Walls of Our Techno-gardens

A conversation with artist and theorist Rosa Menkman who focuses on visual noise artifacts, resulting from accidents in both analog and digital media.

with Rosa Menkman — Nov 22, 2017

Rosa Menkman, studio visit »Walls of Our Techno-gardens« 2017

»I intend to uncover and elucidate the ways through which resolutions constantly inform both machine vision and human ways of perception.«

The following post was originally written for The Conversation Project, a series of interviews with ›influencers‹ in the contemporary art world.

Rosa Menkman is an artist and theorist who focuses on visual noise artifacts, resulting from accidents in both analog and digital media (such as glitch, encoding, and feedback artifacts). Although many people perceive these accidents as negative experiences, Menkman emphasizes their positive consequences. These artifacts facilitate an important insight into the otherwise obscure alchemy of standardization, which takes place through the creation of solutions or protocols, and their black-boxed, unseen, forgotten, or obfuscated compromises and alternative possibilities.

Brett Wallace: How did you start your career as artist?

Rosa Menkman: To be honest, I can’t think of one specific moment and say this is when I became an artist. I am used to thinking of myself as a theorist. I’ve always had some kind of practice, but my affiliation to theory and writing feels like a priority. Accepting or allowing myself to be called an artist happened only recently; at a certain point I felt like I had to re-evaluate.

A lot of my work is inspired by practice-based research; research done by others and research I conduct myself. When I started writing about the art collective Jodi for instance, they grew into a huge inspiration. They made me see that media are more than just these simple, fun tools. I started to take things apart in a Jodi-esque way and while doing so, changed and grew my own practice. I learned that new media are actually vastly complex mechanisms with inherent economics and politics. When you just theorize media, you’ll miss part of the actual depth of the matter. So seeing Jodi’s work was not the starting point of my art career but it was definitely an important turning point.

It can be a powerful experience when art shatters your expectations and preconceptions. When it happens, it feels like some kind of filter is peeled away. What is left can be a new take on life, art, language, love, or how the body works. It is a rare happening, but I believe it is very real.

»It can be a powerful experience when art shatters your expectations and preconceptions. When it happens, it feels like some kind of filter is peeled away. What is left can be a new take on life, art, language, love, or how the body works. It is a rare happening, but I believe it is very real.«

At the same time, to me, working as an artist is also a double-edged sword. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing as well as I am, but I don’t really know where the art ends and my life starts, or where my theory and practice separate. Right now it seems like they are completely inhabiting the same space, which is not always easy »allowed,« and it can be kind of exhausting to constantly represent Rosa the artist, the theorist, the human being.

BW: How was your first encounter with Jodi.org’s work?

RM: Jodi started making work for the web since the early 1990s, but the first time I really took notice was in 2005, when Montevideo, a since dissolved media art institution in Amsterdam, hosted their solo show World Wide Wrong. I think this show was so impressive to me because of the texts that accompanied it (by Annet Dekker and Josephine Bosma). They really opened my eyes.


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Embedded video from Jodi.org, World Wide Wrong, 2005.

BW: The video with all the folders makes me think of the storage of pedagogy.

RM: (laughs) Or maybe more like a storage anti-pedagogy …

BW: What first attracted you to the idea of Net Art or Glitch Art?

RM: After seeing the show, I wrote my 2006 thesis about the collective. At this time it was rather hard to find theory on net.art and Jodi. I scraped all of del.icio.us’ bookmarks for »netart,« »net.art« and »jodi.org,« etc, but not a lot (if any) of the texts described Jodi’s work as Glitch Art. In my master thesis I actually ended up using the term »glitch« two times. In the early 2000s, only a handful of artists referred to their practice as Glitch Art; it really was the work of trailblazers. Beflix started a blog dedicated to Glitch in 2001 and Per Platou organized a festival/symposium called Glitch in Norway in 2002. The Glitch Art Flickr pools’ first posts date to 2004. Of course there was already theory on the use of glitches in music, for instance in Cascone’s paper »The Aesthetics of Failure (2000),« but it seems like these conversations really stayed under a fold or inside their specific (sonic) discourse. The genre that is now widely known as Glitch Art established itself gradually and later.

