to the glitch
from the archive
Uneven grounds: from the archive to the glitch Practices of renovation in contemporary Art & Design. This dissertation was written in 2013 by Francesco Tacchini. It is set in SchoolBook (main body) and Myriad Pro (headings, notes, colophon). The dissertation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
Uneven grounds: from the archive to the glitch Practices of renovation in contemporary Art & Design
A dissertation presented to The School of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI) of the University of East London by Francesco Tacchini in 2013.
Tables of content List of plates Foreword Aknowledgment
vi viii ix
PART I Ruptures, thresholds and gaps Towards an archaeology of media Fix the vocabulary Background/s
1 3 5 7
PART II A quest for authenticity? Layers of dust Time of the living dead (media) Towards software A return to computer art? The glitch moment(um)
13 14 16 22 27 32
List of plates Plate 1. Phillip Stearns, Glitch Blanket Plate 2. Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Anaxagoras (from Nuremberg Chronicles) Plate 3. NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team, Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica Plate 4. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Field Plate 5. Garnet Hertz, Pixel VGA installation Plate 6. Vasco Alves, Yuri Suzuki Plate 7. Yuri Suzuki, White Noise Machine Plate 8. Luigi Russolo, Nel laboratorio degli Intonarumori a Milano (from L'arte dei rumori) Plate 9. Luigi Russolo, An Intonarumori (from L'arte dei rumori) Plate 10. Hitomi Kai Yoda, 'London underground circuit maps' by yuri suzuki Plate 11. Lev Manovich, Untitled (from Media after Software) Plate 12. Michael A. Noll, Gaussian Quadratic Plate 13. Tilman, Scratch my back, please Plate 14. Lene Mirdal, Round Calendar Plate 15. Claude E. Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Communication
Plate 16. Fraser Muggeridge studio, New Contemporaries 2011 Plate 17. Nathalie Pollet, Scam* Share/d Heritage
Foreword This paper is an investigation into remediation trends in the realm of contemporary art and design. The analysis will extend into a methodology of the reuse of both the mere materiality of technological media devices and their operative modes. I will approach the topic under the umbrella of â€œmedia archaeologyâ€?, a branch of media studies devoted to alternative media discourses. Media archaeology is a methodical way for excavating repressed or forgotten devices and remediation practices, as well as an artistic modus operandi close to bricolage culture, software and hardware hacking, circuit bending and other Do-It-Yourself exercises. My thesis work is structured as follows: the first part introduces the key theoretical concepts that make up the ground onto which carrying out the media-archaeological investigation. I will briefly outline the genesis of this (sub-)field of media studies and then point out what media archaeology has been up to now. The second part of this paper will execute the media-archaeological analysis undertaking three different case studies. The first is an investigation of works from Yuri Suzuki, a Japanese sound designer and artist, which I had the opportunity to meet and interview regarding what I am writing about. I will discuss how his artistic intervention celebrates the non-linear pasts of media culture by manipulating technological devices. The second and third case studies witness a shift from the previous manual intervention on the physical device to a more subtle (re)mediation viii
at the level of its processual modes. I will turn to designers engaging with (programming) contemporary media and repurposing the clean aesthetics of lines, geometrical patterns, algorithms and data processing, as well as the random noisy aesthetics of glitches, dis/continuities and visual abstraction.
Aknowledgment I am very thankful to those who provided support during the research stage of this short dissertation. I would like to thank Tony D. Sampson and Sophie Barr for their valuable advices, Yuri Suzuki for taking time to meet me and Stephen Barrett. I am especially grateful to my thesis supervisor Tim Foster for the help, guidance and encouragement. Finally, thanks to my family for the precious feedback on every aspect of this paper.
Nothing is born nor perishes, but already existing things combine, then separate anew. â€”Anaxagoras, fragment 17
Ruptures, thresholds and gaps In the exercise of Western thinking linearities have for long been privileged. Historical discourse above all has advocated the necessity of living time as a continuous, linear unfolding of events. A shift from such understanding of historical discourse began to occur from the second half of the 20th century. As different kind of ideas of temporality arose, the stable relationship between time and history mutated: theoretically, works from French philosophers and historians such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Michel Foucault, Fernand Braudel, challenged the notion of time flowing in one direction and advanced new hypothesis on the radical multiplicity of time(s). L’Archèologie du Savoir, written in 1969 by Michel Foucault, is one of the most lucid and articulate account of the shift in thinking historical discourse. Foucault argues the need to step back from the privileging of linearities towards an awareness of discontinuity, hence challenging notions of cause, effect, progress, destiny, tradition and influence in history as well as in other common categories of knowledge. A traditional reading of cultural practices is rejected and new questions replace the old ones: '[...] which strata should be isolated from others? What types of series should be established? What system of relations (hierarchy, dominance, stratification, univocal determination, circular causality) may be established between them?'1 Such a vision of history derived from Nietzsche, who outlined a conception of history called genealogy. The method of genealogy implies a meticulous 1
