International artists that tinker heavily with computers to create their work are called "glitch artists." They produce a type of new media art that lays out defects—glitches—in a given computer system onto a visual canvas, whether it's print, 3-D installation, or computer screen.
A new exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago is celebrating their work, but why? Historically, humans have been indifferent to non-human art; none of Koko the Gorilla's drawings appear in the Louvre. So will art fans flock to glitch art? Or are these digital artifacts only a mother(board) could love?
As advances in technology and the mere presence of the Internet drive progress in the digital arts, so has glitch art evolved. Entire communities have sprouted up on the web to nurture the discipline from the bottom up, like the Chicago-based 0p3nr3p0 glitch art repository. UIMA’s "glitChicago" exhibit, which opened on August 1st, pays homage to Chicago’s tradition of honing this subculture of electronic artists.
Chicago has been a hub for the glitch art movement for years, even before glitch art became a term. Electronic and noise music, the punk rock scene, as well as improv jazz circles, all helped influence the artistic subgenre. The spirit of sharing digital media and the network of DIY art galleries in Chicago also played a part.
Since the 1970s, the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago has encouraged artists and software and computer engineers to follow the same coursework and collaborate. The art and technology program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has been around for decades, and the school’s brief generative systems program influenced a generation of digital artists in Chicago.
In the '90s, Chicago hosted important conferences in the digital media space, like the International Symposium of Electronic Art and SIGGRAPH. Glitch art really took off in the past decade, however, as all these trends primed an audience for it.
"It wasn’t until recently that glitch artists started referring to themselves as glitch artists," says Paul Hertz, curator of glitChicago. Different techniques of manipulating digital media began to find traction within Internet communities, and artists in Chicago picked up on them.
Between 2010 and 2012 the Chicago-based glitch artist Nick Briz, along with three other glitch artists, organized the first-ever GLI.TC/H festivals. The first one took place in Chicago, but the organizers realized they needed to bring together the greater international glitch community. The 2011 festival simultaneously panned out in Chicago, Amsterdam, and Birmingham, U.K.
Influential glitch artists have emerged from Chicago and onto the international scene. One of them, Jon Cates, coined the term Chicago Dirty New Media, a catch-all term that describes how digital tech can elevate an experience. Even if a glitch artist doesn’t physically hail from the Windy City, she might attribute her style to Chicago’s Dirty New Media.
Glitch artists largely rely on a technique called databending to produce their work. Using a basic hex editor, an artist can modify the most rudimentary information in a digital file, like a JPEG image or MPEG video. The artist can open these files in the hex editor and manipulate the binary information behind the files—the ones and zeros—typically with the "Find and Replace" function.
Transcoding, another trick behind this new media, involves opening a media file in program that is not expressly designed for it. It’s what would happen if you opened up an image file in an audio editor, applied reverb, and then saved it as an image again. Yet another technique, datamoshing, deals with modifying video compression rates.
"One of the characteristics of glitch, aside from its origins in errors and system overload, feedback and so on, is that when people try to do it concretely, they often end up working directly with the material of the file itself, below the level of its representation, as an image, or as text, or as audio," says Hertz.
In general, glitch art is the process of exploiting misbehavior, however spontaneously or intentionally the defect occurs. The process can either take place in the electronic media or in the encoding behind it.
"The process is more important than the result," says Briz. "There’s all kinds of things that can happen when you use technology the wrong way." It’s one thing to make something that looks cool, but the aesthetic isn’t the interesting part of glitch art; it’s the process. Sometimes, the very use of technology takes second stage, as well.
"We tend to put the onus on our machine, but really something has happened in the system because it hasn’t responded as per our designed or expected use," says Briz. The gist of the artwork doesn’t have to center on how machines misbehave. It can represent any system’s misbehavior, even taking a political tone.
Two French glitch artists helped create a concept piece called Corrupt.desktop. The experience starts when someone downloads the artists’ Mac OS X-compatible computer program onto a display computer at an Apple store or retailer. After installing it, the app icon appears in the app dock, looking like Safari. An unassuming Apple customer could inadvertently open it, visually distorting the desktop. The cacophony of desktops breaking apart while Apple employees slowly realize it makes a political statement. The glitch then becomes a part of the whole store’s ecosystem.
Corrupt.desktop has a spot on GitHub, in keeping with the spirit of sharing tools and artwork in the glitch art community. And the code behind the project, openFrameworks, is a C++ based program, created by artists, for artists.
Starting as far back as the '80s, digital artists started creating software especially for creating glitches in systems and machines. Hertz wrote a program called GlitchSort for students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which took off in the online community. Monglot, by Rosa Menkman, and Kim Asendorf’s pixel sorting program were also influential.
Apart from software, general advances in technology have made glitch art find a foothold in the artistic landscape. A small subset of artists experimented with transcoding in the nineties. Before that, artists manipulated analog audio signals and transmuted them into images.
"In the late sixties, it was hard to show computational art in a gallery," says Hertz, even if this type of art started showing up around then. You see it more now because technology has just gotten a lot cheaper. "A VR installation that cost a quarter of a million dollars to put up over at UIC, you can probably do for five thousand now," he says.
Computers are more powerful, too, and the Internet has liberated artists from galleries to circulate their work. A Yahoo group called "Databenders" surfaced around the time when Yahoo groups were just taking shape, and a Flickr group called "Glitch Art" brought glitch artists in contact with one another, including Briz. Facebook groups and Reddit threads have cropped up in the last five years.
After the third GLI.TC/H festival in 2012, Briz created 0p3nr3p0 with fellow glitch artist Joe Chiocchi to give anyone the opportunity to submit and share his or her work, as long as it had a URL. All artwork from 0p3nr3p0 will appear on a display during glitChicago’s run at UIMA.
"This term glitch art was literally this tag in the community," says Briz. People began to use the term glitch art on the Internet, and it has literally unified the community. "Once there was that keyword, there was a way to bring people together."
For as new as glitch art is, it is influencing other modes of new media. Some of the pieces showing at glitChicago are derived from glitch art but would not be considered as such. Critics wonder if glitch art has passed its heyday and will go down in art history as another tool in the artist’s toolbox. For now, though, it has captivated a tech-savvy generation of art patrons.
"The Ukrainian was looking for a younger audience," says Hertz. "There are people who have been coming in, saying that they have been living in the neighborhood but haven’t ever come in."