the aesthetics of being wrong
Lately I have been thinking about Glitch-Art, an emerging aesthetics inside Digital Art which takes the computational error as its subject. If this is your first contact with the subject, here are two examples to get started:
From Ant Scott’s “pure glitch” phase.
What Bruegel’s Tower of Babel might look like, seen through the Glitch Browser
Browse around, there are many different examples on the web, I’ll stop at two before I am unfair for not including something.
The first comprehensive study of Glitch Art was Iman Moradi’s monograph in 2004; he and Ant Scott have written a book that will be out soon, and which I’m looking forward to. In the 2004 work, Moradi draws many interesting comparisons between Glitch and twentieth century aesthetics such as cubism (with its jarred images that might look to us today as glitchy). One very interesting parallel is with Mondrian - an artist both of straight, computer-like geometry and of intentionally inserted imperfections, affirming the human behind what is often perceived as coldness in his composition. He also points out the established role of noise and distortion in music and video.
I don’t know what Moradi and others have been up to lately (I have learned he is writing his doctorate on the subject right now), but reading his monograph and looking at the glitch art scene I have formulated three interlocking hypotheses:
Number 1: It is perhaps obvious that most computational art tries to conceal the underlying layers of processing and machinery which generate the pieces: from virtual reality and immersive environments, passing through computer graphics and animation all the way to webdesign, any glitch in the transparency of the interface is a flaw to be corrected: the user/the public should be able to forget, at least momentarily, all the technology that is running below the surface, if they are aware of it at all. And even where the focus is in the process itself - algorithmic art, generative art, fractal art - the algorithm is then treated as a pure, mathematical construct, not as a set of instructions for a physical machine. To refer to this, Katherine Hayles has coined the term “Regime of Computation“: a philosophical attitude or sensibility which projects the algorithmic onto the world, thinking of algorithms as pure objects abstracted from the machines to which they serve as instructions of operation, and as possibly existing in nature itself.
Glitch Art reverses this philosophical attitude - I am tempted to use the word “deconstructs” - by bringing to the foreground the layers of processing and physical operations which otherwise remain hidden to the user (and which he is usually invited to ignore). As opposed to the pure, abstracted interface or to the Regime of Computation of mainstream digital art, Glitch Art is an aesthetics of the materiality of informatics: it affirms both the non-human-like operation and the physicality of computing machines.
Number 2: The computational error has been the domain of hackers from the start. Since the early days, knowing how to creatively exploit a flaw in a computer program was one of the most praised traits of hackerdom (see for instance the Story of Mel in the Jargon File). There is a subversiveness in the glitch, at least as metaphor, in that it defies the totality of a system which by its very nature is hostile to individual expression and tends towards constancy, repetition and homogeneity. The praise of the error in the Story of Mel - and in all of hacker culture - is the praise of creativity, of taking roads less traveled. As computational systems, in an analogy with social systems, are procedural by nature - defining steps both for itself and for the user to follow - any path other than the previously traced path is glitch, often literally. Much of the popularity of glitch art resides, I speculate, in that it so poignantly expresses these tensions.
Number 3: I speculate also that Glitch Art perhaps could be grouped inside a broader category of aesthetics, not only of the error but also of the imperfect, the accidental and the incomplete. This is a troublesome claim because these words are not exactly interchangeable, and this aesthetics is more one of affinities we might trace than the continuity of a tradition.
Moradi makes a number of very good parallels in his monograph, but I want to add a few of my own, some of which might be surprising at first.
Let’s start with the Tea Ceremony.
Kakuzo Okakura writes in The Book of Tea:
The absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects has been often commented on by Western critics. This, also, is a result of a working out through Zennism of Taoist ideals. Confucianism, with its deep-seated idea of dualism, and Northern Buddhism with its worship of a trinity, were in no way opposed to the expression of symmetry. As a matter of fact, if we study the ancient bronzes of China or the religious arts of the Tang dynasty and the Nara period, we shall recognize a constant striving after symmetry. The decoration of our classical interiors was decidedly regular in its arrangement. The Taoist and Zen conception of perfection, however, was different. The dynamic nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself. Since Zennism has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the extreme Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination.
In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence. The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no colour or design shall be repeated. If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea-caddy of black laquer. In placing a vase of an incense burner on the tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact centre, lest it divide the space into equal halves. The pillar of the tokonoma should be of a different kind of wood from the other pillars, in order to break any suggestion of monotony in the room.
