like where you are?” This question was deliberately a bit open-ended, so people could describe their surroundings, the weather, their day, their mood and so on. The online audience are already seated at the keyboard and ready to interact; often they would make jokes, add other comments and respond to each other. We had regular online audience members who knew the format so inserted their own commentary or embellished others’. From this beginning, we continued throughout the piece to give the audience tasks that encouraged their sense of empowerment and ownership within the piece, such as operating the webcam, and we encouraged those in the house to interact in the chat with the online audience. Some people were a bit shy or worried about doing the wrong thing, but they usually got into it fairly quickly and became so involved in the piece that they lost any self-consciousness. In the final scene, the group in each house performed a song to the webcam and created a tableaux vivant of a painting we had referenced throughout the performance, and when we reached this point in the show they were always keen to do this.

Performance of Samuel Becket’s “Come & Go” by Avatar Body Collision,
070707 UpStage Festival (2007)

RP: With the Avatar Body Collision performance group, you have restaged Samuel Becket’s minimalist theater work “Come & Go.” Your approach to cyberformance has always been very free and open, and yet Becket is the opposite: highly structured with precise directions for actors. How do you reconcile these differences?

HVJ: It was a lot of fun to do “Come & Go“; from the outset we accepted that we had a strict set of instructions to follow, and made that our task – to render Beckett’s directions in cyberformance as faithfully as possible. So we didn’t reconcile those differences, rather we saw it as an opportunity to work differently for a change. We worked on small but precise avatar movements, which is harder than you might think, and used simple gestures that very effectively added emotion, such as a turn of the head or holding a hand up to the mouth. We played with the text2speech voices of our avatars: I was Flo, who at one point has the line, “Dreaming of … love”, and we discovered that the “…” created an emotional quaver in the computerised voice when it said “… love”. This was both funny and tender. So having a script and such precise directions meant that we spent time on details like this.

RP: You have produced your own online symposia, the Cyposium, the latest from 2012 culminating in CyPosium the Book, an edition of essays and transcriptions. How has your experimentation with the online symposium format altered your view of what a conference gathering can fulfill given global access via the Internet?

HVJ: The CyPosium was very successful and generated an exciting buzz. I think one reason for this was that everyone was online. When there is a stream from a proximal conference, it’s very easy for people at the physical venue to forget about those online. It takes very thoughtful planning to ensure that the online participants are fully included. So in the CyPosium, everyone was online and therefore equally included. Most people commented quite freely – at times it was quite dizzying to see the chat scrolling up at great speed, there was so much discussion. This made it quite difficult for the moderators to field questions – we had planned as best we could for this and it went pretty well, but there were so many people actively engaged in the discussion that at times we couldn’t keep up. Many people stayed online for most of the 12 hours, and the response was very enthusiastic the whole way through, which made it clear that there is a desire for this kind of event.

From the launch of “CyPosium the Book”, Munich, Dec 2014, Helen Varley Jamieson presenting and Annie Abrahams on webcam; photo by Andrea Ass

RP: In your years of performing and creating online performance, what do you think is missing in the liminal space of the online medium due to distance and non-corporeality? What do you yearn for? What do you still want to accomplish?

HVJ: At an absolutely practical level, I yearn for better funding, for funding opportunities that are not tied to geographical locations, as nearly everything still is. The distributed, non-corporeal and ephemeral nature of this work means that it’s always on the periphery – which in some respects is a wonderful place to be, but it’s usually the least-funded place.

There are many things that I imagine and would like to realise but can’t technically; some of these things may become possible if/when we manage the rebuild of UpStage that we are planning. But often what interests me most is experimenting with the resources I have and discovering what’s possible; what tricks or hacks I can do, what surprises there are when we push a technology in a way it wasn’t intended to be pushed or when we use a tool differently.

What I would still like to accomplish in my work is to further develop the intentions of shows such as “make-shift” and “we have a situation,” where a creative process shared by audience and artists can ultimately effect real change, at the individual level and socially/politically. I’m interested in how cyberformance can facilitate meaningful discussions and encourage people to think about alternatives and make actual changes in their lives. I’m interested in how connections between remote and apparently unrelated people and contexts can open up new possibilities.

“swim – an exercise in remote intimacy,” Avatar Body Collision, at the City of Women Festival, Ljubljana (2003), photo by Nada Zgank

Randall Packer is an artist, composer, educator, and writer. He is currently Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Art, Design & Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and the co-chair of the Art of the Networked Practice | Online Symposium. You can follow him at Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge, his blog critiquing the unfolding media culture.

