Writings – Elena Kostenko

Metaphorical Glitch: Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene in the perspective of Media Studies

 

The smooth and pale skin of Mary in Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene (Fig.1) is partly covered with coarse clothes, and her transparent tears run off her face, which is raised to the sky in prayer. In the background, there are dark, rough rocks and an infinitely dramatic landscape. One step closer and the experience of this painting changes: the central elements of the composition convey even more detailed features and textures, whereas the rest of the canvas exposes the medium of painting and makes visible the physical engagement of the artist. Art History offers an extensive scholarship about Titian’s painting technique. His contemporaries discussed his works and defined his artistic. For example, Giorgio Vasari, writer of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550, 1568) coins Titian as one of the greatest artists of his time, comparing Titian with Michelangelo. In the 16th-18th century, the Venetian school and Titian’s technique: the virtuosity of his brushstrokes, the colour and compositional choices, influenced the development of British painting. The first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Joshua Reynolds visited Venice in the 1750s and his study of the masterpieces noted the sublimity and the dramatic qualities of Titian’s paintings.[1] The British painter and printmaker William Blake (1757- 1827) also wrote:  “Broken Colours & Broken Lines & Broken masses are Equally Subversive of the Sublime.”[2] Blake found that despite the greatness of Titian’s colours, the painting technique is lacking some attention to the drawing.[3]

Fig. 1. Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)  Repentant Mary Magdalene, 1560’s, oil on canvas, The State Hermitage Museum, Russia, 
URL: https://www.hermitagemuseum.org

In this essay, I will take a step beyond the chronological boundaries of Art History and discuss Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene from the perspective of Digital Media. In doing so, I aim to provide new interpretations of Titian’s practice and demonstrate its relevance today in the age of abundant digital technologies. I will approach painting as a source of information and consider the differences between fine and rough brushstrokes, examining Titian’s use of painterly technique and the experience he seeks to transmit to the viewer through such techniques. In order to bridge the chronological gap between today and the Early Modern period, I will study and draw parallels with ‘Three walking ladies‘.[6] Fig.2 by contemporary artist Vladimir Potapov (1980) and Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene.  The main focus of this comparison is to trace the artistic strategy of representing reality whilst simultaneously manifesting the material qualities of painting. The first chapter is devoted to a theoretical overview of the concept of glitch and how the application of the term has shifted from the technological realm to different media within the field of visual art. By establishing an overview of the existing discourse, I will discuss the exchange of the term and its operation outside of the technological context. Each aforementioned painting will be described with a focus on its respective material and pictorial qualities. These descriptions will also touch upon the historical and cultural contexts in which the works were created. 

Fig.2. Vladimir Potapov, ‘Three walking Ladies’, 2015, acrylic enamel on plywood, Private collection, image source: https://www.potapovvv.com/

 

Metaphorical meaning of glitch

During the 1940s-1950s, the term glitch was commonly used as a slang word, used by the radio and TV broadcasting companies in the United States. It referred to a mispronounced word or a technical interruption, perceivable by audiences.[7] In 1962, John Glenn, the first American astronaut, described the term in his essay, Into Orbit, as a simultaneous malfunction caused by a change of voltage in an electrical system.[8] Today, Glenn’s description frequently appears in academic writings in interlinked fields, such as Media and Cultural Studies, Social theory, Art theory and Aesthetics; however, its definition has become broader. In this chapter, I will trace the expansion of the term from its initial meaning to a more metaphorical one and will discuss its characteristics beyond the technical context. Alexander Galloway was one of the first scholars to reflect upon the creative applications of technical errors. In his PhD dissertation, “Protocol, or, how control exists after decentralization” (2001), Galloway describes glitch as existing beyond the normal functionality of data flow.[9] Galloway regards the artistic outcome of such practice as having marginalized features: it goes against the mainstream culture by employing alternative methods of engaging with technologies; due to this, it carries its own specific aesthetic language, which involves corrupted data.[10] Furthermore, scholars, such Michael Betancourt, Mark Nunas, Olga Goriunova, Elvira Zhagun, among others, discuss the ideological dimension of glitch, regarding such artistic interactions with errors as being a reflection upon social and cultural structures in network societies.[11] Zhagun clarifies that in our age of digital technologies, defined by increased performability, standardisation, medium transparency and high resolution of photo- and video imagery, there is less room left for variability. Artists, therefore, engage with errors in order to put forward critical reflections on how precise algorithms regulate society. Moreover, through manipulating codes, artists find new meanings for images discarded by standardized systems. Such images, despite their corruption, contain recognizable fragments of reality and make the medium visible to a viewer.[12] In this regard, a metaphorical glitch in visual art can be defined as a perceivable loss of information, which offers a new aesthetic language, which typically incorporates and often juxtaposes the reality represented with its carrier. Furthermore, artists who engage with glitches strive to escape the banality of mainstream cultural structures, to break the established logic and to reflect upon the status quo. It is noteworthy that since the 1970s technical malfunctions and errors have been an important part of the experimental practice of visual and sonic artists. Paul Panhuysen, Kim Cascone, and Christian Marclay, among others, were engaged with technologies in an alternative way; for example, reconsidering the functionality of devices and exploring new aesthetic opportunities. Later, with the development of digital culture, glitch exited the technical realm and became common in mass culture, appearing in domestic design and visual art.[13] One example is that of the Italian designer Ferruccio Laviani (1960), who is known for his finely crafted glitch furniture made of massive wood. Fig. 3. Gerhard Richter (1932) created pixelated stained glass windows for the south transept of the Cologne Cathedral. Fig. 4  Wim Delvoye (1965) translated software processed images of real objects into sculptures made of cast iron. Fig.5 Although these examples have a visible connection to digital technologies, considering glitch in its metaphorical meaning can also be traced in traditional media, such as painting.  In the next chapter, I will take a close look at the painting ‘Three walking ladies’  by the contemporary artist Vladimir Potapov and discuss what place metaphorical glitch takes in his artistic strategy.

Fig. 3. Ferruccio Laviani, from the project “Good Vibrations”, image source: https://www.laviani.com/good-vibrations
Fig. 4. Gerhard Richter, Cologne Cathedral windows, 2007, 2300 x 900 cm, Genuine antique glass, mouth-blown, Catalogue Raisonné: 900, Cologne, Germany. Image source: https://www.gerhard-richter.com


Fig. 5. Wim Delvoye, Le Secret ( clockwise), 2011, Polished bronze ( unvarnished), 50x50x116 cm. Image source: https://wimdelvoye.be/

Potapov’s ‘Three walking ladies’

 

Vladimir Potapov was born in 1980 in Volgograd, Russia, and is currently based in Moscow. In an interview, he mentions that he did not follow the traditional path towards becoming a painter, whereby the prospective artist gains realistic painting and drawing skills during five years of formal study. After spending a year at the Volgograd State Institute of Arts, he took private classes from a local, self-taught artist, Boris Mackhov (1937-2014), who had exceptional painting skills. Potapov continued his education at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Culture in Moscow and the Open School MediaArtLab. Although these two institutions are not formal art education institutions, they nevertheless facilitated Potapov’s entrance into the contemporary art scene in Moscow. Potapov is a frequent participant of national and international contemporary art exhibitions, including Russian Art Week and the Curitiba International Biennale of Contemporary Art (Brazil); furthermore, his are in the collections of Moscow Museum of Modern Art (Russia), Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow, Russia), amongst others. Apart from his extensive artistic practice, Potapov is also known for his research project Ne vos’mis (Don’t even try), in which the artist interviews key figures in Russia’s contemporary art scene, in an effort to locate the essence of painting. In this chapter, I will examine one of his works, Three walking ladies (2015) and will, by considering the aforementioned definition of metaphoric glitch,  contextualize his artistic strategy.

Three walking ladies (2015) depicts three young female figures in an urban environment. They are positioned close to one another, and the positions of their heads and posture give the impression that they are having a conversation. Due to the specificity of the painterly technique it is difficult to perceive their facial features; however, the high contrast between the shadows and light that fall upon on their faces emphasises their emotive expressions, showing a moment of joy. The background of the painting is reminiscent of a typical (post-)Soviet city with low concrete-panel apartment buildings, known as khrushchyovka. 

The composition of the painting, the posture of the figures, and the colour characteristics suggest photographic source material. The relation between the painting’s figurative elements are similar to those of a camera’s snapshot. British art theorethist E.A. Gombrich (1909 – 2001) describes such a quality as an arrested moment.[14] According to Gombrich, the technical capacity of the camera allows it to capture a moment that the human eye is not able to trace. Such a fragment of reality or an arrested moment allows one to depict more than what a human can perceive.[15] In Three walking ladies, that arrested moment is present in the frozen movements of the figures, which are captured in action. 

In the production of a photograph, the processing of the image within the frame does not depend upon what a human considers important or what he is capable of seeing; it is rather based on the photo-chemical reaction and the camera optics that allow the passage of light. It appears that the color characteristics of Three walking ladies, namely their intensity, tune and the relation between light and darkness, have a photographic origin. This can be detected by dark parts of the painting, which are not distinct from the depiction of shadows. For example, the ladies’ faces, their dresses, the ground on which they are walking, and the buildings in the background have the same colours and intensity, which is typical for photography. The same can be observed with the illuminated parts of the painting.

The French philosopher Roland Barthes (1915 -1980) states in his book Camera Lucida that the photograph is not separate from its referent and the depiction of an object is perceived equal to the object itself.[16] Roland Barthes continues: “Whatever it grants to vision, and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it what we see.”[17] It appears that Potapov is aware of these properties and incorporates them into his practice. Although the photographic nature of Three walking ladies is recognizable, Vladimir Potapov strives to move away from a photorealistic representation of reality. He literally breaks the painting’s surface and makes the carrier and the medium visible. The artist explains that he chooses plywood, which is made of multiple layers, and applies 15-16 coatings of different colours of acrylic enamel. After the paint dries he utilizes a sharp chisel to cut, both purposefully and accidentally, through these layers in a way that the friable wooden texture with its splinters and chips become visible to the viewer. Such physical interaction and manipulation creates some wounds that appear accidental.[18]

The previous chapter provided a definition of metaphorical glitch, in which the artist breaks the illusion of a perfect reality and emphasizes the material aspect of an artwork. Potapov’s strategy appears to be similar: he paints a photorealistic image, employing something which an eye preconditioned by mass culture would find realistic, yet simultaneously he destroys the carrier of the information, thereby rendering the materiality of the carrier especially visible. The recognizable fragments of reality in the painting, the scratches and the chips all become equally integral parts of the viewer’s experience. 