1 Foucault, M., The Archaeology of Knowledge, 16.
2 Philp, M., Michel Foucault, 79.
3 Foucault, M., The Archaeology of Knowledge, 42.
4 Ibid, 16.
5 Ibid, 394.
rediscovery of both struggles and fragmented, local, specific forms of knowledge as well as an attack on the tyranny of “totalizing discourses”.2 Drawing from Nietzsche, Foucault debates that the study of the history of ideas depends on continuities that break down under closer inspection: there are points of discontinuity between broadly defined modes of knowledge; however, the general assumption that those modes exist as pre-established wholes fails to do justice to the complexities of discourse. A discourse in fact emerges and exists according to a complex set of discursive and institutional relationships which are strongly defined by gaps, breaks and ruptures: what Foucault calls the conditions of existence.3 Histories that depend on notions of continuity are therefore misleading and narcissistic for they seek, in forms of historical continuity, to re-affirm and assure the possibility of subjectivity. In other words, the new history that Foucault executes primarily refuses Anthropology.4 In Foucauldian terminology the vocable archèologie does not imply, as the author states more than once, the search for a beginning; it designates the theme of a methodology for digging into the background reasons why a certain object, statement or discourse is able to be born and picked in certain spacial and temporal conditions. It is within this frame that Foucault, treating knowledge-power as a grid, explores the ties between elements of savoir (knowledge) and pouvoir5 (power): nothing can appear as knowledge if it does not conform to the rules and the constraints of a given discourse in a given epoch.
Towards an archaeology of media The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. But the archive is also that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents; but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities. —Michel Foucault6 Friedrich A. Kittler is a key theorist for the field of media archaeology. Given that Foucault’s contribution to the archaeology of knowledge and culture was to emphasize it as a methdology for excavating conditions of existence,7 Kittler builds on Foucault’s theory and debates the need of a mediatechnological understanding of such archaeological work. In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) the German media theorist poses a key question: what if we apply Foucauldian notions to the genealogy of media? How do (multi-)media infiltrate the archive? Media, as Kittler argues, limit Foucault’s project8: the philosopher’s systematic analyses focus mainly on documents and written discourse and cease before the moment in which other electronic media penetrate the archive. 'Discourse analyses cannot be applied to sound archives or towers of film rolls'9 hence the necessity of an extensive Foucauldian 3
6 Foucault, M., The Archaeology of Knowledge, 129, 131.
7 Parikka, J., What is Media Archaeology?, 6.
8 As cited by Wendy Chun in New Media, Old Media, 5.
9 Kittler, F., Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 5.
10â€‡ Parikka, J., What is Media Archaeology?, 6.
reading of media technology, networks and artifacts. One can then define media archaeology as a research methodology in media studies with an emphasis on questions of descent, alternative origins and neglected histories: paraphrasing Jussi Parikka10, media-archaeologically tuned research writes counter-histories to the mainstream media history, providing other way to understand our current mediascape. As in Foucault, all archaeological excavations into the past are meant to reveal our present situation.
In Wolfgang Ernst interpretation11, the media archaeologist refers to the past (the old, the vintage, the retro) only to address the condition of current media operations: being (still) at work. Following this notion, the temporal category “past” appears rather like a function of a present process, a present-in-action. An alternative temporality has been established. Finally, the move away from a totalizing idea of time-history as straight lines allows for an adjustment of the terminology used to describe media too. “Old” and “new” start to become trivial adjectives.
11 Ernst, W., Media Archaeology. Method & Machine, public lecture at Anglia Ruskin University.
Fix the vocabulary Before articulating an analysis of mediaarchaeological methods and theories that can be applied, used – and most importantly reused, remixed, reshuffled – within our current media apparatus, there is a task to be undertaken. Many discussions in society concerning digital technology deal with convincing people (the end-users) about what is new and what is old. The novelty of contemporary media culture is increasingly claimed in Western marketing and commercial practices, as if, rhetorically speaking, a master plans of media development had been pre-established and were pursued. As Siegfried Zielinski12 once called it, we currently subsist on a capitalist “upgrade” digital culture, a psychopathia medialis that tries to regulate and smoothen our understanding of media, in order to further appropriate said digital technologies, make them docile and finally transform them in the new primary fantasy objects13 of capitalist economy.