Painting with Data: A Conversation with Lev Manovich

Lev Manovich’s upcoming keynote, along with the entire Art of the Networked Practice online symposium, March 31 – April 2, 2015, will be free, open and accessible via web-conference from anywhere in the world. Visit the Website to register. The symposium is in collaboration with Furtherfield.

While big data has infiltrated our everyday lives, Lev Manovich and his collaborators have explored the data of everyday life as a window on social transformation. We discuss his latest work: The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 Hours in Kiev, a portrait of political upheaval in the Ukraine constructed from thousands of Instagram photos taken over a six day period during the revolution in February of 2014. The project evolves from Manovich’s recent manifestations, Phototrails (2013) and SelfieCity (2014), metamorphosing social media into data landscapes.

Randall Packer: How do you view social media as illuminating a broader understanding of crisis in times of political upheaval?

Lev Manovich: When the media covers exceptional events such as social upheavals, revolutions, and protests, typically they just show you a few professionally shot photographs that focus on this moment of protest at particular points in the city. So we were wondering if examining Instagram photos that were shared in the central part of Kiev would give us a different picture. Not necessarily an objective picture because Instagram has its own biases and it’s definitely not a transparent window into reality, but would give us, let’s say, a more democratic picture. So we’ve downloaded over 20,000 photos shared by 6,000 people, and using visualization we created a number of different views of reality with patterns contained in the data. And we were particularly interested to see how the images of the everyday exist side by side with images of extraordinary events: how images of demonstrations, confrontation with government forces, fire, smoke, and barricades exist next to selfies, parties, or empty streets.

144 Hours in Kiev
: a selection of images shared during the protests, arranged by time

RP: Is it possible to think of what you are doing as taking an activist position in terms of revealing truths about a political situation?

LM: We have to be careful because obviously what you are seeing in 144 Hours in Kiev is a relatively small part of the population. Because the people who do use Instagram create tags mostly in English, they are, maybe, pro-Western people. But it allows us to get a sense of, not necessarily of a truth, not necessarily of what’s real, but let’s say a different kind of picture, a different place of reality then what the journalists would get. Because journalists may go, talk to a few people, and then come up with a report. But here you have “quotes,” so to speak, of thousands of people.

144 Hours in Kiev
: map of Kiev with cluster of photos in Independence Square

RP: Do you also see the collections of visualizations from user-generated images as an aesthetic realization?

LM: Perhaps one thing we can highlight is the idea of expressive visualization. As an artist I am also interested in the question of how can I present the world through the data. So let’s say a hundred years ago I would be taking photographs of a city. Now I can represent the city through 2 million Instagram photos. Thinking about landscape paintings in Impressionism, Fauvism, or even Cubism, how could I represent nature today through the contributions of millions of people? So I think of myself as an artist who is painting with data.

: Radial image plot visualization of 33,292 photos from Tel Aviv

RP: But I’ve noticed that there is a focus in your writing on scientific methodology, you don’t talk very much about the renderings from an artistic perspective.

LM: It’s very clear that we’re taking ideas and techniques that have been used by modern artists. The difference is that we are pulling out data and writing open source tools. We’re taking in this case social media, works that were not created by us, and then putting them through different kinds of combinations. If you think about modernist collage of the city from the 1910s or 1920s, using pieces of newspaper and other existing media, what we’re doing exists in the same tradition.

RP: In many ways, the works can be fully appreciated as collage or composites, which I imagine goes against what you are trying to say through data analysis.

LM: No, it doesn’t go against what we are doing. It’s a matter of speaking to different parts of society. So you don’t just talk to designers or artists or like-minded people, you also talk to scientists. But ultimately what drives me is that I can I create something expressive, something unique, that isn’t just simply a data visualization, but creates an image that finds visual forms, that finds the right metaphors, which allows me to talk about modern society as consistent with its millions of data points. To me I think it’s a successful metaphor for how to speak about society today, when you think about all the traces you leave on social networks. I am trying to find the static visual forms to represent our new sense of society from seemingly random acts of individual people.

: plots showing locations of photos shared by the most active
Instagram users in Tel Aviv over 3 months

RP: Talk about the idea of “collective stories,” which are revealed in the composite of hundreds of thousands Instagram photos, each of which is a story in and of itself.

