The ease at which every user accumulates — more or less consciously — materials on his/her computer surely makes us think about the nature itself of such gesture and on the reasons that drive each person to record fragments of experience in the digital environment. Thanks to the work of scholars such as Jacques Derrida and Hal Foster, we learned to consider the irresistible will to archive materials as a spontaneous and seemingly involuntary act, while the opportunities given by digital technology have definitely made users systematic archivists of digital objects. But along with the practice of downloading files on the net or in storage devices, the user reveals a peculiar predilection for capturing the device’s visual outputs. A practice above all others: the screenshot. The creation of the digital file and its storage are simultaneous in this case. Through the screenshot — as a camera-less technique (created by softwares or other lens-less tools) — everything that appears on the screen becomes capturable. What seems to be just an image becomes surprisingly much more. It is a real “digital situation”, an occurrence, a chain of events of which the .png or .jpg file is just the tip of the iceberg. The mere image becomes secondary while the behaviours of the device acquire a central role, expecially when they are generated by errors. The reactions of the machine that runs into unexpected technical issues are seen by users with admiration, because such circumstances are unique, and in some ways valuable. The sudden interruption of established and conventional operations makes the error as impetuous as fascinating. The will that encourages users to “immortalise” such happenings leads us once again to consider their systematic capture as a necessary step.
It is not a conscious gesture, but for many it certainly is an essential one. These situations that occur suddenly to the user happen without any notice and only in a given moment. The conditions around these occurrences test the awareness of the user, who has to be ready to capture these errors before the intervention of the operating system.
This sort of “digital fleeting moment” is also related to the temporal dimension mediated by digital devices. Time in a digital context is an oscillating entity. Its marking changes in relation to a group of conditions which involve first the device (from the point of view of both hardware and software): its technical status, the information overload, the quantity of simultaneous operations and the RAM at disposal are just a few of them. As proved by our daily digital activity, the same operation can take different amounts of time depending on the conditions in which it is accomplished. The loading speed of a web page depends on the Internet connection, while launching the nth application could overload the RAM and cause problems to the operating system. These sort of temporal interruptions show the processes carried out by the machine to execute their functions. During the slowing down of the activities, the process revealed by the execution of an operation can be captured. The animation of an opening folder could freeze in an intermediate stage, the web page could be loaded without the CSS style sheets or with low resolution images due to a slow loading served by the browser. These possibilities allow unexpected and fascinating digital situations to happen. Even if they try to communicate problems to a hypothetical user in more and more human-friendly ways, the artificial nature of the devices has to deal with sudden elements that make it inexorably cold and detached. Machines find themselves unprepared to face peculiar combinations of events, and end up collapsing and producing errors.
In certain conditions occurrences such as glitches or errors generated by the digital devices themselves could happen. In computer science, glitch (also called graphic glitch when it involves a visual output) means the consequence of a digital device that fails the conclusion or the correct execution of a function. For the artist Rosa Menkman the glitch is not only the result of technical collapse, but a real sudden interruption of an established process, as she explains in the introduction of the pamphlet The Glitch Moment(um), published by the Institute for Network Cultures in 2011:
I describe the ‘glitch’ as a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems resulting in a perceived accident or error. A glitch occurs on the occasion where there is an absence of (expected) functionality, whether understood in a technical or social sense. Therefore, a glitch, as I see it, is not always strictly a result of a technical malfunction.
According to Menkman, glitch (when generated by unknown problems) is the reflection of a phenomenon defined by a socio-cultural context and by an imperfect notion of technology that tends to errors. The same defect that takes the user to accept the error and to deem it as part of his/her activity in the digital environment. The malfunction is not really unexpected anymore, and its status of potential happening is omnipresent.
What could appear to be a pseudo-random arrangement of shapes and colors is actually the outcome of the structure itself of the tool that generates it (operating system, software, file format) and of the screen that reproduces it (a pixel grid). The web page visited on Google Chrome gets fragmented for a few seconds, recomposes itself and comes back working again as if nothing happened. What appears to be a short interruption can be actually perceived by the viewer as a visual input with strong aesthetic value. As evidenced by projects such as Postcards From Google Earth by Clement Valla (ongoing since 2010) or Rainbow Plane 001 and 002 by James Bridle (2014), even digital cartography systems — Google Maps, Google Earth and Bing Maps to name but a few — are platforms where transient errors are abundantly present. In this case, errors that occur on the digital geographic surface are generated by algorithms written in a provisional, imperfect way and not due to the malfunction of the machine. Their constant update makes the imperfection temporary and therefore precious.