12 Zielinski, S., Deep time of the media: toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means, 8.
13 Parikka, J., What is Media Archaeology?, 51.
14 Chun, W., New Media, Old Media, 3.
15 Gunning, T., Rethinking Media Change: An Aesthetics of Transition, 40.
16 Chun, W., New Media, Old Media, 3.
Such a subtly imposed understanding of digital media as constantly evolving and progressing matches the terminology utilised to describe them. The term “new” portrays other media as old, obsolescent, imperfect, not working anymore: dead. Paraphrasing Wendy Chung14, to call something “new” is to categorize it, while at the same time to insist that it has no precedent, multiple or opposite. Finally, it should be hard to describe in its wonderful state. However the term, especially when joined by another uninterrogated vocable such as “media”, is widely accepted. This is partially a consequence of the (political) effort to make media “new”: the wonder associated with media is renewed whenever technology fails and must be replaced, as Tom Gunning argues15. An example of it is the Internet, whose moment of reasonable “newness” did not correspond to its birth but rather to its depiction and increased coverage of it in other mass media during the 1990s – as part of an economical and political move to deregulate it16. The Internet was admired as capable of refreshing, updating, improving the technology that allowed access to it, “making them new” while not being novel at all. To further refuse the notions of constant “newness” tactfully advanced by the capitalist modalities of current economy, an alternative reading of the term can be accomplished: to be new is not simply to be singular. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines new also as ‘coming as a resumption or repetition of some precious act or thing; starting afresh.’ Pattern of repetition can then be found in the new, which is ‘restored after demolition, decay, disappearance, etc’. Revealing such refrains becomes a crucial element in analysing the constantly 6
up-to-date media device that saturate our daily life, with the endlessly renewing of both the hard-ware and the soft-ware. New questions replace the old ones in a shift from investigating what is “new” to what work the “new” does. To follow those nonlinear paths of media (a-)rhythmic temporalities, in which time figures as ‘a crumpled handkerchief’17, it is also to look beyond the duality old—new. As we have seen, newness is a relative concept, particularly in a context where the “new” highly depends on technical qualities and performance. Hence, the need to fix the vocabulary. “Emerging media” has been proposed and used within academia. “Digital media” has gained momentum. “Zombie media” has been used, in a more specific way for ‘dead media revitalized, brought back to use, reworked.’18 Alternatively, “computing media”, as recently proposed by Lev Manovich19, seems to conceive most of the qualities of contemporary media. Qualities which are not just situated inside the media objects, but rather exist outside – in the form of commands and techniques of the user.
Background/s Positioned between archeology as academic discipline of analyzing material culture and the Foucauldian notion of the "archive" as the set of rules governing the range of what can be verbally or audiovisually expressed at all, media archeology is first of all a methodical way and aesthetics of practicing media studies and media criticism. Besides, it is a hunting for "dead media" discoveries 7
17 Serres, M., Latour, B., Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, 60.
18 Parikka, J., and Hertz, G., Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method, 4. 19 Manovich, L., "Media After Software" forthcoming in Journal of Visual Culture.
20 Ernst, W., Media Archaeology. Method & Machine, public lecture at Anglia Ruskin University.
and reverse engineering. Finally... [it] describes moments when media themselves... become "archeologists" of epistemic objects... Beyond Marshall McLuhan, media are not just extensions of men but have become autonomous. —Wolfgang Ernst20 The field of analysis has now been freed from ambiguities: media archaeology is against history and against narrative. The key underlying theoretical concepts that make up the ground onto which carrying out the media-archaeological investigation have been outlined. Aforementioned Foucault and Kittler are (just two of) the theorists who have had a greater impact on media archaeology theory. Bearing in mind that one must be careful when attempting to establish a unified canon of mediaarchaeological work – for it would threaten its core heterogeneity – it is still possible to venture in describing some of the key themes that (will) have been applied as a methodology or aesthetics of executing media. Media archaeology mobilizes new senses of temporality and it does so in different ways. In What is Media Archaeology? Jussi Parikka delineate six different kinds of approaches: artistic works that 1) engage with historical subjects; 2) invoke alternative histories so to reject the assumed natural “digitality” and its constant progressing; 3) use obsolescent materials and solutions; 4) consciously draw from concrete past archives; 5) dig into past and present machines; and finally 6) consist in the fashioning of machines that have not been realized before or were dead: what 8
he calls imaginary media.21 More concisely, the film theorist Wanda Strauven (2013) maps 1) the old in the new; 2) the new in the old; 3) recurring topoi; and 4) ruptures and discontinuities, as key examples of media-archeological temporalities.22 Most of these recur in the analysis to be conducted underneath, which for ease of examination will embark on three case studies only. The first part focuses on the artistic interventions that celebrates the non-linear pasts of media culture and on its methodic way, in order to understand other and future works in the field. Media archaeology there acts mainly as a critique of temporality, investigating the duality old—new and the relationships between “established” media, “emerging” media and most importantly “dead” media which are cyclically repurposed: crucial are elements of remix, remediation, refrain and repetition alongside with the concepts of circuit bending and hardware hacking. On the other hand, the second half of the analysis shifts from the manual intervention of the (media) artist on the hard-ware part of the technological device to a (only seemingly) more subtle soft-ware intervention. As media increasingly become dependent from software, the artist transforms accordingly thus becoming, as Manovich sustains, a software artist. Works from practitioners in this field, such as designers engaging with (programming) contemporary computing media, are the topics of the second part of this paper: visualization of informations through geometrical patterns, algorithms and data processing, as well as noise, glitches, dis/continuities and visual abstraction.
21 Parikka, J., What is Media Archaeology?, 163.
22 Strauven, W., "Media Archaeology: Where Film History, Media Art and New Media (Can) Meet" forthcoming in Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: A Handbook.
