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What do you do when the technology you depend on every day messes up? Instead of getting frustrated or throwing a machine out, Phillip Stearns makes art out of errors. He creates “glitch art,” a growing genre of artistic practice in which bugs in technology are exploited and exaggerated, resulting in work that’s beautiful in its flaws. The internet art duo JODI, whose iconic website is an intentionally broken mess of strange HTML, are early pioneers of glitch, while artist Rosa Menkman has described the movement in her Glitch Studies Manifesto as a critique of the “consumer myth about progression towards a holy grail of perfection.” Glitch glories in embedded imperfection.
“I like thinking about glitch art as being the art of artifacts … “
Stearns runs Year of the Glitch, a tumblelog in which he uses modified digital cameras and software processes to create abstract images made up of hazes of pixels. The modified cameras are an outgrowth of “circuit bending,” or the customization of electronics for creative ends. Stearns runs Year of the Glitch, a tumblelog in which he uses modified digital cameras and software processes to create abstract images made up of hazes of pixels. The modified cameras are an outgrowth of “circuit bending,” or the customization of electronics for creative ends. During a recent visit to his studio, open for GO Brooklyn, his shelves were stocked with soldering irons, voltmeters, and textiles printed with the images he created.
I had a chance to talk with Stearns about how he got started with glitch art, the difference between a glitch and an artifact, and our increasing acceptance of glitches into our homes and lives. Interspersed with our interview are photos from his Bushwick studio.
Kyle Chayka: Could you give us a quick explanation of what glitch art is and how you define it personally?
Phillip Sterns: I like thinking about glitch art as being the art of artifacts, and specifically the term “glitch” because it came into modern parlance through the astronauts using glitch to describe what was happening with their computers. It’s sort of a digital term for me.
“Glitch for me is a very language-based form and language has everything to do with communication, understandings, misunderstandings.”
There are people who will swear up and down within the glitch art community that glitch is not digital, and in fact this is where people try getting analogue glitches involved in glitch art. If you want it to all make sense, talking about these things in terms of artifacts is better. Glitch is a term that for me involves a mistranslation or swapping of actual binary information, and that binary information is a language base. So for me glitch is more language based, whereas an analogue distortion is more medium-based.
It’s an inherent quality to the material and a noise that is part of that channel of communication; it’s not part of the linguistic system itself. Glitch for me is a very language-based form and language has everything to do with communication, understandings, misunderstandings.
KC: Given that technology is so prevalent, we really experience glitches everywhere.
PS: These kinds of artifacts are there all around us. Our technology is failing here and there in spurts and blips, and instead of approaching it as an annoyance or nuisance, we’re starting to actually appreciate what is given back to us. It’s part of the greater implications of our algorithmic world. A lot of things are automated and if there’s a hiccup in that automation, it can cause other problems like the stock market crashing.
KC: Thinking about algorithm-based things that are going on now like high frequency trading in the stock market is pretty crazy.
PS: And glitches happen. That’s why we have emergency breaks on the stock market, because all these algorithms can operate independently but have this kind of cascading effect.
KC: You make a distinction between “glitches” and “artifacts.” What’s an example of an analogue artifact as opposed to a digital glitch?
PS: It’s like a pop on a record or a click on a CD. The reasons for these artifacts, though they have the same sort of affects, their underlying nature is completely different from a glitch. One is based on a physical process, like the needle runs over an actual physical object that then gets translated into a waveform. That pop is an artifact of that interpretive system.
When it’s digital you have a numeric translation. The phenomenon gets discretized into numbers and once the numbers are changed and run through the interpretive system, that produces the artifact. The glitch is the entropic process acting on the data, whereas the artifact is what is produced when that altered data is read.
“The glitch is the entropic process acting on the data, whereas the artifact is what is produced when that altered data is read.”
KC: How did you start to become interested in glitch as an artistic process?
PS: I didn’t have words for it, but I knew I wanted to take things apart and figure out what goes on inside of them. It’s kind of like this understanding you have that the world is made and that people are making these things. You want to figure out not only what these things are doing but how people came about to this solution you’re holding in front of you.
I remember sabotaging tape recorders with my cousin at our daycare so we could take them home and take them apart, for no other reason than to see what was going on. It wasn’t until I started doing computer music that I revisited this idea of purposefully short circuiting or rewiring electronics, and that’s how I got into circuit bending as a term or as a movement. From there, I started circuit bending everything in sight.
KC: You also started modifying cameras so that the resulting images were completely glitched out. How long ago did that begin?
PS: The cameras didn’t start until I moved to New York. It wasn’t until 2009 or 2010 that I began opening up Kodak cameras. I heard about other artists doing it in 2007, but then I actually had my first digital camera die on me in 2008 and it did these amazing things. I was like, “Whoa … This is the next step, I want to play with this.” It’s been two years that I’ve been working with these cameras and trying different things.
KC: Your tumblelog, Year of the Glitch, has exposed a lot of viewers to glitch art and pushed it into mainstream awareness. When did you decide to start it and formalize your whole process?
PS: That was kind of on a whim. Everyone was making New Years resolutions, I was trying to figure out the rest of the year. I was sitting on the couch New Years Day and just thought, alright, I’m going to do a glitch a day. I felt like I was on the periphery of the glitch art community and I wanted to figure out more about the techniques, because I still didn’t know much about what was going on inside the computers. I was still working mostly with hardware. It’s been a way for me to study the different techniques in more detail, recombine them, and exploit different bugs in some of these programs, especially Quicktime and GIMP.
KC: You’ve also been turning your glitch images into textiles with the help of robotic manufacturing. The combination of a digital error being turned into a comforting domestic object is really intriguing for me.
PS: It makes so much more sense because these pieces of technology are so much more a part of our everyday lives. How many people the first thing they do when they wake up is hop on the phone and check email, Tumblr, or whatever? As these things age, even the newer pieces of equipment, they have their own little quirky malfunctions that show up. Making them sofa covers or bringing them into the home just completes it. It’s being at home with the domesticated technologies, with all of their faults and failures.