What rights in Copyright? Interview with artist Antonio Roberts

Antonio Roberts is a digital artist based in Birmingham. In 2011 he has completed his Masters level studies in Digital Arts in Performance at Birmingham City University. His artwork focuses on the errors and glitches generated by digital technology. An underlying theme of his work is open source software and collaborative practices. His video work has been screened in Chicago, Illinois, at GLI.TC/H, Notacon in Cleaveland, Ohio, and Newcastle Borough Museum and Art Gallery, amongst other places.

In October 2015 he opened his first solo exhibition, Permission Taken, at Birmingham Open Media and in these weeks is taking part to “Jerwood Encounters: Common Property” (15th January – 21st February 2016, Jerwood Visual Arts), a group show curated by Hannah Pierce focused on the limits of Copyright when it’s about visual arts, with two projects: the installation “Transformative Use” and a collection of four works, “I Disappear”, “Blurred Lines”, “My Sweet Lord” and “Ice Ice Baby”.

Filippo Lorenzin: You’ve been always interested in how corporate and industrial logics affect daily life and art. How did you get interested in these questions?

Antonio Roberts: It’s a by-product of my interest in open source software and free culture, something which I’ve been interested in from as early as 2002 but only started taking seriously around 2007. One of the main motivators of this was my reaction to Adobe Photoshop and its influence on creative practices. My experience of studying Multimedia Graphics – and I’m sure the same can be said for Graphic Design, Illustration and any creative practice – was that it seemed more like an exercise in how to use Adobe products, not how to be creative with tools. It felt like Adobe software had gone from being one of the many tools for creating art to the art in itself. This corporate sponsorship of course has many implications for how we create and disseminate art. It poses restrictions and dictates who and who cannot create art.

View of 'Permission Taken' exhibition

View of “Permission Taken” exhibition

FL: Copyright issues are one of the main focuses of your research and this fascinates me because of your age. You (as me, by the way) have experienced probably the most troublesome period for Copyright systems, with the wide spread of p2p networking and remixing approaches to cultural industry products. What do you think?

AR: I’m inclined to agree. I’ve had access to the internet since I was around 14 years old and in that time I’ve seen the internet and culture as a whole change drastically. For me the rise and fall of Napster, spearheaded by Metallica’s very public outcry against it, signalled the beginning of the end of the free internet that I had only known for not even a year.

Around that time Digital Rights Management (DRM) became a hot topic. The entertainment industry saw it (and suing everyone) as the only way to protect their property and so kept bundling DRM with their products, which often at times resulted in a broken experience for the user. One example that springs to mind was the attempt to make CDs unreadable by computers (and so prevent ripping), by adding in corrupted data at the beginning of CD. Whilst it did temporarily stop people to using it on computers – you could simply use a marker pen to circumvent it – it also prevented some CD players from using the CD and in general was obtrusive. This cat and mouse game is still going on to the point where simply attempting to bypass DRM to watch/listen to something that you have purchased, can be an illegal act.

As mentioned before, It wasn’t until around 2007 that I began to reconsider how Copyright affected my work. By this time I saw that there was more weight being pushed behind open source software, free culture and things like the Creative Commons licences, and so I started to get involved myself. The first stage was ditching all proprietary software (which I did in 2009) and then licensing my work under Creative Commons licences.

'Copy Bomb', 2015“Copy Bomb”, 2015

FL: “Jerwood Encounters: Common Property”, curated by Hannah Pierce, is a group show that seeks to investigate the new borders of Copyright, especially in regard of art. How would you define the state of these questions in UK?

AR: I think Copyright as a whole is in a terrible state. As Cory Doctorow suggests in the exhibition programme (which is in itself an excerpt from his book “Information Doesn’t want to be Free”) Copyright as we know it isn’t written for artists or any individual. Its verbose terms and complexities cannot be understood and are probably not even read by most of us. They are written for other lawyers. If, in order to go about our creative business, we are expected to read and understand the terms and conditions and law – it is estimated that it would take 76 days to read all of the Ts and Cs of websites we use – what time do we have to be creative?

FL: What’s your point of view, from your position as an artist?

AR: I think Copyright is a mess because it tries to dictate how we should be creative. Creativity is free-flowing. Copyright, and its cousins patents and trademarks, justify their existence by saying that these restrictions encourage innovative new ideas but what they do is just stop us.

'Dead Copyright', 2015“Dead Copyright”, 2015

FL: “Dead Copyright” reminds me some reflections by Walter Benjamin on the shock of the city, about how advertising assaults our senses 24/7 with louder and louder messages – until it reaches a state of entropy. At this stage the message isn’t actually more important than the media itself, quoting Marshall McLuhan, and all the brands create a single, colourful ambient. How much this reality has been voluntarily planned by corporations, in your own opinion?

AR: I think it’s all completely planned. The more pervasive the advertising becomes the more we accept it as part of our every day life and culture. On the other side this does mean that they have to try ever more invasive methods to get our attention. Think about the uproar over the Coca Cola van at Christmas, or Cadbury’s at Easter. They have usurped the original holidays and are more important.

FL: The reduction of brands to colorful simple shapes created something that visually reminds some of op art works, a movement that experimented with visual perceptions and that has been an important inspiration for fashion and design. I was just wondering what you think of this similarity: is there any real connection between your work and those works?

AR: Yes, certainly and this comes through with my use of glitch art techniques. In glitch art we’re often trying to find signal in the noise, and I find that many successful glitch art works (however you define successful) have some resemblance to the original yet are transformed and destroyed in way.

'Transformative Use', 2015“Transformative Use” 2015

FL: With “Transformative Use” you use shapes that recall not just brands, but a wider imagery. It’s as if you’re focusing on other targets: can I ask you how did you get interested in this new research?

AR: I recalled all that I had learnt during my residency at University of Birmingham and during the CopyrightX course. From this I paid particular focus to the Sonny Bono act from 1998. This effectively extended the Copyright terms so that it won’t be until 2023 until works from 1923 begin to enter the Public Domain. This act is sometimes called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, which led me to use them as a focus point for the work. Mickey Mouse should, by now, be in the Public Domain but they’ve fought to stop this in order to “protect” their brand.

People in favour of long or perpetual Copyright terms usually point to it allowing artists to reap the benefits of creating work. In truth, however, only a very small percentage of works made will be profitable in the future. To put it another way, how many books published today will see reprints? I don’t have any official statistics, but I know it would be a small percentage. So, extended Copyright terms only really benefit the small percentage of artists or publishers, whilst harming everyone else.

FL: What does it mean to deal with corporate imagery within such a chaotic and in a somewhat charming ambience? I mean, what remains a logo or a character when it gets lost within this borderless blob? Are the corporations losing their borders too, maybe?

AR: Yes.

FL: As discussed before, “Transformative Use” has been inspired by two previous projects: do you think that in future you’ll make a work that will update for the fourth time these reflections of yours?

AR: Most certainly yes. “Permission Taken” will be having an iteration at the University of Birmingham in March 2016 and will feature new and existing work. Aside from this I will continue to work with found materials but with a more explicit intention to provoke discussion around Copyright.

Digital Iconoclasm: Antonio Roberts interviewed by Nathan Jones


First things first, Antonio Robert is a great guy. He is literally the happiest and most lively artist I’ve ever worked with, his online postings contribute in a full and proper way to both digital art and open source code communities, and he finds space in his wetware for the feedership of cats. He has top-notch glitch credentials, and is hooked into some important ideas about where that field is going – being the most active, if not only ‘glitch artist’ currently showing work in the UK. His work is rooted in glitch aesthetics and ideas, but constantly pushing at its edges. He’s performed and presented at Tate Modern, Databit.me in Arles, France, glitChicago, and he has his first solo show coming up at BOM (Birmingham Open Media) later this year.