A quest for authenticity? In the digital-culture landscape speed is a key feature: high definitions, fast broadbands, increased technological performances are the wonders of the contemporary economy. The very landscape is nonetheless contaminated by vintage and retro objects, often considered better than the new. Those media artifacts such as an analogue camera, a floppy disk, an audio cassette or a Sony Walkman are clearly in vogue; so are revival practices: the way media are used, or even consumed is progressively becoming retro, a glaring example of it being the reproduction in religious silence of a whole vinyl at a monthly gathering in London and New York: the Classic Album Sundays. Finally, the recent tendency of sharing vintage looking photographs on social media such as Facebook and Instagram is a witness of the same trend: faux-vintage photography is expression of not only nostalgia but also revival of what supposedly is (or feels?) more authentic.23 As different modes of vintage media consumption both the experience of creating and documenting one’s life through retro looking imagery and the resurgence of vinyl opposed to “mp3” share a common refusal for digital culture. For the latter, download culture threaten music as it accommodates a less authentic involvement with sound. In the case of vintage photography the general perception is that imagery produced with newer media (such as a digital camera) often lacks originality: whereas actually vintage photography describes a far gone world and only partially stands the test of time with its physicality and its artifacts, the digital image does not immediately exist as a tangible 13
23 The trend can be further explained as a self-documentation possibility offered by social media: given they are archives for the here-and-now, the experience of the present becomes a potential document and collides with the past. Users then display their lives in the present as a past to feel nostalgic for. Nathan Jurgenson wrote an essay on the phenomenon for The Society Pages.
object. Creating faux-vintage content is a way to displace the original content (the pictured present) in the past, the authentic, the real.
Layers of dust
24 Parikka, J., and Hertz, G., Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method, 4.
25 London, B., Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.
26 In 1994 Kittler wrote that on an external and 'intentionally superficial level, graphic user interfaces... hide a whole machine from its users... [while] on a microscopic level of hardware, protection software has been implemented in order to prevent untrusted programs or untrusted users from any access to the operating system.'
Digital culture is embedded in an endless heap of network wires, lines, routers, switches... that will be trashed... [The] obsolescence of technological components is integral to contemporary media technologies. —Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka24 In 1932 Bernard London proposed a solution to the Great Depression: to label commercial products with an expiration date and charge tax on those who used the products past their determined lifespan. According to London25, increasing the speed of obsolescence would have forced consumers to purchase, hence reversed the economic downturn. The idea of “planned obsolescence” was not implemented at the time but gained momentum in the second half of the century, until becoming an underlying constant cultural condition of modern media: technological commodities designed not to be fixable are now the norm. Albeit planned obsolesce is polymorph and ubiquitous, it is not immediately detectable. Separately sold vital accessories; dismissed charging cables; non replaceable batteries, led-lights, memories or units; discontinued parts; finally, design decisions such as using unknown screw head types or applying glue instead of screws; all of these are among the means of restricting behaviours of (re)use26: a microarchitecture of control.27 The results are layers of dust and toxic mountains of undead consumer 14
electronics: the fastest-growing portion of waste in our society. Yet another point of departure for analysing the remediation of the old within the new is this concept of built-in obsolescence. Media are programmed with destruction and being discarded, they are built to fail faster and easier than ever before. In response to the planned malfunction, pattern of repurposing the obsolescent have emerged in the creative realm. Whereas the praxis of reuse in avant-garde art is an established one – from Duchamp to VJing, re-appropriation has been a pioneering method for innovation – the recent referencing, repurposing and remixing of old (analogue, electronic) commercial devices in art and design practices is a key tactic ‘set against the demand for originality and newness that drives production of technology’.28 Planned obsolescence is implemented at a micropolitical level of design and production. The electronic commodity is manufactured to be used as a single object because its mechanism is hidden. As a consequence, the inner workings of a device are usually incomprehensible to the user and irrelevant to actually using it: the inside is a blackbox, or even a series of nested boxes, a kind of rhizomatic matr-yoshka set (let us remember that all peripherals in a computing machine are connected to a logic board called motherboard; matryoshka derives from matrona, mother; both the Russian and English terms descend from ProtoIndo-European méh ter). For media archaeology the figure of the artist engaging with the engineering side of media devices becomes of great importance. Where most of the consumers stop, which is at the 15
27 To expand on the concept see Lockton, D., Architectures of Control in Consumer Product Design. The concept was at first developed by American scholars Mike Davis and Lawrence Lessig.
28 Parikka, J., What is Media Archaeology?, 150.
29 To expand see Fuller, M., Towards an Ecology of Media ecology.
stage of using a device, the artist carries on and pushes the limits of technology, abusing it: she/he hacks hardware, manipulates circuits and adopts Do-It-Yourself (DIY) techniques as a methodic way of working. Thus becoming a “circuit bender” and, in a wider frame that takes into account those issues of electronic rubbish and discarded functioning products, a new ecologist.29 Opening up the device tap into the ecosophical sphere and acquires an (eco)political meaning.
