topology of error: digital art and the glitch [b+m+n]
Let's avoid an essentially pointless discussion. We can distinguish digital art from art pursued in another medium by the intrinsic dependence on computers for its realisation.
The thing about digital art is that it takes its technology
seriously, it must take its technology seriously, because it is the computer which
realises the signal we are calling art. And the nature of the computer, of technology,
is that it breaks down. Programs run out of memory, systems crash, information is
garbled as it falls before the cursor.
For the average computer user, we know that this thing
called "information"... code, microcode... is what makes computers work,
but we don't know how. It is hidden, incomprehensible; we can't touch it, we don't
need to deal with it on a day-to-day level.
While her finger happily clicks around, arranging layered
windows, the viewer is drawn into the seductive world of digitised catalogs, where
content remains trapped in the clutches of stereotypical 'click'n'go interaction
design and is iconised to flashy hotspots, screaming next to a Buy button.
The WIMP interface creates an illusion of objectness.
The metaphors from the physical world are relentlessly mapped to the digital: an ocean of electronic books, magazines, tv and radio-stations is flooding the little that is left of experimental digital interface design.
We can click there or there, rather like choosing Coke or Fanta from a soft-drink machine.
When the virtual enters the physical it is mostly through
billboards, as a new addition to global advertising campaigns. It is not seen as
a whole new realm, but as a swarm of virtual blurbs, conceived as small, self contained
units, buzzing around our heads 24/7.
And there is an encycloapedic aspect to this. The quest
to progressively reveal a hidden meaning. From Grolier's encycloapedia to the web,
mainstream multimedia is about seamless content retrieval.
The world behind the screen is suffocating under the burden of the interface. And the interface has nested itself on the surface of the screen, and appears to be paralysed in that position, not allowing the general user to discover the layers behind it. The interface must be violated. Scratched and cracked or pulled out of the screen into the physical space so that its borders become elastic and transparent, revealing the world behind.
Historically, "information" is a theoretical entity... it has its origins in cybernetics, in the idea that the universe of objects is interpenetrated by ethereal "information patterns" that might be divined and controlled. It is a fragile entity.
Information is exactly the entity on which the hyped
new-economy is based. Information is a buzz-word used to guarantee the objectivity
of the virtual free-market. However, if its building blocks are so ethereal, this
economy is much more inconsistent, incomplete and fragile than we are lead to believe.
Claude Shannon defined it as a probability function
with no materiality, no dimensions. A pattern. An essence. It can be divorced from
its context, from its body. Ideally, it is infinitely reproducible. Like zeros and
ones in a computer program.
A cybernetic system:
"Noise" is deviation from the defined parameters
of the signal. It is the corollary of information.
Noise or error allows us to reveal the worlds that our
are a part of. It removes the interface and leaves the users helpless.... while they
are listening to the same message for the 50th time: All our help-desk collaborators
are busy. Please hold the line.
Noise draws us to the surface of the computing environment,
to reflect on how the tool system is shaping us, on how arbitrary its behavioural
and procedural grammar is.
While Belinda talks about the aesthetics of the glitch, I'm here to talk about the glitch as a process: where the participants do not represent, but perform, infect each otherâs worlds with alien loopholes, (mis)interpretations, and errors. Using glitches, interaction becomes more insipred drifting within inter-reality membranes and less a predefined menu browsing of digitized shop-windows. The glitch as last resort without a shopping mall attached to it. A forest of live wires.
They play with the puppet strings.
The space in between the interfaces is not a concern. And it is exactly in this space where d-art can function as a subversion of the polished make-believe future of the information era.
Noise undermines the illusion of objectness created
by the point'n'click interface.
The word interaction has been reduced to pointing, clicking,
scrolling and dragging of cute moving objects on the screen.
Information, by nature, is open to corruption. We know this as computer users.
A few common computer user exclamations:
A single keystroke can render a message unreadable--if
at any time we change the parameters of the "signal" in cybernetics, we
automatically render the remainder "noise".
There is a limit to the glitch aesthetics. It often becomes
an end in itself, where the user still cannot engage in a generative proces with
the machine. The glitch should be viewedas something anchored in the same system
as information, and as information is 9as said earlier) the building block of our
society, the glitch is an essential part of our world as well, not simply an adjunct
to an aesthetic movement.
Particularly in sites like ; :,:; ,.; and ;:,:.;:; , reams
of unparsable and corrupt code seem to lampoon the transmission of web-based sound,
text and graphics.