LM: We bring all these narratives together and try to make a kind of composite “film.” The connection to documentary, such as filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, for me is very clear. When Dziga Vertov, for example, was making his films in Kiev, he would have several cameramen in different parts of the Soviet Union shooting everyday, and they would send it to him and he would put it all together. So my “films” are made up of downloaded visuals, in which you can then make multiple “films” out of.

RP: Is it possible that the individual stories, the individual voice of expression, might get lost in this broad swath of data mining and cultural analytics?

LM: People are documenting what they think is interesting and important in their lives. But because there are very particular behaviors, what you get is a kind of pattern. I would say that patterns are not the same thing as a story. I don’t think of it as traditional narrative art, but rather a pattern of certain repeating behaviors.

The Exceptional and the Everyday
: six days of photos taken
in Kiev’s Independence Square in red vs. all photos in grey, plotted over time

RP: How do you position the work you are doing in the context of the current crisis of invasive surveillance and the loss of privacy resulting from big data analysis?

LM: When we started thinking about these ideas in 2005, these issues were not on the table. In the last two or three years they have become central and to be honest they keep me up at night. I consider whether or not it’s OK because there are histories of governments using photographs of protests of honest people. I think the first time it happened seriously was in Prague in 1968 when it was raided by the Soviet Union. You had bystanders taking pictures, and when the pictures were found they were used to arrest people. So we thought a lot about it. When you start to individualize stories, when you start following particular people, then it gets really dangerous.

RP: In this sense its a very political project. What you have done is revealed that in the 21st century of social media it’s difficult to hide anything. What have you learned about contemporary life as seen through the lens of social media?

LM: This is a deep question. I’m basically trying to say that as opposed to a journalist who thinks about the “data” as a kind of truth, that it’s a way to find out what happened, what I’m thinking about is its own reality. It’s not a question of truth, it’s a question of making interesting connections.

144 Hours in Kiev
: selection of images from late evening of February 18, when government forces attacked protesters at Independence Square

RP: That’s the difference between an artist and a journalist or even a scientist. You’re absorbing and you’re finding the connections but you’re not trying to say: this is it.

LM: I think the main answer is this: we can produce different visualizations out of the same data. Everyone views a different idea. It’s like when Monet paints another cathedral, there is not one painting that is correct. He makes a dozen paintings where every painting represents a different color, different atmospheric conditions, to show that in fact there are only the subjective views. So the goal is perhaps not to give people a new interpretation, but rather to challenge what they may be thinking is the correct one.

The Everyday and the Exceptional: 144 Hours in Kiev is a project of Lev Manovich in collaboration with Dr. Mehrdad Yazdani, Alise Tifentale, and Jay Chow.

Glitch Expectations: A Conversation with jonCates

jonCates upcoming keynote, along with the entire Art of the Networked Practice online symposium, March 31 – April 2, 2015, will be free, open and accessible via web-conference from anywhere in the world. Visit the Website to register. The symposium is in collaboration with Furtherfield.

jonCates in Conversation With Randall Packer

we need to humanize ourselves + our systems, to recognize that we are amidst failed futures, broken tools + glitched environments made from media, mediums, mediations + filtered through failures. – jonCates



Describing the world of new media/glitch artist jonCates is a labyrinthine task. You might begin with his spontaneous and inventive word-language actions reminiscent of William Burroughs cut-ups; or the hypnotic .gif animations made from seemingly incongruous, discarded fragments of media; or perhaps his “dirty new media” aesthetic that brings to the surface the aberrations and raw imperfections that are typically verboten in “high-end” digital circles.

jonCates has ironically and quite cleverly co-mingled punk and pirate media with thoughtful theoretical discourses. Based in Chicago, he is Chair of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by day, prowling the sub-culture of the alternative spaces by night. Cates is at the center of a glitch scene in Chicago, now referred to as the “birthplace of dirty new media,” a movement he has in large part catalyzed: spawning the international GLI.TC/H Festivals and other assorted hactivist events and DIY workshops.

In my conversation with jonCates we discuss his unique synthesis of language and media, his critique of technology, and how glitch, in all of its multifarious manifestations, has powered his work, functioning as a force for uniting artists, students, and communities in collective activity.