Time of the living dead (media) Case study I
30 Ernst, W., The untimeliness of media, public lecture at Urbino University.
Japanese Yuri Suzuki is an example of a sound artist and designer that investigates the nature of consumer electronics and our understanding of how things work. The London-based creative has built up a collection of unique objects that radically demystify electronics and cha(lle)nge their takenfor-granted function. Focusing particularly on the relations between sound, technology and how people’s mind are affected by it, he has manipulated circuitry in a number of projects. The mental association one is likely to make when reading terms such as “dead” or “zombie media” does not apply well to the fresh and playful look that most of Suzuki’s projects boast. Nevertheless the notion of media being undead and therefore reused is very present: the “untimeliness of media”, as Ernst once named it30, is incorporated in most of the artist’s works. Despite circuit bending being commonly executed without formal training, Suzuki somehow embodies the role of an artist-engineer: he takes the old 16
and brings it to life, creating new and unexpected products (or experiences) with a high quality finish – his educational background betrays his attachment to and passion for (product) design.31 Among the most prominent examples of his craftsmanship are a “musical instruments” named White Noise Machine and a device called Tube Map Radio.
In 2010 the installation Silent City was set up in New Delhi, India. The highly noise-polluted capital was the host of the sound installation and the White Noise Machine was part of it. One could describe the device as a steam punk looking sculptural machine that masks auditory pollution. As the artist writes on his website ‘it can calculate the quantity of street noise and then generate the same amount of white noise’, hence ‘drowning the ambient noise’.32 The assemblage of a wooden parallelepiped box and a conical metal amplifier (or horn) attached to it composes the rather simple hardware part of the device. The software part hidden in the box is more interesting: the horn is in fact merely amplifying the sound emitted 17
31 As Suzuki stated in a interview with the author of this paper.
32 See note 31.
by a small speaker, which is connected to a Print Circuit Board (PCB, or motherboard). Three more peripherals are connected to it: a microphone that catches external sounds, a chip that calculates the input value, deforms it and sends an output value – being the sound we recognise as white noise – and finally a power battery that provides energy to the small system. The way the machine works is then simple yet surprising: however loud one shouts towards the device, or however potent a sound coming from the extern is, the White Noise Machine will cover it. The machine is reminiscent of a steam punk “style”. Steam punk is a mixture of interests, hobbyist activities and passion for misapplied technology. The subculture is emblematic of the mediaarchaeological proneness to think temporalities as non linear: it in fact tends to mix past Victorian aesthetic principles with modern technology. It ‘typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology’ (OED) as well as the spirit of DIY and bricolage in general: a tinkerer spirit close to the circuit bender’s one.
Suzuki’s White Noise Machine shares also great affinities with the work of the Italian Luigi Russolo. The Futurist author, painter and music composer crated a series of devices which he labeled “Intonarumori” – literally, “noise-maker”. The experimental instruments’ first appearance dates back to a century ago, precisely 1913, a particular moment in time at which ideas were in ferment and artistic vanguards were flourishing as firm refusals of the established artistic, philosophic, psychologic and socio-economic values then in force. As the beginning of the century saw a widespread rejection of the “old order” in favour of what was perceived as new, written public declarations of intentions such as the Manifesto Futurista, published in 1909 by the Italian writer Filippo T. Marinetti on a number of Italian newspapers at first and then on the French Le Figaro, became the norm among artistic avant-gardes. Futurist music, which also rejected tradition and introduced experimental sounds inspired by machinery, vaunted its own manifesto: The Art of Noises, written by Russolo. He argued that the human ear had become accustomed to speed, energy and urban sound, hence the need of new approaches to musical instrumentation and composition that were to represent the sonic palette.33 Among those new electric and technological inventions figured the family of Intonarumori: acoustic noise generators that permitted to create and control in pitch a plethora of different sounds.34 19
33 Suzuki specified (n. 31) that Russolo wanted to make sound while he wanted to cover it with white noise.
34 To then produce
sound, the performer had to turn a crank or press an electric button to generate the sound whose pitch was controlled by means of a lever on top of the box. The lever could be moved over a scale in tones, semitones and intermediate gradations within a range of circa an 1/8. 35 See note 31
36 Derrida writes: ‘The bricoleur, says Levi-Strauss, is someone who uses “the means at hand”, that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already
More recently Suzuki has been working with the Design Museum in London, as part of the Designers in Residence program. The theme of the residency was “thrift”, which surely maps nicely onto the media archaeological method of practising media: thrift was there to be understood not just as the quality of saving and using money carefully, but rather as a general recycling habit, an eco-nomy and eco-logy of material things and a re-thinking of resources. In response to the subject the artist collaborated with a Japanese engineer and electronics manufacturer called Shindo Denki Sekkei35 to create a radio embedded in a circuit board that is arranged to look like the London tube map. The Tube Map Radio is informed by an early spoof diagram sketched by Harry Beck, the original designer of the London Tube map. The idea of a black-box being the hidden part of a device usually hidden from consumers, is specifically present in this project; yet the box has finally been opened. The radio embodies different very material things, each of which has a particular function and meaning. It is not only a piece of product design, nor just a mise en pratique of infographic techniques aiming to topologically draw a route map of transportation means; it does not merely represent the circuit bending of a PCB and the amateur work that a bricoleur36 might have undertaken, nor does it work solely as a radio. As the name itself suggests, the Tube Map Radio is all of these things re-mixed and re-skilled together, hence a good representation of undead media merged in a singular product. In its open and hybrid form, the project of Suzuki and Denki Sekkei can be informative and 20
there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogenous’.
educational too. London Underground lines and stations are annotated as electrical circuit and some iconic landmarks on the map are represented by components relating to their functions, therefore establishing a firm connection between form and function of a single piece of circuitry on the map. It includes an amplifier located where Speaker’s Corner sits and a medium sized battery representing Battersea Power Station. The complex networks associated with electricity is unveiled and the consumer can visually and practically understand how power is generated within a radio. Aiming to (1) provide a basic knowledge on the specific radio device and (2) creating a more general ‘narrative to explain how electronics work’, the artist hopes users will take a step further and be encouraged to fix their own broken devices. 21
Towards software 37 See note 31.
