Glitch, Circuit Bending & Breaking as a Way of Knowing

A big idea in the digital humanities is that building is a hermeneutic, an iterative interpretive process that leads toward knowing and understanding. I saw this great video on The Art of Glitch toady that made me think a bit more about how much breaking can is an essential related way of knowing. I realize I’m not necessarily breaking any new ground here, but I think these few examples I’ve pulled together do a nice job at getting at what it is we learn when we break the slick world of computing a bit.

You should watch the whole thing, its’ great (you should also watch their video on Animated Gifs). But the part that I found most compelling was Scott Fitzgerald‘s basic demonstration of how to glitch some files (change a .mp3 to a .raw and open it in photoshop or open a .jpg in a text editor and delete some chunks of it. It’s fun, in that it is something you can follow along at home with, but the act of doing these things actually teaches something about the nature of digital files. He does a good job of explaining this in the following statement.

“Part of the process is empowering people to understand the tools and underlying structures you know what is going on in the computer. As soon as you understand the system enough to know why you’re breaking it then you have a better understanding of what the tool was built for.”

In short, breaking the files exposes their logic. In a way it helps us escape screen essentialism and see a different side of the nature of the files, file formats, compression algorithms, and structure of digital objects. The whole experience reminded me that I never got around to sharing some of the amazingly cool exhibit on circuit bending at Milwaukee’s Discovery Zone.

Breaking and Bending the Hardware

Circuit Bending at Discovery Zone

If you are unfamiliar, here is how Wikipedia describes Circuit Bending.

Circuit bending is the creative customization of the circuits within electronic devices such as low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children’s toys and small digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators.

Here is a little video I took of messing with the dials on the bent NES.

In this case, messing with the hardware is producing glitches. In this case, the artist (Luke Reddington) bent a series of different devices. He went in and put a bunch of toggles on this NES that lets you flip a bunch of different switches inside the device that no one is supposed to be messing around with.

In my mind, this works just the same as changing the file extensions. When you poke around inside the Nintendo and set a few different switches to toggle things that aren’t supposed to be toggled you can get this. Sure it’s art, there is an aesthetics to the whole thing, but there is also an element of coming to know in here. I think these are all examples of the ways in which breaking is as much a way of knowing as building.

Breaking & Bending as Knowing & Learning about the Machine

In each case, much like what happens when you set an augmented reality app like wordlens to the wrong language and have it try and read things that aren’t text, or when you go on a quest to find oddities in the digitized corpus of google books, circuit bending and glitch art draw out attention away from the way things are intended to be presented, away from being seemless things that obfuscate their nature, and get us to peek behind the curtain of the technologies and see a bit of the logic of computing.