'The Soul in the Machine': Glitch Artists Turn Tech Failures Into Commentary

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If cyber-punk were to manifest itself as a cyber-aesthetic, it might look something like Glitch Art: creations that turn the most common technological malfunctions -- hisses and buzzes and pixellations -- into something newly foreign. And, then, something newly familiar. The fractured system, rendered as expression.

Our video colleagues called our attention to a short documentary depicting the rise of glitch, and we found it fascinating. 

Technological hiccups are so common -- and so expected -- that we generally ignore them. When confronted with a scrambled image, or a blue screen frozen in its blueness, or the garbled sounds of an MP3 trying to convey melody, we reload and move on. But those malfunctions, glitch artists insist, speak to the cultural assumptions we build into our gadgets. "When technologies are new, we're filled with all these promises," one artist notes in the PBS documentary above. "Manufacturers tell us that these new tools are supposed to become a seamless way for us to express ourselves. And then we run into unwelcome behavior."

Glitch artists recreate that unwelcome behavior intentionally, manipulating it and using it as commentary -- as a statement, in general, against technology's default assumption of seamlessness and ceaselessness. Just as punk was a reaction against hyper-polished rock music, "glitch art is a reaction against the hyper-realism that is portrayed in contemporary media -- these super high-definition images, saturated beyond real resemblance to actual color. Glitch art is really providing people with the opportunity to create their own voice. It's this notion that we don't accept what's been handed to us."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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