August 9, 2015 kb

Glitches // Black Bodies // Remix: Side B

This is the second part of a discussion on glitches, black bodies, and social justice movements. You can find Side A here.

Glitches have traditionally been viewed as an error, a problem in need of fixing. As Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin[1] write, “…a glitch is a short-term deviation from a correct value…The outcome of a glitch is not predictable. When applied to software…a glitch is an unpredictable change in the system’s behavior, when something obviously goes wrong” (emphasis their own). Oftentimes, the word is accompanied by choice phrases that express complete and total frustration when, inevitably, a computer freezes and your work is lost.

For the purposes of their argument, Goriunova and Shulgin’s decision to simplify “glitch” and use it as a means to signify “error,” makes much sense. In fact, in many cases, a glitch truly only is ever seen as an error (take a TV screen glitch or a glitch in an electronic system’s hardware, endlessly frustrating experiences for both the individual trying to use the system and the individual charged with fixing the problem). However, in defining a glitch solely as an error, Goriunova and Shulgin in fact miss the nuances that come into being when one attempts to define what the term “glitch” refers to in the modern digital space, particularly in terms of digital games.

To begin with, the acceptance of “glitches” by varying Internet cultures constantly redefines the parameters of the word. Today, glitches often appear in digital games and, as such, a large culture has emerged in response to this phenomenon. In their article, “Creative Uses of Software Errors: Glitches and Cheats,” Wilma and William Bainbridge outline a working definition of the word in relation to digital games, a definition I find most useful to consider. They describe glitches as “a discrepancy between the software’s display model and its world model[2].” They continue:

 

“The display model is the image of the game’s environment that appears on the computer or TV screen. The world model is the representation of that environment revealed by the behavior of characters and objects inside the game.”

 

In other words, in the game world, the display model might be a solid concrete wall or a large oak tree, whereas the world model is how a character interacts with that solid wall and large tree—usually by not being able to walk through it. However, in the case of a glitch, a game character might instead walk right through the wall or become stuck in the tree.

This metaphor of the division between the game world and the world model might even be transferred over to explain the experiences of black bodies in the United States: while the United States ostensibly stands for equality and freedom (the display model), this version of America frequently only rings true for white, heterosexual men whose world model meshes with the display model. However, the black individual experiences a world model completely at odds with the “display” presented.

“The programmers,” writes Bainbridge and Bainbridge on the discrepancy between the software’s display and world model, “are quite aware of most of the these discrepancies between the two models, so they might perhaps be described as design limitations rather than programming bugs” (65). This is what I refer to when I say that the black body does not exist in the database—it is not that the system/society that we live in is broken; rather, that the black individual has never had a space in the game world. This has been by design. After all, as Sarah Tuttle notes on racism, “it’s not that the system is broken. The system’s working. This is by design.[3]

So far I have been referring to “glitch” the noun and phenomenon but it’s crucial to recognize that “glitch” also suggests action, as in “my screen keeps on glitching.” The transition of the word from noun to verb (in vernacular English) suggest that there is something unique about “glitch” as an idea, something that demands immediacy (in the form of a present participle) and agency (“There’s a glitch in the system” vs. “The system is glitching”.)

Lamar’s most recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has already received numerous accolades for serving as a voice for the black community. His album has been called “unapologetically black” for negotiating the nuances of black lives in the United States and performing some of the conversations around issues like police brutality, racism, and poverty that are often avoided in order to maintain delicate sensibilities. Lamar himself has said that his album will be “taught in college courses someday[4].” Perhaps it’s for this reason that it’s of no surprise that his song became the manifesto for two #BlackLivesMatter gatherings.

But there’s more to it than that. The Cleveland protest, the first instance of Lamar’s song being used as a chant, occurred a mere month after Lamar performed the song for the first time at the BET Awards ceremony. While it would be erroneous to attribute a cause-effect relationship to Lamar’s argument and the use preceding use of the song in protest, it is hard to believe that entirely no relation exists. There’s no guarantee that any of those gathered at the protest made the conscious connection between Lamar’s performance and the actions they took on that day. It’s through the creative process—writing, painting, music, dance—that the day-to-day realities of black communities have been most heavily encoded, and it’s through our appreciation of and critical engagement with these texts that we might see the first entelechies of change. But, I argue that the song would not have had such an important role in the protest without Lamar’s performance.

The performance[5] begins with Lamar atop a battered and vandalized police vehicle, a fraying American flag flying in the background. The dancers, who all appear to be minorities, are scattered around the stage in various poses, arms crossed, on a knee, faces defiant and eyes challenging. The song begins. Lamar croons:

 

Alls my life I has to fight

Alls my life I…

Hard times like: “God”

Bad trips like: “God!”

Nazareth…I’m fucked up

Homie you fucked up

But if God got us then

We gon’ be alright

The dancers, called into motion by Lamar’s words, converge around him and begin dancing. Lamar remains atop the police vehicle (an act which received the ire of news media pundits who accused him of disrespecting the efforts of the police in United States). Given the political and social climate at the time of the performance (in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the blacklash against the movement’s aims and methods), the image of Lamar and his dancers harkens to the lived reality of black and brown lives in the United States. The fraying American flag begs the question: “What has happened to all that America stood for?” or, even, “Has America ever truly stood for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Has it ever been whole? Will it ever and can it be mended?”

