DHC Weekly 1/11/19: Glitch and the Grotesque at the MLA

Hello and Happy New Year from the DHC! I (DHC Post-Bac Sylvia Korman) am recently returned to campus from the MLA’s 2019 conference and excited to share with you over the next couple weeks some tools and reflections picked up over the course of an unseasonably warm winter weekend in the Windy City.

This week, I want to consider what it means to apply digital humanities methods to the study of texts or concepts from way before digital technologies existed. At MLA, Professor Gina Bloom of UC Davis gave a paper at a session all about applying digital concepts such as “glitch” and “noise” to Shakespeare that took up performance as the interface between digital methodology and pre-digital texts. She discussed two examples of recent Shakespeare projects that involve motion-capture technology.

The first was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 partnering with Intel for an expensive, high-tech, 400th anniversary production of (what else) The Tempest, in which the actor playing Ariel was transformed via mo-cap into a digital double act, shared between the actor, Mark Quartley, and a projected avatar. The process was fraught with glitch anxiety – the production seemed to be dependent on absolute mastery of the technology creating the digital Ariel. One glitch, and the RSC Tempest could suffer the same public embarrassment as the ignoble Met Opera Ring Cycle, in which Robert LePage’s feared and loathed set, called the “machine”, would stick, freeze and, on one memorable occasion, project the Windows logo onstage instead of Valhalla. The RSC crew also nicknamed their tech, calling the array of computers that allowed for the real-time manipulation of the Ariel avatar the “beast.”

Mark Quartley as Ariel

The RSC approach is definitely technological, but it fails to engage the potential of digital methods to challenge our cultural assumptions. If the technology is the beast, Bloom argued, the production’s theater-makers become tamers, reproducing the problematic dynamics of The Tempest itself – alienated and othered, the technological body of the mo-cap avatar is more Caliban than Ariel, an abject beast to be mastered by the pinnacles of human art, as wielded by the Prospero figure of director Greg Doran.

On the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Bloom’s augmented reality Shakespeare-performance game Play the Knave. Players choose a scene from Shakespeare, and then select sound design, a recreation of a historical or contemporary theater to perform in, and an avatar to represent them on that stage. Then, as they act out the scene, a Kinect, a webcam-style motion capture add-on for the Xbox console, records and maps onto their avatars the gestures they perform.

As you can no doubt see from the video, Play the Knave is glitchy – avatar’s limbs twitch and shudder, phasing jerkily through their own bodies, the floor, their scene-partners. But these glitchy avatars are far from the failure implied by the RSC’s attitude. Rather, the relentless glitchiness of the Kinect gameplay brings the gesturing body of the player and the glitching body of the avatar into productive apposition. Here, we, too, are glitchy; the player does not have the RSC’s option of disavowing the avatar as beast, but must identify it as somehow fundamentally their own body. As we modify our own movements to achieve a smoother animation, we step further away from the typically valued world of naturalistic gesture and closer to a collaborative blending of player and avatar.

Professor Bloom’s idea, that we should embrace the glitch, that a glitchy body in virtual space offers us something vital in its relationship to our own bodies, resonated with me. In fact, it resonated with me in that most specific and ineffable of ways: it made me laugh. To illustrate Play the Knave’sidiosyncratic gameplay, Bloom played a video not unlike the one embedded above, and, reader, it was funny. The way the avatars’ limbs would disappear and reappear, getting caught in little loops of bizarre, unintentional-looking movement, had the whole room of jet-lagged academics giggling into their legal pads. Why do glitching bodies make us laugh? I’ve been mulling it over it all week, and I think I’m ready to answer that question. But first, I want to establish that video game glitches do (and always have) make us laugh. I want to talk about some memes.

As the venn diagram of “people interested in viral online content” and “people interested in video games” has always been more or less a circle, many memes are born from replicating, warping, or imitating popular video games. The latest example of this is how currently extremely-online-teens are recreating the character dances from the hugely popular Fortnite (dances that are themselves largely stolen from predominantly Black culture-creators), but in 2010 we were all about geddan. Geddan was a meme created by users on the Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga from footage from the Nintendo 64 James Bond game Goldeneye, which, when the game cartridge was inserted slightly askew, had a glitch that turned the characters’ bodies into Hieronymous Bosch-meets-Katamari Damacy maelstroms of twitching, flailing limbs. Then, another user added the song “Promise”, by Kohmi Hirose to footage of the glitch.

To Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SP5c_MEs9mo&feature=youtu.be

Unfortunately, the best compilation of the resulting meme, a four-way split-screen masterpiece, has been taken offline following a copyright claim from Victor Entertainment, the corporation holding the rights to “Promise.” There are still, however, some videos floating around on youtube that escaped the same fate, as well as a Know Your Meme primer. Basically, people would take a bunch of pictures of themselves in crazy poses, and then stop-motion animate them together to get a “live action” imitation of the Goldeneye glitch, set, of course, to Hirose’s high energy J-pop banger.

The result is glitch-as-choreography – a dance craze only joinable with video editing software and a lot of dedication. That dedication is not to be undersold – making a geddan video took effort, both the physical effort of jumping around to get a wide enough range of images and the time effort of editing all those images together. Nevertheless, hundreds of people put the effort in, in pursuit of making a “normal” human body do the crazy things a virtual body can do when it glitches. Play the Knave closes the loop of player imitating glitch. With mo-cap, the player’s body directly generates the avatar; the glitching avatar is the player’s own body. The popularity of geddan reinforces Bloom’s own sense that Play the Knave’s glitches, and the unavoidable identification between avatar and player they imply, are not bugs but features, realizing a deep and irresistible human affinity – and desire – for glitch. Fundamentally, when we see a digital body really going wacko, we don’t want to master it, smooth out its imperfections and misfires, like the RSC would have us believe, but, rather, laugh at it and then, hopefully, become it.