38 Manovich, L., "Media After Software" forthcoming in Journal of Visual Culture.
As Suzuki stated37, it is difficult for the consumer to understand the complexity of the workings behind the exterior of current electronic commodities. The consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new, in his psychopathia medialis. The above-mentioned “artist-engingeer” rather fights back the trend by technically and actively engaging with media devices without training and/or approval. To bend and hack; to ab-use and mis-use; to dis-rupt and cor-rupt (from Latin rumpere, break); such practices are not extraneous to the current medial and digital landscape, but rather proliferate: alternative processes and procedures emerge on heterogeneous strata. With regard to the last point, such modes of intervention coalesce into a wider series of regularities and patterns of change: a shift in society where inventive ways to re-skill are being proposed. This, of course, happens on one hand at the level of manual and physical interactions and implies creative methodologies of media remediation (Suzuki is here joined by practitioners in sound: Shintaro Myazaki, Paul De Marinis, Modified Toy Orchestra to name a few). On the other hand, most of the contemporary artistic remediation happens at a deeper level than that of (hidden) materiality: the level of operative, processual mode of technological media. As Lev Manovich recently discussed, to fully grasp the various forms of current media, or even what media means today, and to then articulate a discourse on the digital landscape and its polymorph nature, ‘[a] part is crucial... the part in question is software.’38
The last two decades have witnessed a proliferation of artists whose primary medium is software. Instead of relying on the twentieth century commercial media, the new generation of designer is now largely using or even writing its own (software) code to create its own digital, cultural and reference systems. By writing code one provides the instructions for telling a computer what to do and how to do it. Consequentially one does not perceive the computer as a “hub” for other media devices or as an interface to (just) interact with, but rather uses it as a programming machine that can be accessed and manipulated. Such an approach ties in with the media archaeological method: programming frees the end-user from his passive position of mere responder, it frees him from the language and aesthethics of commercially prebuilt software environment and suites, or quoting Manovich39 ‘it liberates art from being secondary to commercial media’, in the same way breaking and repairing, physically hacking and bending machines frees the artist-engineer and possibly the end-user from its reliance on and submission to disposable commercial commodities – and their manufacturers agenda. By means of further introduction, to make sense of the shift from a guided use of the computer to the recent coding and the direct dealing with numbers one needs to comprehend how computers normally work. As the OED states, a computer is ‘a device or machine that carries out computations’, that is to say calculations with numbers. In order to compute, the machine must be provided with precise instructions, what is normally called a ‘program’, and of course unprocessed data, in the 23
39 Manovich, L., Generation Flash, 9.
form of a collection of numbers. Computing data is made easier by the use of software that incorporate custom-built functions, to which one can refer to as a set of commands. Which translates as follows: depending on which software one uses, what can be done with a given digital media file widely changes, because of the very nature of computing operations that take up the vast sets of numbers required to represent an image digitally on a screen and return a series of red, green and blue light values (RGB). These patterns form together a meaningful digital image. Vice versa, any digital media file can be understood as information visualization that reveals patterns contained in its values. It follows that any image on a computer screen is a visualization of numbers and can be infinitely edited as its original space is not analogue but digital. The term “digital” derives from the Latin digitus, meaning finger, and it primarily signifies the countable, calculable, therefore the infinitely computable: it could be argued that there is no such thing as “a digital media” but only “a visualization” of content. In the case of a digital photograph the number of program and functions that might be applied to it is great; Manovich writes:
40 Manovich, L., "Media After Software"
‘[...]if I open... [a] photo in Photoshop, I can do a lot more. I can instruct Photoshop to automatically replace some colors in a photo with others, make visible its linear structure by running edge detection filter, blur it in a dozen of different ways, composite with another photo, and perform hundreds of other operations.’40
However, a risk exists. Given that software highly eases computing operations and raw data manipulation, it also imposes certain algorithms, rules and modalities of use: the so-called filters. In simple terms, a collection of applications such as the Adobe Creative Suite that comprehends most of the currently used tools in the design world (programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustration, Indesign, or Flash to name but a few) induce its end-users to react to pre-built functions and processes that exist within the software, thus outputting fairly similar results when manipulating digital files. Taking these notions to an extreme, it is not uncommon to see images which are easily recognizable as, for instance, ‘photoshopped’. Many are concerned with this seemingly variegated panorama and are tired of being subordinary and always responding to what already exists; therefore software artists stop working exclusively with commercial software and ‘mark their mark on the world by writing original code.’41 The shift from a media-focused praxis to a softwarecentered one can be investigated from yet another perspective. Computing media have lost their interface, as the form they take is secondary to the content they display; the very attributes of media itself are not solely inside the device, but are largely generated outside of it, in the form of coding. This reveal a crucial point of departure from the nature of former reproduction technologies. At first, woodblock and moveable-type printing, lithography and photography all stored “information” in ways accessible to bare senses. Towards the end of the 19th century, electronic devices flourished and the first switch from analogue to electronic occurred. 25
forthcoming in Journal of Visual Culture.