What is most notable, however, is the moment the hook hovers on the verge of repeating for a second time: suddenly, the stage lights cut off, plunging the arena into darkness. The music ceases; instead we hear the static of a downed electric pole. The massive television screens, which up until this moment had been broadcasting Lamar’s image, display the words “To Pimp a Butterfly” before they begin to flash the ever-recognizable “multicolored screen of death” that most of us know so well (the technical term is “SMPTE color bar”). The camera cuts to the backstage workers, who are all frantically attempting to “fix the problem,” giving us a view of their screens, which are also displaying SMPTE color bars. A “glitch” (albeit one engineered by the creative staff themselves) has occurred.

Video
However, in this “glitch,” which requires that the system be rebooted, a new possibility emerges. Once the lights and sound return, the scene before us is entirely different. We see the dancers waving whole American flags (at odds with the distressed and fraying one that serves as the backdrop to the entire performance). It suggests—against all odds—that in the moment of the glitch, there is a form of healing. Before, where the large American flag suggests the fraying aspects of American society, culture, and politics, the moment of emancipation—where the dancers, who stand in for the every (wo)man, join the audience in the aisles—occurs in the moment of the glitch. It allows for new imaginings of a reality that would otherwise constrain, deny, and eradicate the black body.

And let’s not forget: glitches—or rather what we now call “glitch aesthetics”—have been part of the fabric of black lives and artistic practices for a long time. First, because the black individual, much like the glitch for the programmer, has been a considered an “error” for most of American history. But in terms of artistic practices, the glitch has been indispensable for the black community. This has been exemplified most prominently through auditory glitches. One of the best examples of auditory glitches comes in the form of “scratching” (more specifically, the sound you hear when a DJ scrubs a record), a method credited as being produced by Grand Wizzard Theodore, a black DJ from the Bronx. One might even argue that the “chopped and screw” effect—where the tempo of a song is slowed and various techniques intended to alter the music are applied—is an even better example of this. (The technique was also created by a black hip-hop DJ[6].)

What Lamar’s performance suggests is that social and political change and the glitch are inextricably intertwined in today’s world. The transformation viewers witness between the first hook and verse, and the rest of the song must happen in the space of the glitch, otherwise the transformation would not be a transformation at all but rather a continuation of what was already there. The performance of the song, in this moment, is what gave “Alright” the necessary discursive power to help to make the leap from “art” to “action”—and the glitch, arguably, was the only mode through which this imaginative leap could be made.

Video
The same can be said for audio/visual glitches. The music video for “Alright[7]” was released only a few days after Lamar’s BET performance. Directed by Colin Tilley, the composition of the film (for it can only be called such) speaks to videos like Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me”, where there is a sense eerie jubilee—happiness and joy that seems entirely at odds with a reality steeped in death—combined with visual glitching. Combined with the video’s invocation of magical realism, the motif of the glitch is very apparent in the video from the start—a mere thirty seconds in, there’s a shot of a child skate boarding. By the next frame, the child has vanished, leaving behind only the blue sky.

When we first see Lamar floating above the crowds, it’s a shot of his feet dangling in a way that’s strikingly familiar—the images of Jim Crow lynchings are hard to erase from one’s consciousness, not that they should be. The echoes of lynching are further reinforced by the shot of a large tree that immediately follows. But, even as the video clearly speaks to those images that aren’t as far removed from American history as some would believe, it simultaneously presents a different understanding of Lamar’s body—as something transcending the boundaries of the rules of our reality, yet nonetheless recognized and welcomed by the community. His body’s jerky, indeed ethereal (in the sense that his limbs seem to be responding to things outside of our understanding) movements can’t help but bring to mind the glitches seen in video games all the time, where a character will suddenly begin walking through doors or floating above the ground. The world and game model are not in synch whenever Lamar is in the frame; indeed, his non-death at the end is clearly indicative of that.

As with Lamar’s performance, the video to “Alright” demonstrates the importance of the glitch in these moments. The glitch is the only means through which certain narratives can be told—as a noun, as a verb, as a phenomenon, the glitch lacks fungibility. Terms like “error” or “interrupting” fail to capture the same essence. Furthermore, the immediacy of the glitch—that even after it has been “corrected” (like Lamar’s death in the music video), it is still in play, still in existence, still active—posits it in a unique position to be appropriated and used to give voice to a new form of subjecthood. The glitch/glitching helps us to realize one crucial thing: what is permissible boils down to what is possible.

 

 


 

[1] Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin, “Glitch,” in Software Studies: A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 110.

[2] Wilma Alice Bainbridge and William Sims Bainbridge, “Creative Uses of Software Errors: Glitches and Cheats,” Social Science Computer Review 25 (2007): 64, accessed October 25, 2015.

[3] Dr. Chanda P-W. Twitter Post. June 17, 2015, 1:50 PM. https://twitter.com/ibjiyongi/status/611274802272186368

[4] “The Trials of Kendrick Lamar: Inside the New Issue,” The Rolling Stone, March 11, 2015.

[5] “BET Awards: Kendrick Lamar Keeps Us Lifted With ‘Alright’,” BET.com, accessed September 25, 2015.

[6] “DJ Screw,” Wikipedia, accessed November 15, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DJ_Screw.

[7] KendrickLamarVevo, “Alright,” Youtube, June 30, 2015.

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