Image from CLUSTERFUCK ZOO at TRANSFER Gallery, New York

Randall Packer: I want to start off with the way in which you blend everything – in your life, in your work, your practice, theory, communications, writing, teaching –there is a mélange of language, a spirit and playfulness, that all seems to flow together with glitch. Would you say that glitch is a way of life?

jonCates: yeas, in faxxx, well first off, i would like to say thnxxx for giving the work the level of attn you have. i think that my approach to Digital Arts or New Media Art is 01 that takes a systemsapproach, not in a kind of cold cybernetic way but in a more wholistic sense of systems, those systems might be broken, they might be glitched, + they might be imperfect + noisy, + that might be what attracts us or me to those systems. but still they are functional or rather functioning in one way or another systematically. so they are connected to one another as assemblages.

Image from 4RTCR4X0RZ: Hacking Open Together:
New Media Art, Activism and Computer Counter Cultures:

RP: I would say that glitch is a language, spoken by its practitioners, who have co-mingled code with the spoken word, or maybe I should say specific to your work, mixing machine language with human language: accepting the aberration as perhaps more important than the message. Is the aberration the message?

jC: i would def’ly say that there is a poetic embrace of noise && error. my interests are also, continue to be, motivated by the connections between Noise Musics + experimental New Media Art. for me this approach to noise or noisiness, or dirt, or dirtiness, is a way to foreground as you say, an aberrance or perversion of normative msg or what we might perceive to be logical reasoning. b/c there is a poetics to that obviously. ppl who inspired me most directly in that manner would be Netochka Nezvanova, who did this comingling of functional code w/ highly politicized + poetic language.

Image from Furtherfield:

RP: So is glitch an act of undermining the status quo of our relationship to technology?

jC: it certainly can be. i think that there was mayhaps a time recently in witch glitch works were more directly mobilizing that kind of critical stance. but glitch is also folded into aesthetics that are also highly popular so there’s a popularity to the glitch aesthetic which would undermine an argument for saying it is exclusively resistant or exclusively political. it’s just impure.

Image from the tumblr:

RP: I see many resonances with avant-garde figures both in art and in technology, such as Dick Higgins, for example, in his concept of intermedia. The idea of closing the gap between art and life, media and things, and in your case between language and machine language, art and theory, or as Dick Higgins might have said: art and everything else.

jC: the discourse on art/life, on performance, performance art, those were topics i studied when I was younger: thinking about how technologies that we use are all social. they’re techno-social. we live inna techno-social culture. these technologies are also socially performed, + that means that there are these performative aspects. for instance there is a corporate performance of cleanliness + purity. + then there is the performance of everyday life that we’re all doing all the time w/ all of our technologies. so, we’re making them human, in the sense that we are making them part of our lives.

Image from “2012: Year of the GLI.TC/H panel” at SXSW Interactive:

RP: In regards to your idea of “dirty new media,” my response is that the dirtiness implies there is a human quality in new media, that it is not perfect, it’s not sterile, it’s not removed from real life, but it contains its imperfections, it’s impurities, in a way, it’s organic qualities, that get closer to our “wet” lives, rather than our binary ones.

jC: abs’ly! that’s abs’ly a part of the goal in terms of using this term, Dirty New Media OR d1Ɍ+y̶ ̶N̶3WWW_M3DI∆, to foreground all those faxxx. but also that there is a non-neutrality of techno-social artifacts + contexts, that our technologies are not neutral, also that they are embedded, they are part of our lives, + that embeddedness has the word bed in there, we are in bed w/ them also, so they’re embedded in ways that are complex. they are not sterile, they’re imperfect, they are not clean, b/c they exist in the world, which is also imperfect. + so, i do believe that d1Ɍ+y̶ ̶N̶3WWW_M3DI∆ as a way of lyfe + as an approach to artmaking is a way of foregrounding these faxxx, these realities, of our lived exxxperiences, + acknowledging how situated we all are w/ all of these systems, + artifacts that we have made, unmade && remade together.

Image from the exhibition:

RP: A lot of people at first glance might look at your work and think that it has been completely usurped by machine language, by a kind of technological sensibility. And so, I am wondering in view of this convergence between human language and machine language the question then might become: where does the machine end and the artist begin.

jC: that’s a gr8 question… well, the machine world is machined by us out of the world + we have literally machined the world. it’s our world, in the sense that we have crafted it. + we’re constantly uncrafting && re-crafting it. it produces errors, mistakes, breakdowns, glitches, noise, + from a Computer Science perspective, what you would want to do would be debugging + refining. but from a d1Ɍ+y̶ ̶N̶3WWW_M3DI∆ perspective, what you might want to be doing is “rebugging,” && pushing different aspects of the machinewwwhirlds to see their thresholds, exxxperiment, + play.

