ERROR MESSAGE

Untitled Game by JODI, 2001

Untitled Game by JODI, 2001

You cannot prohibit the catastrophe, you must surf it! – Paul Virilio, The Accident of Art

Part I: Tracing the Genealogy of the Glitch

The Aura of the Digital

In his essay The Aura of the Digital, Michel Betancourt, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “aura” from his influential text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, explores the notion of the “aura of the digital”. Rather than postulating “aura” as being intrinsically related to “authenticity”, ala Benjamin’s position, for Betancourt the aura of the digital is seen to stem from the digital’s perceived immateriality, and transcendence of scarcity as such, or as Betancourt puts it; “the illusion of production without consumption.”

In The Work of Art in Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin reifies the work of art, placing emphasis on the significance of its singular “presence in time and space”. For Benjamin the work of art is produced by the hand of the artist, within specific socio-historical circumstances, and is thus imbued with “aura”. Benjamin denounces the mechanical reproduction of art, which he claims will bring about the destruction of the work of art as such, rendering it effectively meaningless. As various theorists have pointed out this turn towards mechanical reproduction has not had the effect Benjamin claimed it would, in fact if anything the perceived “aura” of the work of art can be seen to have been extended (or expanded) in some sense, through the greater proliferation and circulation of representations facilitated by mass and later networked media ecology, whilst contemporary art itself, has come to occupy a position where it no longer emphasizes productivist requirements of art as such.

Betancourt’s inversion of Benjamin’s line of thinking hinges on the notion of “the illusion of the production of capital without its necessary consumption.” (Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital)  This pathological ideological fantasy is produced as capital tries to free itself from certain inherent contradictions, and structural limits; to free itself from the underlying “real” of production and consumption and “ the expenditures required in the creation of the digital itself”. (Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital) As Betancourt puts it; “the aura of the digital signals the digital as the site of a specific reification dramatizing an underlying conflict between production and consumption within capitalism itself -- that is, between the accumulation of capital and its expenditure.” (Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital) He cites the dot.com bubble at the close of the 20th century as an example of this contradiction coming to a head. Arguably certain practices of finance capitalism, such as the trading of credit derivatives (for example the Collaterialized Debt Obligations which are typically seen to be one of the primary causes of the 2008 Financial Crisis; which are effectively a type of “virtual financial object”), can also be seen as contemporary manifestations of this tendency within digitally augmented capitalism.

Magnet TV, by Nam June Paik, 1965

Magnet TV, by Nam June Paik, 1965

As Betancourt puts it:

“The aura of the digital … is a symptom of the structure of a pathological capitalist ideology becoming realized as a fantasy of digital technology without regard for the illusory nature of this transfer, or the reality of the expenditures required in the creation of the digital itself.” (Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital)

The “aura of the digital” in this sense is an ideological form that obscures the costs and expenditures required to produce and sustain it as such; “digital technology, its development, deployment, production and access all demand a large expenditure of capital both to create and to maintain. The aura of the digital separates the results from its technological foundation -- the illusion of value created without expenditure.” (Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital) From the mining and use of rare earth minerals such as manganese in hard drives, to the vast labor inputs of the assembly lines of Chinese factory cities such as Foxconn and others that produce much of the worlds electronic goods, to the vast supply of electricity used to power server farms, and the eventual disposal of digital technologies as e-waste , such expenditures when taken into account are more than significant in their social and environmental impacts.

Electronic Music, Net Art and Glitch Aesthetics

The glitch as an explicitly digital aesthetic and a methodology, can be seen to have emerged from certain strains of experimentation in 90’s “avant-garde” electronic music (and IDM), via the explorations of artists such as Oval, Pan Sonic, Nicolas Collins and Yasunao Tone (among many others), and labels such as Raster Norton and Mille Plateaux with their Clicks & Cuts series. Exploring the materiality of the “new” digital audio technologies they were working with, these artists took to producing audio-glitches to be used as sound elements in their compositions: by employing broken machinery, maiming storage mediums, and fragmenting code. As Kim Cascone puts it; "failure has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them. New techniques are often discovered by accident or by the failure of an intended technique or experiment.” (Cascone, 392)

These digital explorations, in a sense represent the inversion of the idealized perfection of the noiseless communication channel that is strived for by information theory and electro-acoustic design. In this negative mode the foreground and background are inverted (there is always inevitably some ‘minimal’ element of noise within any given system of communication), and the errors, failures, and epiphenomena of the medium of communication become the content. (1)

These specifically digital practices are obviously not without broader historical precedents, both within sound practice; the analog record player manipulations of John Cage and Christian Marclay, and the circuit bending movement as pioneered by the outsider artist-electrician Reed Ghazala for example. As well as within the “visual arts”; as much of Nam June Paik’s work, and the “optical soundtrack” work of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Fischinger can be seen to employ similar methodologies.