To come back to your question about what triggered me to work with glitch after finishing my thesis: I think generally, when it comes to glitch, it is not (just) the aesthetic that gets people involved. What is really interesting about the glitch is its moment/um.

BW: »that moment that makes you pivot and reflect. It grabs you, but you don’t know what’s going on or what way to go. It is a powerful confusion that inspires you to read and pushes you to try and make sense.«

RM: It’s when an object slides from a normal operation into something that is different, maybe more than just »normal.« It recontextualizes the tool, and uncovers a new layer of operation. Suddenly there is more to the tool, but I don’t fully understand it yet. It’s that change, that powerful moment that makes me reevaluate my understanding of media, its materials and practices (conventions and expectations fed by habits) that got me first excited about Glitch Art. I still relay to these principles a lot in what I now call »Resolution Studies.«

Of course today, the Glitch Art genre has grown a static, standardized side as well, often referred to as »glitch aesthetics.« Personally, this side of Glitch Art does not always interest me as much. But the moment/um in Glitch still exists; this power is inherent to the nature of glitch. Glitch is not just output. It is procedural; the way something breaks from a flow and the way someone perceives this break. Then again, the momentous power of change is not something new. I don’t think that the Glitch Art genre is the only genre connected to the slippage of media, or this power of reframing.

BW: I was thinking of artists like Nam June Paik and how they’ve influenced the medium.

RM: This already happened earlier, during the turn of the last century, with the Dadaists. Although it is important to realize they were fighting in a completely different political context and their work is often wrongfully co-opted as a figure of speech: I cringe when I read descriptions like »Dadaist Glitch.« But the momentous power that was inherent in Dadaist art may be similar.

BW: Yeah. The power of dismantling and deconstructing is a thread throughout art history. The political context was vastly different as you said. Dada developed out of World War I and the rejection of logic and reason of modern capitalism. You mentioned Resolution Studies. Could you elaborate on that more?

RM: Some digital artists jump from one project to the next. I often miss an insight into what drives these artists; or a red thread that runs through their practice. Works like these are often kind of trickster or »fun.« Look, this software can do this! Ha, wow, LOL! But I wonder if these simple technological gestures are enough to leverage the powers that our technologies have and the violence they do to our daily lives – which is something I am interested in. I do not necessarily need (funny) alternatives or interventions, but would much rather have the knowledge to empower myself, to discover or even create my own problems and solutions.

This is why the core of my practice is Resolution Studies, a theory through which I try to uncover not just the affordances of our media, but also their compromises and hidden potentialities. I am not a technological savant by any means, but I do try to have a reasonable amount of knowledge of the technologies I use and believe it is important to share this.

On the other hand, I have experienced that creating a practice around technology is awkward. Not a lot of people care about the politics of algorithms. If I for instance explain how Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) differs from analog video (PAL), it could easily become a technical story, which would not be very captivating to a larger audience. But I think it is important to share this technological knowledge with a wide range of people, which is why I started using a tactic of anthropomorphizing. One of the earliest works in which I employed this is in The Collapse of PAL (2010). In TCoP, the Angel of History (a reference to Walter Benjamin) talks to PAL (Phase Alternate Line Signal), as if it was a friend, maybe a lover even.


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Rosa Menkman, The Collapse of PAL, 2010

Notes about the work from the artist – As performed at TV–TV on May 25, 2010, Copenhagen, DK. The video work is based on analog signal, compressions, glitches, and feedback artifacts in sound and video. In The Collapse of PAL (Eulogy, Obsequies and Requiem for the planes of blue phosphor), the Angel of History (as described by Walter Benjamin) reflects on the signal PAL and its termination.

