Image by Bafic


How digital malfunction took over art

from Issue #3 of Supplement magazine

Throughout May 2016, the oversized digital display hoarding in London’s Waterloo station appeared to be malfunctioning. As thousands of commuters streamed underneath its vast bulk and onto trains leading out to the metro-lands of the South east and Surrey, random snatches of data unspooled across the display in white Courier type. Lines of numbers and prompt codes stacked up and overlayed, gradually obscuring more and more of the backdrop until the entire screen was a random mess of broken electronic information.

It was only then that the pattern resolved and dissolved, replaced with a logo and a slogan for BAE Systems. What had appeared to be a disruption from deep in the circuits controlling an electronic display was in fact a calculated attempt by a rather dull, corporate entity to grab the attention of the passing public.

On a very basic level, this tactic works because — at a time when our lives are more dependent on electronics than ever before — the sight of a frozen screen or unresponsive terminal serves as a modern analogue for a fire alarm or the sound of breaking glass. Lose the ability to communicate with your screen and say goodbye to your social networks, contacts and the contents of your bank account. These glitches demand attention. Screens and interfaces are now so ubiquitous that we only really see them when they show us something broken: in the last week I’ve seen a CCTV screen on the bus which had the wobbling, slurred quality of a worn out VHS tape, heard my building’s intercom system randomly transmit a ghostly, echoing crackle late at night, and watched a television in my gym where the colourbalance had overloaded, washing David Guetta’s video in a psychedelic filter of purple and green. The end result was far more beautiful and arresting than the original. Nowadays, when the electronics break, we can’t help but look.


Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry

For this reason, the visual language of malfunction has started to appear in the world of art and fashion with an increasing frequency. One of the standout shows of last year was SUPERSYMMETRY by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda in London’s Brewer Street Carpark space. In a pitch dark room, visitors filed through lines of monitors which sporadically crackled into life, flashing up lines of data, modular patterns, shocks of colour and blinding white-outs. Mobile screens faced skywards, with particles rolling and vibrating around them as they skewed and pivoted: at regular intervals, blasts of light and static interference would emanate from them. The overall effect was disorientating, disconcerting and strangely beautiful. It was the 1980s sci-fi dream of entering the computer made real, but instead of some slick, neon fantasy world it felt more like being locked in a virtual version of a crumbling factory.

Image by Bafic

Similar tropes are explored by the London artist Bafic in his prolific, multi-media work: heavily pixilated images turn into abstract, coloured cubes; dialog boxes and warning messages are repurposed on his instagram feed; links from his Twitter account unleash pages of scrolling numbers onto your screen; text is corrupted and redacted to the point of unreadability. Last year I interviewed him in his front room in South London. His computer screen was a spider’s web of cracks and fractals — it was unclear whether it was a crafted image or the result of a domestic accident. A recent screening of his short films at the ICA saw the audience filmed mid-screening and looped back into the footage they were watching, a live hack of the process redolent of the 1980s scare-ambushes of US broadcasts by men in Max Headroom masks who knew how to co-opt transmitters.

These are ideas are also being explored in fashion. Knitwear pieces from Stone Island’s Shadow Project and Moschino have used broken, eye-scrambling patterns, while Stella McCartney’s two-tone grey sweats for adidas have stretched and warped a houndstooth pattern to similar effect. Japanese artist and designer Nukeme produced a knitwear line where a Brother sewing machine was linked to a computer whose binary code had been slightly rewritten to introduce sporadic malfunctions and disruptions to the stitching pattern. Nukeme had been inspired to attempt this experiment after attending the two day ‘Glitch Workshop’ at Tokyo University of The Arts. ‘What I find interesting is the misapplication of things, and things that were created from unexpected use of machines,’ he said shortly afterwards. ‘I have no intention of creating a great knitwear piece. For instance, I think it would be more amusing to turn something that was made to be a basketball net into a great knitwear design.’

Nukeme, sewing machine experiment

Beyond patterns, disruption is also apparent in shapes and cuts: Christopher Raeburn’s use of CAD technology to move the proportions of his functional outdoors wear into something futuristic and unpredictable; some of Rei Kawabuko’s most eye-catching work for Comme Des Garcons takes the sort of patterns created by Tokyo glitch artist Umelabo and distort them even further by printing them into 3-D, layered pieces. Arguably, the whole mis-proportioned, Tumblr ideals of a label like Vetements has emerged from these ideas. They are also translating into the way that fashion is photographed, advertised and portrayed: David Sims’ wonkily-psychedelic, consciously lo-fi shoots for Arena Homme Plus and Russian multi-media artist Anton Bundenko’s creations both spring to mind, and perhaps most obviously the online work of Belgian artist Peter De Potter (whose overlaid-type cover for Kanye West’s ‘Life of Pablo’ is probably this year’s defining glitchy image).

Similarly, in music there is a conscious attempt by many producers and artists to warp and repurpose the available technology. The likes of Peaking Lights, Cyclist, Rezzett and Primitive World are using everything from synths built up from dumpster-dived circuitboards to cassette tapes and tracks that have been bounced down onto VHS, turning their sonic degradation into a musical weapon rather than a lo-fi affectation.

Why is this happening now? Why, at a time when our surrounding world is better designed and created than ever before — albeit in a rather safe, polite way — are we looking for the rough edges and loose threads, and willfully seeking out patterns that work against what our brain tells us to be ‘right’? Firstly, because a natural part of an art form’s evolution is to push at, test and ultimately break its barriers. This disruption of the expected norm is the modern equivalent of Italian artist Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Art series, in which putting a knife through the canvas created the artwork itself. ‘I do not want to make a painting,’ he said at the time. ‘I want to open up space, create a new dimension, tie in the cosmos, as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture.’

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Art

More politically, there is an argument that by working in this way, all creatives are making a semi-political standpoint against the most powerful institutions of the modern day — technology companies. While the digital revolution arrived on a great promise of autonomy and personal liberation, what it has largely delivered is conformity, dependence, and a concentration of power and wealth in a tiny number of hands to an extent unrivalled in the modern age. The entire language and end-goal of tech companies is to do with integration — making the use of technology seamless to the point where we cease to notice it. That way, our use of it — and reliance on it — becomes the norm, and we never stop to question why we have embraced these tools, who benefits from their use. The dread words, Your warranty is void if you open up this machine come as standard. But at this point, people seem excited to roll the dice on that possibility — to break the circuits, reclaim some control over the day’s technology and force these tools to do not just what they were programmed to, but what we would like them to and, most excitingly, what they weren’t supposed to. The real digital revolution won’t look like a clean white Apple advert, but a dead pixel, an error message and a moiré pattern.