Beside his happiness and energy, the first thing you notice about Antonio is that he has this geeky thing going on, like some kind of 90s Spielbergesque computer wizz – I’m sure I heard him call his computer ‘baby’ once as he goded it into action – but when he came to perform as part of our Syndrome programme in Liverpool, he literally ripped his tee-shirt off in the middle of the room, just as he was about to start.

He is the embodiment, in many ways, of the kind of volatility and fun in lots of great glitch art. I hooked up with Antonio online, where we spoke about glitch, and how it relates to his new iconoclastic work on copyright.


NJ: So… first question… You’re kinda out on your own in the UK it seems, as ‘the’ representative of the Glitch Art movement. I can see that that has been really great for you, for example with trips to Chicago etc… but does it also feel a little lonely?!

Antonio: Yeah, definitely. Ever since I helped bring the GLI.TC/H event to the UK/Birmingham in 2011 I’ve been getting questions about giltch art. I’m happy to impart my knowledge and experience to anyone that’s curious and my usual response is “you can do it too!”. That is, if you want to do glitch art there are so many tutorials about it. And, if you want there to be more events focused on glitch art all you need is an idea and some motivation.

NJ: There’s certainly an appetite for work which can reveal the systems underlying digital production – which is what good glitch art does. Do you think it is the term itself which is beginning to feel dated – as a result of an appropriation of its aesthetics? So fewer and fewer artists use this term now because its central modes are being used in a non-critical basis.

Antonio: I think it has become a bit dated through appropriation. That isn’t to say that glitch art has to be a specific thing and made using community-approved techniques, but now I see art that is just noisy or digital-looking that is described as glitch art.

NJ: I want to draw attention to some works of yours – or others – which seek out new (or different) systems which which to destructively engage. Because I think your work is still very much exploring and finding new territories opening up with this trope, while remaining within the ‘glitch’ genre. The work you made for the EVP website, “spɛl ænd spik:” modulated the construction of speech with phonemes. Where does the error enter into this, and do you consider it a departure from your work previous?

Antonio: It’s definitely a departure in terms of aesthetics.

NJ: It is not multicoloured!

Antonio: Hahah yeah. Even my clothes are plain. I wanted the focus to shift from the aesthetics of glitch. Glitch art incorporates many themes including randomness, error, helplessness, the unexpected, machine driven operations. And for the EVP piece I wanted to focus on randomness. I think the error lies in the perceptions of the viewer. When it was exhibited publicly at the Next Wave Exhibition at the RBSA many people thought that it was my voice and, at times, they could hear English words, so, the thing “glitching”, or experiencing an error in this case is their perceptions.

NJ: The tension between the random sounds and the possibility of speech is certainly unsettling.

Antonio: Then there’s the fact that those random sounds are coming from a human image… Digital and “New Media” art is still a new thing for many audiences and institutions, so confusion or bafflement is to be expected. I just hope that this then turns into curiosity. I hope that audiences then begin to ask questions about what it is they’re seeing and how it fits into their ideas about art, creativity and everything else.

NJ: There is something which Bifo Berardi says in “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance”, where he is noting how ‘political decision has been replaced by techno-linguistic automatisms’, and it seems like ‘glitch’ art has a role to play here which is analogous to the one he assigns poetry in this book. Do you think that the kind of work you do with error is innately political or have revolutionary potential in this way?

Antonio: There is the overtly political work that I have made in the past. For example, Copyright Atrophy, which uses scripts and programs to challenge notions of ownership and copyright, was made specifically to be challenging, as was the work What Revolution. Another theme that interests me is copyright and free culture. And it’s always been there in my work, just not the core message. Now, for example, there is also the work about copyright which is currently being developed (as Archive Remix) as part of my residency at the University of Birmingham. It fits a long tradition of artists remixing artworks and appropriating culture. I’m hoping to bring about a change in attitudes at the university through my work with them.

                                     from Copyright Atrophy, Antonio Roberts

                                           from What Revolution, Antonio Roberts

NJ: Just looking at the work you’re doing at University of Birmingham, it seems to deal with the same theme as Copyright Atrophy, which is a kind of horizon of ownership – which relates also to the horizon of meaning… between meaning and meaninglessness, between owned and apprpriated. So there is a point in the logo-gifs of Copyright Atrophy, and the Archive Remix animations, where they are operating simultaneously as a symbol, or original – and as a new, catachrestic symbol for something yet to be defined. I’m taking the term catachresis here from the way Lee Edelman uses it in his literary and cultural criticism such as No Future, to describe how ‘misuse’ of given words leads to an opening up for heretofore undiscovered territory – also similar to what Rosa Menkman describes as Glitchspeak.

Antonio: Indeed. Although in Copyright Atrophy I am “destroying” the logos, in some way I’m evolving them too. I want to show that a piece of artwork is never truly finished as it may be reinterpreted and remixed by people, and also that we should let this natural evolution happen. Another example to illustrate this evolution is Comic Sans Must DIe.

Yes, I’m destroying each glyph of Comic Sans, but some frames of that might make a good new typeface in itself. The short animations I’m making for Archive Remix are, at the moment, acting as case studies that I will take to the university to show good things can happen when you have more liberal licensing on images. As you may have seen, I also do a version of the animations with the copyrighted material censored. I want to show the perils of censoring. So underneath each “new” gif is one with the copyrighted material blacked out. Imagine if DJ Shadow’s album Entroducing only had works that had been cleared for usage!

NJ: They are sad images, for sure. There is a melancholy at work here, which makes me think of the ‘death’ of the work, being the moment it has to stop evolving.

Antonio: Indeed.

NJ: I feel that way sometimes when I perform a poem, or even read it out to someone on the phone, that somehow its limitations have been reached as potential. Do you think it’s this attitude of a work always being open to interpretation which creates an exit from the inevitably melancholy ending of a completed artwork? I guess that’s one reason why an open platform for the code you produce is attractive.

Antonio: I can see the performance or exhibiting of an artwork as limiting because what has to be presented is something finished. However, sometimes I see this as a chance to exhibit one iteration of the work. It’s always open to myself or others to remake or build on from. There have been people that have built on the code and programs that I make and I’m thankful for this. The best example of this was the method I created for generating jpgs from random data, which was in itself inspired by HEADer Remix by Ted Davis. David Schaffer greatly extended this into his own tool and Holger Ballweg ported the code into SuperCollider. If any code I write inspires others who am I to stop them from using or building on it?

NJ: A year or so ago, I proposed that art forgery should be legalised. I feel, along with many others, that the ‘art market’ has very little to do with the community of artists most worthy of admiration and respect. But perhaps it is ownership itself that is the problem. What is there in ownership ‘authorship’ which is valuable to retain? Attribution, I suppose – but what value in attribution?

Antonio: Yes, attribution is the important thing. All people should rightfully own the thing that they make. But problems arise because they then want to own everything that comes after it. So yes, remixes, reinterpretations are important and should be allowed, just as long as the original author is attributed for their work. It’s all a confusing and scary time for artists and the art world. Everyone’s wondering how they can make money and sustain their practice whilst still reaching as many people as possible. I hope that through my work I can show that these new approaches (open source, free culture, liberal licensing etc) can yield positive results and won’t necessarily result in the loss of earnings or opportunities.

