Redirecting the Gaze: A Creative Exploration of Glitch in Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Outer Space (1999)
Clara Finch, Goldsmiths, University of London
In this paper, I explore the compositional and creative tool of audiovisual glitch, and its ability to disintegrate and reconfigure narrative. I use Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) as case studies. These two films shed light on remediation and how artists take footage from existing films, working by hand with the material fabric of the film to repurpose its images. In order to question how the audiovisual process of glitch can redirect the gaze and assign new meaning, I combine a mixture of theories: glitch, montage theory, the third meaning, anti-narrative and dissonance. I then apply and test these forms of remediation through my own practice and remediate the two films myself, exploring how the montage of different clips and the dismantling of sound and image can produce new forms of knowledge.
In recent decades, digitisation and the growth of media has seen a resurgence of glitch as a creative tool. Scholars who have been largely influential in the understanding of digitisation and the aesthetics of glitch include Caleb Kelly, Carolyn Kane, and Rosa Menkman, the latter of whom has referred to glitch as an “always growing vocabulary of expression.”1 In close connection with glitch is the concept of failure. Kane notes that there has been a denial of failure; yet, recently, artists have been embracing it to expand new imaginative boundaries.2 Kane states that “we can no longer afford to assume that modern life is always progressing,” and, as a result, artists look back at old technology and practices through glitch.3
According to Steven Jackson, the 21st-century is characterised by “risk and uncertainty, growth and decay, fragmentation, dissolution, and breakdown.”4 In film in particular, glitch has the ability to bring the materiality of film right to the forefront. Glitch also opens new structural possibilities in film, such as montage and collage, going against conventional narrative structures. Another key term is dissonance. Within montage, glitching images put together tear apart the familiar synchronous relationship between image and sound.
To explore this, it will be useful to look at the historical context of glitch. Towards the end of the 20th-century, Frederick Kittler predicted the consequences of the digitisation of media, stating that, “the general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface … any medium can be translated into any other.”5 This highlights the problem that arose with digital interfaces: media was becoming transparent. Caleb Kelly notes that cracked medial approaches draw attention to media and mediation itself.6 Cracked media goes against this rhetoric of transparency. The one-way flow of data is “taken and folded back into themselves, used as machines for transformation into new practices.”7 Yvonne Spielmann recognises this transformation between different artistic practices, and notes that alongside the increase of technical media and avant-garde aesthetics in the 20th-century, the borders between different media were starting to dissolve.8 Such intermedial approaches were opening up possibilities to transgress beyond film’s conventional narrative on screen.
The case studies I have chosen are Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999). In both films, one is put face-to-face with the materiality of film. I have chosen these as they will shed light on remediation and how artists take footage from existing films, working by hand with the material fabric of the film to completely repurpose its images. Through my own practice using montage and collage techniques, I aim to explore the different creative possibilities of glitch. Within montage, there is a wide scope of possibilities for dissonance: sonically and visually. How can the audiovisual process of glitch redirect the gaze and assign new meaning?
Tscherkassky’s Outer Space opens with a woman walking towards a house, which is soon revealed to hold a kind of dangerous spirit that torments her. This is taken from the opening moments of Sidney J. Furie’s film The Entity (1981). In Tscherkassky’s reworking of this footage, the woman tries to fight the spirit before starting to fight the film itself, as the whole world collapses. The editing processes slowly intensify, as the crackling of the cuts and noise of the soundtrack become more intense. The acousmatic sounds of furniture crashing, glass smashing and lights exploding distort the narrative flow. The aporic nature of the sounds – that is, when sounds from beyond the film’s world do not match the image – are intensified as the film strips distort the image too much for the eye to piece together the image and sound.9 The room visually telescopes into itself, as the shots jump and stutter as the perforation holes of the physical film strips slowly tilt into the picture. Tscherkassky creates a new kind of expression, sculpting time and space with the rhythms of malfunction and glitching images.