Image from the tumblr:

RP: Ultimately there is a playfulness that I think undermines the dystopic view that we sometimes have towards technology. jC: i rly hope that is the case. that’s constantly a goal that i am working on. there are those in my immediate community, + in Glitch Art communities in general, who i am also responding to, who are in fact dystopic, && who are also Discordians, + who are intentionally exploring Chaos Majik or who have aspirations to Kaos Magick, + those kinds of Discordian approaches. && that’s not my intent.

RP: I like the way that you counter the dystopic questions that you get, with an even greater barrage of glitch. For example, there is a comment that Sterling Crispin made when he said: “the glitch/noise fetish is an inversion of humanity & symbolic embrace of death & rampant infectious nihilism.” OK… And your response was:

“thnxxx @sterlingcrispin, my work is an axxxual process of: #glitch #fetish #noise #dirty #newmedia from a #humanist #perspective.”

jC: (laughs) yea, i thought that was funny. i took his comment vry srsly && vry pointedly + it motivated me to write an essay, which is up on the GL1TCH.US Unstable Book for Unstable Media that i am constantly working on. he uses keywords that i am connected to + that have motivated me. he was using fetish, but he was using it in a negatively valenced way + i wanted to reclaim fetish && say, yea, of course fetish is part of what i do b/c fetish is punk + its part of “originary” punk from the SEX shop run by Malcolm McLaren + Vivian Westwood. so, yea, of course, fetish is in my work, but its in this way that’s consistent w/ my art/life inna way that’s dirty, in the sense of being impure, but also (hopefully) sexxxy && exxxciting!

Image from the tumblr:

RP: Maybe counter to the world that we live in today with our corporate environment, in which the technology companies encourage a fetish with the slick, clean design of technology. What you have done, is through the construction of a language and a world that you have created, you’ve attempted to break that down and show us what our relationship to technology could be and perhaps should be.

jC: thnxYou! abs’ly! + openUp possibilities, potentialities for ppl, as well as for myself, but also for a community that can mobilize around these approaches, these ideas. it’s counter-intuitive to the rampant, hyper-individualism that lays waste to so much effort that emerges from group practices, communities, to shared or Open Source cultures. this idea of building community, building tools + systems, && sharing those tools + systems w/in the community so that the community can org around all of that + then share work && work goes back out into the communities, to keep it alive. i think i just sketched out a pedagogy! 🙂

Image from ↘↘↘sǝʇɐɔuoظ ʎq ʇɹɐ ǝןqɐʇsun uɐ ɹoɟ ʞooq ǝןqɐʇsun uɐ ˙˙˙ sn˙ɥɔʇ1ןb

RP: It’s a wonder to me how you balance your personal, artistic and academic life.

jC: it’s a healthy friction for me, it gives me inspiration to work outside of the institution, to work in bars, clubs, DIY/DIT spaces, alternative spaces, it’s a good, healthy dynamic for me. in glitch communities there’s a lot of sharing of technique, + a lot of open sourcing or at least sharing of approaches + practices. so that can have the effect of people learning to reproduce certain styles, or certain aesthetics. but a way to not be stuck on repetition is to focus on glitch as a form of surprise + as a way of glitching ppl’s exxxpectations.

Image from The Breath of Charybdis curated by Amelia Ishmael:

jonCates has several current projects, including the online publication of “Dirty New Media: Hyperthreaded @ GLI.TC/H 2012” by jonCates and Shawne Michaelain Holloway (2014). For more information, visit his Website.

Wrong Ways Prevail. A Conversation with Nick Briz, Paul Hertz, and Jon Satrom

“A glitch is more than an error: It is a rupture in our collective techno-hypnosis, a herald of underlying realities.” – Paul Hertz

If you haven’t heard about Chicago glitch, you haven’t been paying attention to all the “noise” emanating from the Windy City. The self-proclaimed “dirty new media” crowd in Chicago has captured the imagination of artists around the world with their funky (as in Chicago blues), punk-inspired disruptions and hacked creations. As of this writing, glitChicago: An Exhibition of Chicago Glitch Art at the Ukranian Institute of Modern Art is about to close after an impressive two-month run, with works, performances, and discussions involving 22 artists heralding from Chicago and beyond.