NJ: It’s kind of ironic though, isn’t it, that digital artists like yourself who actively question and disrupt the basis of the apparently ‘infinite flows’ of digital content, finance… are part of a scene whose infrastructure itself is crumbling, and who generally suffer a very real stress and insecurity as a result. This is exacerbated as well by the kind of funding environment which might be offsetting this instability somewhat, but where digital artists are co-opted ecosystem of ‘digital economy’ — rather than a ‘cultural economy’ — itself formed around ideas of efficiency, and hence ‘labour savings’? Do you think this might actually be harmful?

Antonio: Yes, I think it’s dangerous focusing just on digital economy and making everything digital. Sure, it’s exciting that technology brings us all of these opportunities, but it leaves behind everyone that doesn’t work in that way.

NJ: Finally, on this subject, I thought you might like to highlight some contemporary work which influences you, which comes from outside the ‘digital art’ scene (if this is even possible!) and thus contributes to the ecosystem of digital innovation, in more traditional forms.

Antonio: One of my influences was Arturo Herrea’s 2007 exhibition at the Ikon Gallery. I loved the way there was order in the chaos. Outside of that it’s really difficult to find examples of influential work that isn’t in some way digital. A lot of the live performance, sculpture and video work that inspires me is often not only made using digital technology – 3D printing, projection etc – but is about digital and internet culture.

You can follow Antonio on



and https://twitter.com/hellocatfood

and Nathan is at https://twitter.com/nathmercy

The Performance of Infrastructure: Review of Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance by Nathaniel Stern

Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance by Nathaniel Stern. ISBN 978-1-78024-009-1 (printed publication), Gylphi Limited, Canterbury, UK, 2013. 291 pp., 41 Colour Stills. 

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to sit in on a talk given by Simon Penny on May 6th 2014 at the University of Exeter. Penny, not unlike Nathaniel Stern, is best known for his praxis, writing and teaching on interactive (and robotic) installations focusing on issues of embodiment, relationality and materiality. So as unorthodox as its inclusion is to start off a review, Penny’s reflections are pertinent here (in this case, Penny’s famous installations Fugitive (1997) and Traces (1999) [1].

The purpose of Fugitive and Traces (if you can say they had one) sought to ‘embody’ virtual reality through multi-camera infra-red sensors, visual models and real-time movements. At that time, Penny’s unique theoretical take was to distance human-computer interaction away from “a system of abstracted and conventionalised signals” to where the user would “communicate kinesthetically”: instead of investigating the non-human or “inhuman” formal qualities of its medium, or some vague VR future that leaves the body behind, the system itself would “come closer to the native sensibilities of the human.” (Penny) [2]

In his Exeter talk, Penny momentarily reflected on a weird and altogether disturbing seventeen year feedback loop. The loop in question relates to how, in 2014, Penny’s early avant-garde ideas and theoretical ambitions have largely been desecrated by their replication in big business. With regard to Traces, Penny cited Microsoft’s Kinect as being the most salient example of this desecration: Kinect’s technology – marketed for the Xbox console brand – carries within its insidious techniques the ability to also “communicate kine[c]thetically”, but do so within pre-packaged, patented, IP-driven, focus-grouped-out-of-existence, commercial vacuities of gamer experience.

As an early practitioner and developer of these technologies, Penny was somewhat visibly infuriated with this, and understandably so. For him, it unintentionally reduced his aesthetic experimentation, philosophical insight, technological futurity and theoretical complexity into consumer speculation for the technology market, commandeering the tech but without the value. It transposed the artistic technological avant-garde necessity of Traces into a flaccid ‘tech-demo’ demonstration of novelty limb flailing and high-end visuals devoid of anything. It was, Penny lamented, “a very weird situation” to be in. Part of that weirdness has to do with the fact that Penny hadn’t done anything especially wrong, because there wasn’t any tangible aesthetic qualities that separated his pioneering work from Microsoft’s effort. Neither had Penny’s work brought financial success with its value intact (because its value wasn’t patentable). Instead technological development had overwritten the aesthetic value of Traces, trading technological obsolescence with aesthetic obsolescence.

Penny’s retroactive predicament is not unique in the history of digital art: for all the visionary seeds of potential in Roy Ascott’s legendary networking project, Terminal Art (1980) we now recognise how those salient characteristics have somehow ended up as Skype or Google Hangouts. Still in the 80s, one might evoke Eduardo Kac’s early videotext works (1985-1986) where visual animated poems were broadcast on the online service exchange platform Minitel (“Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique” or “Interactive medium by digitalizing telephone information” in its French iteration): a proprietary precursor to the World Wide Web [3]. The retroactive weirdness accompanying these developments is something I’ll come back to: suffice to say that what counts is the direction (and sometimes hostile return) of infrastructure, not just as the background collection of assemblages artists rely on to experiment with at any historical moment, but the shifting ecological foundations to which technology emerges, affords, and now overwrites such practices. No-one likes to play devil’s advocate and yet one must ask the question specific to Stern’s text: what, or maybe where, is the tangible point at which ‘art’ becomes historically valued in these works, if that latent aesthetic potential becomes just another market for a series of Silicon Valley, or startup conglomerates?


Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment establishes two first events: not only Stern’s debut publication but also the first of a new series from Gylphi entitled “Arts Future Book” edited by Charlotte Frost, which began in 2013. All quotations are from this text unless otherwise stated.

Stern’s vision in brief: in order to rescue what is philosophically significant about interactive art, he justifies its worth through the primary acknowledgement of embodiment, relational situation, performance and sensation. In return, the usual dominant definitions of interactive art which focus on technological objects, or immaterial cultural representations thereof are secondary to the materiality of bodily movement. Comprehending digital interactive art purely as ‘art + technology’ is a secondary move and a “flawed priority” (6), which is instead underscored by a much deeper engagement, or framing, for how one becomes embodied in the work, as work. “I pose that we forget technology and remember the body” (6) Stern retorts, which is a “situational framework for the experience and practice of being and becoming.” (7). The concepts that are needed to disclose these insights are also identified as emergent.

“Sensible concepts are not only emerging, but emerging emergences: continuously constructed and constituted, re-constructed and re-constituted, through relationships with each other, the body, materiality, and more.” (205)

Interactive Art and Embodiment then, is the critical framework that engages, enriches and captivates the viewer with Stern’s vision, delineating the importance of digital interactive art together with its constitutive philosophy.

One might summarise Stern’s effort with his repeated demand to reclaim the definition of “interactive”. The term itself was a blatantly over-used badge designed to vaguely discern what made ‘new media’ that much newer, or freer than previous modes of consumption. This was quickly hunted out of discursive chatter when everyone realised the novel qualities it offered meant very little and were politically moribund. For Stern however, interactivity is central to the entire position put forward, but only insofar as it engages how a body acts within such a work. This reinvigorated definition of “interactive” reinforces deeper, differing qualities of sensual embodiment that take place in one’s relational engagement. This is to say, how one literally “inter-acts” through moving-feeling-thinking as a material bodily process, and not a technological informational entity which defines, determines or formalises its actions. A digital work might only be insipidly interactive, offering narrow computational potentials, but this importance is found wanting so long as the technology is foregrounded over ones experience of it. Instead ones relationship with technological construction should melt away through the implicit duration of a body that literally “inter-acts” with it. In Stern’s words:

“…most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91)

Chapter 1 details how aesthetic ‘vision’ is understood through this framework, heavily criticising the pervasive disembodiment Stern laments in technical discussions of digital art and the VR playgrounds from the yesteryear of the 90s. Digital Interactive Art has continually suppressed a latent embodied performance that widens the disembodied aesthetic experience towards – following Ridgway and Thrift – a “non-representational experience.” Such experiences take the body as an open corporal process within a situation, which includes, whilst also encompassing, the corporal materiality of non-human computational processes. This is, clearly, designed to oppose any discourse that treats computation and digital culture as some sort of liberating, inane, immaterial phenomenon: to which Stern is absolutely right. Moreover, all of these material processes move in motion with embodied possibilities, to “create spaces in which we experience and practice this body, its agency, and how they might become.” (40) To add some political heft, Stern contrasts how the abuse of interactivity is often peddled towards consumerist choice, determining possibilities, put against artistic navigation that relinquishes control, allowing limitless possibilities. Quoting Erin Manning, Stern values interactive art’s success when it doesn’t just move in relation to human experience, but when humans move *the* relation in experience (Manning, 2009: 64; Stern, 46).