Considering the reactive nature of metaphorical glitch, through which artists reflect upon established mainstream culture, it is important to understand the response of Potapov to the environment in which he operates. In his lecture Zhivopis’: revizija, novye osnovy (Painting, its revision and new basis) he states that, “today in the age of digital technologies, standardisation, industrial production and the increase of digitalization, craftsmanship of painting appears to have a particular meaning. The first factories were completely dependent upon manual labor, and it remained this way for more than 100 years. Nowadays, the industry aims at excluding humans from the process. Earlier the industrial production required extensive collective labor, while today it is all operated by machines. Total automatisation and computerisation exclude the involvement of hands. The same counts for visual art, which strives to follow the most efficient and optimized way of artistic expression. Painting does not comply with those tendencies as an outdated and to some extent complicated medium. Therefore, contemporary painters are rather outsiders, who deny more successful strategies. However, painting is one of the oldest and most innate ways of human creative expression and can be compared with singing or dancing, thus it will remain an integral part of human existence.”[19]  

It appears that, for Potapov, to engage with paint and to work with such a conservative medium means to critically respond to the current state of affairs, namely the position of painting in contemporary art. He explores the aesthetic capacity of fractured images and makes materiality visible for the audiences. This analysis of Three walking ladies has shown that metaphorical glitch can be located outside of the technological realm. This raises the question to what extent the aforementioned characteristics of metaphorical glitch can be present in an artwork from different periods of history. In the next chapter, I will examine Repentant Mary Magdalene, the work by Titian, who was described by his contemporary Giorgio Vasari as one of “the most excellent painters” of his time.

 

 

Repentant Mary Magdalene and Titian’s artistic strategy

As was previously discussed, metaphorical glitch can exist beyond the technological realm. Taking into account that information loss can be a purposeful part of the aesthetic experience in figurative painting, this chapter will examine The Penitent Magdalene, a work by Titian, and the context in which Titan created his masterpieces. 

Titian painted The Penitent Magdalene in the 1560s. The work was stored in his house in Venice until his death in 1576. In 1850 it was acquired by The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, as a part of the Cristoforo Barbarigo collection.[20] This artwork depicts a Biblical story, which was in high demand at that time, whereby the artist brings together two considerations of female beauty. Its attributes were supposed to be simultaneous chastity and sensuality.[21] 

Upon close inspection, one can see that the face of Мagdalene and the uncovered features of her body, such as the neck, chest and her hands, are represented with such high precision and realism that when stood only a short distance from the painting’s surface one can still clearly perceive the texture of her skin and the clarity of her tears. Magdalene’s face and chest, covered by her arms, are central elements in the composition of the painting. Here, the brushwork is not traceable. Thus, the artist has rendered the medium transparent or invisible. In contrast, Magdalene’s face and her body, the painting’s most illuminated areas, are framed with rough brushstrokes. These brushstrokes represent various textures: glass, paper and some other materials, with each of them painted in a different way, thereby emphasizing their material characteristics. For example, upon close examination, Magdalene’s clothing in the lower part of the work appears to be light and soft; it is depicted with translucent paint and the texture of the canvas is visible. Also, the glass ewer is ‘sculpted’ with a thick layer of white pigment, which is sticking out from the surface of the painting and emphasises its hardness and its transparency. Titian achieves the work’s visual effect by contrasting his fine brushstrokes, where the medium is completely dissolved by the depicted bits of reality, with rough brushwork, in which we can trace each movement of his hand and the irregular texture of the canvas. He combines a highly detailed depiction with abstract gestures that carry reduced information. On the level of observation, this feature of the work, as well as the materiality visible to the audience, can be considered as one of the aforementioned characteristics of a metaphorical glitch. However, art history scholarship approaches Titian’s technique differently. The scholar Christopher J.Nygren mentions, in his article “Titian’s “Ecce Homo” on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting”, with the references to extensive scholarship, the importance of the canvas’ materiality and the tactility of brushstrokes in the picture-making process in Titian’s practice after the 1540s. He states, that “…by the middle of the sixteenth century Titian had begun exploiting the striated surface of the roughly woven canvas to great pictorial effect; canvas veiled with scumbled paint produced a surface analogous to the flesh.”[22] Furthermore, Christopher J.Nygren sees differences in how Titian tackles different surfaces, such as canvas and stone, and how the artist adjusts his painterly technique, the quality of the brushstrokes and the way of handling pigment.[23] Such an artistic approach does not separate the represented matter from its carrier, despite the fact that the texture of the canvas is visible to the viewer. The same is noted by British scholar Tom Nichols: “The expressive life of the surface becomes part of the experience of the picture, the process by which the painting comes to carry meaning is partially revealed.”[24] In this regard, that realistic representation in Titian’s work is not limited to the fine brushstrokes and medium transparency but incorporates a variety of material textures. 

In the contemporary example discussed in the previous chapter, the artist voluntarily destroys the photorealistic depiction of reality, whereas Titian explores the expressive and aesthetic potentials of the material, deviating from the imitation of nature. Tom Nichols sees in that deviation a response to the cultural and intellectual climate in which the artist created his masterpieces. Although Vasari regards Titian as the greatest Venitian artist, according to Nichols Titian was separated from the Venitian artistic circle. He did not receive the same recognition as his contemporary Michelangelo’s in Florence was. He did not have an extensive workshop with pupils to pass on his skills to the younger generation, and his artistic approach did not fit into the established local canons. Giovanni Bellini (1430-1513) and Giorgione (1470s-1510) contributed to the Venitian canon, and Titian, who at the beginning of his artistic career was highly influenced by these masters, later prioritized his independence and self-expression over the family operating workshops.[25] 

Such an outsider’s position is similar to what Vladimir Potapov discussed about the status of painting in the contemporary art world. For an artist, to break with the established tradition is also an escape from its banality. Furthermore, it is a matter of audience expectations and what they anticipate of their experience of art, as well as how the artist acknowledges and responds to these expectations in his practice. 

There is extensive documentation of the responses expressed by Titian’s contemporaries on his technique.  For example, Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists reflects on the painting method in the period between 1550-1560 and implicitly describes the expectations of the audience: “. . . these last works are executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of colour, with the result that they cannot be viewed from nearby, but appear perfect at a distance.” Another of Titian’s contemporary,  Antonio Perez, a Spanish statesman and secretary to King Philip II of Spain, wrote in his private correspondence as follows:  

“One day the ambassador Francisco de Vargas asked [Titian] why he had turned to that style of painting… with broad brushstrokes, almost like careless splotches…. and not with the sweetness of the brushwork of the great painters of his time; Titian responded: ‘Sir, I wasn’t sure that I could succeed at the delicacy and beauty of the brushwork of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio and Parmigianino, and even if I were to succeed, I would be considered less than they, or considered their imitator.”[26] 

It appears that Titian resisted the established and recognized method of artistic production, in which painting remained to be a transparent medium per the use of smooth brushstrokes. As Vasari, the ambassador Francisco de Vargas associated such smooth technique with extensive efforts. Titian, however, demonstrates to them an alternative way of engaging with the medium and makes apparent that the result of such an approach also carries an expressive power. Furthermore, Titian’s artistic approach was a response to the established tradition of painting. He escapes the banality of the artistic expression and explores the aesthetic potential of the medium by acknowledging its material properties.  In this regard, Titian’s practice in large extent is similar to the practice of contemporary artists who embrace errors, malfunctions and unexpected breaks in the established logic.

 

Conclusion:

In this paper, I have provided analyses of two artworks that, despite having been produced in distinct time periods and socio-cultural contexts, bear an alikeness in terms of how the respective artists have approached the medium. Through these analyses, it has been possible to situate Titian’s  Repentant Mary Magdalene  in relation to contemporary Digital Media.

In the first chapter, I provided a review of the existing discourse surrounding the concept of glitch. I first contextualised the historical emergence of the term, and then addressed the application of the concept as an artistic strategy in the field of digital arts. Drawing on this foundation, I proposed an expanded application of this concept, namely the metaphoric glitch. The metaphoric glitch can be understood as a strategy that applies not only to how the artist approaches the materiality and aesthetic properties of his medium, but equally how he responds to the established traditions and expectations that pertain to that very medium and the art experience in general. The metaphoric glitch sees the medium subverted, as much materially as culturally, whereby the subversion is detectable in both the work’s narrative and material content.

In the second and third chapters, I reviewed Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene (1560s) and Potapov’s Three walking ladies (2015). These analyses entailed a description of the aesthetic and material qualities of the respective works, in addition to further contextualisation with secondary and primary sources. In the case of Potapov, only primary sources were used, namely interviews, due to a lack of secondary sources.

By drawing a comparison between the works of Titian and VladimirPotapov, whose works have been produced almost five hundred years apart, I have demonstrated that the defining properties of the metaphoric glitch can be traced in artistic traditions long before the advanced digital technologies. Glitch is therefore not an exclusively digital concept, and the painting of Titian can be potentially understood as a forerunner of artistic strategies that we today associate with Digital Media.

The practice of painting has been and yet still remains a sustained discipline in the world of art, just as Vladimir Potapov elaborates in his research. Though we live in a digital age that necessarily has implications on contemporary artistic discourse, the discipline and materiality of painting yet still holds a place within such discourse, on account of how overlaps between digital and analogue strategies can be detected in painting practices.

 

Bibliography

[1] Mannings, David. “Reynolds in Venice.” The Burlington Magazine 148, no. 1244 (2006): 754-63., p. 757

[2], [3] Lee, Eric McCauley. “”Titanus Redivivus”: Titian in British Art Theory, Criticism, and Practice, 1768-1830.” Order No. 9731056, Yale University, 1997., p. 296-297

[4] Wood, Jeremy. Rubens: Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and Later Artists: Italian Artists. II: Titian and North Italian Art. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard; Pt. 26,2. London [etc.]: Harvey Miller, 2010., p. 25-27

[5] Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Ecce Homo on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting.” The Art Bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 99, no. 1 (2017): 36-66., p. 3

[6]  Initially the work has no title, with the permission of the artists, in this paper I named it as ‘tree walking ladies’.

[7] Zimmer, Ben. “The Hidden History of “Glitch.”, URL:www.visualthesaurus.com

[8] Glenn, Carpenter, Dill, Glenn, John, Carpenter, Scott, and Dill, John. Into Orbit. London, 1962., p. 60

[9], [10] Galloway, Alexander, “Protocol, Or, How Control Exists after Decentralization”, PhD diss., Duke University, 2001.