BW: I was watching HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis. I don’t know if you’ve seen that film.

RM: Yeah. I watched it on two screens; one for the movie and one for my Wikipedia searches; I actually had to watch it twice because I kept losing the thread – that movie was dense.

BW: I think to me, some of your work definitely brings that film to mind. In your work you’re opening up the kimono to expose the technology and show how they are actually built.

RM: Did you say kimono?

BW: Kimono.

RM: Like the Japanese garment. Is that a saying?

BW: »Opening the kimono« is a saying. It’s actually used in Silicon Valley to talk about the idea of openly sharing information. Frances Stark and David Kravitz titled a show after it in 2014 at the New Museum, but their use of the term was more direct, as they conducted a sexting performance via iMessage.

RM: I had no idea.

BW: What’s interesting is that you’re opening up things inside technology that people normally don’t or can’t see. Is there a current set of tools that you’re really into right now?

RM: Right now I’m building in Unity. Unity is a 3D engine that is used for many things, but first and foremost for video game development and VR. As for what I am into – this obviously changes all the time, but at this time I am still drawn to think and rethink Syphon, a software plugin developed by Anton Marini and Tom Butterworth, which allows the user to »syphon« – to share in and output – from one software to the next. So imagine for instance sending your videogame output into a live VJ software: now you can overlay it with other media, or perform a Powerpoint with it. I am also interested in DCT compression (Discrete Cosine Transform, the basis of for instance JPEG). I actually just released a work dedicated to two of these pieces of technology, called DCT:SYPHONING.


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DCT:SYPHONING. The 1000000th interval (The 64th interval).

BW: Can you explain a bit more about DCT:SYPHONING?

RM: DCT:SYPHONING, The 1000000th interval (or in decimal: The 64th interval) is a modern translation of the 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott novel Flatland. But instead of describing a two-dimensional world, occupied by geometric figures that narrate the implications of life in two dimensions, in DCT:SYPHONING an anthropomorphized DCT (Senior) tells the processes of the compression algorithm. Specifically, the work describes DCT Juniors’ first syphon; the translation of data from one image compression realm to the next, or one realm of complexity to a next. DCT:SYPHONING is part of my »Ecology of Compression Complexities,« a world in which different signals connect to each other. It also functions in connection to my earlier work, via small references.

I was inspired to create this Ecology of Compression Complexities after I saw the work of Charles Avery at Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh in 2015. While Avery works with more classic materials, such as painting and drawing, it resonated with me and made me rethink my own practice.

The gallery described the exhibit like this:

»In 2004 Charles Avery embarked on a project called The Islanders, which was conceived as a way to explore, consolidate, and give direction to his art and ideas. The Islanders is a painstakingly detailed and diverse description of a fictional island in drawing and painting, sculpture and texts.«

Every drawing and every installation that Avery puts on show unveils a little part of The Island. I find that inspiring; I prefer projects that do not exist in a vacuum, that do not just simply begin and end. I like it when a practice keeps building, when it is part of a larger puzzle. But the only way I can imagine that my practice can exist in the form of such a »world-like» framework is by anthropomorphizing the algorithms I am working with. This is why I am making all these creatures meet in some kind of absurd transmission ecology. I see DCT:SYPHONING as just a first step; it is an illustration of an environment in which the DCT compression algorithms are the protagonists: these little creatures encode and encapsulate data and carry it from one material environment to the next. I like to imagine this algorithm talking to that algorithm, even though in reality, these technologies are not compatible and would never »communicate.«

In my world, they can all visit and have an exchange with each other! And while I have considered that the joining of these four words Ecology of Compression Complexities sounds dense and complicated, I believe they are the best ones to sum up my practice. Which is why, for now at least, I am sticking with them.

BW: I saw your DCT:SYPHONING presentation and performance at Transmediale after the #Additivism Cookbook release. Could you explain a bit more about that?

