On Mainstream Glitch

Monday, February 10th, 2014 by kylebickoff

I’d like to begin by citing Trevor Owens (at the Library of Congress), citing Mark Sample (George Mason), citing Matthew Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland) in order to define screen essentialism: when “‘digital events on the screen” … become the sole object of study at the expense of underlying computer code, the hardware, the storage devices, and even the non-digital inputs and outputs that make digital objects’ [existence] possible.’ It is within this area of study, study the events on-screen, that digital media studies takes ground and interprets the message from the inside, the outside, and everywhere in-between. Just as Kittler describes in There is No Software, the message we encounter on-screen is simply an extension of the software we are running to read this message, which is an extension of the GUI, the OS itself, then the BIOS, and finally the binary digits at the level of machine language that our processor interacts with. Only by studying this continual translation of the message can one seek to engage in a media studies reading of the material. This, I will argue, is why critical studies of glitch and artistic works of the glitch aesthetic are so appealing to the reader/user, and why the glitch aesthetic remains still hidden and largely inaccessible to the masses.

We might say that a void in the interface prevents humans from logically comprehending the translation of data that occurs between the machine language and the message’s visual output on-screen, but it is only the inability to process this data at the rapid speed that a current microprocessor can, that constructs this apparent barrier. Regardless, this barrier makes the content beneath the interface seem hidden. It is within this hidden space that either the glitch, or proper translation of data occurs. From this origin, I note, the glitch aesthetic arises—out of the hidden, the unfamiliar, and the seemingly inaccessible. It is this place that the hackers, the artists, the digital explorers work to navigate and bring the glitch aesthetic to the fore. The opportunity to work in such an aesthetic remains highly accessible to most computer users, yet the term glitch has only recently made it into the mainstream: Barack Obama’s repeated use of the word glitch describing healthcare.gov and the 24/7 news cycles adoption of the word into a certain mainstream American vocabulary. I began thinking through these ideas after reading Trevor Owen’s piece on the Library of Congress’ online publication, The Signal, which presents itself as a user-friendly guide for creating glitches in just a few easy steps. I realized that the term, and the recognition of the glitch has entered into the mainstream American consciousness, but the glitch itself remains hidden behind our interfaces layered one over another, over another. The glitch may be a part of popular culture, but popular culture still does not own the glitch. For now, we still depend upon hackers and artists to bring this aesthetic to the fore.

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2 comments on “On Mainstream Glitch

  1. Lori Emerson says:

    Intriguing post, Kyle – given the title of your post, I actually thought you were going to write a critique of the “mainstreaming” of glitch, especially now you can get glitch apps for your phone, your kindle, web apps for glitching websites etc. Seems to me that in this sense, the mainstreaming of glitch is stripping it of any latent power it might have to resist, intervene, undermine….especially since, as you point out, users still have no access or understanding to *how* the glitching is taking place. It’s just the transference of screen essentialism to a different register!

  2. kylebickoff says:

    You bring up a great point here–and I believe I probably should have better defined the line between simply creating ‘glitches’ and working in the ‘glitch aesthetic.’ I consider these realms to be disparate. Although there are, and long have been phone apps, websites, simple programs to create ‘glitches,’ I know that artists currently working in the glitch aesthetic are indeed necessarily working outside of the boundaries of such programs. Consider instagram–the addition of a generic instagram filter to a digital photo mimics the qualities of generally agreeable photography. But by applying an instagram filter, one neither creates high-quality photos nor becomes a competent photographer. Similarly, programs like Glitch Lab and Satromizer apply generic ‘glitched templates’ to photos. Such programs may be innovative, but the images that are creative are indeed lacking innovation. I would restate that “glitch aesthetic [still] arises—out of the hidden, the unfamiliar, and the seemingly inaccessible.” Thus, ‘popular glitch’ may be a part of mainstream culture, but mainstream culture still does not own the glitch aesthetic; mainstream culture can keeps its cursory Glitch Labs, its Satromizers, and the remaining apps of redundancy, imitation, and mindless duplication.

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