Errors can have meaning. They are our portals to the machinic universe in which we spend most of our days. However, the machine is usually silent, or better said, muted by the interventions of software and multimedia designers.
A discussion of digital art would be remiss without
mentioning, and beginning, with ;: : :, :: ;.
What we need to build is not yet another gate to the 'age of access', but a media de-tox chamber, where we can sweat out the unnecessary icons, protocols and constraining interaction methods..... and above all, where we can wash away the content that has polluted both physical and virtual reality before they had a chance to evolve and grow closely together.
jodi >> leitmotiv string, "we serve no content",
rests uncomfortably in the encyclopaedic world of the web.
It is on the periphery of understanding and intuition where we can expect unpredictable interaction to happen. When we move away from the well known paths. Where we don't know what to expect.
It lives on the other side of the web, the side filled with incompatibilities and error messages, machines speaking to machines in a language we don't speak.
Error during translation: (-3030) Translation path does not exist
In this space physical metaphors of superhighways, windows, desktops and elevators does not exist.
Error during translation: (-3030) Translation path does not exist
A far cry from flash, proprietary browsing. It comprises page after page of apparently incomprehensible code.
When the standardised interface has been stripped away, and the machine spits out all the complaints, that's when we start to interact, trying to comprehend both the machine proceses and the brain-waves of its creators. Here our worlds truly meet, and we engage in clumsy negotiations, trying to translate each-other's worlds into each-other's languages. Translation becomes a living system, through which the two realities warp into a hybrid tangled one.
The "index" to 7061, for instance, scatters
a grid of luminous green lines and fragments of machine code across the page. Memories
of Commodore 64 meltdown.
Instead of shuffling, we need to start drifting, making
meaning of the unknown world by allowing it to influence our progression. The roads
are not built for us, we make them up and draw their maps as we go along.
The visitor has difficulty working out if the broken hyperlinks, script-generated gibberish and hung system messages belong to her or to the site. Actually, they belong to the technology.
The technology alone does not engage with our world.
We ask questions, the technology answers, but it answers with something which we
fed into it.... and we fed into it a rigid, mapped and marked structure of reality,
one which does not respond to the living world.
The glitch is dangerously political, anarchic.
The most obvious recent example of the glitch between
physical and informational reality was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade,
where the obsolete maps served as a tactical excuse in a heavily technologically
It inserts an element of play into the corporate genome,
like a virus.
Maybe this sentence would sound more realistic if we would say: to an awareness of the market whose tools are progressively colonising us. The machine is _not_ a colonial being. Humans are. Especially humans striving for power. Money. Speed. Even culture is not a safe haven any more. Reduced to bits, interchangeable and reproducible, a lot of digital art and culture is just a pretty name for a new commodity: cultural capital.
I'm not going to say that all digital art is about noise,
viruses, error, the glitch, because it's not. But the projects which have inspired
me, from which I have composed my own personal 'history of error', most certainly
The mainstream of digital design still thinks of intraction in terms of presentation. However, strange and unexpected interfaces can draw the participant into the generative process of the work (the constructuion of the now). The one interface that many people don't know how to operate any more is their own body. When the coming into existence of a responsive reality depends on being conscious of their bodies, movements and physical social interaction, some people freeze. And when they freeze, so does the time and space of the responsive environment. The synthesis is interrupted.
The only problem was that the familiar "restart"
button began to blink and skid across the screen in a most user-unfriendly fashion,
with my cursor in hot pursuit.
Some people have a problem with searching for the interface, if it is buried under the surface of the screen, or when it bleeds off its edges. Especially with sound-based interfaces, that do not allow distracted clicking, an engaged involvement is demanded. Sound moves in and out of existence, and does not tolerate slack. Movement through sound is much more continuous then movement through a visual interface. The total user control is impossible, as different timelines intersect. The interaction becomes more a free play in time and less a rule baseg game in space.
The initial reaction is one of bewilderment: am I controlling
these noises or are they pre-programmed? In fact, they are built on the fly by the
Talking about mutual influence between humans and information
systems leads us naturally towards a long discussion about a-life, expanding hybrid
universes, flesh machines etc. However, we have decided to concentrate on the catalyst
of these processes and will not dive into the processes themselves in this presentation.
What we have been calling the "glitch" is
usually the enemy. It is the enemy of a stable system, of a seamless user-interface,
of the point'n'click universe.
We would like to end this presentation with Belinds's closing question, and hope that its ambiguity will open up a whole new set of approaches to this topic:
What happens to life in our embodied actual when the object of our investigations becomes the virtual replicator?