Stern’s second chapter moves straight into a philosophical discussion denoting what he means by an anti-Cartesian, non-representational, or implicit body. Heavily contexualised by a host of process, emergent materialist thinkers (Massumi, Hayles, Barad), Stern concentrates on the trait of performance as the site of body which encapsulates its relationally, emergence and potential. The body is not merely formed in stasis, (what Stern dubs “pre-formed” (62) but is regularly and always gushingly “per-formed” (61) in its movement. Following Kelli Fuery, the kind of interactivity Stern wants to foreground is always there, not a stop-start prop literate to computer interaction, but an effervescent ensemble of “becoming interactive” (Fuery, 2009: 44; Stern, 65). Interactive art is not born from an effect bestowed by a particular medium of art making, but of “making literal the kinds of assemblages we are always a part of.” (65)

David Rokeby - Very Nervous System 1986 - 2004

Chapter three sets out Stern’s account for the implicit body framework: detailing out four areas: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity and relationally.” (91) Chapters four, five and six flesh out this framework with actual practices. Four considers close readings of the aforementioned work of Penny together with Camille Utterback merging the insights gained from the previous chapters. What both artists encapsulate for Stern is that their interventions focus on the embodied activities of material signification: or “the activities of writing with the body” (114) Utterback’s 1999 installation “Textrain” is exemplary to Stern’s argument: notably the act of collecting falling text characters on a screen merges dynamic body movements with poetic disclosure. The productions of these images are always emergent and inscribed within our embodied practices and becomings: that we think with our environment. Five re-contextualises this with insights into works by Scott Scribbes and Mathieu Briand’s interventions in societal norms and environments. Six takes on the role of the body as a dynamic, topological space: most notably as practiced in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Chapter seven I’ll discuss near the conclusion: the last chapter shortly.

Firstly, the good stuff. Interactive Art and Embodiment is probably one of the most sincerest reads I’ve encountered in the field for some time. Partly this is because the book cultivates Stern’s sincerity for his own artistic practice, together with his own philosophical accounts that supplement that vision. His deep understanding of process philosophy is clearly matched by his enthusiastic reassessment of what interactive art purports to achieve and how other artists might have achieved it too. And it’s hard to disagree with Stern’s own position when he cites examples (of his work and others) that clearly delegate the philosophical insights to which he is committed. One highlight is Stern’s take on Scribbes’ Boundary Foundations (1998) and the Screen Series (2002-03) which intervenes and questions the physical and metaphorical boundaries surrounding ourselves and others, by performing its questioning as work. This is a refreshingly earnest text, proving that theory works best not when praxis matches the esoteric fashions of philosophical thinking, but when art provides its own stakes and its own types of thinking-experience which theory sets out to faithfully account and describe. Stern’s theoretical legitimacy is never earned from just digesting, synthesising and applying copious amounts of philosophy, but from the centrality of describing in detail what he thinks the bodily outcomes of interactive art are and what such accounts have to say: even if they significantly question existing philosophical accounts.

Stern leaves the most earnest part of his book towards the end in his final semi-auto-biographical companion chapter called “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)”. This is a snippet of a much larger story, available online and subject to collaboration [4]. Here, Stern recounts or modifies the anxiety inducing experience of being a PhD student and artist, rubbing up alongside the trials of academic rigour, dissertation writing and expected standards. Quite simply, Stern is applying his insights of performative processual experience into the everyday, ordinary experiences faced by most PhD students in this field, and using it to justify a certain writing style and a sense of practice. It’s an enjoyable affair – in large part because it outclasses the dry scholarly tone usually associated with writing ‘academically’, elevating imaginative, illuminating redescriptions for how the experiences of interactive art broadly hang together rather than relying on relentless cynical critique. And most of that is down to Stern’s strong literary metaphorical technique for grounding his vision, perhaps even more effectively than the previous chapters.

Yet earnest experiences aside, there are two problems with Stern’s vision which, in my eyes, leave it flawed. That isn’t a bad thing: all visions are flawed of course. That’s why the similarities between art and philosophy feed our heuristic, academic compulsion to come up with them and debate: well, that and sometimes the most flawed can end up being the most influential. Such flaws only arise in relation to what Stern thinks is valuable in interactive art, and to the extent that the intervention posed may require readdressing. The flaws in question are composed from two different angles, but stem from one objection. The first is philosophical, or at least a problem pre-packaged with relying almost entirely on relational ideas of embodied emergence. The second is more tied to infrastructure and technical expropriation as outlined in Penny’s predicament given from the outset.

In his introduction, Stern makes clear that this is an “art philosophical book” (4), not a philosophy of art as such: only one that “understands art and philosophy as potential practices of one another” (4). Following Brian Massumi, philosophy “tells us the stakes”, whilst “art brings those states to the table” (5), such that the type of art he values and constructs, (digital interactive art) is precisely that which melts away in its interactive encounter when constructed as work. Later on we discover that interactive art “interrupts relationality” (66), making present an “intervention that brings a situated moving-thinking-feeling to a higher power.” (66) Further on, interactive art does something else, when it “intensifies features of […] the ongoing transformation of the ‘living’ body”, and “gifts us with a state to practice being and becoming.” (73) Reflecting on the infamous Bourriaud/Bishop relational aesthetic ruckus a decade ago, Stern outlines how they focus on the explicit body (82) (how we understand ourselves or challenge explicit social/economic positions in the world), whereas artworks which privilege the implicit body have us “encounter how we move, transform, and are (continuous)” (82) in the world. The former takes on the materiality of social relations, the latter (endorsed by Stern) takes on the whole materiality of “embodied relations” (83). And again to reiterate, art operates as “the practice of contemporary philosophies, where we investigate, and further research on, embodiment and relationally together.” (83).

Now, one should admire how Stern blends philosophy and art praxis together precisely by not shoehorning authoritative philosophical accounts into art praxis where they aren’t needed. This works, precisely as the ontology expressed here actively resists such authoritative accounts as well as being cemented with the sort of sincerity with which Stern has such a keen literary grasp. More importantly, Stern cites works which seem to fit the stakes of his ontological conviction perfectly.

However the reliance of process-based philosophy dampens exactly how these works intervene to bring about the values he so desires. The simplest objection comes from asking how Stern might value anything at all, if our entire relational embodiment with the world is constantly in process – or that “[b]odies and matter are change” (220) – and must be always affirmed as such: why should every process and every bodily interaction be affirmed? Moreover why is it art’s place to give primacy to the ontological events of bodily material change?