While glitch may have a raw, subversive, outlier sensibility, it has also catalyzed a cohesive and collaborative group of artists that has organized an impressive array of community-based conferences, DIY workshops, exhibitions, and spontaneous happenings within the local media culture over the past five years. Ironically, the Chicago high-art academy is also a co-conspirator, as many of the glitch artists are based at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has become the de facto experimental laboratory for the study and practice of glitch.

I spoke via web-conference with the show’s main organizer, artist and historian Paul Hertz, along with two of the artists and co-organizers, Nick Briz and Jon Satrom, in a collective effort to unpack the glitch phenomenon.

clockwise from upper left: Randall Packer, Jon Satrom, Paul Hertz, Nick Briz
clockwise from upper left: Randall Packer, Jon Satrom, Paul Hertz, Nick Briz.

Randall Packer: Nice to meet everyone in the third space. I am going to begin with Paul because you were primarily responsible for organizing glitChicago. There are many artists in the show who do not reside in Chicago. Is the work intended to demonstrate Chicago glitch tendencies and influences, or perhaps to situate Chicago as a spiritual home of glitch, like say Chicago blues?

Paul Hertz: I think the latter to some extent, but it’s also a joke about location in a networked society.

RP: From the perspective of being outside of Chicago, I can’t think of another place in the world right now that has a more cohesive community of artists working together, building things together, breaking things together, it’s quite an extraordinary moment in time in Chicago. So my question is: how much diversity, difference of opinion, even polemical positioning is there between the artists who are part of the glitch community.

PH: He wants us to wash our underwear!

Nick Briz: I’m glad it looks so cohesive on the outside, there is disagreement, but it’s a respectful community kind of disagreement.

RP: Nick, as the author of the Glitch Codec Tutorial, in which you describe a method of making glitch, is the idea of a “glitch tutorial” perhaps contradictory to glitch as accident, mistake or rupture?

Performance / lecture by Nick Briz
Performance / lecture by Nick Briz

NB: No, I think it’s the most appropriate format, because it’s not a glitch tutorial, it’s a glitch art tutorial and that’s an important distinction for me. Glitch is this unexpected occurrence within a system that we come to with a certain set of expectations, and a glitch is when those expectations are broken. Glitch art is when that happens intentionally. For me, this is a personal thing. What’s really special about glitch art as a practice are the realizations you come to when you instigate those moments, the political potential for drawing certain connections, for exposing certain invisible politics within a system. That happens in process. So to produce a tutorial is not only, technically, how you produce glitches for your work, but also for people to have those realizations themselves, really experiencing glitches.

RP: So, how does that relate to the idea of intentionality, accident, and indeterminacy in glitch. Is there a right or a wrong way of doing glitch?

Jon Satrom: No, I don’t think there is a right way to do the wrong thing. I think Nick said it in his performance: “do it wrong the right way.”

NB: Do it wrong, but also doing it wrong. As in doing it wrong is the way that you do it. And then I quoted you, Jon: “there are no right ways to provoke the glitch, only the wrong ways prevail.”

JS: I think the right way to do it wrong is to always cycle back or “level up” or go “meta” to a point where you are able to view what you are doing as a structure so that you can then glitch it again.

PH: Once you have a formula though, in a sense, you’ve captured something, but it is no longer glitching when you start saying that there is a right way and a wrong way.

RP: I am curious about this problem of glitch as style, glitch as genre, glitch as a pre-determined method. It seems there is a need to avoid stylization, avoid the predictable, to avoid the preset. So it does seem as though there are boundaries to glitch, there is an area where you don’t want to go.

JS: I feel like everything is fair game.

PH: There were places we had already gone where we weren’t likely to go again and so you could say farewell to jpeg glitching, farewell to png glitching, jpeg2 glitching, to datamoshing. I have argued that those are more like tools that we have and it’s about the new technologies. Going into the show I was quite prepared actually to say that glitch is now art historical, that’s why I was doing the show. But I was surprised at how lively the subculture is, how lively the artists are who have gone on to do new things. I think glitch belongs in many ways to an earlier tradition of noise, and in that sense, it has a history, it has a future in all kinds of directions.

Paul Hertz, Dogs 001 (Foster Avenue Beach, Chicago), digital print, 2013 (from t
Paul Hertz, Dogs 001 (Foster Avenue Beach, Chicago),
digital print, 2013 (from the series Glitch Nation)

RP: The idea of history seems like a dark cloud that hangs over the practice of glitch, to avoid becoming rigid or formed. In regard to the roundtable discussion you just had, Paul asked the question: “once we induct glitch art into art history, is glitch art dead?” What was the outcome of this discussion? Is glitch as we know it history, has it already become part of the art-historical discourse?