So in the tea-room, the decoration avoids symmetry by very carefully avoiding anything that could suggest it: it looks wrong and mistake-ridden as the result of an effort one takes years to master fully. This is justified on a reasoning that symmetrical, “perfect” environments communicate monotony, repetition and homongeneity, and ultimately stifle the imagination. True beauty is found instead by freshness of imagination, when it finds room to mentally complete the incomplete. Note this is a free, individual pursuit: it is left to each guest to complete (…) in relation to himself. This is, surprisingly, very close to point number 2.
Engraving by Uzaki Sumikazu which illustrates some of these compositional principles.
Another artist “working out through Zennist ideals” was American composer John Cage. Though extremely relevant here, his considerations on what constitutes “silence” and “noise” merits a separate, more careful discussion. But he was a composer of chance operations - the aesthetics of the accidental - and of the prepared pianos, which, as the video below shows, is more of a piano in error conditions than a “prepared” piano:
Now for another surprise, let’s look into Michelangelo.
On the subject of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, Walter Pater wrote:
[t]his effect Michelangelo gains by leaving nearly all his sculpture in a puzzling sort of incompleteness, which suggests rather than realises actual form. Something of the wasting of that snow-image which he moulded at the command of Piero de’ Medici, when the snow lay one night in the court of the Pitti palace, almost always lurks about it, as if he had determined to make the quality of a task, exacted from him half in derision, the pride of all his work. Many have wondered at that incompleteness, suspecting, however, that Michelangelo himself loved and was loath to change it, and feeling at the same time that they too would lose something if the half-realised form ever quite emerged from the stone, so rough hewn here, so delicately finished there; and they have wished to fathom the charm of this incompleteness. Well! that incompleteness is Michelangelo’s equivalent for colour in sculpture; it is his way of etherealising pure form, of relieving its hard realism, and communicating to it breath, pulsation, the effect of life. It was a characteristic too which fell in with his peculiar temper and mode of life, his disappointments and hesitations. And it was in reality perfect finish.
We have, again, the aesthetics of the incomplete and the imperfect, as a reaction against the totality of a complete work which stifles imagination and drains art of its vitality. But I’d also like to add a second reading to this: this incompleteness works as “the equivalent of colour in sculpture,” communicating liveliness to pure form, because it brings to the forefront the materiality of sculpture. When contemplating a finished, complete statue of a human figure, it is very easy to forget that it was once a rude block of stone (now turned into a gentle block of stone); we take it as pure, abstract form, and remembering it is stone only empowers this triumph of form over conquered matter. Michelangelo instead brings the hidden layers and processes of the work to the foreground: one is forced not only to acknowledge that form is sculpted into stone, but to face it directly, and all that it implies. This clash (or maybe interplay) between materiality and ideality is where the overwhelming sense of vitality of these sculptures comes from. Though of course there are very important differences, compare this to point number one.
Then there is Pollock (which I don’t think I need to illustrate), who interestingly denied any role of the “accidental” in his Action Paintings method. This brings in the question: as glitch art grows, at what point the carefully planned mistake, not radically dissimilar to previous works, starts functioning itself as a system and a language of its own? This has for instance happened to noise in music and video, where it has lost its signifying power and became cliché, no longer processed as disruptive by their audience.
Finally what I think is the most important parallel, the experiments of a previous generation of video-artists with error in video and television; as they examined a new medium - one whose threats of “totality, homogeneity, and repetition” were far more obvious, though not necessarily greater -, it would be easier to catalogue those who used video and television in its “correct” mode than the crowds that “misused” it. Take for instance Nam June Paik’s Magnet TV, TV sets whose images are distorted by magnets:
We can probably make points number 1 and 2 for most of such works with video and television (point number 3 is complicated), though they obviously had a different context, a simpler one I suspect. And the examples are endless, from Stan Brakhage working on the materiality of film to the exciting emerging technique of Camera Tossing. Though I’m drawing a bunch of comparisons here (and I like talking about most of this stuff, to boot), please don’t take these as equivalencies: there is something very specific about the computational error and glitch art, as to the tea ceremony or to Michelangelo. And to add a fourth hypothesis to the mix, maybe it is in examining these specificities - what the difference is between pointing out the materiality of informatics and the materiality of sculptures, a computer program in error and a television in error - that the really cool stuff’s to be found.