[11] Nunes, Mark. Error: Glitch, Noise, and Jam in New Media Cultures. New York: Continuum, 2011., p. 4

[12] Elvira Zhagun, “Glitch art – Aesthetics of the Error” YouTube Video, 1:14:53, URL: https://youtu.be/5-5vNcIw1oU

[13] Moradi, Iman. “Glitch Aesthetics.” BA [Hons], diss., The University of Huddersfield, 2004., URL:http://oculasm.org/glitch

[14] Gombrich, E. H. . Standards of Truth: The Arrested Image and the Moving Eye. Critical Inquiry, 7(2), 1980, p.237

[15] Ibid., p. 238-239

[16], [17] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida.New York: Hill and Wang, 1981., p. 5-6

[18] “Хроники изоляции. Мастерская Владимира Потапова. 5.04.2020” URL:https://youtu.be/rzHaRKd0b2I

[19] “Лекция “Живопись: ревизия, новые основы”, Владимир Потапов, ЦСИ “Типография” (Краснодар)” YouTube Video, 1:07:12, Accessed on 19.01.2022, URL: https://youtu.be/5RUjPbilTZ0

[20] The State Hermitage Museum, URL: https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/

[21] Phillips, Claude. The Later Works of Titian. 2007., URL: www.gutenberg.org/files/12657/12657-h/12657-h.htm

[22] Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Ecce Homo on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting.” The Art Bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 99, no. 1 (2017)., p. 19

[23] Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Ecce Homo on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting.” The Art Bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 99, no. 1 (2017)., p. 36

[24] Nichols, Tom. Titian and the End of the Venetian Renaissance. London: Reaktion Books, 2013., p. 9

[25] Ibid., p. 20, 25

[26] McKim- Smith G., Andersen-Bergdoll G. and Newman R., Examining Velázquez New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988., p. 24

 

Between the decisive moment and a snapshot in Sepuya’s Dark Room (_2070386)

In this essay, I will seek to examine the works of contemporary photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya. I will elaborate on the conceptual and aesthetic components in his photographs, with an attentive review of their careful execution of the ‘metapictorial’ experience. So as to provide ample insight into Sepuya’s works, I will preface the analysis by first relaying a biographical assessment of Sepuya’s career to date, followed by an overview of the metapictorial concept, drawing on existing theoretical sources. Reflecting on the criteria outlined by such sources, I hope to generate a coherent analysis that concisely identifies the material strategies through which Sepuya stimulates concurrent exertions of self-referentiality, as much in the photograph as in the spectator and the artist himself.

In addition, I will address the significance of time as a defining component in not only the work’s production but also, just as prominently, the resulting content within the photograph itself. Again, this will be facilitated by the mediation and review of existing scholarly materials. The timely component reinforces the work’s status as metapictorial, hence the necessity to acutely examine it within the framework of this essay. In this vein, Sepuya’s sensibilities towards time enact a paradoxical interplay between the artist’s intentions, the logistical processes required to produce the imagery, and his agency in moderating that imagery prior to the spectator encounter with it.

 

Paul Mpagi Sepuya and his artistic practice

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, born 1982, is an American artist, based in Los Angeles, known predominantly for his series of studio nude portraits. Sepuya received his art education at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, acquiring his bachelors of fine art in 2004. Subsequently, he received his masters at the University of California in 2016. His photographs have been featured in exhibitions on both a national and international scale, including venues in Chicago, New York, Berlin, Paris, Toronto; further, his photographs are included in the permanent collections of museums such as the Guggenheim Museum (New York, US), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, US) Arish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin, Ireland). [1] Besides an extensive array of museum and gallery exhibitions, his works and interviews have been published in multiple arts and cultural magazines, including Art in America, Flash Art International Magazine, ArtReview and ArtForum. [2] In many of these publications, Sepuya’s photography has been presented as an extension of the existing traditions of studio portraiture, in which he invites the audience into the otherwise private sphere of the artist’s atelier. This space can be understood as the site of production, the place where the object of spectacle is conceived, yet conversely, this site is rarely accessible to art spectators. However, by rendering this space as a defining component in his photographs, Sepuya enables his spectators to witness the creative process.[3] Essentially, the spectator is allowed to exert an almost voyeuristic gaze. Indeed, Sepuya’s models typically pertain to a circle of close friends, lovers, collaborators and other interlocutors in the domains of his professional and personal life. Moreover, Sepuya’s portrait photographs often contain scenographic elements that resonant with the work environment and production process, particularly in the form of details that would be conventionally cropped or hidden from the audience: tripods, holding drapery pegs and wooden constructions etc. ( Fig.1 )

Fig. 1. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (_2070386), 2017. archival pigment print. Image source: www.artforum.co

Paul Mpagi Sepuya has described in one of his earlier interviews that his works seek to iterate the relationship between the photographed person, himself as a photographer and the camera. The role of the camera apparatus can be equated to the role of a mediator, enabling the resolution of the complexity of this interwoven threads of relationality between subject and artist.[4] In his “Mirror Study” (2016- 2017) series he achieves such a trinity by being present in these photographs and by incorporating mirrors, generating a doubling effect that evokes well known photographic semiotics concerned with portraiture. As he personally delineates, for Sepuya the use of mirrors has a long history: in early photography, nude women were often photographed with a mirror so that the viewer could appreciate the beauty of the body from different angles.[5] In his works, the function of the mirror has a much more substantial significance than merely a visual trick to amplify beauty. Beyond this, Sepuya’s inclusion of mirrors serve both a material and conceptual function; they allow one to see multiple sides of his studio, yet further the reflections break the pictorial space, creating multi-layered collage-like compositions with fragments of the model’s and the artist’s bodies, juxtaposed with the hard fractures imposed by the mirrors. Sepuya’s “Mirror Study” departs from the traditional artist-model dynamic, whereby the latter is typically rendered as an object lacking any agency or mutual relationality between herself and the spectator. Quite the opposite, Sepuya brings to the forefront the choreography of the intimate relationship and employs this tactile, affective sensibility as a strategy of insisting on the subjecthood of those depicted.

As David Velasco has described in his article Project: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, photographic space for Sepuya is a craft of negotiating light in the dark.[6] The article is devoted to the recent project  “Darkroom Mirror”, a series of studio photographs of the artist, his models and the camera against a deep dark background made from a mirror reflection. This series, as in Sepuya’s previous project “Mirror Study”, also presents the choreographic interplay between the artist, a model and a camera, yet further enunciated and emphasized by the enclosing, dark drapery. Visually, the dark velvet drapery increases the contrast between the illuminated sides of the body whilst simultaneously softening and dissolving those parts that are sunken beneath shadowy, low lighting. This is observable in Sepuya’s Darkroom Mirror (0X5A9530), ( Fig. 2 ) which portrays two males, the artist himself and a model, holding the camera in front of their faces. The side of Sepuya’s torso that is exposed to the light appears to be even more outspoken, being against the dark background, whereas in the shadows the body gently disappears.

Fig.2. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, A Ground (0X5A1495), 2018., archival pigment print. Image source: www.documentspace.com

Sepuya’s “craft of negotiating light in the dark” is coherent with an older tradition of studio drawings. Many artists, especially during the Renaissance, worked with the interplay between light and darkness. ( Fig. 3.) The way Sepuya deals with the poses of his models or with his own body in self-portraits, in particular the role of the hands in his compositions, also correspond to the Italian Renaissance canon. For instance, Sepuya’s self-portrait Darkroom Mirror Study (_2110109) (Fig. 4.) and a drawing A seated male nude ( Fig. 5.) by Raphael. Both studio studies depict strong male figures from the back. Although the poses are not identical per se, the compositional choices, the emphasis on the body’s silhouette and the theatricality of the hands are similar.

Fig. 3. Pual Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (0X5A9530), 2017.,archival pigment print. Image source: vielmetter.com

 

As aforementioned, it is a recurring motif in many of Sepuya’s works that he depicts himself, whereby it is apparent that he is the photographer, given the presence of his camera. This in turn changes the relationship between the artist, the art object and the viewer. Such dynamics draw upon an extensive tradition and have been associated with the concept of metapicture. In the next chapter, I will delineate the metapicture concept, after which I will pursue an analysis of Sepuya’s photograph “Dark Room (_2070386) in dialogue with the theoretical premise of the metapicture.

 

Fig. 4. Raphael, The Prophets Hosea and Jonah, 1510, w20 x h26.2 cm, pen and brown ink with brown wash over black chalk, heightened with white and squared for transfer on laid paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., image source: https://g.co/arts/DE93uVY5GfKVTRN4A

 

Fig.5. P. Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror Study, 2018., image source: www.parisphoto.com/Paul-Mpagi-Sepuya

 

 

The metapictorial Darkroom Study (_2070386)

In order to understand the metapictorial in Sepuya’s Darkroom Study (_2070386), I will initially define the metapictorial criteria by reflecting upon two complementary articles, retrospectively:  The meta as an aesthetic category by Bruno Trentini and What is Metapainting? The Self-Aware Image Twenty Years Later by Lorenzo Pericolo. Afterwards, I will introduce Darkroom Study (_2070386). Essentially, by applying these criteria I hope to demonstrate its metapictorial properties.

What is metapicture?

Lorenzo Pericolo, in his article What is Metapainting? The Self-Aware Image Twenty Years Later, defines the metapictorial [8] as: “…the whole gamut of pictorial devices through which painting stages its fictiveness.”[9] He continues by describing the range of strategies through which this premise may be artistically materialised: “Painting achieves this goal by different means: by partially uncovering its materiality; by hinting at, depicting, or putting on view its maker or making; by involving the beholder as an active or even indispensable component of the image; by incorporating a painting—or an image with an equivalent status—as an object of representation.”[10] In other words, a metaphotograph manifests its medium through a mechanism of self-referentially, acknowledging itself as being a photograph; thus, it may depict the artist in the process of its creation or otherwise have the effect of “mise en abyme”, in which the image depicts another image. These elements of the metapictorial, namely, self-referential qualities, along with the presence of the artist and concentric framing inside the frame can all be considered as criteria with which one can identify and demonstrate the metaphotographic properties of Darkroom Study (_2070386). 

Bruno Trentini, in his concept of metapicture, also described “mise en abyme” or a frame inside the frame; however, the role and affective response of the viewer in their engagement with work is, for him, central in understanding the conditions of the metapictorial. In his article The meta as an aesthetic category, Trentini states: “In order to realise the strangeness of the picture described as a metapicture, spectators have to distance themselves from their perceptions in order to collect these perceptions from the inside.”[11] Here, Trentini appears to reference the capacity of such imagery to evoke sentiments of disorientation, which in turn provokes the spectator to reevaluate what it is that they have encountered and are perceiving in the work. The spectator’s urge to comprehend the image, coherently and unfettered by this uncanny discomfort, becomes all the more pronounced. Trentini too describes the self-reflective mechanism that is involved in the process of experiencing the metapictorial, though he locates this self-reflectively not only in the production methods of the artist and the content of the resulting artwork, but further he proposes that this exercise of self-awarenesses is provoked in the spectator too, akin to a feedback loop between the artist, the work, and the spectator.[12] Such a mechanism is another important criterion, one that opens up a different perspective with a shift from the properties of a photograph to the cognitive abilities of a viewer. 