This is one of the key infrastructural problems that surface, once a theory of art totally subscribes to a process-based ontology, let alone one focusing on embodiment: why should an artist like Stern feel compelled to present an intervention in the first place? If the dominant ontological movement of interactions is a becoming-event, by what standard or eruption should interactive art be said to work on? If, as Stern believes, “the interactive process in interactive work is the ‘work’” (159), it becomes unclear what value interactive artworks are purported to convey, if that process is all there is. To say that embodied processual events make the work “work”, because they underscore our situational intelligibility (or make it effective – so to speak) speaks nothing of what differential criteria should apply to make that aesthetic intervention intelligible. To hazard a guess, the problem is one of articulating how convention exists in a process ontology: because if everything is always emerging as an interactive event of change, the act of rupturing or intervening in convention becomes a real problem. The criteria for valuing these important works is only affirmed it seems, because every process is already affirmed: and if that’s the case you don’t need artists to make an intervention – there is no intervention required, other than the events that already exist, as change in themselves. To put it another way: why should (and how can) a work effectively gift us heightened states of being and becoming, if our entire situational relationship with the world is already situationally related in being and becoming?

I am reminded of Adrian Johnston’s 2001 review of the newly republished English translation of Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit (first published in 1978). Whereas most Foucaultians and Althusserians were disconcertingly vague in pointing out the concrete material conditions for subjectivity and economical production, Laporte boldly contended that the genealogical hypothesis to all modern civilisations was tied to one concrete material condition: the infrastructure of bodily waste management, or, the desire to control and sublimate our need to defecate. In his usual Žižekian repartee, Johnston suggested that Laporte’s bizarre history of modernity implicitly accepted the anti-Cartesian embodiment thesis (that cognition cannot be separated from the actions of the body), but pushed its logic to the end. That for all the affirmative, encompassing, sensual, emergent, potential images embodiment philosophy prefers to agree and discuss, it completely ignores one of our central and basic bodily requirements: to excrete our bodily waste or fecal matter, and remove it from sight and smell (and we don’t need to remind the reader of art’s fascination with this area).

Whilst Johnston’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek, he did happen to put a psychoanalytical finger on the central problem with process based embodiment. That often enough, sincere accounts of embodiment designed to affirmatively depict and encompass implicit environment material engagements leave behind an unacknowledged stain: one which says more about these accounts than their proponents actually do. And it is precisely because Stern focuses on the most aesthetically agreeable areas of bodily engagement in interactive art, that something as habitual and ritualistic as the excretion of digested matter, or the infrastructure of sewage networks exposes that image.

In terms of materiality this is doubly important. Laporte’s intervention brings into conflict two competing performative materialisms which disclose our own bodily relationships with non-human processes (in this case, computational and networked material): the first is Stern’s own account of the material body as some sort of ‘nebulous material’ which is always emergent, lived, relational and thinking with its own engagement in the world of humans and non-humans. The second is Laporte’s material body seen as ‘brutal material’ – an explicit input-output, complex, evolutionary processing machine, strictly determinate and bounded in its biological function. Despite Stern arguing earnestly for the nebulous form, it doesn’t appear to me that he can hold off the brutal form, or at least prevent the latter from antagonising the former. And often enough, this happens because Stern’s accounts of embodiment, and the philosopher’s accounts he relies on, are already meant to be nebulous in themselves.

This logic unravels by chapter seven, when Stern expands the implicit body framework to analyse other examples of new media art which aren’t preoccupied with bodily participation to work, as work. He terms this “potentialized art” (206) where “audience members do not *make* the work directly through their interactions (207) but are subject to visual performances of potential movement and relation mediated by generative computation and networks. In citing Gordan Savičić and Jessica Meuninck-Ganger – amongst others – Stern argues that these ongoing performances harness generative information participating in embodiment relations, and invite metaphorical sensory change and bodily movement (in the case of Savičić’s performances, quite literally inflicting pain and suffering onto his own body using network data and social media).

John F Simon Jr - Every Icon

However when Stern cites John F. Simon. Jr’s infamous work Every Icon (1997), (227 – 230) (a cellular automation piece which takes approximately several hundred trillion years to complete) it becomes clear to me that the aesthetically agreeable areas of embodiment start to break down. It might be that my own reading of the piece is fairly unorthodox [5] (I don’t consider the work to be primarily conceptual for a start), but Every Icon eschews what Stern writes as giving “both the corporeal and incorporeal a present and future presence as time and sign” (230) or something that generates attention to our “sensual and conceptual experience of temporality” (230).

Yet, isn’t it the case that Every Icon is probably one of the least potentialised artworks ever made? It doesn’t actually generate anything, (in the strict sense of unpredictable outcomes from simple rules) it simply enumerates configurations of pixels one by one. Neither can we be said to “feel the potency of several hundred trillion years” (230) than we feel the cold, indifferent execution of a real java applet function to which we are forever limited in experiencing directly. If anything, Every Icon is deliberately constructed to forgo a relation with us.

To conclude: this is perhaps why Penny’s predicament with the Kinect is so stark. To demand, as Stern does, that we treat digital interactive art as setting a stage for examining how we “per-form” with our bodies within media, material, conceptual frames and selves, is no longer enough of a stage to give voice to the technological ecologies we find ourselves in: nor of the art that satisfies intervening in it. Credit must be given to Stern for writing over interactive art’s emancipatory myth of disembodied immateriality, but his endorsement of embodiment only serves to realise that the problem isn’t forgetting to focus on material engagement, but forgetting the cold, hard and brutal materiality of procedural performance of infrastructure, that often moves faster than we do. When Microsoft’s Kinect co-opts all the same values of Traces, it does so not because embodiment is totally flawed, but that bodily movement has now become ecologically implicated in deceptive infrastructure.

Just as Penny’s Traces may once have evoked a renewed attention to moving-thinking-feeling, such engagements are now suitably tracked and are in service of non-transparent infrastructures of geo-social activity, which propagate themselves beyond our sensory engagement, yet paradoxically they also indirectly sustain that ordinary engagement. For example, this is now a world where Google funds a 60tbps undersea cable connecting the West Coast to Japan, in order to propagate the reach of their services. The technological engagement of our bodies cannot be restricted to how we move-think-feel, but now weaves itself within layers upon layers of platforms and pervasive surveillance structures. And I don’t disagree with Stern that the implicit body is, perhaps, deeper than the account I give here. But maybe that’s because the body is also another type of performative infrastructure, tightly bound into other formations that are just as deep, complex and engaged. We now live in a time where digital interactive art has to intervene in the performances of geo-social infrastructure: where our bodies have curiously taken on their self-directing performances, rather than our own.


[1] The latter especially is discussed in depth by Stern in pages 114 – 127.

[2] Taken from Penny’s artist statement on Traces (1999) HERE.

[3] Not that I want to digress from the review, but the fascinating history of Minitel in French digital culture is worth the reader’s attention. See Dermot McGrath’s 2001 Wired article HERE for a decent introduction.

[4] This can be viewed HERE.

[5] See Robert Jackson, “The Return of Discrete, Autonomous Artworks: Heidegger, Harman and Algorithmic Allure” In Heidegger and The Work of Art History, edited by Amanda Boetzkes and Aron Vinegar, Ashgate Press: London. pp. 33 – 61.

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.

Mash Smarter Not Harder: An Interview with Benjamin Berg

A DISTINGUISHED DATA-BENDER AND ACCOMPLISHED SOUND-PLUNDERER, Benjamin Berg (AKA stAllio!) has made a career for himself as a member of the Indianapolis-based art band Animals Within Animals (AWIA) since the turn of this century. Alongside of that, Berg’s also emerged online as the host of a rad radio program on Numbers FM, as the founder/curator of the Tumblr called glitchgifs, and even as a pillow-seller. Midwestern breakcore fanatics may recall seeing his name on bills back in the day alongside such legends as Doormouse or Xanopticon. AND It turns out he’s also a rather skilled skill-sharer. Monty Cantsin [AKA Rap Game Gertrude Stein], big fan of stAllio! since 2007, corresponded with the artist recently [11/2013] by email for this interview.

