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History

Culture Jamming

Culture jamming, or the strategic manipulation of media as a form of resistance against the institutions that control individuals through consumerist culture, can very well be seen as a predecessor to glitch art and the introduction of viruses and hacks for the culture. The term “culture jamming” was coined in 1984 by activist group Negativland to describe the satirist actions being taken by many to comment on corporate, government, and big market entities (Carducci). Culture jamming can take on many forms, but “is mainly restricted to the internet, posters, billboards and personal apparel”. The manipulation of pre-existing slogans/posters/billboards can also require the use of technology, although it is not absolutely necessary.

Banksy: The Culture Jamming Graffiti Artist

One of the most well known culture jamming artists is Bansky. Bansky is mainly characterized by his powerful graffiti art installations that tend to appear overnight —  not many people have seen Banksy, and that is purposeful. His anonymity is extremely important, Feiten et al of Alternet highlighting that “Banksy interprets anonymity as freedom, a position consistent with the skepticism his art often expresses toward public surveillance” (2017). The anonymity of him as an artist translates to a digital type of anonymity also associated with technology, which I argue also plays an important role when introducing glitches, viruses, and hacks. The “freedom” that Banksy finds in doing this work is also the freedom that many others can find in the digital work that they do, especially because technology enables anonymity in many ways.

The work done by Banksy is a direct commentary to the world we live in today. In their piece “How the Artist Banksy Helps Us See the Authoritarianism All Around Us”, Feiten et al dive deeper into what Banksy’s work is actually doing:

Banksy’s culture jamming “intrudes on the intruders” on two levels: first, he reclaims physical space dominated by advertisements, and second, he also seeks to liberate the mental space thoroughly infiltrated by marketers. In doing so, he makes clear that street art’s relationship to advertising must also be a struggle about how we perceive images and what room we give them in our thinking and feeling. In order to issue potent answers, then, Banksy’s art has to succeed not only in reappropriating the space advertisements take, but also in subverting the messages they contain.

The goal of Bansky’s work is to reappropriate the means through which marketers attempt to control the world. As shown in the image above, to Bansky, consumerist culture is like being trapped behind bars. As Feiten et al express, there is some sort of mental liberation that happens through this work, which I also argue happens with glitching, introducing viruses, and hacking. This is definitely what you see in “Men Against Fire” as well, even though the mental liberation that occurs is not necessarily a pleasant one (it is necessary however).

 

The image above, which is not a Banksy piece but was shared by Banksy, is a direct commentary by Vancouver street artist IHeart on social media and the satisfaction that “likes”, “follows” and “comments” create in the lives of many. There are many technological ways to address such satisfaction, but culture jamming, specifically, is the commentary through the use of such present, physical art. Glitch art could have been used to digitally create this message, as well as a virus or a hack. But by occupying this specific space, where people are able to walk by, stop, and think, there is a different dimension that is added.

Culture Jamming as a Predecessor

Culture jamming serves as a predecessor for glitch art and the introduction of viruses and hacks for the culture because it has the power to address the same issues, yet was seen as a physical visual art movement from its inception. The spaces that culture jamming occupies are not the same spaces that glitches occupy, yet they achieve similar effects and commentaries. The anonymity that is also seen through culture jamming artists such as IHeart and Banksy can also be translated into the technological world, and the commentaries that are made through culture jamming can very well be about technology itself as well. Glitch art, like culture jamming, requires an in-depth analysis of the frameworks through which pieces and software’s are created, which therefore allows for a deeper understanding of the control mechanisms that the commentaries are made for.

Cultural Representation

Men Against Fire

The TV Series Black Mirror is described as satirical and suspenseful, “showing the dark side of life and technology” (IMDB). All Black Mirror episodes are stand-alone commentaries on a certain aspect of life, whether it is in the present or in the future.

Season 3 Episode 5 “Men Against Fire” not only comments on the mental trauma associated with war, but also primarily on the use of technology by a government to enable the eradication of a certain population. Soldiers have a specific piece of equipment installed into their bodies that allow them, among many things, to view certain people as zombies (called “roaches”). Roaches are inadequate and not wanted by the government. The device makes them look like zombies so that soldiers can differentiate between who is human and deserves to live and who must be killed. The soldiers, however, do not realize that they are killing actual humans. It is not until one of the soldiers, Koinange looks into another device that causes his internal system to glitch, where h then begins to see the roaches as the humans that they are. The image below shows the device, specifically from the scene where Koinange looks into it:

What the device also does is that it alters Koinange’s memories in a way that allows for him to recall his killings as killings of roaches — not as killings of human beings. This removes the emotional trauma associated with knowingly killing a human. The counter-device attacks these realities. When Koinange is given the chance to experience such emotions, he cannot believe what he has done. He is shown a video of when he signed the contract agreeing to have the device installed, which is also a commentary on how humans might sign contracts and not necessarily read what they are getting themselves into. 

