Are some things unrepresentable?


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    I am interested in starting a thread about this recent essay by Alexander Galloway, as I think that it is relevant to glitch and poses a challenge to glitch art practices. Here is the essay, and below is my excerpt:

    … informatic failures — failures of function — if they are pleasurable or ‘artistic’ in any way, are typically recast under a purely aesthetic aegis. Hence there exist a number of artists creating beauty via the corruption of function, from Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture, to the flicker films of Tony Conrad, or the programmatic drawings of Sol LeWitt, or the computer art of To reference Gehry and these other artists at this point in the discussion serves a specific purpose, for one sees evidence here of an approach to information visualization different from those mentioned at the outset. For Gehry, whether or not one insists on labeling him a deconstructivist, the impetus comes from the fundamentally poststructuralist nature of the information age in which no formal data are immune from their own corruption from within, modulating the formerly clean internal scaffolding into warped surface arcs and organic ‘blobs’ born of algorithmic iteration. (That Gehry reportedly designs using blocks and crumpled paper is a red herring; these buildings are unthinkable without the computer, just as Sullivan’s skyscrapers were unthinkable without the steel mills.) Or for Tinguely or Conrad it is the machine itself that rears forward, proving that the pure mechanical sequence of things, if it is blocked or redirected, can shine through as elemental experience. Or LeWitt or Jodi, who in divergent and incompatible ways nevertheless both deploy code in such a way that it appears as non-code.

    But let us be very cynical with these examples — not without some trepidation, for they are glorious works of art — and state emphatically that such work does not probe functional informatics as such, merely the point at which functional informatics might be transformed into some delight for the senses. In general, Gehry and these other artists merely feign to break the machine, restaging it as broken beauty. While tarrying with the algorithmic, each ultimately sacrifices the algorithmic in favor of the aesthetic. None of these artists is creating new data types, new if-then statements, new network diagrams, new syllogisms, or new mathematical functions for their own sake. The artists may experiment with systematicity or functionalism, as many conceptual artists have done, but always ultimately to revert such machinic realities to the staid structures of fine art.

    They turn the machine into art, but never art into machine – and when at rare moments the latter does come to fruition, it does so only under the banner of ‘the art factory’, be it that of Andy Warhol a generation ago or Jeff Koons today.

    Thus one has come full circle from McChrystal’s Law mentioned previously. Gehry, Jodi, and the others enact McChrystal’s Law, only in reverse: the triumph of the aesthetic precipitates a decline in informatic perspicuity. An increase in information aesthetics produces a decline in aesthetic information. Regardless of whether the law is read forward or backward, one is still locked in the trap of unrepresentability.

    The Stata Center is a sign of the times. It helps to reveal the basic conundrum explored here, which one may summarize according to three basic moments in cultural production and interpretation.While trying to give form to data, (1) network scientists and web designers have tended to aestheticize pure systematicity, thereby sacrificing the aesthetic in favor of the algorithmic, as evidenced by the many ‘maps of the internet’. Yet (2) others like Gehry or Jodi feign to break the machine and restage it as broken beauty, thereby sacrificing the algorithmic in favor of the aesthetic. While the latter is a great improvement over the former, neither option is ultimately sufficient. They require (3) a remapping of the very terms of representability within the society of control, such that both terms return to their proper home, the socio-political realities that have produced them in the first place.

    To repeat, the constitutive axis for representation always has a relationship with the mode of production. The problem today, however, is that this axis is broken. (Was it ever not?) One does not yet have a critical or poetic language in which to represent the control society.

    Hence let us end with a brief review of methodology. For there already exists a critical methodology coincident with the third moment, the moment of remapping the social. Fredric Jameson has given the name ‘cognitive mapping’ to such an endeavor. Cognitive mapping, defined as the attempt to achieve provisional orientation with the social totality, is described in a number of Jameson’s texts, particularly his two books on film (1992a, 1992b). Cognitive mapping emerges from a historical contradiction ‘in which the truth of our social life as a whole — in Lukacs’s terms, as a totality — is increasingly irreconcilable with the possibilities of aesthetic expression or articulation available to us’ ( Jameson, 1992b: 54). The cognitive map is enlisted, Jameson explains, ‘to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole’ (1991: 51). One of the reasons why this method is so useful is that it does not allow the state to dictate the terms of the debate, as any meditation on political violence (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the Twin Towers) would tend to do. Instead Jameson’s method places the responsibility firmly at the feet of history, allowing the socio-historical situation, which of course may include the vicissitudes of political violence but is never determined by them, to engulf the subject, inflating and inflecting his or her representations of the present. The many attempts to ‘map’ information come up short, then, on this very score, for they offer us no orientation whatsoever within the social totality.

