Hugh S. Manon is Associate Professor of Screen Studies and Director of the Screen Studies programme at Clark University. His interests range from George Romero’s zombie movies, to psychoanalysis and glitch art. Manon co-authored Notes on Glitch with artist Daniel Temkin, an attempt to “both define and theorise a set of practices that is known by various names: databending, datamoshing, image hacking, and of course glitch art.” Via Skype, he spoke to Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie about bringing disruption to our seamless digital lives and what digital natives can learn from the attitude of 1970s car customisers.
SG-A The idea for the theme of this issue came in part from an interview in the last issue with Jaron Lanier, a critic of web 2.0 culture. He believes that entropy is an inescapable property in any system. Obviously this ties into the idea of glitch, so I wanted to start by asking what are the implications of glitch art in relation to social media and the closed systems that they try to create.
HM I think it’s interesting that web 2.0 puts us at a place of technological sophistication where people are integrated with systems they perceive as seamless. That’s an enormous leap. Daniel Temkin and I believe it’s the notion of perfectibility that glitch really strongly works against. That it’s a disruption of a system that people expect to use in a very natural way.
SG-A One thing that Jaron Lanier writes about is how artificial the seamlessness is. That people seem to adapt their behaviour to fit the way the machine is set up to function. A simple example is the way the “Like” button on Facebook denies a person the opportunity to dislike something.
HM I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms but it also suggests that we’ve entered an age in which everything is approached positivistically, so glitches emerge whether you want them to or not in a way that I would describe as hostile in its indifference. In a sense that “Like” button gets punched over and over again just as an acknowledgment of one’s existence. It’s interesting to me that glitch interrupts this. You read about people petitioning Facebook to add a “Dislike” button without any hope of success, but glitch is politically powerful in its indifference. It’s going to disrupt a system regardless of whether it works for good or bad.
SG-A That brings me onto something else I wanted to ask you about. Christy Wampole wrote a blog for the New York Times recently about irony, in which she referred to the general state of indifference in culture. You suggest a more positive kind of indifference than she describes, so I wonder how you position glitch in relation to irony?
HM Another article that came up about a year earlier was a Bret Easton Ellis piece on Charlie Sheen in the Daily Beast; he had an interesting take on irony. His whole argument hinges on this notion that, post-empire, there are certain figures in popular culture who are working in a system that opposes the old model. Now we’re in an era where everything is self-reflective, everything’s ironic and resistance seems somehow impossible, so the result is a kind of indifference on the part of consumers and the audience. On one hand, the glitch is indifferent to its user; on the other, it absolutely shakes up what I would define as the passivity of people in the way they use technology.
SG-A Do you see glitch as having an aim?
HM No, I think there are multiple aims. I’m viewing this very much as an outsider. My investments in glitch are similar to a lot of people who encounter glitch as a strangely accidental form emerging from the context of a television broadcast or a web feed that goes wrong and suddenly you get these glitchy images. The question in my mind the first time I saw this was: is this something you can create on purpose? I would say that it’s a kind of punk resistance to systems that the mainstream takes for granted. I’m 44 and teaching students who are 20 years old and have grown up in digital culture. They know no difference. One thing that glitch art could be recognised for is that bridge moment between analogue and digital culture.
SG-A I wanted to pick up on something you discuss in Notes on Glitch about glitch as a destructive force. You suggest that a glitched file is somehow in a kind of undead state, only partially broken and still in some way interpretable by whatever software you are using.
HM I come from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the home of all the great George Romero zombie films, and that whole cinematic sub-genre permeates a lot of people’s thinking who come from that area. So I’m really attuned to that whole new wave of zombie fandom and in a sense it’s a very ready, ripe metaphor when glitch emerges on my radar to just think of it as zombie-like. In another article I explicitly linked George Romero’s zombies to a kind of dilapidated milieu of Pittsburgh in the ’70s. It is visibly decaying yet still remains. Glitch is the same way. I think it’s something that glitch artists aim at - a halfway state. The goal is to trigger a certain kind of damage that will nonetheless be readable; it just ends up being read by the software in the wrong way. As such, it is zombie-like.
SG-A I read your essay on jargon and impenetrable language and I wondered if you felt there was any implications with regard to glitch? For example, in the way that an MP3 file can be interpreted by Photoshop.
HM My argument is that jargon’s impenetrability to outsiders leads to a certain kind of animosity on the part of those who aren’t familiar with the jargon. In a way glitch calls attention to a kind of problem that moves in the opposite direction. The problem with digital is that everybody is interacting with it and no one notices they are interacting with it, so glitch, in some sense, calls attention to that interface. Having grown up grappling with analog audio equipment for 20 years of my life and recording everything on magnetic tape, that whole process was nothing but a battle and interacting with digital seems like nirvana. We have arrived and suddenly all the noise reduction technology in the world is no longer necessary. That perfection, that sense of satisfaction that we have arrived at the goal, is part of what glitch is clearly fighting against.
SG-A You mentioned the tendency toward perfection, which reminded me of when The Hobbit trailer came out and there were all these stories about people complaining because it was the first film to be shown at 48fps. People found it too real and the fantasy was too evident.
HM It’s true that the higher definition an image is the more the artificialness of the pro filmic element becomes visible. But again, isn’t it the case that people are not aware of the extent to which 24fps introduces a layer of artifice into their understanding of cinema. They just don’t see it until something changes and suddenly the incredible artifice of what they’ve been viewing all along is set in high relief. Its most striking in stuff like The Hobbit and heavily CGI-driven cinema. I really have a hard time getting past its slickness. I’m very much engaged with psychoanalysis as a model for understanding texts and part of what psychoanalysis would say is that satisfaction is ultimately not satisfying. Once you get to that point of satisfaction, it turns into anxiety. It’s oppressive and I think that’s where we are now with digital cinema.
SG-A It’s also amazing how quickly we become used to new technologies, which at first seem jarring. Before long it becomes just as difficult to watch something in standard definition.
HM I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, it says more about human subjectivity than it does about the technology. In a sense we’re never going to be satisfied with what we’ve got so the technology steps up in quality.
SG-A Maybe it needs a programming language to be taught at school in the same way that French or German is taught to give a generation the tools with which to see the cracks in the seamless walled garden of Apple, iTunes, etc. At that point, does glitch begin to blend into the background?
HM I see this all the time in the sense that students come onto the scene as first years at university already knowing lots about video production. I don’t deal with the computer science students, but I’ve seen a lot of them come onto the scene already knowing quite a bit about programming. I’d like to think that what’s happening is that people are adopting the approach of ’70s car customisers. Their machine is no longer this physical object with an engine and tyres and so forth - it’s the computer itself. And so people aren’t just using the programs, they’re trying to figure out how to customise them; tailor them to their own needs.
SG-A It also seems that the glitch community is actively engaged in its own resolution via its open source nature. The fact that you are almost culturally obliged to reveal how you achieve a certain effect, demystifying the gesture you have made.
HM My experience is that people are shockingly non-proprietary about their own techniques and so it’s all shared knowledge, and that is thrilling in the sense that painters would have presumably guarded their knowledge pretty carefully as they developed a new painting technique. But at the same time, I wonder about that because maybe what we are talking about is simply a form of art that depends on the hive mind of the internet and people coming together and producing art as groups. Whether they sign their signature to it or not, a group is what produces the work and that is kind of revolutionary. There’s a lot going on in glitch art that really seems wholly cooperative and collaborative in an old punk DIY sense. People coming together to support an alternative to the mainstream.