Rosa Menkman, studio visit »Walls of Our Techno-gardens« 2017

Screenshot from Additivism.org

RM: In tandem with the release and performance of DCT:SYPHONING at Transmediale, which you are referring to, I released three papers. The first paper was part of the #Additivism cookbook. Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke started #Additivism in 2015, as a manifesto on speculative materialism, 3D and plastics. During this year’s Transmediale festival, they released the #Additivism cookbook, a compendium of 100 recipes, written by artists within the speculative framework of #Additivism, rethinking and unthinking digital material methodologies. In the cookbook I released the recipe »How not to be readRosa Menkman, »How Not to be Read« (A recipe using DCT), 2016, p. 238 of the 3D Additivist Cookbook.

Rosa Menkman, studio visit »Walls of Our Techno-gardens« 2017

Rosa Menkman, »How Not to be Read (A recipe using DCT)«, 2016. P. 238 of the 3D Additivist Cookbook.

»DCT appropriates the aesthetics of JPEG macroblocks to mask secret messages as error. Because the legibility of an encrypted message does not just depend on the complexity of the encryption algorithm, but also on the placement of the data of the message. The encrypted message, hidden on the surface of the image is only legible by the ones in the know; anyone else will ignore it like dust on celluloid.«

In this recipe I describe how DCT, a cryptographic language technology that I build in 2015, can be used to write secret messages on digital images, steganographically masked as JPEG artifacts. I created DCT in 2015, for my first solo show at Transfer Gallery: the iRD (the institutions for Resolution Disputes). In this exhibition, DCT formed the basis for five institutions (five statements against the politics of modern institutions, written in manifesto-style). During the Transmediale I finally released the DCT font and published its basic principles as a recipe in the #Additivism Cookbook.

The second paper I released during Transmediale was named Untie:Solve:Dissolve Resolutions. It was published as part of the Machine Research peer-reviewed newspaper, printed in DCT and in human readable code. In this short text, I outline some basic statements on Resolution Studies:

Rosa Menkman, studio visit »Walls of Our Techno-gardens« 2017

Translation of text enclosed above in red:

»Resolution studies is a theory of literacy: literacy of the machines, the people, the people creating the machines, and the people being created by the machines. But resolution studies is not only about the effects of technological progress or the aesthetization of the scales of resolution; which has already been done under headers such as Interface Effect or Protocol. Resolution studies is research about the standards that could have been in place, but are not – and which as a result are now left outside of the discourse.«

With resolution studies I am taking a step away from my old research on glitch, in the hope to open up a broader set of conversations between the discourses such as medicine, architecture, and law.

Rosa Menkman, studio visit »Walls of Our Techno-gardens« 2017

Finally, I released a work in the Transmediale Reader across & beyond, which is an honor to be part of. When Kristoffer Gansing first invited me to reflect on The Collapse of PAL, I had some doubts to enter that subject again; it seemed a bit too old (the last time I performed TCoP was five years ago). By the end of 2014–15 any kind of compatibility with an analog video signal was completely erased, and today it seems kind of nostalgic and irrelevant to revisit the material of PAL.

What finally pushed me in favor of writing something new on TCoP was actually Syphon as well. With Syphon, analog and digital signals can again coexist during a performance. So in the Transmediale reader, PAL finally wrote back to the Angel via Syphon. Imagine, here we have PAL, a zombie medium that can suddenly communicate and function besides other media, due to the implementation of a new protocol.

BW: Does data live forever?

RM: Not forever – although digital media are often believed to answer to the myths of lossless transmission and migration, in fact, degradation and data loss are a not to be ignored part of the digital material. Undead data and dead data are as much part of our digital reality.

BW: Your methods speak to a post-studio way of working; there is no beginning or end in the work. It’s in a constant state of flux, which also mirrors the state of algorithms and tech in general. What does your studio look like; what is your set-up?

