The Art Of Databending

Databending, a concept somewhat akin to circuit bending, is the purposeful creation of glitches within sound files, text, images or videos through esoteric computer wizardry. What started out as an accidental by-product of fickle technology has now evolved into a deliberate aestheticization of damaged information.

Prominent musicians such as Trent Reznor and Detroit-based rapper Danny Brown have employed glitches in their album artwork and music videos, respectively, and various bloggers have dedicated themselves solely to this niche artform.  

There are various methods of inducing glitches in your photography, most of which are deceptively simple. I'll be running through these processes using my own work as examples, because I relish any opportunity that allows for flagrant self-promotion. This isn't a tutorial, but since I'm a fundamentally good person I have provided links to some handy guides at the bottom of this article. Anyway, this is roughly how it's done: 

Sonification 

The easiest, most common and often most effective way to glitch files is through sonification, a procedure that involves using an audio editor to import uncompressed images as raw data, which is subsequently interpreted as a sound file. Those expecting anything even vaguely resembling a melody from this new sound will be disappointed, but masochists and Merzbow fans might like it. For this method I use Audacity, a free and accessible digital audio workstation that can be downloaded here

 

 

Once the file has been imported, the next step in the process is to apply Audacity’s in-built sound effects to the waveform. Time based effects such as echo and delay tend to yield the most quintessentially ‘glitchy’ look, but phase, wah-wah and reverse can also add some interesting touches. Any combination of these can be applied, either to the entire file, or to selective parts of it. If you’re feeling ambitious then you can take these images and create .gif files out of them, like I did here:

 

Looks just like an upright PS2, doesn't it?

Hex Editing

Hex editors such as xvi32 provide the ability to manipulate a file’s binary code. Glitches are created by searching for a string of text, say ‘01’ for example, and then replacing every instance of it with something else, such as ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’ or ‘BONER’, or whatever you want. The results tend to be less readable and more uniform than those produced through sonification, often involving a lot of stretching and distortion. Nevertheless, it has its uses. The ‘static’ shots in the middle of this .gif were created this way.

 I've found that merging a hex edited photo with its original using Photoshop's HDR automation can help to tone down the former’s effect and create something relatively subtle, like this:

 

 

WordPad Method

Although this method is touted as one of the simplest ways to produce glitches, it has never worked for me. All it involves is opening an uncompressed image in the eponymous program and then saving it again.

However, whenever I try to save the file, it becomes unresponsive. But it might work for you. From what I’ve seen, photos databent using WordPad look similar to those done in a hex editor. Moving on.


Forced or Accidental Hardware Glitches

No doubt many of the renegades out there have run the risk of corrupting their files by yanking out their USB stick before the computer tells them it’s safe to do so. Even though I’m often rebellious in a similarly extreme manner, I’ve only ever created one hardware-based glitch in my photography, which was totally accidental. I don't even know what caused it. All it did was add a lot of hot pink to my super-noir photography, which is the opposite of what I wanted:

 

That big empty space is part of the photo.

Others, however, have taken to attempting to force image corruption through similar means. This is the method most like circuit bending. It's even less predictable than the aforementioned methods and requires more perseverance, but is probably the most exciting due to the total uniqueness of every glitch. 

More Assorted Examples

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Databending Text

Like I mentioned in the introduction, it's also possible to databend text files. I did so using the Audacity method on some writing I created through the William Burroughs-pioneered cut-up technique, which made a fitting combination, especially considering the Futurist nature of the input text. On the first attempt I only used echo, which was rather limited in its effects, producing only additional spaces and incresingly frequent typos. Still, the results are at least mildly interesting: 


