Very Rough Notes for Speaking of ArchaeoGlitching

This post represents one stage in how I prepare for public speaking. I first begin by sketching out roughly what kinds of things I want to have up on the screen to support me in a reveal.js slidedeck. I feed it from a markdown source file, so I usually just bang out a number of headings or key thoughts or images in markdown. Then, I try writing out the rough argument of what I want to say. Then, I go back to my slidedeck and typically prune away much of it, to fit better the argument I wrote out. Then, I get up to speak, and typically forget my damned notes anyway and so have to riff from the visual cues on the screen.

and I never, ever, put my speaking text on my slides.

So tonight, I’m roughly at stage two, which leaves me about 15 hours to get my act together before I speak tomorrow afternoon. Below, the broad sketch of what I think I’ll be talking about. Please forgive the lack of polish or links/references to the work I’ve drawn on (Latour, Nowviskie, Padilla, Manovich, Rockwell, Manon and Temkin). If I ever write this up formally, it’ll all be there. I did say *very rough notes*. Slides are at:

The way things break is interesting. Consider – when I have students beginning DH work, the terminal or command line is a scary place. Type something wrong, and the screen fills with error messages. Parse those errors correctly, and you learn much.

Conversely, do things correct the first time, and you are rewarded with another blinking cursor. Nothing much appears to happen. Breaking things is where learning happens. Breaking things is very nearly the entirety of my academic schtick.

But there’s also a third, more liminal space between something that is broken, and something that works. This third space is what interests me today. You could call it GlitchSpace, or that zone where things break in weird yet still quasi-functioning ways. I’m new at this, so bear with me. But I think we can learn a lot from Glitch. Today, I want to take you through what the glitch aesthetic does to my thinking, as I switch from analog to digital back to analog. In particular, I’m interested in copies of things.

So here’s the plan for the next 20 minutes or so. We may or may not follow this plan.

  • a bit about glitch
  • a bit about what is proper
  • glitching as a way of exploring the bone trade
    • soundbashing images, 3d printing Instagram

>pas un glitch slide

Copies get no respect. A Roman copy of a Greek original. You like Nickelback? But they’re just commercial copycats of grunge! Copies have no aura; famously, the ‘aura’ of an original lies in the difficult handiwork to create it. Mere mechanical reproduction is easy! Therefore the copy is lesser. Less genius. Less genuine. There’s no ‘resistance in the materials’ as William Morris had it [cf Bethany Nowviskie]. (Which reminds me of the arguments for ‘slow’ archaeology, but that’s a digression for another day).

But when something is glitched – when it fails slightly but not completely – the idea of aura creeps back in. We can see something slightly of the complex web of relationships that this thing sits in, within which it is an emergent node. Glitch brings back aura.

Glitch ‘punks’ digital. Glitch art – as opposed to something that merely exhibits a glitch – represents a moment when we try to take back control of our computers. The artist opens the data for an image file within a sound program, and runs a sound algorithm on it. The resulting distortion can still be read in the image’s compression algorithm, and displayed. The artist injects random noise, and tricks the machine into revealing something of how it works.

Glitch reminds us that all data exists physically. ‘The Cloud’ has serious environmental impacts. Your data is not ephemeral. It’s sitting there, little pits and bumps, slowly decaying. If we believe that the digital has no aura, it is only because we haven’t looked deeply enough. Glitches help us liberate the data; glitches in software can be exploited to break DRM for instance. (Digital rights management itself depends on the dream that digital data are not somehow things that can be owned, but rather rights that can be accessed).

But if they can be liberated, that implies they may or may not belong where they are currently held. Perhaps they belong in a museum?

‘Data theft as punking the museum’. Forgive me for using the word ‘punking’. I do not know why I did that.

Here is Nefertiti, currently residing in the Neues Museum. Here she is again, in a 3d printout that my students and I did in class two months ago. What a wonderful story! Artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles surreptiously scanning an object in the museum, with a kinect smuggled in under a coat – and then releasing all the data to the world. The museum of course already had a scan, access to which is a jealously guarded privilege. The story was beguiling, since after all one can make the claim that the presence of Egyptian patrimony in a foreign country has little business being there in the first place. But soon other folks with experience in 3d scanning and so on had poked holes in the artists’ story. The scan couldn’t possibly have been made this way: a data theft of the existing commissioned scan was a more plausible explanation. Glitching as data punking, data theft as a glitch in the corporate machine of the museum.

— [maybe kill these two slides:]

What’s more interesting? The idea of an illegal scan? Or the idea of data theft?

When my class printed out that ‘liberated’ data file, what crime were we committing?
– is it an IP crime?
– is it a continuation of the looting of Egypt?
– is it a kind of _partage_?
– is it a crime at all?

Bruno Latour talks about the obsession of determining whether something is ‘original’ or a ‘facsimile’ – “the obsession for finding the original never mattered so much until the possibilities of copying became so open ended”. For Latour, it’s not a case of either/or (original or reproduction) but rather a case of ‘and…and’. The big question is actually, ‘is it well or badly reproduced?’