RM: I am in the final leg of a five-month residency at Schloss Solitude (in Stuttgart). Which means that right now, I am living in a castle. But I actually gave up rent quite some time ago and have since been traveling with a little suitcase and a computer. Recently I bought a desktop computer. How crazy is that? This is a real computer that is heavier than a laptop and that has the dimensions of a piece of carry-on luggage; it is actually too heavy to carry with just one arm. I am not sure but I think this might be the start of something new.

BW: I love the way you describe that too, because it sounds like pretty much up to this point you’ve been working on laptops. Are you using iOS?

RM: Yeah, for now I am. But I am also noticing a massive migration: a lot of my friends are changing to Windows, as will I when I finally install the tower in the castle.

BW: Actually the company where I work, LinkedIn, was recently acquired by Microsoft. Why do you think this shift is happening so rapidly?

RM: Of course one reason is that iOS systems are closed, not just in terms of software but maybe more importantly – when it comes to people migrating – in terms of hardware. A few weeks ago, I had such a bad accident. I fell all the way down a staircase … and while I was falling all these meters down, the only thing I could think about was this laptop in my arms. I was trying to save it. Unfortunately both the laptop and I got hurt: a broken screen. And you know how much this accident cost? 500 Euros. I have no words … just evil media.

Right then and there, at the bottom of the staircase, I had enough and found the reason to switch. But this kind of accidental damage is of course beside the point. This is not why this massive migration is taking place. Two simple reasons I personally see for the shift are that computers need a lot of power to render movies shot in 3D or run VR, and Apple just simply does not let the user upgrade to this kind of power. Besides that, iOS is just not compatible with some of the basic VR peripherals, such as the Oculus headset.

BW: It’s interesting to think about how tech titans will operate in the future when it comes to openness as a strategy vs. the walled garden.

RM: The new book by Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same could be relevant to this discussion.

In the book, Chun writes: »New media – we are told – exist at the bleeding edge of obsolescence. We thus forever try to catch up, updating to remain the same.«

»We’re at a stage that the speed of the upgrade is incommensurable … new upgrades are ready too fast. And because of this speed, remaining the same, or using technology in a continuous manner, has become next to impossible. I think these titans consciously impose this tactic: to exploit the speed of the upgrade as a way to to obscure the new options, interfaces and (im)possibilities of the ever rigid walls of our techno-gardens.«

We’re at a stage that the speed of the upgrade is incommensurable … new upgrades are ready too fast. And because of this speed, remaining the same, or using technology in a continuous manner, has become next to impossible. I think these titans consciously impose this tactic: to exploit the speed of the upgrade as a way to to obscure the new options, interfaces and (im)possibilities of the ever rigid walls of our techno-gardens.

BW: What is your perspective on reclamation of space within techno-capitalism? I’m thinking of how Constant Dullaart uses that word, reclaim. Is reclamation something that you’re interested in?

RM: I am not sure how Constant uses the word, but I think critical and tactical actions that result in reclamation will always remain important. On the other hand, I wonder if reclamation is the right word, or if it should be a main focus: can reclamation still be an end goal?

One of the main problems I see is the incremental declination of the value of knowledge. Actions are no longer backed up by facts; the wish comes first, and then the necessary data to justify an act is simply created by shifting around scales and contexts. In the wrong context, every fact can be waved away as »fake.« And what starts as a factoid becomes a fact by putting it in the »right« context. Scaling and contextualization have become two of the most violent, yet often overlooked actions when it comes to handling a dataset. I think this is partially the reason why we got stuck with constructs such as fake news and alternative facts and it is also why I think that reclaiming, the process of claiming something back, or of reasserting a right, is hard as an end goal.

But understanding that we live in a time in which knowledge is fluid; where everything we prove is dependent on the scales we chose and measure by and the context in which we perceive, is maybe also one of the most empowering pieces of knowledge. So yes, we can and should still think tactically. But we have to rethink our former tactics; where are tactical reclamations still useful, against whom or from what? The time of turf wars has ended – carving out space by smart usage of scale and context is the future.

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