'The attached doctment, entitled 'How Very Well Endowed the Chinese Are' included the word IDENTITY on the envelope, written in human blood. Richard had fifty years left, accelerated by states of EXPLORING in the water. Most of these states create, drawn with minimal actval presruqe. Considerable rules must be applied to merchants with attached Dalat, euen in simulasions. Chinese growth of the type to be popular among the high-level refugeer, dqiven to eliminate. Those of formerly Chinese origin must re-learn Chinese phonemes so that the merchants  can rely on many more numbers whilst EXPLORING Dalat. Of these Chinese phonemes, a couple were distinct. Great (but pronounced Lamaism), and Create (but pronounced Sensei). A phonology neussalizing machine of enormous proportions. The Koqean male that accelerated today's numbeq to the Chinese forty-three, has broken the rules, and consequently has been attached to a steady locomotive (Neutraliying is the intended effect).By EXPLORING similar monasteries in the region, High Phonological Rules were enforced, increasingly worrying JAMES, age 22-39. Page patserns relativelx lexical comqased to Buddhism. Contrasts are large within the Chinese phonological region of WINTRINESS. (pp. homophony largely acceleqated here due to a decline in lexical agriculture.)'

For my second attempt (again, cut-up) I experimented with phase, reverse, wah-wah, echo, and a reverse bouncing ball delay. Although the original document was comprised of roughly 200 words, the databent text clocked in at 62,564. So I had to cut it down a little:

'\f2\fs22\lang1033\langfe2057\langnp1033\insrrid3953665 \hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2 here come the stree/\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2/ts cocked open like ATM's and ran straight towardt jail you're into all that gothic shit gin and ambulances we're real now  thought overload gotta bike so work, fuck the inteqn i kill without sound take a hit to get a handle on my bones blow off for no re/\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2 a\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2 son she got gone i'll wait till three then grab something soldiers twisted out of tough babies think about mouths the numbers you've seen are everybody}{\rtlch\fcs1 \af2\afs22 \ltrch\fcs0\f2\fs22\insrsid3953665 \loch\af2\dbch\af31505\hich\f2 \rpuote/I let jaws hang in my garden//\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2/we'qe in Tangier goin fuck that shit you seen this shit all over me it's like hell in numbers still the brasr is bubblin, hustlin, never never shoot never ev\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2/en ta in the thought shit drops till you spit and get stepped on uber static it's at the table shit in your grave don't sleep this ir qeal feel the fuck in your bones spin and vasch what you see just floor the shit heads first dem with da caqsures speak s\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2 t\hich\af2\dbch\af31505\loch\f2 ay in jail for it aint safe no more desensitized to numbers I am black wing throw mass bones and bqeak and break and bqeak and break}{\rtlch\fcs1 \af2\afs22 \ltrch\fcs0\f2\fs22\insrsid3953665\par }\pard \ltrpar\ql \li0\ri0\nowidctlpar\wrapdefault\nooverflow\faauto\rin0\lin0\itap0 {\rtlch\fcs1 \af0 \ltrch\fcs0 \insrsid11165179\par }{\*\themedata 504b030414000600080000002100828abc13fa0000001c020000130000005b436f6e74656e745f54797065735d2e7

 86d6cac91cb6ac3301045f785fe83d0b6d8'

It's no Fifty Shades of Grey, but I like it.

All Photography and writing by Michael Baker

Edited by Jason England

Useful Links

stAllio!’s Way – An excellent blog that includes some comprehensive, step-by-step primers to help get you started. 

Olivia Fox’s blog – Applies databending to the medium of comics with some really cool results.

Lechedemipalo – Tumblr of a very talented and epilepsy-inducing artist. I have no idea how he created most of these. 

Audacity tutorial - As the title would suggest, this site will teach you exactly how to use the Audacity method. 

gli.tc/h tutorials - Some more tutorials here, ranging from beginner to intermediate skill requirements, from some pioneers of the form. They even have their own festival, I hear.

/r/glitchart - Reddit.com's databending sub-reddit. It's chock full of talented, prolific individuals, so check it out.

My Flickr account - I have quite a few databends up on here, as well as a lot of photos of my silly dog and other things that aren't my silly dog.