Interestingly, there is a direct link between the two films I have chosen, as a particular scene in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio pays homage to Outer Space.10 The film follows the protagonist Gilderoy, a foley artist, who is hired to create the sound effects for a horror film. Towards the end of the film, the boundaries between real-life and the film blur so that he no can no longer distinguish what is real. Similar to Outer Space, the structure of this scene is the medium of film collapsing in on itself. The films are non-linear as the audiovisual glitch shocks the viewer out of the complacency of narrative structure and expectation. Mark Fisher talks about “a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience.”11 This is realised from the process of montage, the conjoining of two things that don’t belong together. Like Tscherkassky, Strickland celebrates glitch. Using audiovisual distortion, it drives the nightmare logic of the found footage, redirecting the gaze to a different, darker narrative.
Until recently, glitch has mainly been understood as purely a sonic tool.12 But it is important to consider broken media as an audiovisual form as well as a sonic one. Experimental filmmakers in the 1960s also explored the idea of gap, movement and silence. The genre of flicker films was an example of this. Peter Kubelka’s film Arnulf Rainer (1960) alternates between black and white; noise and silence. Additionally, Michael Snow challenged the view that motion is a necessary condition of cinema. In his film Wavelength (1967), Snow disrupts the narrative of the slow-moving zoom shots from a fixed position with flickering, overexposed hues and the scratching of an eerie electronic hum. He explains that the “basis of cinema as a technology is stasis; the fundamental unit is the still photograph. Motion is made from the perception of fast stills.”13 He creates a glitching flicker effect with overexposed lighting and hues.
This idea that stasis is the fundamental principle of cinema resonates with “the third meaning,” a term coined by Roland Barthes.14 For Barthes, the first meaning is the obvious meaning, and the second is the obtuse meaning. The third meaning emerges from a combination of these. It offers us inside of a fragment, to a place of stasis, and we are taken into the elements included in the image itself. Referring to Sergei Eisenstein, Barthes writes “the centre of gravity is no longer the element between shots … but the element inside the shot.”15 There is an accentuation within the fragment. The centre of gravity Barthes refers to is the invention of the moving picture in cinema. Magically, thousands of images are strung together; the shots roll a certain number of times per second to create the illusion of movement. But when one stops to look at the single shots, the illusion of continuity is broken; the perception is moved to the individual shots. The film becomes fragmented. When glitch is applied, the stills pass the eye, repeating and ‘malfunctioning.’ The gaze is redirected into the singularities, because these small, fleeting moments that would normally pass our perception in real time are brought to our attention in a new light. This is what I set out to explore further in my own remediation sketches. Using the found footage from Outer Space and Berberian Sound Studio, I experimented with remediating the films, playing with montage theory, glitch, anti-narrative and dissonance.
My first sketch is an experiment with counterpoint and found footage remediation. I was interested in exploring the displacement of sound and visuals to redirect the gaze to a different, sinister narrative. I experimented with breaking up and looping the sound of the films, layering it, and cutting it to create counterpoint between the sound and visuals. This created both synchronisation and displacement. I used the sound of the woman speaking in Outer Space, matching it with the image of her head, while also creating ambiguity by placing snippets of Gilderoy from Berberian Sound Studio. I filmed the footage on my phone, zooming into small singular parts of the image (such as Gilderoy’s nose and stuttering doors), while clicking on my laptop through the different frames. I kept the sound of this clicking to create hypermediacy: a visual style that “‘privileges fragmentation, indeterminacy’ and ‘emphasises process or performance rather than the finished art object.”16
My second sketch is an investigation of juxtaposed narrative with a cut-up soundscape. My aim was to create a montage of two completely different clips. In comparison to my first sketch, I used a slightly less abstract approach. Using longer splices of film, a clearer narrative structure emerges. It feels as if the woman and Gilderoy are within the same story and cinematic space. There is a complicated relationship between the two characters and could be interpreted that Gilderoy is stalking the woman. Remediation has enabled me to create this new plot. I used sounds such as glass smashing and film strips whirring. While editing and distorting the sound, I intentionally kept in the clipping, which is an example of glitch, and foregrounds mediality.
