Describing the world of new media/glitch artist Jon Cates is a labyrinthine task. You might begin with his spontaneous and inventive word-language actions reminiscent of William Burroughs cut-ups; or the hypnotic .gif animations made from seemingly incongruous, discarded fragments of media; or perhaps his “dirty new media” aesthetic that brings to the surface the aberrations and raw imperfections that are typically verboten in “high-end” digital circles.
Jon Cates has ironically and quite cleverly commingled punk and pirate media with thoughtful theoretical discourses. Based in Chicago, he is Chair of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by day, prowling the subculture of the alternative spaces by night. Cates is at the center of a glitch scene in Chicago, now referred to as the “birthplace of dirty new media,” a movement he has in large part catalyzed: spawning the international GLI.TC/H Festivals and other assorted hactivist events and DIY workshops.
In my conversation with Jon Cates we discussed his unique synthesis of language and media, his critique of technology, and how glitch, in all of its multifarious manifestations, has powered his work, functioning as a force for uniting artists, students, and communities in collective activity.
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Randall Packer: I want to start off with the way in which you blend everything — in your life, in your work, your practice, theory, communications, writing, teaching — here is a mélange of language, a spirit and playfulness, that all seems to flow together with glitch. Would you say that glitch is a way of life?
Jon Cates: Yes, in fact, well first off, I would like to say thanks for giving the work the level of attention you have. I think that my approach to digital arts or new media art is one that takes a systems approach, not in a kind of cold cybernetic way but in a more wholistic sense of system or systematic thinking. Those systems might be broken, they might be glitched, and they might be imperfect and noisy, and that might be what attracts us or me to those systems. But still they are functional or functioning in one way or another systematically. So they are connected to one another as assemblages.
RP: I would say that glitch is a language, spoken by its practitioners, who have co-mingled code with the spoken word, or maybe I should say specific to your work, mixing machine language with human language: accepting the aberration as perhaps more important than the message. Is the aberration the message?
JC: I would definitely say that there is a poetic embrace of noise and error. My interests are also, and continue to be, motivated by the connections between noise musics and experimental new media art. For me this approach to noise or noisiness, or dirt, or dirtiness, is a way to foreground as you say, an aberrance or perversion of normative message or what we might perceive to be logical reasoning. Because there is a poetics to that obviously and people who inspired me most directly in that matter would be Netochka Nezvanova, who did this comingling of functional code with highly politicized and poetic language.
RP: So is glitch an act of undermining the status quo of our relationship to technology?
JC: It certainly can be. I think that there was maybe a time in which glitch works were more directly mobilizing that kind of critical stance. But that time, I think, is a recent historical moment, because glitch is already now being compromised or being folded into aesthetics that are also highly popular so there’s a popularity to the glitch aesthetic which would undermine an argument for saying it is exclusively resistant or exclusively political. It’s just impure.
RP: I see many resonances with avant-garde figures both in art and in technology, such as Dick Higgins, for example, in his concept of intermedia. The idea of closing the gap between art and life, media and things, and in your case between language and machine language, art and theory, or as Dick Higgins might have said: art and everything else.
JC: The discourse on art/life, on performance, performance art, those were topics I studied when I was younger: thinking about how technologies that we use are all social. They’re techno-social. We live in a techno-social culture. These technologies are also socially performed, and that means that there is this performative aspect on different sides. So for instance there is a corporate performance of cleanliness, and purity. And then there is the performance of everyday life that we’re all doing all the time with all of our technologies. So, we’re making them human, in the sense we are making them part of our lives.
RP: In regards to your idea of “dirty new media,” my response is that the dirtiness implies there is a human quality in new media, that it is not perfect, it’s not sterile, it’s not removed from real life, but it contains its imperfections, it’s impurities, in a way, it’s organic qualities, that get closer to our “wet” lives, rather than our binary ones.