Montgomery Cantsin: How did you first encounter the “plunderphonics” approach? And, looking back over the last few decades, what (for you) are the highlights and stand-out tracks that define that particular genre?

Benjamin Berg: A co-worker told me about Negativland so I tracked down a copy of Escape From Noise. That was a game-changer for me, and still one of the highlights of their catalog. The Evolution Control Committee’s (ECC) Whipped Cream Mixes were hugely influential and still stand up better than most “mashups” made since (same goes for their track “Rocked by Rape”). I’d also list: John Oswald’s early work, like Plexure; pretty much anything by Orchid Spangiafora; Osymyso’s “Intro-inspection;” Wobbly’s Wild Why. To that list I’d maybe add something by Wayne Butane or Cassettboy for a touch of humor.

MC: What were some of the first projects that you worked on in that vein?

BB: We were maybe mid-way through the first Animals Within Animals record when I discovered plunderphonics, so the first experiments were on the first two AWIA releases (Yard Ape, and Mono a Mono).

MC: When ECC started, I think they were doing work using a simple dual-cassette system. Did you ever do any of that? I am stealing the name of one of your greatest hits, “Mash Smarter Not Harder,” to title this interview; was that track made using simple editing software? Because, by the time you made “Bust A Groove” (a similar sort of track) you’d decided to use Ableton, is that correct?

BB: A bunch of the first AWIA record was made on a 4-track, and at least a couple of those tracks used a pause-button sampling technique, so that was effectively dual-cassette. Also, a lot of my earliest video work was done with simple pause-button editing; I didn’t have access to real editing equipment, so I would just hook the camera up to a VCR and edit that way. On some of those I was very loose about where my edits were; I would just fast foward to some point at random on my source tape and copy a clip over The Mash Smarter Not Harder EP and the first few tracks I recorded for A Huge Smash were done in Adobe Audition. But after a while, it got to the point where I just had too many cuts and the program crashed. When I lost a track and had to start it over, I switched to Ableton, which not only performed better but also made it easier to sync my edits to the beat.

MC: Now what about your personal history of glitch music? This one is a bit harder to pin down, perhaps?

BB: Yeah I can’t name a particular moment when I discovered glitch music or a particular artist or release. It was probably something off of the Mille Plateaux label, if I had to guess. The early M^2 records were an influence for me, as well as early Kid606 (but not anything he’s done in the last 10 years). My favorites are Lesser, DISC, and Farmers Manual… anything by them is great. Ryoji Ikeda is really good, too.

MC: An old film projectionist once remarked to me that “digital failure is absolute.” I guess he was frustrated… when analog equipment falters it still often gives you something (some image, some sound) and can be worked with. Whereas sometimes with a digital system it’s more of a black box situation where it’s either on (‘one’) or it’s off (‘zero’). Does the glitch represent a sort of exception to this? Can you talk about glitch in the context of this–perhaps mistaken–notion that digital failure is “absolute?”

BB: I wouldn’t say that digital failure is always absolute. Sometimes it is, like clipping versus analog distortion, where you hit a sort of peak and can’t break things any further. But it depends on the system, and the assumptions that engineers make when designing systems. An obvious example would be your TV going to a blue screen when the picture is bad, instead of showing snow as they used to. There’s no technical reason why a TV has to do that. Hardware manufacturers decided that nobody would really want to watch a heavily distorted picture, and designed their devices not to show one. I like to say that glitch art is like dancing on the edge of a broken system. You want to break things enough that it affects the output, but not so much that your tools stop working or the system fails altogether.

MC: I have to say that “Fuck Windows” (your track composed entirely of Windows and Sim City samples) is one of my favorite audio pieces that you’ve done. What can you say about that one? …Are computer games what got you interested in fucking around with ‘data?’

BB: I made “Fuck Windows” in 1996, and it came about in large part because I already had those sounds on my computer. It seems weird to think about now, but back then samples weren’t so easy to come by. You either had to rip them yourself from a CD (and being in college, I only had so many) or record them yourself using a shitty computer microphone. The system sounds and video game sound effects were practically the only WAV files I had, so it seemed natural to use them. …I started using data as audio around the same time, but it didn’t directly spin out of that track. I was using a program called Impulse Tracker to compose/arrange music on the computer. Going back to what I was saying earlier about assumptions: most programs assume that unrecognized file formats can’t be read (or they make you explicitly tell them how to interpret such files). Impulse Tracker assumed the opposite, and let you open any file on your hard drive as if it were a sample. I discovered that pretty quickly and spent hours just browsing through my computer, listening to all the data.

MC:Blue Screen of Death” is another one of my favorite audio works that you’ve done. You describe this kind of work as ‘data-bent’? What is your process for it?

BB: These days I’ve taken to calling that style of music “data sound”. The general process is that I browse through my hard drive, converting data files to sound and trying to pick out the ones that sound the most interesting. Then when I have enough cool sounds, I arrange them into a track. My first data sound release, Dissonance Is Bliss, was done entirely in Impulse Tracker (both the sonification of the data and the arrangement of the samples). Then I switched to using WAV editors to sonify data, and loading the WAV files into other music-making tools. “Blue Screen of Death” was arranged in Fruity Loops. Everything on my newest data sound release (On the DLL) was arranged in Ableton.

MC: What can you say about chance? And, is there a distinction to be made between the data-bent and the glitched? Can something be a glitch if it is intentionally created? …This reminds me of a somewhat related question, that of “found objects”–can we rightly call them that if we specifically go out looking for them? [In surrealism there is the so-called “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” It seems to me that it’s largely the chance aspect that is of key importance there–the notion that such objects could be juxtaposed unintentionally somewhere in the world and you could just happen upon them.]

BB: I think glitch is like the intersection between chance and formalism. In the 20th Century artists started asking questions like “What is music?” and “What is a painting?” And you had things like The Art of Noises, musique concrète… you had painters who were more concerned with exploring the nature of paint and canvas than with “representing” some physical object or scene. Glitch practices are like that stuff, but because digital structures are more hidden, you can do things where even if you know pretty much what’s going to happen, you don’t really know what the end result will look or sound like. It’s not really chance, because there are rules governing it, but it feels like chance because you don’t understand those rules. Even if you have a good grasp of something like JPEG compression, you probably can’t look at the code and tell what the image is going to look like. So it’s a way of creating things that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, just as in the tradition of John Cage, Bryon Gysin, etc. As for the difference between a “natural” glitch and manmade glitch (or what Iman Moradi called “glitch-alike”): it’s an important distinction that had to be made, but it’s not one I find particularly interesting. For one thing, the audience generally can’t tell the difference unless you’re really obvious about it, so it’s mostly a question of what you feel comfortable with as an artist. Encountering a glitch in the wild (what Antonio Roberts and Jeff Donaldson call “glitch safari“) is exciting, but the idea that if it’s not a wild glitch then it’s not “real” is very limiting and precludes all sorts of interesting art practices.

MC: I wonder how is it that a whole industry (websites, music and art careers, academic conferences, etc.) seems to have sprung up around The Glitch. How can so much be generated within that narrow of a conceptual/aesthetic space?

BB: I’m not surprised by the growing popularity of the glitch. We’re surrounded by technology but we’re not that used to thinking about how it works, let alone how to deliberately misuse it. Glitch practices constitute a different way of thinking, and these kinds of ideas are infectious. You can apply glitch theory to pretty much any technology or system, so it’s widely applicable, and it tells us things about the world that might not be obvious otherwise.

MC: You are founder of glitchgifs Tumblr? Is it you alone?