From it’s development in electronic music (in which it would ultimately be normalized to the point of becoming a redundant gesture – a “genre” in itself), the glitch, became increasingly popular with net artists in the early 2000’s. One particularly notable work of the emerging Glitch movement online was Jodi’s piece Untitled Game), which was a version of the canonical first person shooter Quake that had been modified to produce radical malfunctions. Ostensibly it could still be played on some cursory level, but the digital surfaces of the game, have been stripped back to reveal a mess of 8-bit geometric spatial structures, lines of code, or in some cases simply visual noise.

Shannon and Weaver Model

Shannon and Weaver Model

As the glitch increasingly became formalized as an aesthetic and methodology unto itself, various manifestos of glitch art began to emerge, of which, Rosa Menkman’s the Glitch Momen(tum), is one of the most notable. In her work such as A Vernacular of File Formats, and the Momen(tum) itself, drawing on information theory at large, and Shannon and Weaver’ s Mathematical Model of Communication  in specific, she presents a formalist reading of the glitch, that primarily emphasizes the glitch as a methodology defined by the critical intervention into the processes of communication itself, on a technological level, in order to disrupt the process of transmission;

“The core of a work of glitch art is therefore best understood as the momentary culmination of a history of technological and cultural movements, and as the articulation of an attitude of destructive generativity. In short, glitch art practices are invested in processes of non- conforming, ambiguous re-formations.” (Menkman, 35)

Menkman is highly critical of the aestheticization and the simulation or “domestication” of the glitch, divorced from what she see’s as it’s essentially critical and interventionist methodology; “however, many works of glitch art have developed into archetypes and even stereotypical models, and some artists do not focus on the post-procedural dialectics and complexity of glitch at all. They skip the process of creation through destruction of a flow and focus only, directly, on the creation of new formal designs for glitch, either by creating the final imagistic (or sonic) product, or by developing shortcuts to recreate the latest-circulated glitch reformation” (Menkman, 35)

There is (arguably, see note (2) below) a level of formalism, and a technological determinism to her reading of the glitch that has been criticized by Michael Betancourt, who in his essay Critical Glitches and Glitch Art, critiques what he claims is, an all to prevalent formalist emphasis, in discourses surrounding glitch art. This formalism, Betancourt claims, leads to an emphasis on the glitch as being “inherently critical”, as a gesture unto itself. For Betancourt, the glitch is only critical if it effectively disrupts the reproduction of the digital aura as such; “it is by making the fragmentary nature of the underlying medium—the unseen, un-encounterable digitized data of the machine-readable form—become a part of the audience's immanent encounter that the critical dimensions alluded to by Menkman… et al, become apparent in place of a seemingly continuous media presentation. This context-dependence renders ontological distinctions irrelevant to critical interpretations.” (Betancourt, Critical Glitches)

To Betancourt, Menkmans emphasis on a “inherent criticality” of the glitch, reproduces many of the assumptions of Adorno’s modernist theories of aesthetics as articulated in his text Aesthetic Theory, which assume a inherent criticality to art, as a “pure” exteriority to the social (and technological) relations (and “norms”) of “bourgeoisie-functionalist” society. Adorno claims that; “art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art. By crystalizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as "socially useful," it criticizes society by merely existing.” (Adorno, 225) This valorization of art as inherently critical (and by extension politically radical) which was the formulation of art held to by the pre World War II European avant-garde/s, obscures arts “anthropological role of art as a social status marker”. (Betancourt, Critical Glitches) Furthermore, as theorists such as Suhail Malik have pointed out, art in a contemporary context, plugged into the circuits of exchange of late era capitalism, is increasingly defined by the circulation and accumulation of cultural capital, and intellectual property (and their exchange for economic capital) as much as it is by any sort of inherent critical significance.

For Betancourt though, the critical potential of the glitch resides in it’s ability to successfully disrupt the reproduction of aura of the digital (2), which requires effectively disrupting the audiences tendency to “tune out” glitches as merely temporary malfunctions; “the glitch is more often simply a transient limitation that is quickly elided from consciousness following the aura of the digital, actively "tuned out" by the audience: non-functional (broken) technology is not engaged critically; it is trashed and replaced.” (Betancourt, Critical Glitches) As such, his reading attempts to move away from the formalism, technological determinism, and ontological emphasis that he claims characterizes Menkman’s reading towards an interpretation of the glitch that is relational, interpretive, hermeneutic, and semiotic in orientation.

As Betancourt highlights; “the problematics of glitch as a politically engaged media practice foreground these ruptures and conceptual differences, demanding an approach that accounts for the role of context, audience adaptation and the recoding of interpretation”, (Betancourt, Critical Glitches) if one is to achieve a critical effect and create an opening to broader questioning of the underlying practices of production and consumption that constitute the digital.