About Darkroom Study (_2070386)

Darkroom Study (_2070386) ( Fig. 6.)  is an image that bears the semblance of a portrait, doubled, whilst simultaneously referencing other photographic motifs beyond those typically associated with portraiture. The image resonates of an anatomical study, a formal composition, and a tonal study. The upper limbs of the one figure rest intertwined with the other one though not discernibly female or male. Both have a dark skin complexion. The face of either figure is not visible to the spectator, with the male figure’s concealed behind the camera that has presumably produced the image by shooting the mirror reflection, meanwhile, his accomplice’s head is turned in the opposite direction.

Fig. 6. Raphael, A seated mane nude, c. 1511-14. Charcoal. Ashmolean museum Oxford. Image source: Whistler, C., Gnann A., Aceto, A., Ashmolean Museum, Host Institution. Raphael: The Drawings. 2017.,p.122

 

The metapictorial in Darkroom Study (_2070386) 

What makes Darkroom Study (_2070386) metapicture? In order to answer this question, I will apply the criteria as discussed above. As Lorenzo Pericolo stated, the metapicture has self-referential features and manifests its medium precisely through explicating this referral to its own production. In Darkroom Study (_2070386) such criteria appear to be obvious: on the one hand, the photograph refers to a double portrait, and on the other hand, the faces are hidden and cannot be identified, the figures are cropped seemingly for the sake of a stronger visual appeal and artistic framing; thus, the photograph’s value is more aesthetic than documentational.

The photograph has been produced with the help of the mirror. In fact, it’s entire creation is predicated on the presence of a reflective surface towards which the camera lens is confronted with the image of itself. To a certain extent, this mirror could be considered as a transparent frame. That transparency is determined by the relation of the size of the mirror with the size of photographic frame. Such framing references the ideas of Trentini and Pericolo about “mise en abyme”; however the transparency of one of the frames evokes a more complex mechanism or interaction with the image. 

On the one hand, Darkroom Study (_2070386) offers a contemplative aesthetic experience in which the spectator’s gaze is kept within the photographic space. On the other hand, the presence of the camera stimulates analytic studies of the image and thus raises questions about the process of its creation. The latter process forces the spectator to take distance and engage in the self-reflective mechanism. Such a mode of interaction is precisely what is described by Trintini as being the experience of metaimage. Thus, it is certainly justifiable to propose that Darkroom Study (_2070386) can be considered a metapicture, given its self-referential features and, in particular, the deployment of the mirror’s surface, which serves as a paradoxical interlocutor, whereby the frame is transparent yet simultaneously loaded with content.

 

Between the decisive moment and a snapshot in Darkroom Study (_2070386)

Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest in their chapter “Time in Photography” discuss the so-named ‘decisive moment’ and the ‘snapshot’ as the most commonly mentioned characteristics of time.[13] How can these two characteristics be observed in the metapicture Darkroom Study (_2070386)? In order to answer this question, I shall first provide an account of both of these concepts and, subsequently, analyse the timely characteristics legible in the photograph.

    The term “the decisive moment” was coined by a French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1952 when he published the book The Decisive moment, in which he discussed the term and its applicability in reference to his own photographs as material examples.[14] Cartier-Bresson defines the term as: “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”[15] For Cartier- Bresson, photography has the power to document the event and present the most essential moment of the narrative. The photographic image in this regard is a representation of the visual world, as moderated by a photographer. 

Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, writing on the decisive moment, refer to two stages: “one during the photo’s taking and the other during the selection process afterwards.”[16] Paradoxically, these two stages indicate distinct temporalities, with the former being near-instantaneous whereas the latter is a prolonged process of contemplation. Both such temporalities reflect the capacity of the artist to exerts different facets of his agency to construct the narratives abound his surroundings. 

Moreover, both temporalities underpin the reflectivity that, as established, is a requirement of the metapictorial. While, on the one hand, the snapshot insists on a rapid evaluation of the photographer’s surroundings — not least, the photographer’s position in that very environment and his capacity to generate an image from that vantage point — the decisive moment, on the other hand, necessitates the exertion of a certain self-criticality. The photographer must consider what it is that he wishes for the spectator to eventually encounter. Ultimately, both temporalities are ensealed in the final artwork.

Van Gelder and Westgeest also mention the main critique of the concept of the decisive moment; namely, its striving to create a perfect image.[17] Nevertheless, such a critic appears rather broad and does not consider the multiplicity of photographic applications, nor the intentions of an artist.

Sepuya, in an interview, mentioned that although his photographs appear to be spontaneous, all elements presented in these images are carefully chosen and staged. The composition of his Darkroom Study (_2070386) also appears to be carefully constructed: the interrelation between the dark background and the human bodies, the distribution of the light and the central position of the camera indicate the decisions undertaken during the creative production process. The presence of the mirror facilitates this process, operating as a haphazard element that inserts an unpredictable influence on the resulting image. Moreover, the dynamism of the models’ poses, the complexity and contortedness of which limit the extensiveness with which they may be held, insert yet another unstable element in this otherwise hyper-moderated set. These aspects, which enable a mechanism of a chance to unfold, may reduce the highly concentrated phase as described by Van Gelder and Westgeest. This makes the decisive moment more instantaneous and changes the purpose of image creating from being a representation of the event to an object of contemplation.  

Thierry de Duve in his article Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox defines the snapshot as “a theft which steals life.” He continues: “Intended to signify natural movement, it only produces a petrified analogue of it. It shows an unperformed movement that refers to an impossible posture. The paradox is that in reality the movement has indeed been performed, while in the image the posture is frozen.”[18] For De Duve, the snapshot is associated with the indexical nature of the photographic sign, which is incapable of conveying the dynamic nature of reality. Instead, it offers confusing traces of a movement, which clashes with the human experience and ability to perceive the movement.  Upon first glance, Darkroom Study (_2070386) portrays a complex movement with unclear purpose, which could be associated with the idea of an impossible posture as described by De Duve. However, despite the seeming lack of functionality, the posture reveals a considered choreography between the subjects and the camera’s lens; the sharpness of the photograph’s focal length, along with the precision of the moderated lighting, further implies that the scenography of the image has been extensively planned – including the interlocking form of the two figures’ bodies. In this sense, the posture serves an aesthetic purpose – here lies its motivation, its function.

To draw to a conclusion, in this paper I hope to have provided ample clarification of the conceptual significance of the metapictorial in the photographic works of Sepuya. In order to demonstrate the productive and aesthetic means through which his photographs can be identified as possessing metapictorial qualities, I have drawn on criteria proposed by Lorenzo Pericolo and Bruno Trentini. 

Both Pericolo and Trentini propose an overlapping set of criteria; in particular, notions of self-referentiality are key, though Trentini proposes that the locus of this mechanism needn’t lie solely in the work itself. What I hope to have established by examining the work of Sepuya is that these conditions of the metapictorial can concurrently circulate within the work and amidst the spectator’s experience of it, as well as in the artist’s production of the work.

By reflecting on the temporal interplays that are evoked in the production of Sepuya’s work, whereby the rapid pace of precarity and the prolonged process of carefully choreographing the image are intertwined in a single photograph, it has been my intention to further articulate the underlying reflectiveness of Sepuya’s artistic methodology. Again, it is this very awareness — this acute sensibility towards the conditionality of the work’s production, which is in turn relayed to the spectator by means of the self-acknowledging content of the image itself – that defines the work as metapictorial.

To draw to a conclusion, in this paper I hope to have provided ample clarification of the conceptual significance of the metapictorial in the photographic works of Sepuya. In order to demonstrate the productive and aesthetic means through which his photographs can be identified as possessing metapictorial qualities, I have drawn on criteria proposed by Lorenzo Pericolo and Bruno Trentini. 

Both Pericolo and Trentini propose an overlapping set of criteria; in particular, notions of self-referentiality are key, though Trentini proposes that the locus of this mechanism needn’t lie solely in the work itself. What I hope to have established by examining the work of Sepuya is that these conditions of the metapictorial can concurrently circulate within the work and amidst the spectator’s experience of it, as well as in the artist’s production of the work.

By reflecting on the temporal interplays that are evoked in the production of Sepuya’s work, whereby the rapid pace of precarity and the prolonged process of carefully choreographing the image are intertwined in a single photograph, it has been my intention to further articulate the underlying reflectiveness of Sepuya’s artistic methodology. Again, it is this very awareness — this acute sensibility towards the conditionality of the work’s production, which is in turn relayed to the spectator by means of the self-acknowledging content of the image itself – that defines the work as metapictorial. 

 

Sources:

[1] Form the website of the artist  www.paulsepuya.com

[2] www.documentspace.com/artists/paul-mpagi-sepuya/

[3] www.Hyperallergic.com

[4] An interview with artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya, brought to you by pHytonics.net URL: www.youtube.com/watch?v=asByTnsdScU

[5] Ibid.

[6] Velasco, D., www.artforum.com/print/201903/project-paul-mpagi-sepuya-78670

[7] Bambach, Carmen C. Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop : Theory and Practice, 1300-1600. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, 1999., p. 27

[8] Scholars, who devoted their studies to the concept of metapicture, namely William John Thomas Mitchell and Bruno Trentini use the term metapicture as a synonym of metapainting. Although there could be some differences, in this essay metapicture, metaimage and metaphotograph will be equally utilized.

[9] Pericolo, L. “What is Metapainting? The Self-Aware Image Twenty Years Later,” in Victor Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Metapainting. 1- 31. London: Harvey Miller, 2015., p.12

[10] Ibid.,p. 13

[11] Trentini, Bruno. “The meta as an aesthetic category”, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol.6. 2014.,p. 9.

[12] Ibid., p. 11-13

[13] Van Gelder, Westgeest, and Westgeest, Helen. Photography Theory in Historical Perspective : Case Studies from Contemporary Art. Chichester [etc.]: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.,p.65

[14] Ibid., p. 88

[15] Cartier-Bresson, Henri, The decisive moment (New York: Simon and Schuster in collab. with Éditions Verve de Paris 1952).

[16] Van Gelder, Westgeest, and Westgeest, Helen. Photography Theory in Historical Perspective : Case Studies from Contemporary Art. Chichester [etc.]: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.,p.65

[17] Ibid., p. 90

[18] De Duve, Thierry. “Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox.” October 5 (1978): 113-25.,p.114

 

Other sources:

Claire Selvin “Susanne Wielmetter Los Angeles Projects now present Paul Sepuya – http://www.artnews.com/2019/01/08/susanne-vielmetter-los-angeles-projects-now-represents-paul-mpagi-sepuya/

Liberty, N. Megan., “Paul Mpagi Sepuya Breathes New Life Into the Genre of Studio Portraiture”,www.artnews.com/2019/01/08/susanne-vielmetter-los-angeles-projects-now-represents-paul-mpagi-sepuya/

Schwabsky, Barry. “Playing with MIRRORS.” The Nation 304, no. 16 (2017): 41-44.

