- Errant Pixels:The Sight Specificity of Satellite Technologies
The prevailing attitude about technical glitches is that they are meaningless errors. On digital screens, they often take the form of aberrant, out-of-place pixels. Typically, users disregard these minor disturbances, whether dealing with a buffering issue, a temporary service outage, a corrupted or infected media file, or the generally poor resolution of a heavily compressed YouTube video. Sometimes the problem is in the hardware, in which case the user must repair or replace faulty equipment. For the most part, we ignore these minor disturbances, maintaining an ideal of media and communication networks as being clear and free of noise. When digital technologies fail, we assume the problem is an isolated one, and we trust that the system will resolve itself in due course.
Yet the assumption that communications technologies function smoothly is wholly ideological. "The idea that communication should be maximally clear,"1 as Laura Marks maintains, is additionally an aesthetic vision of "intuitively" designed smoothness that helps political entities mask their manipulation of technological communications. To see what is at stake in communications technologies requires working against this idea of transparency, or working with the disruptive capacities of noise and error. The image a user might normally dismiss as corrupt, glitchy, [End Page 677] or just irritatingly slow to load may indicate much about how a telecommunications system is supposed to function, how it breaks down, and how it is structured as a network of satellites, receivers, broadband cable, and computers—or what is commonly referred to as the "cloud." When a pixel lags, leaps ahead, or otherwise appears in a place where it should not, we are provided an important clue to an image's role within a global infrastructure of communications, state surveillance apparatuses, and military operations.
Glitches may not be, in fact, aberrations of these systems, but rather elements crucial to and even constitutive of them. Peter Krapp has observed that technological "noise" can describe much about the system from which it derives.2 Noise, glitches, and minor malfunctions can provide feedback on the operations of communications systems, indicating areas of breakdown or undesired change, so that what is right can be clarified and made precise. In a broader sense, noises and glitches are examples of what Thomas Elsaesser has called "constructive instability," a term that describes the advantages gained when a system operates at or near failure.3 Given the productive uses of constructively unstable elements within a system, error does not always indicate malfunction. Whether dismissed as a kind of machinic hiccup or integrated as a structural feature, errors can be descriptive of the system as a whole. As moments of a kind of technical excess, they mark key junctures in the use and coherence of a medium. Pixels that appear where and when they do not belong, fail to appear where they should, or proliferate where they should not help us to mark the limitations of telecommunications systems—and, thus, their thresholds of intelligibility. I call these errant pixels, or a digital image fully or partially obscured by pixels that occur where they should not, either in excess or absence (which I will explain below). If, following Gregory Bateson, we understand that noise produces opportunities for apprehending new patterns, then the errant pixel becomes, for the trained [End Page 678] viewer, an occasion for better understanding the system it negatively or covertly reveals.4 These glitches engage a variety of errantry: what may appear as an aberration on a computer screen may be the result of a hardware malfunction (a "dead" or "frozen" pixel), a faithful "reading" of a line of corrupted code, or a sign of a signal interruption. Often, errors don't even appear as such, as when computer systems commonly integrate error-correcting codes to adjust for predictable problems in signal relays and data storage.
The artworks I discuss in this essay—Basma Alsharif's video Home Movies Gaza (2013), Mishka Henner's Dutch Landscape series of photographs (2011), and Forensic Architecture's Drone Strikes project (2011-present)—each contain instances of errant pixels. Each work disrupts the commonly held notion, among consumers at least, that there...