Error, the Unforeseen, and the Emergent

The Error and Interactive Media Art

How to Cite

Barker, T. (2007). Error, the Unforeseen, and the Emergent: The Error and Interactive Media Art. M/C Journal, 10(5).
Vol. 10 No. 5 (2007): 'error'
Published 2007-10-01

The condition that marks the post-digital age may be the condition for error. In the condition where machinic systems seek the unforeseen and the emergent, there is also a possibility for the unforeseen error to slip into existence. This condition can be seen in the emerging tradition of artists using error as a creative tool. In his paper “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Music,” Kim Cascone points to the way in which composers, using digital means, exploit the inadequacies of a particular compositional or performative technology (Cascone 13). Cascone cites composers such as Ryoji Ikeda who create minimalist electronic compositions using media as both their form and theme. In these compositions, the errors, imperfections, and limitations of the particular compositional media are the central constituting elements of the piece. In addition to music, this glitch aesthetic is also exploited in the visual arts. Artists such as Tony Scott set up situations in which errors are able to emerge and be exploited in the art making process. In these types of work the artist’s role is to allow a glitch or an error to arise in a specific system, then to reconfigure and exploit the generative qualities of the unforeseen error.

Tony Scott, Glitch No. 13, 2001-2005

The generative capabilities of error can be understood through Lev Manovich’s cultural communication model developed in his paper “Post-Media Aesthetics.” Traditionally, a pre-media cultural communication model represents the transmission of a signal as SENDER—MESSAGE—RECEIVER (Manovich, “Post-Media Aesthetics” 18). In this original model the sender encodes and transmits a message over a communication channel; as Manovich indicates, in the course of transmission the message is affected by any noise that exists along the communication channel. The receiver then decodes the message. Here the message is susceptible to error in two ways. First, the noise that originates from the communication channel may alter the message. Second, there may be discrepancies between the sender and receiver’s code (Manovich, “Post-Media Aesthetics” 18). Manovich, in order to propose a post-digital consideration of transmission, has developed this model by including the sender and receiver’s software. Post-digital cultural communication can now be considered as SENDER—SOFTWARE—MESSAGE—SOFTWARE—RECEIVER (Manovich, “Post-Media Aesthetics” 17-18). In this model the cultural significance of software is emphasised. The software, much more than the noise introduced by the communication channel, may change the message. Significantly, the software may introduce an error into the message. Following Gilles Deleuze, we may say that the software may articulate a link to the field of potential in order to generate unforeseen, and perhaps unwanted, information.

The cultural role that Manovich ascribes to software becomes elucidated in Dimitre Lima, Iman Morandi, and Ant Scott’s Glitchbrowser. Glitchbrowser is an alternative to the traditional model of a web browser. This browser, rather than attempting to assist user navigation of the internet, creates errors when displaying the pages that it accesses. The images of any page accessed by Glitchbrowser are distorted or glitched through colour saturation and abstraction from their original composition. In this work, following Manovich’s cultural communication model, the software that intervenes between sender and receiver alters the content of the message. Thus in Glitchbrowser, the artists remind us that the information we receive is largely reconstituted by the system it travels through. In a sense the machine reveals itself, rather than creating the illusion of a transparent interface to information. In the application of Glitchbrowser the user witnesses the way that messages are transmitted and altered by the interface. Here, the machine reminds the user of its existence (Manovich, The Language of New Media 206).

Any system that seeks the actualisation of unforeseen potential is also a system that has the capacity to become errant. Rather than thinking of the error as something to fear or avoid, we can think of an error as something that brings with it the capacity for the new and the unforeseen (perhaps it is this link to the unforeseen that is precisely the reason that we fear the errant). We can think of any system that is open to the unforeseen as surrounded by a cloud of potential errors, or, as Deleuze would put it, a cloud of the virtual (Deleuze and Parnet 148). At any point in its process, a system is traversing potential errors—and at any point, one may become actualised. We can picture a potential for error at every point that a system is opened to unformed information.