 

 

Gothic features in the architectural ensemble of Moscow State University

After The Great October Socialist Revolution, the government led by Stalin strived to eliminate everything that was linked to the capitalistic past and to establish a new Socialist Utopia. In order to demonstrate the great achievements of the new country, in 1935 Stalin initiated the reconstruction of the Soviet Union’s capital, which was named the Moscow General Plan. On 13 January 1937, The Council of Ministers published a decree ordering the construction of 8 skyscrapers (also known as “Eight sisters”) within just 5 years. According to that document, “the proportions and shapes of these buildings must have an original composition both architecturally and artistically. They have to be linked to the historical development of Moscow and to the silhouette of the future Palace of Soviets. These new buildings must not repeat or copy the multi-storey buildings already known abroad.”[1]

Fig.1. The Moscow State University, 1955, image source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2007663581/

Although the style developed for this project was officially presented as being rooted in the Russian tradition and detached from Western examples, in this paper I will argue that it has similarities with Western architecture and Gothic Style in particular. In order to undertake my research, I will study one of these skyscrapers – the premises of Moscow State University ( 1953) and trace such similarities. Also, I will provide the analysis of the archival photo materials available, and consult with two ideologically opposite sources: the book entitled Construction of high-rise building in Moscow, written in 1953 by Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, who was one of the leading architects of the project, and the book Stalinist Architecture, written by Aleksej Tarchanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, published in 1992 in London.

The initial plan of Moscow reconstruction included 8 skyscrapers, with the dominance of the Palace of the Soviets, which would have determined the appearance of the capital. However, the project was only partially implemented and 7 high-rises were built. Remarkable that during the construction, the design and the purpose of these buildings were changed and adjusted.[2] Tarchanov and Kavtaradze stated that after WWII the ideological climate changed and a new generation of architects came with different visions. These leading architects were striving to
represent the triumph of Communism and the leading position of The Soviet Union.
The country had the biggest and the most efficient army and regularly announced its achievements in developing nuclear weapons. Stalin had always envisioned Moscow to be the World Capital of Communism, a place for ideological pilgrimage. It is remarkable that Stalin’s strategy was coherent with the Christian tradition of building cathedrals, through which the rulers were demonstrating their power and connection to God by constructing extremely high buildings.[3] Thus, in the atheistic Soviet Union, The Moscow University was often presented as the Temple of Knowledge, which on the one hand aimed at eliminating any signs of religion, on the other hand, to a certain extent, appropriated its attributes.

Originally, Moscow State University was not included in the plan of the reconstruction, however, a year later after the first decree, on 3 July 1948, the Council of Ministers released an adjustment to the plan, assigning to design a new building of Moscow State University on Leninskie Gory to a group of architects, including Lev Rudnev (head), Sergey Chernyshev, Pavel Abrosimov and Alexander Khryakov.[4] It is important to mention, the architectural ensemble of the University is located on the highest point of Moscow, which is 194 meters above sea level. In the beginning, the plan of the University, which included educational and residential buildings, labs and botanical gardens, was more compact and the main building it was meant to be only 20 levels.[5] However, with the efforts of Alexander Nesmeyanov, who was the rector of Moscow University at that time, and his good relationship with Stalin’s close circle, the architectural ensemble expanded to a great extent. The main building became 240 meters tall and now it has 36 levels. Its top ends with a 58-meter-long spire, which holds a 12-ton 5-pointed star framed with ears of wheat.[6]

Tarchanov and Kavtaradze argue that in the initial project, Moscow skyscrapers did not have a spire top, however, it changed due to two reasons: firstly, the high-rising buildings with spires were reminiscent of Kremlin, and therefore they were linked to the Moscow architectural tradition, as it was requested by The Council of Ministers. Furthermore, Tarchanov and Kavtaradze state: “ in the Age of the “struggle with cosmopolitanism”, the spire was also a device used to emphasize the distinction between Moscow’s high-rise buildings and American sky-scrapers of The 1930s.” It is not clear which buildings in particular Tarchanov and Kavtaradze compared to conclude that the spire was a distinctive feature of the new Moscow architecture. The American researcher Dr Paul A. Ranogajec stated that many early skyscrapers were following “a popular formula: a broad base on top of which rose a slender tower, often incorporating setbacks at multiple levels, all topped by a pyramidal cap or spire.”[7] Indeed, the 319-meter-tall Chrysler Building, constructed by William Van Alen and completed in 1930, ends with a 56-meter-tall spire. It appears, that even with a strive to develop an architecture that would not be similar to examples from abroad, Stalin and the leading architects followed this formula and joined the competition, prioritising the most impressive scale. Tarchanov and Kavtaradze also attempt to juxtapose the reasons for developing high-raising architecture in the USSR and the USA: “it is the differences in intention and meaning that is most striking. The American skyscraper is ultimately an expression of the high cost of land. In Soviet Russia, the land was the property of the State and therefore cost nothing.”8 Similar to Tarchanov and Kavtaradze, Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, who was involved in the reconstruction of Moscow, describes that: “the principles of Soviet high-rise buildings are directly opposite to the principles of building American skyscrapers, a product of wild capitalist competition, the desire of capitalists to knock out as much profit as possible from every piece of urban territory.”[9] Although Tarchanov and Kavtaradze, and Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky connect the principles of skyscrapers with a high density of urban planning, in their comparison they did not take into consideration that Moscow State University was built on the ground that had not been developed before. That can be observed in the documentation, which was taken during the construction work. (Fig.2.)

Fig.2. The process of constructing, 1949. URL:https://pastvu.com/p/926122

As it was mentioned before, Tarchanov and Kavtaradze found that the central building of Moscow State University has references to the architecture of the Kremlin, the Spasskaya Tower in particular. It is important to consider that the Moscow architectural tradition, which was mentioned in the decree and discussed by Oltarzhevsky, had not developed being isolated from the external world. It is known that many Moscow’s iconic buildings of the 15-16th century were created by Italian architects. For instance, Trinity Tower ( 1495-1499) of Moscow Kremlin was designed by Aloisio da Milano. Pietro Antonio Solari built Borovitskaya Tower (1490), Beklemishevskaya Tower (1487) and possibly Spasskaya Tower (1491)[10]. It is remarkable that until the Moscow reconstruction, The Ivan the Great Bell Tower, completed in 1508 by the architect Bon Friazine, had been the tallest building. Such an implicit connection with the Western heritage can also be traced to the professional formation of the architects who were involved in the development of the Moscow reconstruction plan. Lev Rudnev and Sergey Chernyshev received their education before The Revolution at the Imperial Academy of Arts ( Saint Petersburg). That education included the study of the great examples of Western European architecture. It appears that, despite the official presentation of the project as being novel and detached from the Western iconic architecture, Moscow State university should rather be discussed in terms of innovation, in which the architects found new applications for the existing artistic and constructive solutions.

Fig. 3. The area around Moscow State University, 1956 URL:https://pastvu.com/p/968274

The archival materials (Fig. 3, Fig.4 ) shows that even when the territory around the Moscow University had already been developed and new districts with modern collective housing have been constructed, the tall silhouette of its building remained impressive and visible from a far distance in different sites of the city. That method of creating the cityscape dominants was not invented in The Soviet Union. It had been known since Medieval times and can be observed in some examples, for instance, the spires of one of the most remarkable French Gothic Cathedrals, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres[11], are visible from a distance of 25 km.[12] Since the time of its construction ( 1145-1194) Chartres has been hosting one of the most important Christian relics, which has been attracting many pilgrims. To a certain extent, the scale of the Cathedral corresponds with its significance for the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres 10 Some sources attribute the design of Spasskaya Tower to the court architect Christopher Galloway. dedicated Christians. Another example of enhanced visibility is the Gothic-style Benedictine abbey named Mont-Saint-Michel. It was constructed on a rocky tidal island, 92 meters above sea level. Considering the historical and cultural importance of Mont- Saint-Michel, it is highly possible that the architects, who had been involved in the development of the Moscow reconstruction project, were aware of the impression the abbey could make upon the pilgrims who were approaching it from afar.


Fig. 4. The silhouette of Moscow State University, 1961 https://pastvu.com/p/95780

Some other documentation, related to the Moscow reconstruction plan, shows that the architects were aware of the effect induced on man by large scale architecture. Since the height of constructions was accepted to be a measure of success and a demonstration of power, the taller a building was, the stronger the message it conveys. For instance, on a sketch (Fig. 5 ) by one of the most recognized architects Boris Iofan we can see a correlation between the human height and the scale of the Palace of the Soviets: small dots on the bottom of the drawing,
which supposedly represent a military parade, appear a minor detail in front of a giant vertical construction, topped with a statue of Lenin.

 

Fig.5. Palace of the Soviets, Moscow, Boris Iofan, 1934, Image source: Tarchanov and Kavtaradze, Stalinist Architecture, p.31

The power demonstration by high-rises was not limited to the borders of Moscow. Each step of the process of construction was covered in Mass Media as a revolutionary event in contemporary World architecture [13 ] and circulated all over the country and beyond. (Fig. 6) Due to that promotion, the Moscow State University ensemble soon after its construction became an iconic site that attracted many Soviet citizens.

Fig.6. “University. Moscow – the student city. More than 24 thousand students are studying at Moscow State University ”, slides for children of 3 grade, 1960, image source: https://pastvu.com/p/37626

Considering the technical aspect of the Moscow State University building, its construction was made with large metal pillars, filled with light bricks. Such an approach to a distribution of the weight appears to be similar to the Gothic one. This can be seen on the floor plan of the building. (Fig. 7 ) For a better understanding of the relation between the construction of the Moscow University building and Gothic architecture, more studies, if the archival material has to be undertaken.

Fig. 7. The Floor plan of the main building of Moscow State University. Image source: Oltarzhevsky, p.11.


To conclude, in this paper I traced and discussed the Gothic features of the high-rise buildings that were constructed as a part of the Moscow renovation plan. The Moscow State University architectural ensemble was taken as a case study. I cited official documents that ordered to develop a style that was supposed to be based on the Russian architectural tradition and not to copy any existing examples, including American skyscrapers. However, I argued that the Moscow high-rise buildings to a certain extent have some connection with the Western heritage and Gothic architecture in particular. Through the critical review of the book Stalinist Architecture, written by Aleksej Tarchanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, I discussed the historical and cultural environment in which the Moscow reconstruction plan was developed and
materialised. By analysing the arguments provided by the authors, I discovered that the Moscow architectural tradition had been developed by Italian architects and thus had Western influences. Furthermore, the similarities between American Skyscrapers and Moscow high-rises were identified.
I touched upon the importance of Moscow University for a Soviet citizen and drew parallels with Chartres Cathedral, which has been one of the most important destinations for the Christian pilgrimage. Special attention was given to the scale of the Moscow University premises in relation to the human size, which operates in the same way as the Gothic abbey Mont-Saint-Michel. The study of the archival material and the literature allowed me to conclude that the main similarity of Gothic architecture with the Moscow State University building is located in the scale of the construction and the impression of power it conveys.