Part II: The Future Is Cancelled

The Disintegrating Spectacle

As Betancourt highlights in his aforementioned essay, the aura of the digital itself, is symptomatic of broader contradictions, crises, and transformations of late era capitalism, which has come to be referred to as semiotic or cognitive capitalism by many theorists (3). Having reached certain “given” limits in terms of production and consumption in the post World War II period, “Anglo-American” capitalism was forced to expand it’s markets both spatially via “globalization”, arguably a continuation of colonialism and a return to real subsumption, and intensively via consumer culture, lifestyle branding, and immaterial production. This process was bootstrapped by the proliferation of digital and networked technologies and abetted by the now dominant neo-liberal ideology, with its program of privatization of state assets, “free” trade agreements, de-regulation and of labor markets, and the gutting of the welfare state.

The emerging order of so-called “global capitalism” (though in many ways this term seems problematic in the sense that it is reductive of geo-politically schisms), was increasingly networked, and semiotic/cognitive in nature, orientated towards the production and valorization of information as much as of commodities in a “traditional” material sense. This synergy of neo-liberal political-economic reform, and technocracy led to massive economic development (the so called “new economy”) that would prove to be tenuous and unsustainable, and which ultimately crashed and burned with the dot-com crisis, and the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. (Berardi, 58) The following decade defined as it was by the War on Terror, and punctuated with the 2008 Financial Crisis, and the subsequent global economic meltdown, ushered in a new era; one define not by optimism and futurity, but skepticism, cynicism, and austerity. As the dreams of a technocratic liberal utopia, increasingly began to turn into a nightmare characterized by a new fusion of unbridled capitalism and creeping totalitarianism: replete with mass surveillance, black sites, drone strikes, austerity budgets, and new apartheids.

In his pivotal work Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord elaborated the notion of the spectacle, as that which obscures, yet maintains the relations of production the underlie it, and reproduce it as such. Debord highlighted two distinct modes of the spectacle; the concentrated spectacle, which “was… (characteristic of)… fascist and Stalinist states, where the spectacle cohered around a cult of personality.” (Wark, 9) And the diffuse spectacle of western market-democracies which is characterized by the production, consumption and circulation of commodities and images: “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” (Debord, 4)

Later in his life, in his 1988 work, Comments on the Society Of Spectacle, Guy Debord came to suggest that a new mode of the spectacle was emerging, this formation, referred to as The Integrated Spectacle, was seen to have “had subsumed elements of both (the concentrated and diffuse modes) into a new spectacular universe. While on the surface it looked like the diffuse spectacle, which molds desire in the form of the commodity, it bore within it aspects of concentration, notably an occulted state, where power tends to become less and less transparent.” (Wark, 9)

McKenzie Wark adds his own periodization to this development of the spectacle, as he claims that the integrated spectacle itself is starting to fragment and break apart, as it is no longer able to reproduce itself as such: “In memory of Debord, let’s call the endpoint reached by the integrated spectacle the disintegrating spectacle, in which the spectator gets to watch the withering away of the old order, ground down to near nothingness by its own steady divergence from any apprehension of itself.” (Wark, 10) He goes on; “the disintegrating spectacle can countenance the end of everything except the end of itself. It can contemplate with equanimity melting ice sheets, seas of junk, peak oil, but the spectacle itself lives on.” (Wark, 11)

Unable to sustain itself, the spectacle is becoming more and more tenuous, more and more unable to reproduce itself a such on a basic material and social level, and as the edifice collapses and the façade of ever shifting digital surfaces fragments, power resorts more and more to it’s underlying disciplinary apparatus, and increasingly rears it’s totalitarian face (4). As post the (never-ending) War on Terror, and the 2008 Financial Crisis, the technocratic market utopia of neo-liberal ideology, starts to look more and more like a dystopic hell on earth, as the promise of the future, becomes null and void.

From Temporary Failure to Permanent Error

Permanent Error, by Pieter Hugo, 2011

Permanent Error, by Pieter Hugo, 2011

The aura of the digital like the broader “society of the spectacle” in which it is embedded, is predicated on the obfuscation of the underlying relations of production that constitute and sustain it and the modes of exploitation: of labour, and the environment, that it necessitates.

These expenditures are in many cases horrific in their impacts both socially and environmentally. From the rare earth metal mines in Namibia etc, to the Foxconn factories with their suicide nets in China, to the e-waste dumps that litter parts of the “developing” world” such as the notorious Agbogbloshie in Ghana. Which was made infamous via Peter Hugo’s photographic series of the dumpsite, Permanet Error. These are the sites where these underlying contradictions and crisis are most explicit and present.