As a system attempts to actualise this unformed information, to form the unformed from the cloud of the virtual, the system may also give form to an unformed error. Deleuze’s virtual can be understood as the field of pure potentiality. In this field there exists all those things that could potentially become actualised in the course of a system, but for some reason, do not. We can think of the virtual, from the present moment, as containing all the potential events that could take place in the future. Only one of these events will become actualised, becoming the actual present, and the other events will remain virtual. As Brian Massumi describes, the virtual that Deleuze theorises is a mode of reality that is articulated in the emergence of new potentials—the virtual is implicated in the reality of change. A system, in the event of change, moves through and connects to the virtual, actualising some information and leaving other information as un-actualised virtuality. This system is surrounded by a cloud of the virtual, surrounded by potential errors. At any moment, as the system moves into the virtual it may actualise an error.

Rather than thinking of an event as the process by which preformed or preconceived possible information becomes realised, we can only think of an error as coming into being as the unformed and the unforeseen potential is actualised. This potential emerges from unique activities that occur in the process of a system. These unique activities open the system so that unforeseen information may emerge (DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy 36-37). If a system runs through its process without the potential for error it is essentially closed. It does not allow the potentiality of the emergent or the unforeseen. It is only through allowing the capacity for potential errors that we may provide the opportunity to think the unthought, to become-other, and to hence initiate further unforeseen becomings in the virtual (Rodowick 201). In a sense, when there is potential for an error to emerge in a system, the system cannot be regarded as a pre-formed linear progress; rather, it can only be thought as a divergent process that actualises elements of the virtual.

Images from Yann Le Guennec Le Catalogue

Yann Le Guennec’s Le Catalogue is an example of artist designed software causing unforeseen errors. This online work allows public access to a catalogue of images and installations created between 1990 and 1996. Every time a page is accessed from the archive, an intended error is activated in the form of an intersecting horizontal and vertical line, generated at random points over the image. The more that the page is viewed, the greater its deterioration by the obscuring intersecting line and the closer the image comes to abstraction. As Eduardo Navas states, “the archive is similar to analogue vinyl records losing their fidelity and being slightly deteriorated every time the needle passes through the groove.” In Le Guennec’s catalogue the act of accessing and consulting an object of the archive, in essence, causes an internal error to the object. This is an error that is inbuilt; it is an error that we cause by the act of looking or accessing any of the images. As we access the image we allow a virtual error to become actual. Eventually the error will take over the original image, and the image will be more about error than it ever was about its referent.

Images from Yann Le Guennec Le Catalogue

Just as in Cascone’s glitch music, the form and the theme of Le Catalogue is error. In Le Catalogue we see the potential for error whenever information is mediated; the work becomes a reflection on the act of looking, but looking through a particular paradigm, looking through the interface. The work’s archive can only be preserved by allowing the images to exist, un-accessed, behind the interface. But this work is not about preservation. It is ultimately about the ephemeral and its uniqueness. Each error caused by the user, which becomes actual from the virtual, is unique—and each time the archive is accessed it is differentiated from its past. Every time an image is accessed, it becomes its own original; every time an error from the field of the virtual is actualised, the unforeseen emerges.

In these types of works the error can be understood through a Deleuzian ontology as a generative and creative force. As mentioned above, in order to position the condition for error as the condition for the unforeseen, we can think of the errant system as involved in a process of making actual potential from the virtual. In contrast, the system that holds no potential for error is involved in the process of realising possibilities. The possible follows a line toward an already established attractor; in this instance the future is closed as it is already given in the present. If we could access information in Le Catalogue without causing the unforeseen error, the information is possible. If this were the case, any selection from the archive’s menu would return a preformed image. In opposition to this, the potential moves through processes of bifurcation and divergence toward chaotic attractors; in this case the future is open (DeLanda, “Deleuze and the Open-Ended Becoming of the World”).

Actualisation is separate from realisation in that realisation suggests a passage from the possible to the static. Actualisation implies the production of something new and unforeseen, a becoming virtual that results in new possibilities and transformations (Lévy). The possible exists in a state of limbo as an already constituted thing; the only thing separating the real from the possible is existence. The possible is thus thought of as a latent phantom reality (Lévy 24).

If we were only ever interested in realising the possible then errors would not be a concern. The system only becomes errant when we seek the unformed. This occurs whenever we actualise information from the field of the virtual. The virtual error is to be thought of as the potential that may or may not come into being through a process of actualisation. As Lévy states, “the virtual is that which has potential rather than actual existence … The tree is virtually present in the seed” (23). The seed does not know what shape the tree will take, as it would in a possible-real model. Rather the seed must actualise the tree as it enacts a process of negotiation between its internal limitations and the environmental circumstances that it encounters through this process. We can thus see potential errors as virtual in that the system does not know the errors that it may actualise. The system actualises these errors as it explores its degrees of freedom and the circumstances that may allow the emergence of error.