 

Bibliography:

[1] “Decree, 13 January 1947” Accessed March 1, 2021. URL: Decree
http://grachev62.narod.ru/stalin/t18/t18_199.htm

[2] V. Oltarzhevsky. Construction of high-rise building in Moscow. Moscow: Literatura po stroitelstvu i architekture, 1953., p.3-7.

[3] Tarchanov, Kavtaradze, Stalinist Architecture. London: Laurence King, 1992.,p.132.

[4] “Decree, 3 July 1948” Accessed March 2, 2021. URL: http://grachev62.narod.ru/stalin/t18/t18_220.htm

[5] The height of high-rising buildings in the decree was described not in meters, but in levels.

[6] Tarchanov, Kavtaradze, Stalinist Architecture. London: Laurence King, 1992.,p. 141.

[7] Ranogajec P. A. “Van Alen, The Chrysler Building (Article).” Khan Academy. URL:https://www.khanacademy.org

[8] Tarchanov, Kavtaradze, Stalinist Architecture. London: Laurence King, 1992.,p. 140-143.

[9] Oltarzhevsky. Construction of high-rise building in Moscow. Moscow: Literatura po stroitelstvu i architekture, 1953., p.20-28.

[10] Some sources attribute the design of Spasskaya Tower to the court architect Christopher Galloway.

[11] French: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

[12] UNESCO “Chartres Cathedral” URL:https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/81/

[13] Oltarzhevsky. Construction of high-rise building in Moscow. Moscow: Literatura po stroitelstvu i architekture, 1953., p.8.

Catch me if you can: The Paradoxical State of the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics

In 1962, the first American astronaut John Glenn gave an account of the slang term Glitch as a technical problem, a simultaneous malfunction, caused by a change of voltage in an electrical circuit. Glenn did not invent the term himself; in the 1940s, the word glitch was frequently used in the vocabulary of the radio and later television to describe a range of deviations from the smooth flow of broadcasting, such as an erroneous recording, a misarticulated word or any perceivable technical issue.  Today, Glenn’s definition is frequently cited by scholars from various fields, namely, media and cultural studies, art theory and aesthetics; however, its meaning has become increasingly extrapolated to metaphorical significance. Glitch is often presented as something opposite to a smooth operation of a system, efficiency and flow conducted by advanced technologies.

In academic literature, Glitch was frequently used already in the 1990s, beginning 2000’s. In 2001, media scholar Alexander Galloway discussed in his PhD thesis “Protocol, or, How Control Exists After Decentralization” the aesthetic and ideological implications of visible errors. In 2004, Iman Moradi classified glitches by their technical origin and developed terminology that is still in use today. From the mid-2000s onwards, many researchers, such as Lev Manovich, Olga Goriunova, Vendela Grundell, and Elvira Zhagun, among others, have theorized errors as an aesthetic and strategic entity, approaching it largely but not exclusively, given the interdisciplinary appeal of Glitch, through the lens of  Digital Culture.

Cultural studies scholars, such as Michael Betancourt, Susan Ballard, and Mark Nune, regard Glitch in the context of Digital Capitalism, an economic model, which interfaces society through digital technologies. Thus, artists employing corrupted codes, distortion, noise, broken links and other unconventional manipulations enter the ideological dimension of Glitch, unveiling the otherwise invisible apparatus hidden inside advanced technologies. Vendela Grundell, in her PhD thesis “Flow and Friction: on the tactical potential of interfacing Glitch Art”, departs from the concept of a black box, whereby visible errors are as relevant as the smooth operation of digital technologies. Such a reading of Glitch Art’s properties points towards a process of active spectatorship and the viewer’s experience.

Glitch, as a facet of digital culture, has attracted the attention of artists, who have striven to explore the expressive capacities of errors by engaging with such errors and malfunctions through conceptual as well as material methods. Many artists — namely, Nick Briz, Olga Goriunova, Rosa Menkman, Elvira Zhagun, Mark Amerika, among others — actively seek a place for their respective practices within established and emerging art scenes. One such example, where simultaneous processes of creation and contextualization can be observed, is the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics (MOGA), an online project by American artist Mark Amerika. MOGA has been made by the efforts of volunteers across the globe and presents an artistic path of a fictional character Artist 2.0. He states: “MOGA is one practice-based stream, that would investigate the relationship between creating, transmitting, streaming, exhibiting, historicising and canonising works of art.

Such a multifunctional entity could be seen as challenging the established tradition, specifically in regards to relations between creator,  mediator — namely, an art institution — and audiences. However, taking into consideration that MOGA is presented as an institution, it prompts an enquiry as to what extent does such a self-contextualising aspect fits into the established perspectives on Glitch Art practice? Although the institutional format of MOGA has been mentioned by Elvira Zhagun, there is still a lack of knowledge on this project. In order to clarify the position of MOGA within the current discourse on Glitch Art practice, the first chapter of this thesis will be devoted to a study of the established perspectives on Glitch Art, with specific attention directed towards the aesthetic characteristics, as well as a discussion on the critical capacities of Glitch. In the second chapter, I will elaborate on the visual and conceptual strategies which Mark America undertook in creating MOGA and  Finally, I will contextualize the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics with regards to perspectives discussed in the first chapter, which will assist in understanding and situating the position of MOGA within the discourse on Glitch Art practice.

Chapter I: Defining the characteristics of Glitch Art practice

 

Media artist Alice Salyer states: “One can not actually capture a Glitch, yet it is possible to record a visual representation of the effects of Glitch processes.” indeed, It’s conceivable to record evidence of the failure, but not the failure itself. In this vein, the analyses presented in this chapter will be orientated around the aesthetic characteristics and critical capacities typically attributed to Glitch Art, drawing on the existing theoretical and art historical frameworks that have largely dealt with these two trajectories.

Technological advancements over the course of the past two decades, the influences of which permeate many spheres of our everyday life, have instigated the emergence of a new digital culture featuring distinct aesthetics. Such aesthetics are entangled with the functional apparatus and are thus integrated within the visual and audio interfaces of technological devices. However, these technologies prompt interest beyond their operative capacity – in particular, the interest of an artistic orientation – and offer diverse tools for not only exploration and creative expression but equally critical and potentially subversive reflections, which have the potential to bring the materiality of such digital media and its limitations under examination. In this regard, such artistic engagement and the resulting praxis acquires a dual position – on the one hand, as a participant or user who employs such digital technologies in creative practice, and on the other hand, a critic attempting to bring new perspectives on the human-machine relationship.

In academic discourse, this still evolving praxis is studied under the umbrella term New Media Art, which, despite its broad and nebulous implications, indicates the distinct usage of technologies, and further points towards a demarcation from older, object-centred traditions in art theory. Another quality that is essential in New Media Art is its fluidity and ability to shift, due to its experimental nature, responsiveness to new technological and social and cultural conditions.

Such flux can be observed not only within the term itself, given that it encompasses many modes of engagement with new technologies – namely, Soft-Art, Game-Art, Net-Art, Dirty Media Art, Glitch Art, to name but a few possibilities – but also within the complex interplays and individual development trajectories amongst these aforementioned movements. Indeed, with regards to Glitch Art, many scholars apply the term in ways that bear implications beyond its primary technical description. For instance, artist Jessica Patrice Braccio considers Glitch Art as aesthetic exploitation of accidents in the information flow. She considers examples sourced from the pre-digital era, locating similarities with what we call today Glitch Art. Moreover, in Braccio’s understanding, Glitch Art functions in much the same manner and pattern as memories that recount traumatic experiences; in other words, much like the neurological manipulation of memory – an organic Glitch, which encodes the experience in an undecidable way yet leaves traces – processes of Glitch Art similarly have the potential to bring forth a state of sublimation and a psychological healing effect.

Braccio’s example reflects that Glitch Art is not solely concerned with digital technologies and the virtual domain, and its application is not necessarily bound to a strict reflection on the human-machine relationship. Rather, Braccio’s example proposes that processes of digital media can function as an allegorical device through which to reflect on the human condition – the defining properties of human nature. Thus, in order to provide further clarity about the Glitch Art practice, it is essential to consistently consider the fluidity of its term and, as reiterated by Braccio’s perspective, its potential applicability in areas of thought that do not directly pertain to digital technologies.

Moreover, even within the framework of digital technologies, Glitch can be understood as pertaining to conceptual operations that are active in the work; in this regard, such operations are not necessarily visibly detectable. In her lecture “Aesthetics of Errors”, Elvira Zhagun discusses the conceptual nature of Glitch Art’s fluidity. She proposes a metaphor that suggests a parallel between artistic interpretations of reality and data loss in telecommunication signal transmissions, the latter of which inevitably causes technical glitches and noise. She refers to Glitch as an existing but empty element; by interacting with such emptiness, artists create and imbue (new) meaning. One example to which she refers so as to illustrate her interdisciplinary perspective is Empty Folders (2003), a work by Luciano Testi Paul. Empty Folders literally entails a number of empty folders, containing no files. Although this work has no visible disruptions, it conveys Glitch through its subversion of the audience’s expectations: through their engagement with the work, its activation, the audience discovers that the work’s seeming emptiness is, in fact, its contents. ‘Contents’ here pertains to both the work’s visual aesthetics and its critical position. Here onwards, l provide an interrogation of how such properties manifest in the established traditions of Glitch Art.

 

Aesthetic features of Glitch

 

The practice of using errors and malfunctions began much earlier than is formally acknowledged in the established theoretical tradition; nevertheless, as previously stated, in western academic discourse the term Glitch Art appeared at the beginning of the 2000s. One of the first theorists to discuss the artistic application of technical errors was the media scholar Alexander Galloway. In his PhD thesis “Protocol, or, how control exists after decentralization” (2001), he describes glitches as existing outside of the normal functionality of the data flow. Galloway considers the creative outcome of such practice as having a marginalized character: it resists mainstream culture by employing alternative methods of engaging with technologies and therefore carries its own and specific aesthetic language, based on the use of corrupted codes and bugs.