However it is necessary to keep in mind that, whatever the origin may be, the visual occurrence which manifests itself unexpectedly is primarily an image. For this reason, the visual output generated by errors can be adopted as an art form based on the technical characteristics of the tools used to produce it and play it. As the artist Jeff Donaldson wrote:
it’s as if the computer is freed from its normal task and instead displays what it wants, the architecture of electronics giving shape to sudden random image data. Glitch art is the cultivation of these errors, an embracing of machine failure as an aesthetic.
The elevation of the unforeseen technological occurrence to art form (there is even a Museum of Glitch Aesthetics) leads to experiment with hybridisation between the user’s role and the artist’s one. The experiments in glitch aesthetic (part of the larger phenomenon of the New Aesthetic, a term coined by James Bridle) consider also the interpretation of the error generated by the machine within the analog environment — the project Dead Pixel in Google Earth developed by Helmut Smits (2008–2010) is an example in this sense —, as if drawing a parallel with the digital environment. The error is not only no longer unexpected, but by these premises it becomes an aware and induced phenomenon. In his dissertation Glitch Aesthetics (2004), Iman Moradi makes a distinction between pure glitch and glitch-alike, describing the former as those generated unpredictably by the machine and the latter as one generated by intentionally altering the digital tools. The practice of collecting errors is largely conducted in the arts as an important opportunity to meditate — among other things — on the language of digital tools, which is — as stated by Donaldson — strongly influenced by the hectic and repetitive migration to more and more recent and updated devices:
In that sense it can be seen that as long as there is technological obsolescence, there is the potential for the creation of novel forms of expression.
If on the one hand the unexpected occurrence is formalised in an imperfectly-designed tool or runs into technical problems, on the other hand this can in the same way reveal itself exclusively from an interpretative point of view. What used to be an error of the machine is now a re-signification that bursts in the user’s mind. Unpredictability becomes therefore a fundamental part of the interpretative process. What happens if one misunderstands a question submitted by a CAPTCHA? What if a web page contains a uniquely human error? The user is prompted to a further effort to understand the nature of particular digital situations.
Similarly, the device can propose combinations of elements whose meaning is distorted by the unaware visual association produced by the tool. Reading in a given context can generate new meanings. Unlike the machine, the human mind can create semantic analogies such as to grasp a new meaning between two posts that Facebook innocently put in consecution in the feed of contents. As “digital practitioners”, users have the propensity to look for narrative elements — even if unintentional — during their activities in the digital environment. The fascination with the emerging of a unique occurrence catches the user and turns him/her into an interpreter in search of more or less latent messages. The signals of the machine are thus perceived immediately while the opportunity to assume an authorial role that suddenly becomes real. This kind of active spectator has to be ready to react and interpret messages that the machine unconsciously produces in specific moments. Otherwise, the user will lose a unique opportunity that deserves to be immortalised and experienced.
Jacques Derrida, Archive fever: a Freudian impression (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998)
Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse”, in October 110 (2004)
Marisa Olson, “Lost Not Found: The Circulation of Images in Digital Visual Culture”, in Charlotte Cotton and Alex Klein (ed.), Words Without Pictures (New York, Los Angeles: Aperture, LACMA, 2010)
Wikipedia, “Glitch”, last modified November 20, 2015, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glitch
Rosa Menkman, The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute for Network Cultures, 2011)
Jeff Donaldson, “Glossing over Thoughts on Glitch. A Poetry of Error”, Artpulse Magazine, artpulsemagazine.com/glossing-over-thoughts-on-glitch-a-poetry-of-error
James Bridle, “#sxaesthetic” (lecture), The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices, Driskill Hotel, Austin (TX), March 12, 2012, booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/
Iman Moradi, Glitch Aesthetics, dissertation thesis, University of Huddersfield, School of Design Technology, 2004
Jeff Donaldson, op. cit.