BB: Yeah, I run glitchgifs. GIF is such a great format for glitch art, because it’s the only common shareable format that allows motion and looping without the user having to click anything. I run the blog alone, and I would actually love to invite other curators, but because it was the first Tumblr blog I created, I am unable to do so. To Tumblr, I am “glitchgifs” and there is no way to tell it otherwise, even though I have a blog at http://stallIo.tumblr.com that’s intended to be my “personal” account. There are those pesky design assumptions again.

MC: Plans for the future?

BB: I’d like to find the time soon to do some video work again. I have footage; I just need to assemble it and set it to music. Musically I have a release coming out (hopefully) soon on a German label called Betonblume. I’m really pleased with it and can’t wait for it to come out so people can hear it. After that, I hope to make some new post-mashup tracks and finish the follow-up to Wack Cylinders. I’m still going to be active posting new art on Tumblr, and my weekly show Active Listening / The Act of Listening on numbers.fm will continue at least for the near future.

MC: Finally, please tell me more about this big international show you are in right now, and about this amazing text generator thing you did for it.

BB: The Wrong – New Digital Art Biennale is a massive online art show, consisting of 30 individually themed pavilions. Bill Miller graciously invited me to contribute to his pl41nt3xt pavilion, which centers around art made with simple technologies like text, rather than fancy 3d environments or video processing or stuff like that. So I made a glitch text generator and text-art canvas. It lets you quickly generate “glitch text” out of combining diacritics (g͖̣̝͎̙͐ͅl̵̮̰̝᷇̑̾î̶̢᷾ͭ̈́ͩt̯̬̰̓ͦ᷁͋c᷿͖̙ͯ͛̊᷇h̳̭͓͛ͬ᷈᷄) as well as generate other fun stuff like ◞▀╗▪┐│╌╈◚┱▍▷▀╻▪╶ …plus it’s a text art canvas for making art out of the text you generate. You can even download the scripts yourself and add them to your own project.

MC: OK, stAllio! thanks for your time! Oh, one last thing: what is your favorite ‘dingbat’ or ‘wingding’?

BB: My favorite Unicode pictographs are in the Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs block. Not many fonts support this block right now, but it has some crazy stuff in it. Probably the craziest is Love Hotel. A love hotel is a hotel that is geared toward sex. The fact that there is a character for this in Unicode blows my mind. Another great one is Dancer, which looks like John Travolta on the cover of Saturday Night Fever. It’s so perfect. Travolta has literally become an icon.

“A Symbol” Bill Miller at The Widget Art Gallery

“a symbol of indeterminate meaning, floating/rotating into the empty white WAG room with no viewers” Bill Miller

Widget Art Gallery. July 17th – August 17th 2013.


Chiara Passa’s Widget Art Gallery (WAG) has been serving art online since 2009. Named for the ability to install the contents of its web pages as a Mac OS X “dashboard widget” or iOS icon it presents virtual art objects against a standard backdrop, or in a standard virtual environment, that looks like a white-painted townhouse room repurposed as a small gallery space in an exclusive part of town.

The instructions for using the WAG are Apple hardware-centric, and as I don’t have an Apple device I had to cheat and view it on my GNU/Linux desktop. Digital art’s medium specificity consists in part of its reliance on the facilities of particular hardware and operating systems. This can be exclusive, not everyone owns Apple hardware, but it can also be realistic, Apple’s hardware currently defines computing in the popular imagination.

The image of the gallery in the widget, like the image of a leather desk organizer or a wire mesh microphone in an mobile app, or the very idea of “the desktop” in a desktop GUI, it is a skeuomorph. It is a non-functioning symbolic form that cues the viewer in to the affordances that the experience of the software offers. Like the white cube of a real art gallery, it frames the experience of looking at the artwork and emphasises its seriousness, value, and singularity.

From July to August 2013 the work inhabiting this virtual space is Bill Miller’s “A Symbol“.  The titular icon is a composition of soft light blue graphic elements that look like ASCII art that are not aligned to a teletype grid. Or like a misaligned LED matrix. It evokes the art of early military computer games, or the more complex emoticons, or maybe a lamp or a teapot. It rotates, blurs, flickers and stops, glitching and returning.

Widget Art Gallery installations are presented as animated GIFs, but they are different from the usual hilarious recuperations of Compuserve’s low-bandwidth image format in their lack of all-overness and of mass media appropriation. Animated GIFs are often glitched, but with “A Symbol” it is the object depicted in the animated image that is glitching, not the image itself.

The rotating symbol used to be a staple of broadcast television identities. The flickering or glitching symbol signifies signal hacking, technical difficulties, or coming into or out of being by teleportation or rezzing. Popular culture reactions to technology emphasize its flaws and failures to make its smooth surfaces tractable to the imagination. But this symbol remains opaque and self-assured, always returning to its original state.

The symbol’s reflection on the floor pushes it into and anchors it in the imaginary space of the gallery. Like drop shadows in graphic design or the handling of shadows and highlights in paintings it is a visual spatial strategy to make its subject seem more real and in the same space as the viewer. The rhythm and pauses in its rotation, especially the pauses, make it seem intentional and sculptural, they give it a solidity in time as well as space.

The accessibility and framing of the Widget Art Gallery mean that “A Symbol” can travel with and be accessed by its audience over time in a variety of settings, making it even more a reflection of their lives. “A Symbol” is retro digital but with a contemporary electroluminescent aesthetic glow like a Tron Legacy costume or an Android startup screen, militaristic but emotive, hard-edged but glitching, opaque yet evocative. It is a sign of the times.

Post-Static: Realtime Performances by jonCates and Jon Satrom

Post-Static: Realtime Performances by jonCates and Jon Satrom @ Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (Chicago). September 20, 2012. Programmed by Christy LeMaster

Deliver Me from Nowhere

“Alchemy; the science of understanding the structure of matter, breaking it down, then reconstructing it as something else. It can even make gold from lead. But Alchemy is a science, so it must follow the natural laws: To create, something of equal value must be lost. This is the principle of Equivalent Exchange. But on that night, I learned the value of some things can’t be measured on a simple scale.”1

In 1966, Bell Laboratories scientists and engineers collaborated with artists to construct several performance-based installations under the title 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering. Works included Variations VII by John Cage and performance engineer Cecil Coker, in which a sound system pulled sounds from radio, telephone lines, microphones and musical instruments, and Carriage Discreteness by Yvonne Rainer and performance engineer Per Biorn, a dance event controlled by walkie-talkie and TEEM (theatre electronic environment modular system). Critic Lucy Lippard was wrote that the event was filled with technical problems and that the artists involved allowed the technology to take precedence over the art. She pointed out that no theatre people took part in the event and suggested that while this event did not offer a specific design for a new approach to theatre, it revealed the possibility that new approaches to theatre might be born from the combination of art and technology:

A new theater might well begin as a non-verbal phenomenon and work back towards words from a different angle. Departing from Samuel Beckett’s highly verbal, single-image emphasis, it could move into an area of perceptual experience alone, its tools a more primitive use of sight and non-linguistic sound. Such a theater would not necessarily be the amorphous carnival of psychedelic fame but could be as rigorously controlled as any other.2

She also observed that it was often impossible to understand the relationship between the technology and the events it triggered without reading the program, mentioning one such missed connection in Open Score, by Robert Rauschenberg and performance engineer Jim McGee. In this piece, tennis rackets were wired such that each impact of the ball on a racket turned off one light in the performance hall. Lippard wrote that this connection was not noticeable and thus the conceptual framework of the piece was lost to the audience.