In their article “Glitch” (2006), scholars Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin elaborated on the idea of specific aesthetics and regard glitches as an integral part of computer culture. For them, Glitch is always a spontaneous malfunction, produced by machine, “a manifestation of genuine software aesthetics.” As Galloway, they see Glitch as an unexpected break-in conventional logic, in which an artist is seen as an attentive explorer who is “hunting” these visible errors – collecting, saving, expanding, conceptualizing and sharing them. Goriunova and Shulgin emphasize the aesthetic qualities of Glitch as visually satisfying and beautiful and conclude that errors have the potential to be commercialized and used in the design. Although Goriunova and Shulgin have indicated important features of Glitch Art, such as being spontaneously discovered and claimed, they have not touched upon examples whereby Glitch can be controlled and voluntarily created by the artist.

For Iman Moradi, such a situation, whereby a glitch can be found and appropriated or deliberately designed, is obvious. In his thesis “Glitch Aesthetics” (2004), Moradi presents two categories: a pure glitch, which he describes as a machine-made accidental error, and a glitch-like, which he regards as digital artefacts. As he states, these artefacts “resemble visual aspects of real glitches found in their original habitat.” Compared to the technical accident, the glitch-like, which is the result of artistic manipulation, has features of an artistic medium. Moradi elaborates upon the concept of glitch-like by classifying it into categories, such as fragmentation, replication, repetition, linearity and complexity (Fig. 1). These classes are different not only by the method of code disruption but also by their capacity to carry a certain visual effect – for instance, dramatisation or exhaustion and saturation of the optical stimulus. For Moradi, Glitch aesthetics have many applications in visual art and popular culture. He examines cinematic examples such as Vanhanen (2001) and Darren Aronofsky’s π, Armageddon (Fig. 2.), among others, and discusses how visual distortions, flickering, noise, and interference emphasize the storyline and evoke an emotional response from the spectator.

A similar observation about the aesthetic properties of Glitch is discussed by Rebecca Jackson in her thesis “The Glitch Aesthetics” (2011). She examines the use of visual technical errors and malfunctions in various ways, including in popular culture, and concludes that: “The appearance of Glitch aesthetics in film, television, and videogames confirms its place as a new sensibility.” Jackson also mentions that “Glitch aesthetics interrogate perception while reminding viewers of the cinema’s veil.” Such an interrogation in the realm of mass culture creates, on the one hand, friction in the visual flow, yet, on the other hand, the intensity of that friction is limited by the boundaries of such narrative-driven genres. Glitch aesthetics are therefore embedded in the cinematic or any other illusionary space and do not strive to break such a frame but rather to involve the spectator even more so.

Compared to the Glitch aesthetics that are widely utilized in mainstream culture and that are, in spite of their resulting friction, a part of its visual lexicon, Glitch Art by its notion goes beyond the aesthetic banality of Glitch. As a consequence, Glitch Art has the capacity to breach the visual comfort of a spectator, which on the one hand brings new perspectives on ideas of digital aesthetics and, on the other hand, allows for a critical distance towards the invisible mediation of digital technologies. In this regard, artists employ glitches not only to satisfy aesthetic curiosity but also by exploring and to communicate critical, ideological messages.

 

Critical capacities of Glitch

 

“If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”

451 fahrenheit, Ray Bradberry

 

As with many research institutions with a great mission, ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency, US), which was responsible for a major breakthrough in national defence technologies during the 1960’s, has its own legends, touted in a spirit of freedom and weirdness. The writer Stewart Brand has documented one such legend from the words of a former ARPA staff member, computer scientist Alan Kay. As Kay narrated:

 

“…one of the guys wrote a program called ‘The Unknown Glitch,’ which at random intervals would wake up, print out I AM THE UNKNOWN GLITCH. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and then it would relocate itself somewhere else in core memory, set a clock interrupt, and go back to sleep. There was no way to find it.”

 

Although this event at ARPA was not claimed by any means as a work of art, this legend shows the coexistence of two central albeit contradictory modes of system engagement, represented by protocols: the reinforcement for maximum performance and error-free operation, and the urge to breach the system’s defence and challenge its efficiency. If the latter is an unavoidable part of our reality, which affects all spheres of our existence, the former confronts us and forces us to take a distant position and to reflect upon our existence within unaltered systems, regulated by sophisticated algorithms.

Such duality can also be observed within digital cultures and, in particular,  Digital Art: for example, Ed Adkins (Fig. 3), Bill Viola, Golan Levin, among others, employ technologies and contribute to the mystery and visual illusion of the digital world. Whereas Philip Stearn, Ant Scott, the art collective Judi, and Jon Satrom (Fig. 4) challenge to differing degrees the technical and logical limitations of digital technologies, locating alternative modes of application and thereby taking a distant position from the original intention of such technologies, which in turn proves to be a core, defining feature of their artistic strategy.

Such an approach has been well elaborated by cultural studies scholar Vendela Grundell. In her PhD thesis “Flow and Friction: on the tactical potential of interfacing with Glitch Art”, Grundell examines photo-based examples in which errors and malfunctions, as she states, “mirror, create and question a flow of information that affects spectatorship in the wake of ubiquitous computing.” For her, the role of the spectator is essential, as they possess the capacity to recognize and perceive the errors, or in other words, to activate the work. The artist, in this regard, creates circumstances in which such recognition can be evoked: “The friction of glitches makes visible a flow that is trivial and abstract enough to be invisible to a viewer. An act of making-visible thus holds a tactical potential: it reveals a pervasive system.” She continues with examples that reflect the simultaneous existence of both smooth operations and frictions, both of which are caused by artists’ manipulations. For instance, she refers to a project by Phillip Stearns, titled Year of the Glitch, in which the artist created pictures by means of a digital camera with corrupted software, a dysfunctional scanner, or a low-resolution video camera, and shared such outcomes on the social media website Tumblr. For Grundell, Year of the Glitch demonstrates the coexistence of corrupted visual content with the structured interface of Tumblr, which she identifies as flow and friction. Indeed, when positioned within the standard template of Tumblr – a website developed with much attentiveness for high performability and usability – these abstract images manifest the fragility of constituting the images codes, behind the Graphical User Interface, as well as its digital materiality.

With regards to the artistic strategy, Stearn engages with errors in a playful way: he explorers the limitations of digital technology dissects its structures and rejuvenates the material through situating it in a new context – not only by publishing the outcome on a blogging website, but also by means of printing and selling the trace of glitches on textiles. Thus, Stearn creates new glitches by engaging with technologies in an alternative way, and at the same time, he brings this production back into the economic circuit. With this example, Grundall’s concept of flow and friction, whereby the artist interrupts the smooth and invisible operation of the data, could also be twisted in reverse and regarded as friction and flow.

While Phillip Stearn challenges the stability and performability of digital technologies yet accepts to be in the flow – economically, structurally – artists such as Aram Bartholl, Jon Satrom, the collective Judi are preoccupied with what Galloway has described as the radical potential of errors. As Stearn, they explore the digital aesthetics and the manifestation of its algorithmic language, yet besides this exploration, these artists challenge ideological structures, represented by interfaces – social, cultural and economical – conducted by protocols.

This can be observed in how such artists respectively frame Glitch operations in their works. While Stearn chooses to publish his projects on platforms such as Tumblr and Vimeo – social media websites that have a distinct appearance, shaped by social and cultural stereotypes and the commercial priority of facilitating user accessibility – the aforementioned artists comparatively appropriate all possible browser space, often displaying data-heavy pages, visually saturated by flickering and dynamic content, typically featuring a complex navigation system (Fig. 4). Such a mode of presentation creates an alternative environment, the friction of which breaks the familiar comfort and accessibility of such technologies, which in turn confronts users and prompts a more conscious engagement with the media at hand. At first glance, such an environment may appear practically unproductive; however, Casey Boyle argues, that errors force us “to reveal and foreground knowledge of otherwise transparent structures enacted with our software, infrastructure, and technological policies.” If Casey Boyle sees the critical potential of errors and their productivity as predicated on their capacity to open new rhetoric discourses, Elvira Zhagun expands upon this position and mentions the ethical aspect of glitch-making practices, whereby artists often hack and corrupt data. Such a radical form of Glitch engagement is known as Dirty Media Art and, as stated by participant Nick Briz, has economic and political implications. Dirty Media artists target immaterial commodities of what Michael Betancourt describes as Digital Capitalism. As can be observed, one of the most typical strategies of Dirty Media artists is to corrupt the interfaces of popular services, such as Facebook, Google ( Fig. 5.), etc. without affecting their functionality.

 

To draw to a conclusion, this chapter has provided an overview of the central characteristics of the Glitch Art practice, whereby artists engage with errors as much on the level of the Graphical User Interface – that is to say, the visual appearance of the work – as well as on a more conceptual or metaphorical level. As discussed, Glitch is associated with data loss and, further, it is inclined to appropriate the language of its environment. Given our daily proximity and interaction to digital media, whereby glitches typically prove to be a mundane encounter, Glitch aesthetics have been adopted by mass culture. However, Glitch Art enables these aesthetics to escape the banality of cultural tropes – namely, by means of relocating such aesthetics in a new, often subversive context.

Concerning the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics, to what extent can these central characteristics can be observed within this project? In the next chapter, I will attempt to shed light on this question by giving an account on the context and conditions in which Mark Amerika created MOGA. Moreover, reflecting on the previously discussed characteristics of Glitch Art practice, I will examine Amerika’s conceptual strategies and the resulting visual outcomes.

Chapter II: Paradoxicality of The Museum of Glitch Aesthetics

 

Glitch, with all its fluidity, can manifest in the digital realm and communicate itself on a visual level through the Graphical User Interface, as well as take place within abstracted systems and concepts. Glitch appropriates the language of its environment, interacts with the environment’s elements, mimics them, but contains emptiness. In academic discourse, Glitch is often regarded as lost data, friction in an otherwise smooth flow, an unexpected break in the logic, which points to its critical capacity and its ability to create new aesthetic forms. Thus, artists incorporate visible errors in their practice in order to explore the aesthetic qualities of machinery language, as well as to convey an ideological message, which is commonly situated around perspectives on Digital Capitalism. In this chapter, I will discuss to what extent these characteristics are present in the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics – both visually and conceptually. In the process of this analysis, I will reflect upon what constitutes its paradoxicality.

In his public lecture in 2012, held by ATLAS at the University of Colorado, Mark Amerika addressed a question about what it means to be a successful artist. In his response, Amerika juxtaposed the traditional model of success with so-described alternative practices, developed within and in response to the digital environment. The traditional model, which is associated with a creative process situated within the artist’s studio, sees the artist’s success measured by attention from critics and the artist’s presence on the art market. Amerika states that the process of canonisation depends upon the artist’s participation in economic and social structures, which occur independently of the spectator’s involvement. Alternative practices, which according to Amerika do not have a specific location and exist in the virtual realm, also have the potential to be canonized independently of their involvement in these social and economic systems. He presents the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics (MOGA) as a project that investigates the notion of success in both a historical framework and amidst the current moment, whereby artists, entrepreneurs, designers, and other creative minds develop these alternative practices and, to a certain extent, challenge the old model of artistic success.