43 Manovich, L., Generation Flash, 6.
Telephone, radio, phonograph and even film abandoned older formats in favor of an electrical signal and an interface to represent and control given signal. This represented a fundamental innovation for media, as the reproduction and communication technologies became products in need of an interface. A trajectory could be traced that extends from this moment in time at which interfaces started to be designed to modern product design. The new form of the new consumer product was among the most important futures of the reproduction device: its properties were no longer the mere data. Finally, the principle has been further extended recently, with the conversion from electronic to digital signal. Information storage has been taken to an extreme, reaching the point of total independence form the interface. Data is now encoded in media ‘as sets of numbers... which can only be efficiently accessed by users via software’42 therefore loosing the strict relationship with hardware, or better the physicality and materiality of an interface. As someone suggested programming software is ‘suddenly cool’; it is however not just a return to freed modes of intervention and direct dealing with the medium or media: it currently is a vital part of it, the core of contemporary reproduction devices which are created, experienced, remixed, organized and shared with software. This is the very last shift: media becomes software.43
A return to computer art? Case study II The computer is a unique device for the arts since it can function solely as an obedient tool with vast capabilities for controlling complicated and involved processes, but then again, full exploitation of its unique talents for controlled randomness and detailed algorithms could result in an entirely new medium – a creative artistic medium. —A. Michael Noll44 To flee from figurative art and the representative language of commercial media and software, artists and designers lately began to experiment on two substantially different grounds. Two trends emerged, and despite being visually diametrically opposite they share affinities to the extent that programming techniques are employed as means of intervention. The two “currents” are significant for the media-archaeological spirit: on one hand, an abstract and clean look, wary of early computer art of the 1950s—1970s, is being repurposed. Lines and simple shapes, mathematically generated curves and geometric objects, patterns and data-handling and -visualization form the language of modernist abstraction and generative design used by many current designers. On the other, a purposely imperfect approach arose. Ruptures, glitches, dis/continuities are features of a technological approach to noise that challenges the myth of linear progression and noiseless information-transmission, both assumed to be natural within digital reproduction systems: an avant-garde aesthetics of the unknown defined as “glitch culture”. 27
44 Noll, M., Art ex Machina, 10.
45 Monfort, N., 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+ RND(1));:GOTO 10, 135.
46 Ibid, 136.
In the 1960s computer artists came into contact with engineers and scientists. Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), founded by Robert Rauschenberg and Bill Klüver of Bell Laboratories, encapsulated the Western era’s enthusiasm for those explorations between engineering, art and design since its foundation in 1966. It was a time of radical experimentation with randomness in the visual art, altough a limited access to computing machines strictly confined the first computer explorations in graphic forms to a few individuals. Artists gaining access to the machines were typically doing residencies at companies such as EAT hence had a limited time to work with computers, while mathematicians and engineers, curious about possible alternative uses of these machines, experimented more commonly with random generated artistic patterns.45 As a matter of fact, the aesthetics of such an early form of computer art was subordinary to the fact that (artists and) engineers were only able to create images and animations through programming – that is precise rules, algorithms and methods applied to raw numbers. In other words, a mathematician’s approach to visual art was the only possible when using a computer. The American engineer A. Michael Noll is an example of an early pioneer in digital art. He formalized the use of random and algorithmic processes in the creation of visual art. Noll investigated the tension between order and disorder, regularity and random values in a visually abstract but precise way, through series of patterns generated by means of computational algorithms.46 In an essay written in 1970, he stressed that aesthetic computational 28
works and arbitrary values are intertwined and therefore randomness is an essential feature of the computer in relation to the generative art and design.47 Despite randomness being less obvious or at least not foregrounded like it used to be in the early works of computational art, the point Noll makes is still certainly true. Randomness plays an essential role, for instance, in 3D particle systems, in interactive physic simulations or in game graphics â€“ when it shuffles the cards in Solitaire.
47â€‡ Noll, M., Art ex Machina, 12.