JC: Absolutely. That’s absolutely a part of the goal in terms of using this term, dirty new media, to foreground all of those facts. But also that there is a non-neutrality of techno-social artifacts and contexts, that our technologies are not neutral, also that they are embedded, they are part of our lives, and that embeddedness has the word “bed” in there, we’re in bed with them also, they’re embedded in ways that are complex. They are not sterile, they’re imperfect, they are not clean, because they exist in the world, which is also imperfect. And so, I do believe that dirty new media as a way of life and as an approach to art making is a way of foregrounding these facts, these realities, of our lived experiences, and acknowledging how situated we are with all of these systems, and artifacts.
RP: A lot of people at first glance might look at your work and think that it has been completely usurped by machine language, by a kind of technological sensibility. And so, I am wondering in view of this convergence between human language and machine language the question then might become: where does the machine end and the artist begin.
JC: That’s a great question. Well, the machine world is machined by us out of the world and we have machined the world. It’s our world, in the sense we have crafted it. And we’re constantly crafting and re-crafting it. Then it produces errors, mistakes, breakdowns, glitches, noise, and from a computer science perspective, what you would want to do would be debugging and refining. But from a dirty new media perspective, what you might want to be doing is “rebugging,” and pushing different aspects of the machine worlds to see their thresholds, and experiment, and play.
RP: Ultimately there is a playfulness that I think undermines the dystopic view that we sometimes have towards technology.
JC: I really hope that is the case. That’s constantly a goal that I am working on. And I would like to say also that there are those in my immediate community that I am also responding to, who are in fact in glitch art communities, who are dystopic, and who are also discordant, and who are intentionally exploring versions of “chaos magic” or who have aspirations to a kind of “chaos magic,” and that kind of discordant approach. And that’s not my intent.
RP: I like the way that you counter the dystopic questions that you get, with an even greater barrage of glitch. For example, there is a comment that Sterling Crispin made when he said: “the glitch/noise fetish is an inversion of humanity & symbolic embrace of death & rampant infectious nihilism.” OK… And your response was:
“thnxxx @sterlingcrispin, my work is an axxxual process of: #glitch #fetish #noise #dirty #newmedia from a #humanist #perspective.”
JC: [laughs] I thought that was funny. I took his comment very pointedly and it motivated me to write an entire essay, which is up on the GL1TCH.US Unstable Book for Unstable Media site that I am constantly working on. He uses keywords that I am connected to and that have motivated me. He was using fetish, but he was using it in a negatively valenced way and I wanted to reclaim fetish and say, yeah, of course fetish is part of what I do because fetish is punk rock and its part of “originary” punk rock from the Sex shop run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood. And yeah, of course, fetish is in my work, but its in this way that’s consistent with art, life in a way that’s dirty, in the sense of being impure, but also hopefully sexy and exciting.
RP: Maybe counter to the world that we live in today with our corporate environment, in which the technology companies encourage a fetish with the slick, clean design of technology. What you have done, is through the construction of a language and a world that you have created, you’ve attempted to break that down and show us what are relationship to technology could be and perhaps should be.
JC: Thank you. Absolutely. And open up possibilities, potentialities for people, as well as for myself, but also for a community that can mobilize around these approaches, these ideas. Because it’s counter-intuitive to the rampant, hyper-individualism that lays waste to so much effort that emerges from group practices, communities, to open source culture. This idea of building community, building tools and systems, and sharing those tools and systems within the community so that the community can organize around all of that and then share work and work goes back out into the communities, to keep it alive. I think I just sketched out a pedagogy!
RP: It’s a wonder to me how you balance your personal, artistic, and academic life.
JC: But that’s a healthy friction for me, it gives me inspiration to work outside of the institution, to work in bars, DIY spaces, alternative spaces, it’s a good, healthy dynamic. In the glitch communities there’s a lot of sharing of technique, and a lot of open sourcing or at least sharing of approaches and practices. So that can have the effect of people learning to reproduce certain styles, or certain aesthetics. But the way to not be stuck is to focus on glitch as a form of surprise and as a way of glitching people’s expectations.
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