To artists working at the intersection of art and technology more than forty years after this event, it is disturbing to note that the same issues Lippard pointed out —the subjugation of concept to technology, the failure of the technology itself and the lack of a radical approach to the intersection— are still all too present in many works taking place in the worlds of new media art 3. None of these were issues for jonCates or Jon Satrom as each presented a performance intersecting with the exhibition “Ex-Static: George Kagan’s Radios” at Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, IL. Their performances serve as examples of new media employed as a tactic in support of art rather than “new media art” as a condition represented by infatuation with expensive devices. Instead of yet another demo of “cool” tech, the audience experienced a rigorously controlled blast of chaos.


jonCates performing. gif: Alfredo Salazar-Caro

The lights go down completely and we are illuminated by a large amorphous video projection behind a table stacked with equipment. The video is black and white as is the video monitor facing us from the table. jonCates moves between the back and front of the table, with purpose. While the equipment stack is familiar, multiple mixers and cases, this is no DJ set. Much closer is the image of a few men in long sleeves and ties tending to tables full of equipment for John Cage’s “Variations VII”. With several nondescript devices on and adjusted, the air around us has become alive with a noisy drone that, by this date and to this audience, is very familiar (parallels extend back to sonic attacks from Peter Christopherson and Chris Carter with Throbbing Gristle) but now the sound is comforting, an aural field that is neither alien nor distracting.

A droning, machine sound, or the droning machine sound, has become a ridiculously common element of a contemporary “experimental” sound and video work. It is thus all the more surprising to be instantly drawn into jonCates’ audio, to take pleasure in it and to lose track of time completely. We are watching him control the mixer and occasionally speak into the microphone that is set in front of a conspicuous security camera. Again, jonCates uses the most expected situation —the camera faces upward toward the video projection screen, creating a counter-clockwise tilting feedback loop. And again, we are not distracted by this, it is familiar yet beautifully framed and we are drawn in. We have been invited to a field constructed by a tactician expertly employing simple situations.

The raw quality of both the droning audio and the feedback loop combine with jonCates’ humble appearance to remove the expectation of a spectacle and we return to the real situation with questions: who is this man and what is he going to do? He keeps speaking into the microphone, his eyes look desperate, and, despite seeing him perform a similar (although much less engaging) performance at the 2011 Gli.tc/h festival, we are surprised as we realize, as it is nearly two-thirds complete, what he is doing: giving a lecture.

jonCates has been speaking for some time but only a few echoed fragments are reaching out beyond the drone. It has been an incantation without purpose, a repetition of the meaningless words one says when one is presenting something to an audience. Finally, jonCates drops the distortion and the volume on the droning sound and his voice becomes clearer. It is obvious that some communication is going to happen and everyone shifts slightly as we strain to remember how to listen to a voice. Are we here to see another performance or hear something important?. The voice is not strong and it has no authority. It is perfectly ordinary, slightly academic with a hint of vulnerability. It’s the voice of a mad scientist who has begun to understand that his experiments may be his undoing. At this point the piece could collapse and jonCates has not propped himself up with his technology. Instead, he’s used it to lead us to key moments and obliterating everything else. Still, he seems not so much frightened as curious to see where this will end, if what he needs to say can be given a short lifespan in this space. This is where performance lives —in the unfolding present. And jonCates says:

“…and I thought [?] … I thought [?] about how I should remix something in realtime for you that I should reflect upon the past, I should reflect upon [?] …patterns so I thought that I should probably do this as a remix and render it in realtime for you but then I found … from 1997…and it was sitting right next to the first tape … it was sitting right next to the first tape, had the same title as the first one, that also said “Flow” and right next to it had another a label that said “Remix” and I thought ‘I already made that piece’ [sampled voice droning: ‘oceanic waves upon waves upon waves upon waves’] and that’s almost too good to be true so I put the tape called ‘remix’ into the VCR, not this VCR. I had to buy a new VCR that VCR broke and … called ‘remix’ .. rendered in realtime for you … and I watched it, and almost [? ] [?] decide … I had already … [sampled voice droning: ‘we can stay in the spell of the laser lights’] … and I’ve been thinking about these things … [sampled voice droning: ‘we are all together … in the time space continuum of … of … of …’ and the drone continues.]”4


“The peculiarity of the time bounce, as he mulled it over, was that the resumption of the earlier state of being not only set physical objects back to their former positions, it actually wiped out the events of the lost hour. Like daylight saving indeed! With the lost hour unhappened, even memories of the time were obliterated…They might be reliving a given moment for the fifth time, the fiftieth, the five millionth, and never notice it!”5

“A representation is the occasion when something is re-presented, when something from the past is shown again —something that once was, now is. For representation it is not an imitation or description of a past event, a representation denies time. It abolishes that difference between yesterday and today. It takes yesterday’s action and makes it live again in every one of its aspects —including it’s immediacy. In other words, a representation is what it claims to be —a making present.”6

Jon Satrom: Prepared Laptop

Screen capture from Jon Satrom’s performance

  • Jon Satrom is incredibly bad at using his laptop.
  • Andy Kaufman, “foreign man” performs Elvis.
  • John Cage: “Composing for the prepared piano is not a criticism of the instrument. I’m only being practical.” 7
  • != Cage (utility), instead Satrom approaches Jean Tinguely (destruction).
    (…but can he develop a drawn out, real failure like ‘Homage to New York’?)
  • Jon Satrom doesn’t need to know how to use the fucking Adobe Creative Suite.
  • Jon Satrom makes us slightly ashamed at how little we do with the ridiculous amount of power that we have.
  • Jon Satrom points out how our minimal awareness of control, interface. <= Cage?
  • Jon Satrom sometimes smiles as he invokes the demon other from the Operating system.
  • Satrom’s work is not detached and ironic …
  • …and it is never a fucking metaphor. Jon Satrom’s computer is not “okay.”

“For every organ-machine, an energy-machine: all the time, flows and interruptions. Judge Schreber has sunbeams in his ass. A solar anus. And rest assured that it works: Judge Schreber feels something, produces something, and is capable of explaining the process theoretically. Something is produced: the effects of a machine, not mere metaphors.”8

Radio Buttons

Radio gif from Jon Satrom’s performance

They are called radio buttons because on old car radios you pushed one button and the other popped out. The performances of jonCates and Jon Satrom were developed as an intersection with the exhibition Ex-Static: George Kagan’s Radios at Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, on display until January 5, 2013, curated by Erik Peterson and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford.

“In the wee, wee hours your mind get hazy / Radio relay towers lead me to my baby / The radio’s jammed up with talk show stations / Its just talk, talk, talk, talk, till you lose your patience”9


jonCates makes Dirty New Media Art, Noise Musics and Computer Glitchcraft. His experimental New Media Art projects are presented internationally in exhibitions and events from Berlin to Beijing, Cairo to Chicago, Madrid to Mexico City and widely available online. His writings on Media Art Histories also appear online and in print publications, as in recent books from Gestalten, The Penn State University Press and Unsorted Books. He is the Chair of the Film, Video, New Media & Animation department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago:

Jon Satrom undermines interfaces, problematizes presets, and bends data. He spends his days fixing things and making things work. He spends his evenings breaking things and searching for the unique blips inherent to the systems he explores and exploits. By over-clocking everyday digital tools, Satrom kludges abandonware, funware, necroware, and artware into extended-dirty-glitchy-systems for performance, execution, and collaboration. His time-based works have been enjoyed on screens of all sizes; his Prepared Desktop has been performed in many localizations. Satrom organizes, develops, and performs with I ♥ PRESETS, poxparty, GLI.TC/H, in addition to other initiatives with talented dirty new-media comrades.

The Glitch Moment(um)

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.