The badly reproduced will disappear, while good reproductions enhance the original and trigger new copies. They are ‘fruitful’, and he goes on to show the connections between ‘copy’, ‘copious’, and ‘cornucopia’. So when confronted with a reproduction we should be asking ‘is this ‘segment in the trajectory of the work of art barren or fertile’? An ‘original’ is something that has originated or spawned subsequent versions. The entirety is the trajectory. We don’t have issues with new productions of King Lear; no one complains that it is not the original. They are just part of the trajectory of this thing ‘King Lear’. We take each new version on its own merits. Bad productions of King Lear mean that eventually we will not produce King Lear; Good ones let it live on.

This copy of Nefertiti in my hand: it is a good copy. It was fruitful. It sparked several remarkable pieces of work in my students. THIS copy (bouncing ball game) is perhaps a not fruitful copy.

This idea of the value of a copy ties into the idea of ‘play’ or ‘performance’. Reproductions play the past. The glitch aesthetic is a way of playing digital copies, rather like a musical instrument, to afford fruitful lineages. My metaphors are getting mixed, so let me move on.

[if time allows, go into the Palmyra arch reproduction in Trafalgar square and ponder whether or not this is a good reproduction]

Geoffrey Rockwell recently gave a talk called ‘Replication as a way of knowing’. I’d dearly like to read or listen to that talk. In his abstract, he writes, “Much new knowledge in the digital humanities comes from the practices of encoding and programming not through discourse. These practices can be considered forms of modelling in the active sense of making by modelling or, as I like to call them, practices of thinking-through. Alas, these practices and the associated ways of knowing are not captured or communicated very well through the usual academic forms of publication which come out of discursive knowledge traditions.”

So in the next portion of this talk, I’d like to think about the glitch aesthetic, of partially breaking things, as a way towards communicating this kind of fruitful replication.

[scan of horse head; talk about if there is time, otherwise skip; basically, idea is a return to the copying practices of the early 19th century enabled a kind of maker-culture, was a form of knowledge communication of the kind perhaps that Rockwell envisions now]

We’ve had about 20 years or more now of smearing from the physical into the digital: we get it. It makes ‘sense’. We call it ‘digitization’. With the possibilities of 3d printing, we can now complete the circle. Bethany Nowviski asked this question years ago: “What new, interpretive research avenues will open up for you, in places of interesting friction and resistance, when you gain access to the fresh, full circuit of humanities computing—that is, the loop from the physical to the digital to the material text and artifact again?” THIS is what gives digital copies their aura; it is not in the resistance of the materials that William Morris spoke of; it’s in the interesting ways we might break things when we smear out of digitization back to materialization.

So: let’s consider these photos as a kind of digitization. I have thousands of these photos of the human bone trade, as part of a larger investigation. I don’t know how to analyze them; they are *hard*. They come from a broken world that allows us to buy and sell human remains. I can sort by hue, saturation, or brightness, or by date posted, or by geographic location. And that helps me to a degree to understand the grammars of the bone trade. But let me try glitching this data by representing it in a new medium. Let me glitch my data viz methods. I’ll welcome your thoughts on this.

I want to represent data not visually, because I think we’ve gotten too blind to all of the assumptions or tacit ways of understanding the page/ the screen. To hear what I mean, listen to this piece of ‘music’. It’s a track by Smash Mouth, flattened down into a midi file, then pushed back to mp3. If you know the song, you can hear the words; if you don’t know the song, all you hear is noise. It’s been glitched, and the glitch here shows us how our expectations colour our interpretation of data. If you know the song, you *hear what you expect to hear*. I suspect visualizations of data suffer from similar issues.

So I’ve extracted the hue, colour, and saturation information from my 9000 or so images. I treat that as a chord: and I sonify it. Now, when I listen, I listen for repeating patterns, or sonic outliers, or other weirdness. I glitch to try to find something in my data. Well, maybe I re-mediate. Maybe I’m soundbashing (by analogy to photobashing).  Maybe it’s databending. But ‘glitch’ is very fun to say.

I continue to glitch, to remediate: with three values, I can also represent this image data as something tactile, something to feel. X, Y, Z. [compare the 3d print of bone trade to 3d prints of Kenentepe photos; note how in Kenentepe the location of data points are framed within the trench; idea that the archaeologist creates the archaeology seems to emerge in this print.]

So what does this all mean? Well, it’s early days. I’m pleased to say, I don’t know! How wonderful is that, to be at the point in a project where you really have no idea where it’s going to lead? But I do know this:

Digital objects have aura because they are a performance of so many different entangled networks of production; their ability to be glitched makes their materiality apparent. Digitization and Materialization, that smearing back and forth from analog to digital to analog: well, it’s not all about the digital/physical object itself.

It’s what it does to how we think that matters.
It’s a method to think about a world in which nearly perfect replicas are shortly to arrive.
It is to archaeology what Voyant-Tools is to text: it’s a kind of hermeneutica.