Finding Beauty in the Breaks
by Jeffrey Martin ’04, ’05 (M.A.)
Long before he was an assistant professor of communication studies, Steven Hammer, Ph.D., was a tinkerer.
“As a kid, I always liked to take electronics apart and mess around with the different parts to see how they work,” Hammer recalls. “One time, I rigged up a trip wire on my bedroom door to sound an alarm if my sister tried to come in.”
Hammer’s curiosity grew as he did, and by the time he reached graduate school, he was prying open electronic instruments like keyboards and fiddling with the circuitry. He learned that, instead of breaking the machines, the rewiring would yield unexpected sounds when the instrument was played. Sometimes the result was melodic, sometimes it was mechanical and atonal. But it was always interesting.
This concept, known as circuit bending, has been popular with musical and digital artists since the late 1960s. Those who practice it find beauty in the unpredictability of the results.
“There are no rules to bending,” Hammer says. “You have no idea what’s going to happen when you attach any given wire to any point on the circuit board. And by introducing that level of irregularity to the composition process, you create something new every time.”
As digital technologies have become more intertwined with the process of creation, this spirit has surfaced in a new artistic movement called glitch composition. Like circuit bending, glitch, as it’s colloquially known, involves intentionally interfering with the code of a file to make it behave in unexpected ways.
“If you open an image in a text editor, you’ll find these long strings of unreadable text,” Hammer explains. “If you delete or move chunks of that text, or if you start writing new strings into it, you’ll find that the image distorts and breaks in really interesting, and sometimes beautiful, ways.”
Glitch can also be applied to writing in a number of different ways. By incorporating unconventional or incorrect grammar, authors can call specific attention to certain sections of their work. Some glitch writers have gone so far as to change letters into numbers and symbols in their work to force the reader to approach the work carefully. “The Hawk Will Never Die,” when glitched, may read as “ '//k '//ill ne\/eP\ ie.”
Composing with glitch also forces the writer to acknowledge the part that technology plays in the process of creation.
“A typewriter, which is big, heavy and unforgiving, demands a slow and deliberate writing experience,” Hammer says. “A computer, with its interrupting error messages and secondary programs to open and distract, yields a different experience altogether. And you’re likely to have a different finished product based on the environment in which you create. We have to recognize that the tools we use are coauthors in our finished pieces.”
With both circuit bending and glitch, it’s important to acknowledge that disruption and mistakes are a vital part of composition. This philosophy is a core value of Hammer’s classes and the entire communication studies department.
“We try to encourage our students to embrace the process of making mistakes,” says Associate Professor of Communications Studies Aimée Knight, Ph.D., who coauthored an article on circuit bending with Hammer for the interactive digital magazine Harlot. “Sitting down to write and expecting perfection is not a ful lling experience.”
Jill O’Neill, a senior communication studies major, says that working on glitch projects with Hammer changed her approach to creation.
“There are no rules to bending, you have no idea what’s going to happen when you attach any given wire to any point on the circuit board.”
— Steven Hammer, Ph.D.
“I was really big on perfection,” O’Neill says. “I had an image that was in my head and needed to articulate that exact image on paper. Through glitch, I’ve learned that even though what winds up on the page might not be the original outcome that you had in mind, it’s still your work, and that's good.”