PH: We did shift the conversation a little and started by talking about glitch as having a memory and glitch as having a potential future. And I think we sidestepped the history question by and large. But it was stated by a number of people, including Curt Cloninger in his essay for the show that as long as there are new technologies, there are going to be new glitches.

RP: So is there a reason why the historical question was avoided?

PH: I think it became uninteresting as time went on. We’re having so much fun just doing it, it doesn’t seem like such a serious question. It seems like a question an art historian would ask.

RP: But Paul, you’re an art historian!

PH: We all got around to being artists again.

JS: I think that when you look at history as a rigid structure and if you take a glitch perspective towards a rigid structure you’re looking at it as something that isn’t as static as may come across. Histories are presented in different ways, different agendas, different people, and I think it’s more interesting to consider our job as glitch artists to create structures that are radically inclusive, and experimental, and have enough space for agency, and individuality moving forward, rather than considering whether or not it is dead.

RP: Returning to the glitChicago show, which aspired to the inclusive, open source, community-based, DIY nature of glitch: Nick, you’re project is called 0p3nr3p0

0P3NR3P0.NET .gif logo

NB: It’s pronounced “open repo,” short for open repository.

RP: How does this project involve the local community as well as expand itself through the network to engage a more globally social reach?

NB: 0p3nr3p0 is at the moment a project that myself and Joseph Yolk Chiocchi maintain, an unfiltered, open port for uploading glitch art. It was an offspring of the GLI.TC/H conferences in 2010, 2011, and 2012 in Chicago. It was a result of our paranoia to be radically inclusive as a conference. So we didn’t do a call for works that last time, instead what we did was a call for threads, which is we tried to carve out spaces for other people to bring in certain conversations. And while we showed and exhibited work in the evening, all that work as best as we could was actually the result of those communities coming together. There is only so much space, there are only so many people who could show, but there are a lot of people online who we could recognize and include and so 0p3nr3p0 would become that back door entrance to the physical exhibition via the network.

RP: It seems to me that there is something about the nature of glitch that encourages democratization and inclusivity in terms of the accessibility of its practice and the techniques involved.

JS: It comes back to social structure. One way to get around the hierarchies of a social structure is to try and present things in a more populist, more open, more democratized way.

PH: There is also this transgressive aspect to glitch. Glitch itself represents a rupture, instability, of images and media. And that instability has an ideological function, as Nick is very careful to point out in the Glitch Codec Tutorial. If we are transgressing both the technology and exposing the ideology, there are reasons for us to want to expand that kind of rupture to online communities.

RP: I spoke with jonCates in an earlier interview for Hyperallergic about dirty new media. I would like to get your perspectives. Jon (Satrom), it seems like your work particularly reflects this idea as a reaction against the clean, glossy, polish of technology, a reaction against the fetish of the technological object.

Jon Satrom’s Cracked iPads
Jon Satrom’s Cracked iPads

JS: Yes, it is a reaction to the sleek, brushed metal of new technology. When I think of dirty new media in terms of Chicago, there is an organic quality to it, literally you can think about dirt. This dirty style: it’s the grit, it’s the rust, it’s the realization of a false promise of technology that many of us just accept and are fine with. We’re purchasing things that are broken and need updates, and yet our agency of not being part of these updates has been stripped from us. Things are changing under our feet all the time. With dirty new media, you don’t bother hiding the cords, you don’t bother sweeping up, there’s a sense of realism to it, there’s the grit, and there is also a kind of a comfort in that. It’s not trying to hide behind these mirrored surfaces.

RP: Perhaps it’s a critique of our relationship with technology in terms of humanizing that relationship.

NB: Maybe trying to take agency back in that relationship. In the computer industry, a very specific relationship has been imposed, we’re told how we’re supposed to use these things, both as consumers and as producers. As consumers we’re told this is what you are supposed to do with your technology, to have a kind of reverence for technology. Dirty new media is an irreverent response to that. And then as producers they’ve imposed a certain relationship. There are “right” ways to do things as programmers, and “right” ways to do things as media artists and dirty new media tends to be kind of punk: how can you finagle the technology. It’s through experimentation that you learn how to do things with these systems. And just like the punk ethic, once you learn those first three chords you can start a band and you’ll learn the rest of them along the way. Once the reverence is defused, and it’s OK to break things and experiment, all these things become possible.


