Glitch art presents an interesting example of a digital code poking through the seemingly-smooth surface of content. This is a uniquely digital art form that methodologically proceeds through the act of breaking the code that produces digital images and videos, with the goal of aestheticizing the digital artifacts and errors that emerge. Glitch art is organized around surfacing the infrastructure that supports the display and manipulation of digital graphics, and making visible the architecture that these file formats tend to obscure or smooth over. Glitch art practitioners are engaged in production processes that insist on the digital nature of images and videos, that reveal the contingent nature of digital files (change a single character in the code and radically change the image), and that demonstrate the productive possibilities of allowing access to the ‘guts’ of digital objects. Glitch art makes explicitly the symbiotic relationship between digital forms and content, and insists that there is not such thing as simple “content.”
Glitch art practitioners started by manually manipulating the hex code for a given image in order to experiment with the visual effects they could create. As this medium grew and evolved more and more people began creating tools to automate the production of glitch artwork, or use graphical interfaces to make the manipulation of images easier. For example, I used this image glitch experiment website to create the glitchy images of Robarts at the beginning of this post. What is interesting about these kinds of tools is that they tend to re-obscure the code that was the original material of the glitch artist. Rather than having to dump the hex of a given file into a program like Text Wrangler and iteratively experiment with the code, all one needs to do now is drag and drop an image into a website and play around with a set of toggles. The ‘guts’ of the digital file are no longer exposed, and digital file formats once again emerge as easy containers of so-called content.
The evolution of glitch art points to the fact that we tend to favor ease of use and a lack of error in our digital environments (we want digital files that work and that function as expected. However, it may serve us well to follow the initial impulse of glitch art to embrace or seek out artifacts, bugs and glitches in digital files. By doing so, we may be reminded that no matter how unified and solid a digital file appears, it is always a contingent object that expresses a unique synthesis of form and content.