Since it’s exposure in Hugo’s photos, Agbogbloshie has come to commonly be referred to as Apocalyptic. In the words of Evan Calder Williams; “the thing getting explicitly labeled apocalypticin Agbogbloshie is neither the nearly unthinkable toxicity of the work nor the obvious echo of this wastescape amongst global depictions of hell. No, it is the montage of the cast-out: computer monitors, hard drives, DVD players, camcorders, all the hardware of digital storage and capture and creation.” (Williams) Agbogbloshie is in effect a snapshot of the slow-motion failure of the promise of techno-capitalism, and futurity, at large.

In the words of Williams:

 “The apocalyptic here is not a measure of the impossibility of life in such a landscape but the “impossible” transformation of the hardware that the generic, and perhaps specific, we who look at these photos, had saved for, bought on credit, lugged around, Tweeted on, wrote essays with, almost dropped, home-sex-taped-with, did drop, lived beside for years, swore at, listened through, got used to… All that ends up as just the faintest trace of exchangeable value that can barely support the life of a community dying from such work, poisoned by the cancer-in-waiting that are these things we write with, pose for, talk to. Glass stared through for hundreds and hundreds of hours becomes something maybe worth stripping and probably stout enough to be walked on.” (Williams)

This is the underlying, inherent violence of late era capitalism, something that is tolerated only by its obfuscation, as “the horror” has been outsourced, geographically and spatially dispersed, and hidden, as to not disrupt the reproduction of spectacle at large. Though as Williams’s points out, the apocalypse is not an end without revelation, but rather a revealing that’s offers an opening to something beyond what is given. Whilst these sites certainly in some sense are hells on earth (Agbogbloshie is apparently referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah by locals), they also embody important contradictions and crisis points that through their negotiation and potential resolution, offer us the possibility of another world.

Notes:

1) As Kim Cascone points, out there is an historical analogy here in the visual arts in regard to the shift for figurative painting to landscape painting; “when visual artists first shifted their focus from foreground to background (for instance, from portraiture to landscape painting), it helped to expand their per­ceptual boundaries”. (Cascone, 294)

2) Arguably Betancourt’s treatment of Menkman’s work is somewhat reductive, and their positions are not as divergent (I would argue) as it may initially seem. Menkman often emphasizes the interpretive, and hermeneutic dimension of glitch in her own way, and even to my reading engages with a notion not dissimilar to Betancourt’s notion of the potential criticality of the glitch vis-a-vis the aura of the digital; “the glitch is a powerful interruption that shifts an object away from its flow and ordinary discourse, towards the ruins of destructed meaning. This concept of flow I emphasize as both a trait within the machine as well as a feature of society as a whole. DeLanda distinguishes between chaotic disconnected flows and stable flows of matter that move in continuous variations, conveying singularities.” (Menkman, 29)

3) The Italian post-autonomist theorists have done a lot of interesting work in this specific area; Antonio Negri in Marx Beyond Marx, Paolo Virno’s Notes on The Fragment on Machines, Franco Berardi’s The Soul At Work, Tiziana Terranova’s Network Cultureand much of the contemporary work of Matteo Pasquinelli.

4) In Deleuze’s terms (via the The Postscript on the Societies of Control) one could say that Foucault’s disciplinary apparatus underlie the control apparatus that Deleuze articulates in the aforementioned essay. In this sense the model of the control society does not so much eclipse the disciplinary society, as build on top of it, as another layer of socio-technological strata. When the control apparatus fails to mediate desire-production towards the desired ends; “business as usual” or “the accumulation of surplus value”, the disciplinary apparatus rears it’s head to reassert the necessary normative structure/s.

Selected Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory, 1970
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction1936
Berardi, Franco. After the Future, 2011
Betancourt, Michael. The Aura of the Digital, 2006
Betancourt, Michael. Critical Glitches and Glitch Art, 2014
Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, excerpt from Audio Culture, Ed. Christopher Cox, Daniel Warner
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, 2000
Menkman, Rosa, The Glitch Momen(tum), 2011
Virilio, Paul, The Accident of Art, 2004
Wark, McKenzie. The Disintegrating Spectacle, 2013
Williams, Evan Calder. Glass Baricades, Part I, 2014

Notable Works

Hugo, Peter. Permanent Error, 2011
Jodi. Untitled Game, 2001
Menkman, Rosa. The Collapse of PAL, 2011
Mille Plateaux. Clicks & Cuts I-V, 2000-2010
Oval. 94 Diskont, 1995
Paik, Nam June. Magnet TV, 1965
Tone, Yasunao. Solo For Wounded CD, 1997

This essay was featured as part of an installation at the Audio Foundation, in Auckland, New Zealand in September 2015.