Between 1990 and 1997, the percentage of U.S. households owning computers increased from 15% to 35%. More and more people got used to the digital aesthetics and the ways content was displayed on monitors. Incidentally, it also became common to experience errors, data corruptions that presented the content in ways that were not anticipated by the manufacturer.
A second decisive event was the introduction of digital TV broadcasting in the early 2000s that made the visual glitch part of the everyday experience for who consumed electronic media. The visual glitch that interrupts the digital streaming of a TV show or a movie is unexpected. Faces, buildings, and landscapes are deformed and viewers are abruptly taken back to what is happening around them, de facto arresting the enchantment of seamless enjoyment of what they were watching.
In the 1990s, side by side with the increasing adoption of digital devices by a growing percentage of general public, creatives came to explore the potential of generating visual and aural digital glitches. The art collective JODI was only one of the many that generated glitches by corrupting digital codes with the purpose of showing their inner structures. Glitch art had a certain punk attitude: By disrupting the smooth translation of digital data, it offered an alternative to the corporate use of technology. It was dangerous and against the system. As happens to many other feral subcultures, it slowly started to be mimicked by mass media. Year after year one could see visual glitch effects popping up in popular video games, music videos and advertising.
It was when the glitch lost its disruptive force in the eyes of the public that simulated glitch art came to be. Artists take inspiration from glitch aesthetics to create something that look similar to a real error but that is, in fact, an imitation. If the most fundamental aspect of glitch art is its generation by data corruption, to replicate its visual attributes without keeping this original generative force means leading viewers to explore a state of decay without the risk of being its victim.
For contemporary artists who simulate glitch art and wonder what directions it may take in the future, the use of stucco in 18th-century Rococo architecture offers a surprisingly instructive example.
For more than a century, from the early 17th to the middle of the 18th century, European artists and architects shared a common goal: to generate a sense of awe and disorientation in the people who entered churches and civil buildings. The early Baroque style reflected the religious tensions of the age: The Roman Catholic Church made every effort to reassert itself in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, including using culture and art. If the Protestant Church affirmed the values of faith only and despised representations of saints, Jesus, and other canonical figures, the Pope had every interest in promoting a different point of view: The Catholic believer had to feel lost, in awe, in front of God. This task was achieved in architecture by creating environments that couldn’t be appreciated just by standing at one point. One had to walk to see the entire structure of a church from other perspectives and, in being forced to do so, the viewer could never fully enjoy every single fresco and architectural detail in one single experience.
The curved shapes and dramatic plays of light were primarily sought by the craftsmen and artists who were involved in applying stucco to the otherwise flat surfaces of bare walls to create the mesmerizing effect that the Rococo style is known for. Early Baroque stucco decorations were made in such a way that they clearly referred to nature in their depiction of common leaves and branches, but by the 1730s each decorative element became an opportunity to explore compositions and structures that could not be found in the natural world. The style, now known as Rococo, became all about the artifice. The artists began to focus on the use of their technical ability to surprise the viewer with the staged drama of a scene.
Contemporary artists who take inspiration from the digital glitch visual effect to create something that looks even more degraded and fictitious find themselves in a similar situation as the 18th-century plasterers: They can play with the expectations of the public based on the premise that everyone can detect the difference between a real glitch and a fake glitch. Thanks to the success of contemporary media streaming services, it is now even more common than it was in the ‘90s to encounter data corruptions whenever one watches a movie or listens to music. By constant exposure to these glitches, the general public can instinctively perceive the artificiality of a simulated content.
Rococo went out of fashion around the middle of the 18th century, when archeological discoveries in Italy brought to light ancient Roman buildings, statues, and artworks. Art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann condemned the convoluted Rococo style and praised the values of classical art and architecture. Soon, every palace in Europe would have their Rococo decorations scraped to make room for neoclassical ornaments. It certainly wasn’t the first time that archeological discoveries influenced taste in Western art. The excavation of the contorted ancient Laocoön Group in 1506 in Rome contributed to a shift in taste that eventually led to the dawn of the High Renaissance’s harmonious style and the rise of Mannerism, defined by distort figures, oblique perspectives and dramatic uses of light. Might this be the same destiny awaiting glitch art?
The prosperity of flamboyant faked glitch effects doesn’t reflect only the great interest in digital culture of the last 30 years but also the limitations of current technology. Once digital devices and software are produced in such a way that every error and data corruption is occluded for users, the glitch effects we know will look dated. Artists faking digital glitch effects might learn from the past by looking at what happened to the most important Rococo designers. Antonio Giuseppe Bossi (1699–1764), the Asam brothers in southern Germany, and the Swiss Abbondio Stazio (1663–1757) were some of the most praised stucco artists of the 18th century who are now relatively minor figures of art history. To master a style and repeat it until it wears thin in the eyes of the public might lead practitioners to produce art that is not urgent, and distant from the wild attitude of original glitch art.
The original disruptive force of Glitch Art doesn’t need to be preserved because its concept goes beyond the effects it produces. In a century, glitch artists might well be working with technology we can’t even imagine now, but they will keep disrupting signals and data to reveal the structures of their contemporary technology. Meanwhile, simulated glitch effects will be added to the library of digital filters inspired to old media technology, such as early black and white movies, ‘70s films and VHS tapes.
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