The counter-device, described in the episode as a virus, attacks the very foundations of the main government device. Through the creation of the counter-device, an understanding of what the main device was trying to do had to have been established. The glitches that Koinange experiences are a result of the virus attempting to infiltrate the main device in order to break it down. The glitches are also a reminder for Koinange that the technology that he relies so much on and takes for granted can very much be gone in the matter of seconds. What you see in this episode is a virus being used “for good” (or “for the culture”) because the virus attacks the very foundations of the governments device that wrongly kills certain human beings. While at the beginning it might seem that the antagonists of the episode are the roaches, the episode goes on to argue that the true antagonist is the government.

Scholar Bryant Suclos sees the “Men Against Fire” storyline as one “as old as time”. He argues that “the same process” of extensive soldier conditioning “has been achieved by manipulative political leaders and generals for ages” (X). I agree with Suclos’ argument. What is different in this case, however, is the introduction of the technology. The introduction of this technology allows for the desensitization of the soldiers; today you see a large amount of veterans suffering from PTSD (among other things) as a result of such work, and this technology would eliminate that aftereffect. Not only is this episode a commentary on the potential future uses of technology, but also on the structures that have allowed and continue to allow for such societal conditioning to occur in the first place.

Artifact

Glitch, Virus, Hack — For Good?

What is a glitch? A glitch can be easily defined as the temporary malfunction of a system, with a visual effect as a result of the malfunction. Glitches can be purposeful – in the sense that you can manually edit a code to introduce a glitch. Glitches can happen as a result of the introduction of other factors, such as a piece of code that you did not realize was going to behave in a certain way, or even through the introduction of a virus or as a result of a hack.

Glitching as an Art

The idea of editing code as a way to create glitches, whether it be in music, images, etc, comes from a movement called screen essentialism. This movement, as described by Trevor Owens in “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps”, is a direct response to scholarly work that doesn’t examine how digital objects work. “They are, at their core, bits of encoded information on media,” Owens writes. “While that encoded information may have one particular intended kind of software to read or present the information we can learn about the encoded information in the object by ignoring how we are supposed to read it.” This point is extremely important because it plays into the power that lies behind glitching. By understanding the larger system and then editing it, there can be strategic purpose behind the glitching that is done, making it that much more meaningful.

More recently, glitching has manifested itself into an art form. Glitch art is not only about the final product — it is also about the process through which the glitch is made. The power that lies behind glitch art rests in the commentary that can be made through this creation process and final product:

The conversations it catalyzes transfer easily over to our contemporary relationships to the cities we live in, and glitch art is able to explore the balance of control between us and the institutions in which we are immersed. Mallika Roy, “Glitch it Good: Understanding the Glitch Art Movement”, The Periphery, Dec 2014

On a basic level, technology itself can be considered an “institution in which we are immersed” in the sense that it does play a huge role in the daily lives of millions of people. At this level, glitch art comments on the dependency we have on technology to function properly. On a larger level, there are other institutions that glitch art is being used to make commentary of. From political structures to other prominent social and cultural systems, glitch art has become a form of resistance. In the words of Lana Polansky, glitch art “is generally understood as a modern aesthetic, a DIY, and “f**k the system” attitude as applied in the digital age” (“Patchwork Hendrons”, Sufficiently Human).

Combination of Glitching and Viruses/Hacks

In “On Glitches: A Deconstructive Analysis of Archives and Experience”, Evan Meaney addresses how the only way to explore the true nature of a structure is to “examine its ruptures” (a Foucault way of thinking). Because the data structures that make up technology today can be seen as “protocol”, glitches, hacks and viruses exploit these protocols, allowing for a deeper examination of the “ruptures” in the structure. It is argued that “viruses do not infect from the exterior alone,” they instead utilize “pre-existing architecture to propagate” (Meaney). What this allows for, then, is the examination of the pre-existing architecture to figure out what the technology is actually trying to do, which is also what glitching does.

What we will see is that the use of one method, such as a virus or a hack, can lead to a glitch in the system. This effect can be both beneficial and detrimental: the realization that there is a virus present or that a person has been hacked can be purposeful. In certain instances, however, it might be better to remain incognito, where there are no signs of a virus or hack being in the system in order to truly come to know how the system works. A glitch that makes someone realize the true nature of what they are engaging in can also be beneficial, whether purposeful or not.

Glitching, Viruses, and Hacks for the Culture

The glitches, viruses, and hacks that will be talked about throughout this webpage will have to do with purposefully performing these actions for a cause — or “for the culture”. There can be and are larger motives behind these actions, especially as it relates to making commentary on the larger institutions that hold a lot of power today. It is through the process of glitching, introducing viruses, and hacking that much is learned about the underlying data structures that people so often take for granted.

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