I keep returning to our laughter when confronted with our own affinity for glitch, because I think it points to a useful framework through which to think about glitching bodies, Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnivalesque and the grotesque. Describing the folk humor of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Bakhtin compares the destabilizing, anarchic ritual of the carnival, which “built a second world and a second life outside officialdom” (Bakhtin, 6) and the official feasts, “whether ecclesiastic, feudal, or sponsored by the state [which]…sanctioned the existing pattern of things and reinforced it” (Bakhtin, 9). This is more or less the difference between Play the Knave’s motion capture and the RSC/Intel collaboration’s: the former takes the high-culture property of Shakespeare’s plays and brings them into the sphere of the unofficial, where Hamlet can be recited by a tiny, twitching alien avatar while young people point and laugh at it; the latter in its flawlessness allows for no slippage of identification between the physical and the digital and in its narratives of human mastery only reinforces antique notions of canonicity and power.

It is worth noting that the Royal Shakespeare threw all of their officially sanctioned cultural power at their mo-cap project – their money, their access to collaborations with high-profile corporate entities, their status as the Shakespeare company best suited to a lavish 400th anniversary celebration. And yet, the success of the project still seemed to rest on the Ariel avatar’s perfection. This speaks to the power of what Bakhtin calls the grotesque body, the body that is “not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits” (Bakhtin, 26). The grotesque body, often at the heart of the carnival festivities, consumed and excreted, it was exaggerated, expressive, twisted and deformed – very like, in other words, the bodies created in a video game glitch.

The undeniable zenith of glitch-grotesquery is the GMod video, one of the most crass, crude, and anarchic versions of video-game-glitch-as-viral-humor, which became popular around the same time as geddan. Garry’s Mod, or GMod, was a sandbox style “game” (it has no gameplay, rules, or goals) through which players could access and manipulate characters, objects, and textures from any of the games made by Valve, including the then culturally dominant titles of Portal, Half Life 2, and Team Fortress 2. People used GMod primarily for making odd little slices of video game surrealism, making characters, usually from TF2, flail their constantly glitching limbs about, spouting gibberish from distinctively warped faces, created essentially by telling the game’s physics engine not to bother keeping facial expressions normalized to a face’s usual scope of physical motion. (Warning for some cartoonish body horror on this next video – nothing gory, just a little warped!)

The GMod videos, while they might seem unwatchably inane and noisy now, were pretty wildly popular in their time; the embedded video, “Heavy and Scout think they are birds” has 2,652,589 views on youtube. Unsurprisingly, considering the demographics making and consuming them, GMod videos also usually involved cartoonish violence and crude sexual humor — the humor of the grotesque. The contorted faces created in the GMod videos are strikingly similar to those of architectural grotesques:

As Bakhtin describes, the focus here is on “those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world” (Bakhtin, 26): the open mouth, the protruding nose, the genitals. The warped profanities of the GMod avatars, like the masked reveler, the circus freak, or the clown, celebrate all that is culturally debased about the body by offering our own bodily excesses, functions, and excretions back to us, exaggerated and to be laughed at.

As the tides of online humor have turned from lol-so-random inanity to something a little cooler and more deadpan, the madcap grotesquery of the GMod video has fallen out of favor. But people still love glitches, and the spirit of the online-carnivalesque lives on in in the popularity of the notoriously glitch-heavy games of studio Bethesda (just search “Bethesda glitch” on youtube and you will find hours of gamers celebrating these games not despite but for their recurring glitches) and in series like Monster Factory, in which brothers Justin and Griffin McElroy use the character-creation screens of video games to make and play as hyper-exaggerated “monster” characters.

A pretty typical Monster Factory creation.

The appeal of Monster Factory is precisely that of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque – like the Feast of Fools, in which the social hierarchies of medieval Europe were mocked in their reproduction, inverted, with the lowest of the social order standing in for the highest, Monster Factory draws its humor from the co-opting of structure to produce anarchy. The character-creation sequences of the games, part of the ordered form in which the game is meant to be played, become fairgrounds in which the game is made to look ridiculous as it must cope with wildly exaggerated, carnivalesque bodies. And still, in the series’ significant online following, the same affinity of the geddan memers for the glitchy avatars persists. Fans cosplay as Monster Factory creations, using costumes and makeup to, again, make their own bodies match the grotesque bodies created in the games.

The humor of the grotesque and the anarchy of the carnival, Bakhtin argues, was increasingly suppressed in the modern era, forced out by aesthetics of beauty and ideas of taste. But I think it might potentially be back, if only virtually, in the world of video game glitch humor. If this is the case, then Dr. Bloom’s Play the Knave project may well be successful on a level beyond that of bringing the player into identification with the digital; the game also brings the player into identification with the Renaissance, a period in which the humor of the carnivalesque was much more present and accessible than it is today. Our laughter, when confronted with a glitchy body, may well have more in common with the laughter at Shakespeare’s fools than we know. And this too is a sort of carnivalesque construction: after all, the carnival collapses difference – between peasant and king, performer and spectator, then and now.

That’s all for this week! Next week I will be reflecting on the MLA some more, by exploring some cool new tools JSTOR has in beta that the folks at their booth were kind enough to introduce me to! In the meantime, the Barnard Digital Humanities Center twitter is up and running! Pop on over there and let me know what your personal favorite piece of glitch humor or art is!

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