    Worse, they exacerbate the problem by veiling it behind candy-colored lines and nodes. The tools and techniques required to create cognitive maps of the information society are scarcely evident even today. Hence the need, one might argue, for things like ‘allegories of control’ as figurative aids for under- standing today’s control society. Jameson would never say that McChrystal’s image is a map of a system. He would say the image is an allegory for a map of a system. The difference is slight but all important. Ultimately, however, the point is not so much to call for a return to cognitive mapping, which of course is of the highest importance, but to call for a poetics as such for this mysterious new machinic space.

    • This topic was modified 8 years, 8 months ago by  BC.
    • This topic was modified 8 years, 8 months ago by  BC.

    Hi Beth. I am curious to hear you elaborate on how you think the essay is relevant to glitch and how it poses challenge to glitch art practices. I agree it is and does, but would like to hear your thoughts as to how. I like the essay. I think he is right to look beyond photography and film. But he doesn’t go far enough. He also needs to look beyond the diagram. The holy grail is not some new, post-structuralist diagram whose ingenious informatic form finally unmasks the hidden workings of power behind the bald data. The holy grail is to look beyond mediated “re-presentations” of power altogether and look toward actual, affective, immanent, (material, Galloway’s term) forces of power which leave mediated traces. And actually, the holy grail beyond that holy grail is to begin modulating our own affective forces of power that leave their own mediated traces. In other words, 1) a move beyond artificial, mediated, diagrammatic representations of power and onward toward the capture, analysis, and taxonomy of live media affects, with the understanding that these affects are themselves performative traces of actual power (and not merely mediated representations of power). And 2) the tweaking and modulation of power itself.

    What I hope to present at this panel ( ) should be relevant; and this recent essay ( ) is relevant.

    From the essay, “New Aesthetic images aren’t representative, analogous, archetypal, emblematic, or symbolic of any thing else. They are the actual traces and residues of processes and relationships – traces that have arrived in the visual realm and have entered humans via their eyes. NA images don’t symbolise or represent the processes that have led to their creation. Instead, they are incidentally thrown into the world by those processes. The way backwards from the images toward the processes themselves is much more complicated that simply intellectually thinking about what these images look ‘like’. We initially apperceive NA images bodily and affectively. They are freaky. They trip us out. Only later are we able to reflect on them analytically, letting their own systemic contours and folds guide our theoretical thought.”

    The glitch image is such an affective image. The glitch image doesn’t symbolically re-present its underlying codex. It performs the failure of its underlying codex in a way that makes the contours of that codex visible. Glitch images are not diagrams or maps. They are traces and residues of the immanent, real-time, historical performance of forces. If two glitch images look similar to one another, it is not because all data visualization scientists think similarly. It is because those two images are based on similar underlying compression codices and computer hardware engineering. In other words, the “aesthetic” appearance of glitch images has more to do with the way in which systems behave than with the way in which humans “re-present” the behavior of systems. So yes, some things may be unrepresentable; but those same things may nevertheless be performable; and such performances often leave a visual trace.


    This tale also seems relevant. In a discussion at Brown about this performance series ( ), I was explaining that I had to stabilize the MS Word files which resulted from the performances, because sometimes the databent images in the Word files caused them to crash or not open. Joan (of JoDi) asked why I didn’t just let the word files crash, and why I didn’t intentionally go on to corrupt the source code of the word files themselves.

    I think there is a kind of radical (fundamental/r3wt) criticality in JoDi’s work that just wants to break *it all* down (whereas in my piece, I only wanted to break language down). So JoDi’s approach is not a capitulation to “mere” aesthetics and art (as Galloway implies). They don’t break things to make them beautiful. Instead, their approach is a refusal to engage with forms of representation or information at all — not because they are unable to engage with information, or because they think radical broken-ness is beautiful (although maybe they do). I think they refuse to engage with novel forms of data visualization because they recognize that approach as a kind of catch 22 lost cause, a critical dead-end.


    The glitch image is such an affective image. The glitch image doesn’t symbolically re-present its underlying codex. It performs the failure of its underlying codex in a way that makes the contours of that codex visible.

    Is noise / compression traces / etc in a “glitch image” a failure of the codex? It seems no more so to me than static on a radio or smudges in a newspaper. Back on Galloway’s essay…

    I don’t even know where to begin, I question so much of it.

     Hence there exist a number of artists creating beauty via the corruption of function, from Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture, to the flicker films of Tony Conrad, or the programmatic drawings of Sol LeWitt

    Turning Tinguely’s sculptures into an aesthetic recuperation of corruption? Turning Conrad’s  frequency/harmonic-inspired structured films into errors? Opening art to the potential of chance, as in LeWitt, posited as “creating beauty via the corruption of function”. Shoving these all together and presenting them as a general approach? I am not at all convinced.

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