photo, Patrycja Stefanek / performer, Derek Holzer
– Kim Cascone, San Francisco, July 2011
“…divine by airy impressions, by the blowing of the winds, by rainbows, by circles round about
the moon and stars, by mists and clouds, and by imagination in clouds and visions in the air.” (1)
– Henry Cornelius Agrippa
To the modern mind, a glitch is an unwanted artifact, a momentary interruption of
expected behavior produced by a faulty system. In an instant it changes the user’s
relationship with that system. A glitch instills suspicion, indicating the system is
unreliable, corrupted, not to be trusted.
This is the view most commonly held today by the mental-rational mind, a
consciousness formed by living in a mechanistic technological society. We have been
trained via a form of shock treatment to panic when things go wrong. After learning
the quirks of a system we come to react to these intrusive events by recalling a bullet-
list of troubleshooting tips, throwing them at the problem in hopes that one will fix it.
Early in the history of digital media, when the science of error correction was in its
infancy, artists discovered that glitches could oftentimes produce wondrous artifacts.
And that, much like the technique of the “Cut-up,” formed new juxtapositions that
seemingly came from nowhere. As if invoked or summoned with a toss of dice.
But chance is a harsh mistress who only makes an appearance when she feels like it –
so rather than wait for glitches to occur, content creators painstakingly collected and
forged imitation glitches – making them available as presets, plug-ins, and clips in
media libraries. Faux glitches could now be made to occur at any time merely by
pressing a button.
As a result of its ease of reproduction, glitch proliferated as a fashionable signifier of
technological dysfunction, invoking a dystopian future where machine control has
gone awry. It has the added benefit of casting the user as a technical sophisticate, a
cyber-artist working at the outer limits of technology.
Through its overuse in everything from perfume commercials on television to trendy
electronica remixes glitch has been detoothed, neutered, rendered ineffective as an
effect. Glitch has become a genre tag in iTunes.
Conversely, some artists use glitch not as an artifact but as a medium for conjuring or
divining. Knowing that a glitch parasitically uses a system as a conduit for the delivery
of unexpected wisdom, they use glitch as a device for divination.
“When you cut into the present the future leaks out.” (2)
– William S. Burroughs
To the medieval mind a divination device acted as a medium through which
prophesies, omens and blessings arrived, it did not produce these messages on its own.
Divination was a way to see into a realm beyond the natural world, one that was
hidden to most people and considered alive and intelligent.
The medieval mind didn’t view the universe as operating by mechanical forces, but by
a subtle triangulation of “metals, nebulae and stars.” (3)
The shiny surface of a jet shewstone, the dim flicker of lamp flame in a darkened
room, the fogged interior of a crystal sphere – these devices acted like a receiver,
carrying bits of wisdom from an a-temporal, non-spatial, non-manifest reality: the
supernal realm or mundus imaginalis. (4)
In the hands of the right artist, a glitch can form a brief rupture in the space-time
continuum, shuffling the psychic space of the observer, allowing the artist to establish
a direct link with the supernal realm.
This link serves as a powerful tool for any artist allowing for the creation of new
permutations, combinations, residues and palimpsests.
“Today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.” (5)
– Jean Baudrillard
A glitch can do more than act as a divination device, momentarily opening a portal to
the supernal realm – glitches can be accumulated as data points, serving as
coordinates on a map.
Glitches can serve as accidental data points, malformed keywords, broken tags,
encrypted hieroglyphics. Each successive glitch helps to further define the previous
one by steadily sharpening a blurred focus.
A cluster of glitches can form an outline, define an area, trace a route through
uncharted space. This space is an n-dimensional ‘potential space’ and glitches can be
used to navigate this space, seeking unexpected patterns, chance juxtapositions, and
unveiling subliminal content.
It is all too easy while working with new media tools to fill multiple hard drives with
sound files, digital audio workstation sessions, photos and video from digital cameras,
Photoshop experiments, Illustrator drawings, etc. Folders inside folders of versions,
revisions, studies and discarded experiments.
Because it is just data we can model this content as a physical terrain or space.
Navigating this space with glitches can help one discover an essence, a grain hidden in
the data – much like a divining rod is used to seek out pockets of water underground.
Working with glitches can forge a path through this terrain, outline an approach,
formulate an oblique strategy.
Rather than use a canned two-dimensional idea of what a glitch looks or sounds like,
artists should use tools (6) that allow them to invoke glitches by opening the process of
discovery to probability – without intent. In other words, these tools behave like Cage’s
I-Ching or Eno’s Oblique Strategy rather than a deterministic, repeatable effect as
crafted by content creators.
When using these tools to navigate possibility space it is important to remember that
the artist is only working on the mechanistic or physical level.
In order for any artwork to operate at full potency it has to be developed on three
levels: the mental, the unconscious and the physical. The use of any one of these
without the others renders the artwork incomplete and unable to make use of the full
power available to the artist. Used together they can act as a powerful creative conduit
or conjurer of symbols.
1 Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. The Philosophy of Natural Magic. Calgary: Theophania Publishing.
2 “Breakthrough in the Grey Room”, William S. Burroughs, Sub Rosa, SUB 33005-8, CD.
3 Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
4 The supernal realm is defined as an intermediate realm between our conscious waking state and the
hidden world of nature. It acts like a transcendental layer forming a continuum between our inner
with the outer world.
5 Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
6 Programing environments such as Max/MSP and Pd or Flash based web applications can scan for a
particular format of files on a hard drive (i.e. wavs or jpegs for example) and subject them to chance
by Kim Cascone