With this introduction, Mark America offers insight into the context in which MOGA has emerged. Moreover, he locates the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics within that very context. Amerika engages with the elements of this context – a conceptual structure – namely, the idea of canon, artist and spectatorship. Through his project, Amerika seeks to address, modify, and subvert these concepts – applying them in an alternative way. This subversive quality has features of a metaphorical Glitch, as previously exemplified in the project of  Luciano Testi Paul. However, in order to better clarify this assertion, it is important to analyse the elements that constitute the project.

The Museum of Glitch Aesthetics presents the oeuvre of an imaginary person, Artist 2.0. Mark Amerika describes that Artist 2.0 is the product of a collective effort, made by a dispersed group of artists and other creative practitioners in the format of a transmedia narrative. He notes that Artist 2.0 is a concept, a generalized image, which in the digital realm could be related to anybody, or in this case, to anything. The fact that Artist 2.0 does not really exist is crucial: the artist is an element in a system that is explicitly present yet does not have content. Such a strategy is similar to what Luciano Testi Paul has undertaken in his project Empty Folders, whereby the Glitch operation exists on a conceptual level and refers to emptiness.

It is noteworthy that generalization appears to be the main strategy of Mark Amerika; he appeals to commonality in his generic modelling of the artist and their praxis, based upon an archetypical, perhaps even stereotypical image. This can be observed on many levels, including the project’s title, its visual presentation and its content. Taking into consideration the concept description of Artist 2.0, provided by Mark Amerika, such generalisation can be regarded as necessary: it shifts MOGA from being a specific case to a paradigm.

The title of the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics bears the explicit indication of its institutional format, namely a museum, which has been traditionally associated with processes of collecting, historicizing and bringing artefacts into the public realm. Indeed, in the context of MOGA, recollections of such a structure are reflected by the way in which the life and oeuvre of Artist 2.0 are framed. The navigation on the homepage of the website has a chronological order, divided into periods that one would typically go through during an artistic career – namely, The Early Years, followed by Art School Studies, followed by project titles with an indication of the time period. Each period, or technically speaking, each category, contains documentation, coherent with the material trends that were at that time common in alternative digital culture. For instance, the video work Pixelmash (2005), described as a digital video projection, features an out-of-focus scene with low-resolution imagery slowly turning into a distorted, colourful stream, culminating as an abstract play of pixels.  (Fig. 6.) Another example is the last documented work, titled Getting Lost (The Long Dérive), which presents two modes of recreating reality – a digital recording and a 3D animation – merging into one juxtaposed flow. ( Fig. 7.)  Both such examples strive to demonstrate developments in digital instrumentation during the period 2005 to 2012 and are reflective of how artists have engaged with such tools. However, despite the presented chronological structure, it is not evident whether the works indeed were made in this period of time, for the reason that their capture indicates 2012. Moreover, although Mark Amerika in his lecture mentioned collecting as one of the functions of MOGA, the content of the project does not appear to be renewed or rearranged since it has been uploaded on the website.

Notably, MOGA frames the oeuvre of Artist 2.0 by utilizing a standard blog-post template: it has clear navigation, balanced layout, which shows the hierarchically structured content. On the level of user interaction, or the Graphical User Interface, this website has been developed with an attentiveness towards high performativity, in order to provide a smooth flow of information. Compared to Year of the Glitch, a project discussed in the previous chapter, in which Phillip Stearn visually juxtaposes the aesthetics of errors with the unified frame of a popular social media website, MOGA’s presentation seems to avoid any originality. Furthermore, MOGA does not attempt to manifest Glitch aesthetics as such, more commonly associated with challenging visual perceptions and navigation content, as one can observe on the websites of Rosa Mankmen ( Fig. 8.) or Jon Satrom ( Fig. 4.).

Besides the navigation bar, images and MOGA’s logo, the homepage also contains a “teaser” of a project catalogue: an introduction of its content, supported by quotes, the names of contributors and hyperlinks ( Fig. 8.). The catalogue itself appears to be developed from a standard template; all its elements – its headers, footers, page numbers, colour swatches and typographical design – are rather generic.

The catalogue, which can be considered as indicative of MOGA’S belonging to the established method of theorising and documenting artwork, provides a curatorial entry, a description of the project, as well as interviews with fictionalised experts from the field, such as the director of the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics, archetypical scholar-curators and even with Artist 2.0 himself.  At first glance, it has all the necessary components to be a proper secondary source: the historical parallels, experts’ reflections and discussions around the Artist 2.0’s practice. However, the vocabulary, the flow of text, as well as the statements contained therein, are phrased in a complex, convoluted and nonsensical manner, and as such it appears to function more as a satire, a mockery of the artworld’s narrative tropes. With regards to the concept of Glitch, which appropriates the language of its environment, MOGA’s catalogue appears to be noise–lost data, a folder without content.

Mark America also mentions that the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics is a part of so described Gift Economy, or Gift Culture, in which valuables are given without explicit, immediate reward. He presents such a dynamic as an opposite of the capitalist model, attributing it to the digital environment’s ability to facilitate the free sharing of software, visual and audio content and other intellectual products between users.  However, the creation of MOGA was sponsored – financially subsidized and institutionally supported – as indicated by the list of credentials published on the website.

This evokes the question of whether MOGA is participating in a capitalist system – as much in the sense of financial capital as well as in regards to cultural capital, given that the project’s realisation and seeming validation within the cultural economy of the art world is largely dependent upon this institutional support. If this seeming mimesis of archetypical artworld economics – as reflected by the catalogue, for instance, which, as outlined, emulates many of the narratives tropes found in such publications – is to be considered active participation in the very system that it poses as critiquing, could it be proposed that such mimesis serves as a form of ironic commentary? If so, in what ways does such irony operate as a critical force, given that in practice it remains a reiteration – ultimately, an endorsement – of the established paradigm of institutional dependency and, by extension of this equation, the established premise of artistic success being dependent upon institutional validation.

To draw to a conclusion, Mark Amerika presents MOGA as an institution, with all the necessary museum functions, such as collecting, historicizing, canonizing, etc. Indeed, the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics website features the artistic path of the Artist 2.0 in a very didactic, hierarchical and chronological order. Besides that, it offers the catalogue, with a typical curatorial entry, interviews and discussions by field experts and by the Artist 2.0 himself. With regards to the design of the project, the catalogue has an ordinary layout and the website is recognisable and even banal. In its presentation of the museum as a system, MOGA attempts to operate with prescribed elements; however, these elements are represented in a gestural way. MOGA attempts to convince its audience of its validity as an institution, which canonizes alternative practices; however, as far as the audience’s gaze goes, the project proves to be more paradoxical: it claims to be an alternative to the traditional practice, yet it nevertheless serves the established model and functions within the capitalistic system.

Thus, due to its paradoxical state, does the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics belong to Glitch Art Practice? On the level of visual interfaces and textuality, such a statement appears to be problematic: MOGA avoids the manifestation of Glitch Aesthetics. It does however indicate a shadow of Glitch, which is impossible to catch. Nevertheless, the complexity and peculiarity of the concept appeal to further exploration and contemplation. In this regard, The Museum of Glitch Aesthetics has the potential to initiate a new rhetorical discourse.

To conclude, in this paper I have sought to provide insight into the position of the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics within the Glitch Art practice. In order to achieve this, I examined established analyses by scholars on Glitch Art and defined the aesthetic features and critical capacities of visible errors. Subsequently, I analysed MOGA through these established frameworks. This analysis brought clarity as to what extent the project fits into the tradition of Glitch Art practice.

The introduction of this paper provided an overview of the existing research on Glitch Art by scholars from various fields, including Cultural and Media Studies, philosophy, and art history. The first chapter placed Glitch Art within a broader context as a movement of New Media Art. Emphasis was placed on the fluidity of the term, supported by arguments by Jessica Patrice Braccio and Elvira Zhagun. Both scholars refer to Glitch in a metaphoric way, beyond the digital realm. Besides its fluidity, Zhagun introduced the idea of error missing data. Analysis of both scholars’ perspectives brought forward the conclusion that Glitch appropriates the language of its environment, exists within and mimics such systems, but contains no data.

Existing theoretical sources on Glitch Art indicate that employing visible errors in artistic practice brings forth new aesthetics and expands visual sensibility. With regards to such aesthetics, the perspectives of Galloway, Goriunova and Shulgin were reviewed, specifically in regards to the aesthetics of algorithms. Although traditionally regarded as a break in conventional logic, scholars Moradi and Jackson demonstrated that visible errors, distortions and corrupted images have been adopted by mainstream culture. However, artists who incorporate glitches in their practice through experimentation attempt to escape such banality.

Where the critical capacities of Glitch are concerned, various artistic practices have been discussed that exemplify the paradoxical desire to embrace the maximum performance of technology whilst simultaneously challenging it. The visual outcome of such a pursuit has social, political and ideological implications; however, the outcome mostly exists on the level of the Graphical User Interface and does not affect the operation of these technologies.

Further research touched upon the concept of flow and friction, developed by Vendela Grundell. She emphasises that such friction confronts and absorbs the spectator in the medium, whilst simultaneously instigating a critical distance that allows for the spectator to take note of the medium’s material nature. Casey Boley also sees the critical capacities of Glitch as able to raise awareness and open up new rhetorical discourses.

Taking into consideration these aforementioned characteristics of Glitch Art, the second chapter assessed MOGA and its paradoxical state. Mark Amerika has located the project within the current art moment, in which artists are dependent upon art critics and the art market. He presents MOGA as an alternative practice, which collects, historicizes, canonises and presents works of art. A close study of the visual and textual appearance of the project has shown that though it mimics the concept of the museum it fails to operate as such. This mimesis is present in the website’s interface, the scope of displayed works, the design and text of the catalogue. Overall, these aspects of the project appeal to a stereotypical, generic image. Glitches, which MOGA has promised, disappear with each attempt to identify it. Furthermore, this project, in multiple ways, strives to convince the spectator of its institutional validity and its potential to canonize Glitch Art; however, its absence of data, which substitutes the entire MOGA model, turns it into a paradox.

On the one hand, such a paradox may appear counterproductive, as it questions the belonging of the Museum of Glitch Aesthetics to Glitch Art practice. Indeed, on a visual level, the project appears too weak to break the visual comfort and smooth operation. Besides that, being financially supported by various institutions, MOGA endorses the very economy it stands to critique. Nevertheless,  on a more metaphorical level, MOGA appears to be a sophisticated and poetic commentary on the current economical and cultural dynamics in the art field.