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By Kris Kerzman, Variety contributor, Published June 30 2013

Art of a glitch: NDSU student explores the inner life of our machines

FARGO - You’re streaming Netflix – say, the new “Arrested Development” season – and all of a sudden, George Michael becomes overly pixelated and green. The sound becomes tinny for a moment and the image bleeds into a scene with Lindsay and Tobias, who are also distorted and pixelated.

Where many of us would groan, reset our routers, or restart our browsers, “glitch” artists like Steven Hammer see a possibility.

Glitch art recreates those pixelated moments and unintended sounds by exploiting digital media and their tools. This deconstructs their purpose and value and, as Hammer puts it, gives us a peek into the world our electronic devices inhabit, one of preprogrammed purpose, commercial intent and slick environments that brims with these sights and sounds.

“Glitch is this activity, tinkering with things, asking them to do things they’re not meant to do,” he said.

Hammer is exploring glitch (and a related field, “dirty new media”) as an art form while pursuing a doctorate in North Dakota State University’s English department. He acknowledges how far afield his work is in comparison to common preconceptions of English.

“I get a lot of freedom to do things beyond reading and writing, and I get to do a lot of making as well,” he said.

He demonstrates by sticking small induction coil pickup microphones, typically used to “bug” conversations over a land-line telephone, on his MacBook Pro. He then places the microphones between his fingers and circles them over different areas near the keyboard or onboard camera. Each area of each device produces a different set of sounds.

Load screens and screen navigation on his iPad release a volley of chirps, blips and noisy static. He points out how the device works while he waits. After the app loads, the device waits and quiets down.

The result, he admits, is not necessarily beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, but it is a telling exercise.

“I think what this work is trying to do is to ask people to more closely examine the technological environments they find themselves in,” Hammer said, adding that many fundamental human activities rely on specific technological capabilities, including our relationships with each other, our capacity to communicate and the ways in which we learn.

The fascination with electronics is second-nature to Hammer, who has a lengthy background mucking about with technological systems. He has played in a number of noise-rock combos and done some circuit bending, taking apart old electronic toys and making musical instruments from them.

“When I was a kid I got one of those electronics kits that’s supposed to teach you circuitry. I didn’t learn a thing, but I did learn how to make noises,” he said with a laugh.

Kevin Brooks, who leads the NDSU English department, is overseeing Hammer’s doctorate work. Brooks is interested in how Hammer expands the idea of rhetoric to include new media in addition to the written word.

He sums up Hammer’s contributions as “good for our field.”

“As an artist, he’s working in a tradition of abstract and experimental art,” Brooks said. “Academically, he’s getting people to really think about the tools of writing and broadening our definition of what is considered writing and communication. It also has some performance aspects. At a conference recently, he basically DJ’d his presentation.”

It’s becoming a solid career for Hammer, who has given presentations at several glitch festivals and conferences and was recently awarded a fellowship to continue his research at NDSU for another year as he concludes work on his doctorate.

Throughout, he’ll continue misusing the gadgets and gizmos we now consider commonplace, discovering the hidden lives they lead underneath their shiny exteriors.

“What Glitch is trying to do is to get people to go, ‘There’s this whole layer that’s invisible to me, and if I can look beyond that, I can be more thoughtful in the choices I make as a consumer and as a maker,’ ” he said.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.