As the potential for error marks the potential for the new and the unforeseen, we can see that an error in itself may be creative. An error may be utilised. It may be sought out and used to create the unforeseen within traditional systems, such as our routine computer use. In these instances, as the unique generative qualities of error are actualised, the artist can no longer be thought of as the sole creative force. Rather it is now the artist’s role to provide the circumstances for an error to emerge. The error fills the potentiality of a system with meaning, whether intended or unintended by the designer. It is the participant’s interrelationship with this error that may be thought to proliferate artistic meaning. The aesthetics of the digital encounter occur as an interactive event between participant and machine, with the artist, in a sense, hidden behind the machine. When an error occurs, unforeseen to the artist, the work is affected and possibilities are created for new meanings to emerge.

Participant in Blast Theory’s Desert Rain

Desert Rain, a complex mixed reality environment, by the group Blast Theory, actualises errors and exposes its software limitations in ways unintended by the artists. The work involves six participants that are asked to navigate a digitally generated landscape of the Gulf War in order to locate a target. This digitally generated space is projected upon a curtain of water spray. Once all the participants have found their targets they are lead through the rain curtain, over a sand dune and to a representation of a hotel room. In this room there is a television screen that displays one of the targets narrating their real life experience of the Gulf War. The digital target is now made actual as a physically real, yet still mediated, person. This work presents a space in which the real and the digital mutually affect one another; the participant’s experience in the digital landscape directs the meaning that they take from the target’s real life narrative, and the experience of this narrative affects the participant’s memories of the digital landscape. The overall experience of Desert Rain is constituted by the coming together of the material and the digital spaces so that they may produce a mixed reality space.

However, the actual functioning of Desert Rain does not always provide the means for the theoretical tessellated space that Blast Theory seeks. This is due to certain errors and limitations in the machinic system. But these are not necessarily aesthetic bugs; in fact they may enhance the aesthetics of the form of the work. For instance, the digitally generated graphics are rather clumsy and hard edged, with a slow frame rate and low definition. Also, some participants found it difficult to use the footplate effectively (Benford et al. 54). For these reasons, the space of the digital and the space of the real remain separate, with the participant struggling to manipulate the interface in order to access the digital; the sometimes errant functionality of the interface acts as a barrier between the digital and the material. However, this technical bug may enable the participant to grapple with the machinic in ways which would not occur had the machine been perfect. As Blast Theory and the Communications Research Group point out, ethnographic research into interaction has found that this technical bug was generally only seen as a detriment to the work by those participants with a technical background (Benford et al. 53-55). Those participants, in contrast, with an artistic background tended to see the limitations of the form as a conscious aesthetic gesture. That is, the slowness and clumsiness of the media became directly connected to the larger purpose of the work, which is to criticise the media’s coverage of the Gulf War and the general place of media in our daily lives. Here, for the artistically inclined audience, form and content come inextricably linked. Thus the error in the form is inextricable from the meaning of the work. The imprecise navigation, due to the nature of the footplate, through the obvious and imprecise mediated imaging of the world, directly links to the experience of receiving information through television broadcasts. In a sense the limitations of the media and the interface device are embodied, quite unintentionally, in the content of the work.

If the participant of interactive digital media is to be thought of as coupled to the machine, when the machine becomes errant, the participant shares in this condition. The interactive participant experiences limitations, glitches, or bugs first hand; they are, in some respects, party to the glitches and bugs and a part of the system’s limitations. New media theorists and artists such as Valie Export, have already pointed out that the subjective space of the viewer co-exists with the objective space of the machine. As a result the user is tied to the machine and thus connected to its glitches. This is because the work is not just constituted by the machine and its substrate but also by the way the human responds to the immersive environment. The work no longer takes place in a time and space that is separate from the spectator. Rather the time and space of the spectator and the time and space of the machine are both implicit in the realisation of the work. Thus, the spectator’s time and space has become filled with the potential for error. The participant and the machine are mutually engaged in a process of becoming virtual; they deliberate together, as one system that moves into the field of potential.

Author Biography

Tim Barker