My third sketch explores Eisenstein’s idea of a disrupted centre of gravity in the rolling of shots as a way of creating an anti-narrative, and how this could be combined with the temporal art form of music. I took a section of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” that Strickland uses in Gilderoy’s nightmare sequence on top of the idyllic Surrey countryside. It is heard in its natural form at first, before I start to blur it as I slowly layer on the voice commentary. When editing the voice, I glitch between different effects to create the sense of moving between different room spaces and ambiences. The text becomes more and more fragmented as I focus on the singularities of the voice. At 01:20 I layer this on top of the music of the ringing church bells (also taken from the idyllic countryside scene). I found this moment interesting, as I found a way to merge something fragmented, like the broken voice, with something continuous, like the ringing bells. Compared to my first two sketches, this one seems to have more profound implications due to the combination of fragmentation and fusion; there is an ominous feeling as the stuttering voices and glitching visuals roll across the screen as the temporal medium of music continues. The sound of the voice is abstract, and it is hard to understand what is being said. However, there is still a strong emotional resonance as the fragmentation merges into something broader; the glitching shifts the gaze towards an image with deeper meaning beyond the screen.
In my fourth sketch, I explored live glitch VJing, split screen and intertextual glitch. As I started to play around with the idea of an online gallery and merging different videos together within the same space, I noticed how my different clips could intertwine and enhance each other. I recorded my screen while I navigated through the different images of my first three sketches, manually glitching through them simultaneously. I also glitched the sketch itself (see Figure 5) to create a further layer. As a result, the interface is brought to the forefront, and one becomes hyper aware of the process and digital medium. Jay David Bolter describes the double logic of remediation: “our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them.”17 I took what Kelly calls a cracked medial approach and went against the rhetoric of transparency.18
In my fifth sketch I experimented with film stills, using a cellular expansion approach, and moving away from the conventional sense of film altogether. Inspired by Barthes’ ideas on the segmentation of meanings, I took eight different stills from Outer Space and accompanied each still with a different sonic glitching idea. We are offered inside of a fragment, and we are taken into the elements included in the image itself; there is a focus on the shapes, shading, shadows, expressions and movement within the black and white shots. It brings the singularities to life. It also links to Fisher’s notes on “a fascination for the outside.”19 Fisher names two modes of the eerie: the first mode is the failure of absence, and the second mode is the failure of presence.20 In my film stills, the presence of moving shots is absent, and yet it offers us deeper into the emotions and textures. Furthermore, Michel Chion notes that a mute image with no visible movement appears still, like a snapshot, yet the same image accompanied by sound seems to become animated and move through time: “sound temporalizes images.”21 It conjures up the different textures in an image, tapping into the emotions and senses that it relates to. For example, during the first image in this sketch (0:00 – 0:26), the distorted whirring of film and fragmented speech brings to life the woman’s distress and suggests a sense of movement in the light superimposed over her face.
Finally, for my sixth sketch I wanted to further investigate the relationship between continuity and fragmentation that I previously explored in my third sketch. First using Strickland’s slow panning footage of Surrey’s countryside, I start to interject the video with short, fragmented glitches that disrupt the narrative. The glitching images disrupt something purely natural, highlighting the tension between the real and imaginary. My sonic collage includes pitch shifting, loops and abrupt juxtapositions between passages. The malfunctions are unpredictable, and glitch brings the viewer into the unknown; there is a loss of continuity. Rosa Menkman describes glitch as “a momental thing, a point in time.”22 I decided to have a somewhat sudden ending to reflect this fleeting and momental nature of glitch. Ágnes Pethő argues that intermediality in cinema takes the form of an intermedial mise en abyme in which we see not just an “inscription” of one medium into another, but a more complex “trans-figuration” taking place into the other, acting as a figure of “in-betweenness.”23 A number of glitching images move through a “structural gateway” into intermediality.24 As the singular stills are broken down into a fragmented montage, the cinematic world is broken down, blurring the boundaries between the artificial and real. My interjections in this sketch redirect the viewer’s gaze to an alternate reality, one that is destructive and dangerous.
I chose to present my sketches and images in an online gallery setting to reflect the fragmentation that I had researched and put into practice. As viewers first enter the gallery, they will find my first, second, third, fourth and sixth sketches. I also include my images in this space. In my first two images (see Figure 7), I incorporate my own exegesis text. I broke up the text and put it back together in a collage. I took photographs of my laptop from my phone which created interference from the screens and formed interesting lines and textures, reflecting the digital nature of my project and the exploration of the medium of film and camera.25 I chose to place my fifth sketch in the further room, separated from the rest to emphasise Barthes’ idea of singularities.
