Matter, as commonly understood, can exist as a solid, a liquid or a gas, and in turn these states can be characterized directly and simply: a solid has a fixed shape and volume; a liquid has fixed volume but is amorphous, taking the shape of its container; while a gas has neither fixed shape nor volume. In contrast, the common artifact of our age, the digital file, has no volume at all, and has no discernible form, as it consists solely of superimposed magnetic charges on sensitized substances. These artifacts are literally immaterial. We cannot examine them directly.
Indirectly, we can inspect them in complete detail, if we choose. Structurally, each atomic bit in a file symbolizes either a zero or a one. In turn, clusters of bits may symbolize higher number values, which in turn may represent letters of the alphabet, the hue and intensity of a pixel of an image, or the amplitude value of a tiny portion of a sound wave. These are just three examples, there are indeed any number of other possibilities.
The collections of values in a file lie dormant on our disk drives until some program is invoked upon them, breathing life into abstract models and symbolic references. At least that’s how it works if we have a program that “understands” the file and can interpret it for us. But computer files by themselves are essentially ambiguous, because what they represent is completely dependent on the interpreter that mediates between our senses and the numbers they contain. This may seem a bit surprising, because we have become used to dealing with digital objects as if they were real things in space. We “move” them around and place them “inside” folders through the agency of a symbolic UI (user interface) that represents the immaterial digital file as something we can “select” and “open” and “see” or “hear”. All major computer operating systems in use today encourage this illusion. It remains a fact however, that without the right interpreter, a digital file is by itself a meaningless blob of numbers.
With a process called databending we enter a strange realm where the apparent solidity of digital artifacts is revealed as fungible and without inherent perceivable form. Through databending, the meanings of digital artifacts are transmogrified as if by alchemy, shedding their moorings to conventional interpretations, forcing the perceiver to explore variant ways of understanding them. It is a reinterpretation of what the “meaning” of “data” is, and an adisciplinary practice that forces informatics and esthetics to intersect, offering a distinct alternative to conventional attitudes of design.
Databending shouts down the assertion that a set of numbers that constitutes a digital file has a clear meaning by ignoring its received and carefully engineered structure, and scattering its bits across a field that is unstable, unreliable, and unpredictable. The glitch -- the visible or audible result of damaged or missing data -- becomes a moment of esthetic contemplation.
Databending is typically practiced by opening a file in the “wrong” program and studying the results. For example, a databender might open a sound file in an image editor or a photograph in a sound editor. In this way, a photograph may be heard, or a sound file may be transformed into an image. Chaos reigns in these new artifacts; in many cases the computer may even refuse to display them.
Databending leaves us with visual or audible noise, but it can give us with a deeper understanding of how digital representations are structured. With sensitive observation, a databenders can coax out of the chaos new images and sounds that are rich and expressive, and which can be produced in no other way.
Computer code is a set of symbolic instructions. It is text that does work. Unlike text that sits on the page and awaits a reader, code acts in space and time and makes changes to the things of the universe in ways both great and small. Because these codes and data are the key ways for representing culture going forward, we risk abandoning their potential for poetry if we ignore what’s going on inside. And it’s been left to the artist and musician to chip at the edges of this new digital “material” to find new uses for it.
To start exploring databending on your own, try these keywords in your favorite search engine: ‘databending’, ‘glitch’, ‘Rosa Menkman’.
A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 20th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“