48 Manovich, L., Generation Flash, 1.
49 Manovich says: ‘[...] vector nets, pixel-thin grids and arrows: Bauhaus design in the service of info design.’
Manovich suggested that a trajectory extends from early Computer Art to what he defines the current ‘new modernism of data visualization.’48 The use of programming to generate and control abstract images can be traced back to the praxis of those engineers that wrote lines of code to explore artistic grounds. Despite of the invention of new programming languages, the methodology adopted by current designer is very similar: a direct dealing with the computing medium is likely to result in a clean, precise aesthetics. The same simple shapes, lines, grids, arrows and details typical of digital art from the 1960s appears in current design practices, particularly when dealing with information: numbers in need of an accessible layout.49
One might disagree. One might argue that this return never actually occurred. One might question weather early computer art and current forms of design dealing with data visualization (infographic) are akin simply because both engage in series of computations and their graphical transposition. Finally, one might conclude that design dealing with the visual display of information is an evolution of computer art aesthetics and methodologies. When facing such questions and the underlying notion of linear progression, it is crucial to remind ourselves of how numerous and often varied the conditions of emergence and existence of a certain discourse, practice or trend in a given moment in time are. Programming, circuit bending and other DIY practices are part of what seems to be a shift in re-thinking technologies in both their soft- and hardware; they are attempts to break with the discourse of commercial media and commercial software and their products or action scripts. Generative design in particular is not mere coding, but rather a method of intervention on the operative modes of technology set to challenge the assumed constant evolution of media by re-using native techniques and commands such as experienced programming languages.
The glitch moment(um) Case study III
50 Shannon, C. E., A Mathematical Theory of Communication, 1.
51 See http://gli.tc/h/
52 Menkman, R., The Glitch Moment(um), 14.
Since, ordinarily, channels have a certain amount of noise, and therefore a finite capacity, exact transmission is impossible. —Shannon Weaver50 To see that the glitch aesthetic is alive and well, one needs to look as far as Chicago, where in 2012 GLI.TC/H festival has been held. From the 6th to the 9th of December a vibrant community of related artists, theorists and enthusiasts gathered to provoke and instigate glitches in interesting ways for the third time since the first event held in 2010.51 A glitch can be thought of as an unexpected, non- or mis-understood rupture in a technological flow which gives an insight on its system. Though a glitch doesn’t have to be digital, it often refers to a digital error; glitches are then virtual gaps, digital discontinuities: they can be generated and used to challenge language, communication and hegemonic interfaces such as the form of a technological device or the form of interactions with it. Rosa Menkman, a Dutch glitch artist, theorist and curator in the field, describes glitch as a rejection of the utopian dream of an even media experience: to study media artifacts ‘is to take interest in the failure of media to disappear… in noise artifacts.’52 Glitch Art then pushes the limits of technology by abusing its operative modalities and evoking noise artifacts. It takes the form of imagery corrupted by visual flaws that interrupt the supposedly noiseless channels of reproduction and it possess the great potential to interrogate conventions 32
through accidents, bugs and crashes. Under a theoretical perspective it becomes a tool to leverage the key themes of failure and chance, memory and nostalgia, or calls attention to issues such as planned obsolescence and “upgrade” culture.53 The notions of noise and disturbance applied to information theory and information systems was advanced at first by Claude Shannon. He developed a mathematical theory of communication while working at the aforementioned Bell Labs in 1948. Shannon aspired to improve the quality of communication, which he reduced to a process of ‘transmitting information’ between machines. He argued that communication systems performing a transmission of information can be understood as channels transporting a small quantity, ‘a yes or no decision’, a bit.54 Together with the scientist Warren Weaver, he outlined a communication model that demonstrates how a message will always encounter noise while transmitted to its destination and will be corrupted by it.
53 As pointed out on http://gli.tc/h/faq/
54 Shannon, C. E., A Mathematical Theory of Communication, 1.
An information source produces a message, which get encoded in signals by a transmitter; the transmitter sends it through a channel, at the end of which a receiver decodes it to finally deliver it in the proper form. The corruption occurs when noise obscures the purity of the encoded signals, during the channel transmission. Noise is then an external factor that can be identified with mechanical imprecision of instrumentation and that act in between the information source and the final destination, or better its visual or acoustic transposition.
55 See note 53.
Understanding Shannon and Weaver’s model is a basic yet effective way to interpret noise as a rupture in a flow. Glitch artists adapt this notion of noise as a modus operandi. To disrupt the digital transition from numbers to visual form (source > destination) glitch artists work on the digital artifact directly by breaking it down to it’s core: they access and manipulate the code – the DNA of a digital file – by, for instance, adding or deleting numbers that correspond to specific RGB light values making up a (series of) pixel(s). Once again randomness provides a playful structure within the glitching process, although it is not controlled by mathematical algorithms returning arbitral values as it was in early computer art works. Consequentially the aesthetic output of such processes can be unexpected, engaging or even alarming;55 but it always is revealing of hidden operations and realities.
Conclusion In conclusion, the theoretical ties between media archaeology and glitch art are evident, particularly in the work of an emerging generation of artist and designers who are re-adapting Foucaldian ideas of disruption, non-linearity and gaps in aesthetically compelling ways. As we have seen, a plethora of different practicians are wary of this subfield of media studies and have shown the applicability of media archaeology as a method for creating art and design works. Amateurism and bricolage, hacking and coding are among the means of repurposing the old in the new, contaminating the new with the old or evoking continuities and discontinuities, regularities and ruptures, ritornelli and differences. This creative method will develop further as we proceed towards an increasingly circulated temporality in digital culture.
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A dissertation presented to The School of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI) of the University of East London by Francesco Tacchini in 2013.
Published on Jan 7, 2013
A dissertation presented to The School of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI) of the University of East London by Francesco Tacchini in 2013.