To conclude, audiovisual glitch is a complex compositional tool; it is a vehicle to disintegrate and reconfigure narrative. Through my creative practice, I have found that our audiovisual gaze (or our whole perception) can be altered with glitch through the remediation of footage, creating different narrative meanings and structures. This was achieved while embracing the expressive act of failure: cutting up, distorting, morphing, and clipping the films. The audiovisual process of glitch can redirect the gaze through ruptured synchronicity, audiovisual dissonance, visual juxtapositions and the cutting up of stills. The dissonance between continuity and discontinuity, and sound and image is a very expressive tool within the aesthetics of glitch. Our attention can be split, and our gaze can be redirected to the singularities in the minute details in an image. If I were to expand this project, I would consider displaying my work in a physical space. While I have mainly focused on digital remediation, this would enable me to also look at the relationship between space and body when glitch redirects our gaze.
Barthes, Roland. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press, 1977.
Bellour, Raymond, and Allyn Hardyck. “Layers of Images.” Critical Inquiry 43/3 (2017): 617–649.
Beugnet, Martine. Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Brooks, Andy. “Glitch/Failure: Constructing a Queer Politics of Listening.” Leonardo Music Journal 25 (2015): 37–40.
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Deleuze, Gilles and Claire Parnet. Dialogues II. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, and Eliot Ross. New York: Continuum, 2006.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, edited and translated by Jay Leyda. New York: HBJ, 1949.
Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books, 2016.
Jackson, Rebecca. “The Glitch Aesthetic.” MA diss., Georgia State University, 2011.
Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014.
Kane, Carolyn. High-Tech Trash: Glitch, Noise, and Aesthetic Failure. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.
Kelly, Caleb. Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.
Kittler, Frederick. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter: Writing Science. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Pethő, Ágnes. Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for in In-Between. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.
Remes, Justin. “Sculpting Time: An Interview with Michael Snow.” Millenium Film Journal (2012): 16–21.
Rogers, Holly. “Sonic Elongation and Sonic Aporia: Two Modes of Disrupted Listening in Film.” In The Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening, edited by Carlo Cenciarelli, 427–449. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.
Rogers, Holly. “The Audiovisual Eerie: Transmediating Thresholds in the Work of David Lynch.” In Transmedia Directors: Artistry, Industry and the New Audiovisual Aesthetics, edited by Carol Vernallis, Holly Rogers and Lisa Perrott, 241–270. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.
Spielmann, Yvonne. “Conceptual Synchronicity: Intermedial Encounters Between Film, Video and Computer.” Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image, 2/1 (2015): 7–20.
Strickland, Peter. “How Peter Strickland Discovered Peter Tscherkassky.” MUBI, June 11, 2016. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/how-peter-strickland-discovered-peter-tscherkassky.
Strickland, Peter. “Peter Strickland Presents: Influences and Inspirations.” Melbourne International Film Festival, July 10, 2019. https://miff.com.au/blog/view/4331/peter-strickland-presents-influences-and-inspirations.
Arnulf Rainer. Directed by Peter Kubelka. Film. Austria: 1956.
Berberian Sound Studio. Directed by Peter Strickland. Film. London: Film4 Production, 2012.
Outer Space. Directed by Peter Tscherkassky. Film. Austria: P.O.E.T. Pictures, 1999.
The Digital Manifesto Archive. “Interview with Rosa Menkman – Glitch Studies Manifesto.” YouTube video, 21:29. January 4, 2015. Accessed December 1, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeJYwBxw73U.
The Entity. Directed by Sidney J. Furie. California: American Cinema International, 1982.
Wavelength. Directed by Michael Snow. Film. 1967.
Clara Finch first completed her BA in Music in 2021 at Cardiff University, focusing on composition, performance (violin) and film sound studies. In 2022, she received her MA from Goldsmiths University in Music – Audiovisual Cultures, completing it with a dissertation titled Immersion, Localization and Hapticity: How Sound Engages the Senses in Film. Her other works have explored the use of classical music, electronic music and natural soundscapes in film and multimedia works. She enjoys making films and collaborating with artists as a videographer.