PH: I would also say there is a differentiation in dirty new media between an aesthetic and a capture of instability. There are the pleasures of the glitchy image but at the same time it’s very much about the underlying systems. It seems to me that they play off of one another and there is a certain tension there, and a healthy one.

RP: I believe there is also a tension in glitch in terms of constantly needing to move forward. This leads me to a question about Rosa Menkman, a significant artist and writer in the international glitch community. She’s written some very influential pieces such as The Glitch Moment(um) and the Glitch Studies Manifesto. Her writing critiques this tension while theorizing glitch, putting it into an art-historical perspective, perhaps encouraging its formalization. Is glitch now an actual genre, to be taught in art schools? What’s going on in Chicago seems very healthy because that’s where the locus of glitch is, but what happens when glitch is taught in all the other art schools around the world and everybody is imitating it?

JS: I think it becomes a powerful moment and I think it can be utilized very well in education, just in terms of giving students agency to break something and learn about its guts.

NB: But are you asking, what if glitch becomes a kind of Adobe Photoshop class? Here’s how you reproduce that exact artifact? Because that would be cool in its own sort of way if it happens, but I wouldn’t necessarily call that glitch art. You can perhaps draw a line between glitch artifacts and certain aesthetics and then glitch as a process, or as an ethic, as a practice, as an impetus for triggering these unexpected moments within systems for the plethora of reasons that artists like to do that. But glitch is not necessarily wedded to any particular aesthetic. Sure, if you search glitch art on Google, you get certain things that look the same, but that’s just because that’s what glitch art happens to look like now. But as technology and as systems change, and as the methods for exploiting those systems change, it will look, sound, taste, feel, and augment in totally different ways.

RP: So how do you feel about datamoshing, for example, which is working its way out into popular culture, where mainstream musicians, media artists are using glitch techniques straight out of the book.

Kanye West, Wecome to Heartbreak, from Storify’s A Glitch Art Primer
Kanye West, Wecome to Heartbreak, from Storify’s A Glitch Art Primer

PH: Kanye West’s Welcome to Heartbreak is the example most people think of. Datamoshing is used as a preset of a certain kind, which is OK, but it also means those problems were already solved. We know if we “hit” the header of a jpeg there are all kinds of things we can do. Once you go through the process, then it’s another effects module in a certain sense. But there is a point in which it’s all a surprise. Datamoshing is no longer a surprise for us, but it’s probably a surprise for nationwide television audiences. And even for them it’s going to eventually cease to be a surprise.

RP: Then what do you do in Chicago to stay on the edge, when everybody is practicing glitch?

NB: You can only stay on the edge if everybody is practicing glitch. The Kanye West example is a beautiful moment as initially I was upset because I felt co-opted, the pop culture aesthetic is going to destroy it. A lot of folks had that sort of sentiment and rhetoric. But the reality is that people are introduced to the aesthetic and look of glitch through that video and then are curious to know how to do that and then they fall down that rabbit hole. So more people join the conversation and like any conversation it gets better when more people join and there is more to talk about. And when everybody knows how to bend a jpeg, it means the general literacy level is up, the glitch literacy level is up. You can’t get into more complicated concepts, the next chapter, until everybody can have that conversation.

PH: And on the aesthetic side, it broadens the lexicons that people have to think about images, to think about media. It means that the aesthetics of punk, the aesthetics of noise creep in as something we should get used to. The popularization of glitch makes it possible to say, yes, we’re going to learn to live with the instability of technology, because we have to.

Stallio, Cover art for On the DLL
Stallio, Cover art for On the DLL

glitChicago: An Exhibition of Chicago Glitch Art, Ukranian Institute of Modern Art, with works by: Melissa Barron, Benjamin Berg aka Stallio, Nick Briz, jonCates, ChannelTWo, Joseph Yolk Chiocchi, Curt Cloninger, James Connolly, Kyle Evans, Paul Hertz, shawné michaelain Holloway, Nick Kegeyan, Jeff Kolar, A. Bill Miller, Pox Party, Rob Ray, Antonio Roberts, Alfredo Salazar-Caro, Jon Satrom, Lisa Slodki, Jason Soliday, Ben Syverson, I “heart” Presets, and OP3NR3PO.

Randall Packer is an artist, educator, and writer who critiques the unfolding media culture from his underground studio bunker in Washington, DC. Follow him at Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge.