The technique of compression hacking made what is commonly credited as its first appearance with Takeshi Murata’s 2005 short film, ‘Monster Movie’. Other artistic examples soon followed: Sven Koënig’s ‘Download Finished!’ and David O’Reilly’s ‘Compression Reels’ were joined by the net 2.0 dirty aesthetics of cyberpunk art collectivePaperRad. Bubbling up from the underground networks, bizzaro outposts, and niche digital art groups of the noughties internet, compression hacking steadily found a larger audience. Three years later, compression hacking was incorporated into commercial music videos for both Kanye West and electro-pop group Chairlift. Directed by Ray Tintori, Chairlift’s music video for ‘Evident Utensil’ relied on compression hacking to create a dominant aesthetic of compression artefacts marked by their phantasmagorical array of mutating, warped colours and established an affect of digital psychedelia that upended the formal conventions of cinematic space and temporal order. Kanye West’s ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’ accomplished a more fastidiously controlled, choreographed style of compression hacking that combined chromakey and green screen techniques to unsettle the grammars of traditional spectatorship. Starring West and featured singer Kid Cudi, this video depicted them ‘melting’ into each other through a series of pixel bleeds, alternating recognisable fragments of each rapper’s face with sequences of digital artefacting that ruptured the representational image and converted it into a chaotic stream of coloured pixels.
In this short essay, I want to think about how compression hacking operates at the technological and aesthetic levels and to consider what this technique exposes about the computational logics that underlie the production of digital images. By understanding how compression artefacts work, we can explore how an emergent teleology of error and discourses of ‘machinic intentionality’ frame this phenomenon in terms of a dialectic of bad accident and good aesthetic. Furthermore, by troubling the category of accident, compression hacking can throw into relief how conversations in machine learning frequently blur the line between technical malfunction and human error—often to displace blame onto technical objects.
Defining some terms
The law of information processing upholds that the ‘fewer states one needs to process a message, the faster and more efficient the system is’. The logic of data optimisation is, therefore, native to digital media. As Lev Manovich notes, it can be traced back through various practices in science including ‘nineteenth-century physics, biology, linguistics, statistics, economics and psychology, fields that have all attempted to represent the world or some aspect of it in the simplest possible terms, whether in elements, atoms, parts of the mind, or the Weber-Fechner law of just noticeable difference’.
Data compression follows this law by simplifying how data is stored. The purpose of data compression is typically to optimise storage space or increase data transmission rates. By measuring the visual information of a moving image from frame to frame, compression algorithms exploit the durational differences in a moving image by recording only the measurable changes in the image data. As a result, only areas of a moving image which describe differential motion or changing luminance values are captured by the compression algorithms. According to this principle, images with fewer substantial changes from frame to frame are easier to encode.
Compression hacking uses compression algorithms to make art—it is like a technologically literate paint-by-numbers. Hacking implies an element of human intervention, the labour of the (perhaps crudely) digitally handmade. By exploiting the encoding and decoding processes of compression and decompression, contemporary artists like Rosa Menkman and Takeshi Murata produce compression artefacts which foreground the eerie materiality of digital objects.
Compression artefacts are product of lossy compression. whereby some of the information about an image is lost—or more accurately, discarded. Lossy compression can occur for a variety of reasons, but it is not bad—in fact, in instances of low bandwidth or limited storage space, lossy compression is desirable. When a compressed file is run through a decoder, the image it produces it appears as a distortion of the original. The lossy image is frequently thought of as a downgraded copy, one that prioritises easy storage and retrieval rather than visual fidelity or clarity. By extension, compression artefacts are often understood as evidence of technical degradation. Aberrations in the image. A glitch.
Genealogies of glitch
Compression hacking can be situated in a genealogy of glitch art, but it also fits into a longer historical practice of theorising the accident-in-the-machine. The spectre of error—alien ‘glitches’ in a system—haunts this long era of the technological, invading everything from the industrial advances in steam locomotion to computer science to drone warfare. Cultural theorists like Janne Vanhanen, Benjamin Schutlz-Figueora, and Steve Goodman cast glitches as Benjaminian ‘punctum,’ albeit one updated for art produced under digital conditions. For them, glitches are scars ‘on the pristine surface of science fiction capital’s vision of technological progress’. Like Wintermute in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, glitches are conceptualised as ghostly forces, malfunctions in the normal operating capacity of systems which seemingly emerge ‘out of nothing and from nowhere,’giving viewers ‘a fleeting glimpse of an alien intelligence at work’. This theory of glitch traces its roots to anxieties that attenuated the industrial and technological shifts demarcating the late Victorian from the Early modern period, populated by stories of Frankensteinian technologies and ‘ghosts in the machine’ that depicted the ‘threat to the humans subject posed by an autonomous, uncontrollable technology’.
Before ‘glitches’ came to be known as such, the ubiquity of the unnamed accident was a frequent source of terror for people of the industrial age, who struggled to come to grips with the provenance and cause of the technological accident. Many industrial technologies did not have monitoring systems, failsafe options, or the emergency stops. As such, industrial machines were constantly threatening to malfunction—the factory explosion was not only an ambient threat, but one of the few ways that workers were given a glimpse of the internal logic of the machine. By violently exploding, industrial machines dramatically exposed their interlocking mechanisms—we might say that the machinic accident demonstrated a machinic logic. The accident was a perverse autopsy, dissecting the machine for further study—we need only be reminded of ‘exploded-view-diagrams’ today to consider how the accident testifies not only to the structure and teleology of a machine, but also how ‘every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’
These mishaps in machinic function also influenced Freud, whose logic of the uncanny hearkened back to a stage of historical development that was unsettled by the animation and activation of machines and automata, transformations that ‘repressed’ animistic thinking and gave birth to a technological unconscious. The concern over the diffuse power captured by machine cognition –or machine feeling—persists today. As visual cultural theorist Carolyn L Kane writes: ‘computers and algorithmic systems are progressively given authority over human action and experience…yet we have a dwindling capacity to recognize [sic] this’. Viewed from afar, she hypothesises ‘the entire history of modern art could be construed as a glitch and compression of Enlightenment epistemology’. In this paradigm, any divergence from the ‘clarity and precision of classic optics or Renaissance-based perspectival representation’ functions as a type of glitch, upending the register of representation and its conjoined twin, rationality.
Within this framework, it is not surprising to see compression hacking theorised as a practice which brings to the surface of the image the operational failures of digital systems. But compression hacking is more than a mere recuperation of failure as an aesthetic. To call compression artefacts an aesthetic of accident is to both deny the artistic labour which produces compression hacked images and to impose a moral calculus on the computational logics of compression. Scholars like Casey Boyle advocate for a responsible art theoretical approach to glitch that embraces it as a generative practice, not just a performance of technical failure, because glitches can ‘render apparent that which is transparent by design’.And rather than reading compression hacking as a positivistic valorisation of pure technical failure, art theorists like Greg Hainge argue that compression hacking and its broader genre of glitch foreground ‘how technology always relies on the successful inclusion or ‘integration of failure into its systems’.
Rethinking the accident
I contend that compression hacking can be used to problematise ‘accident’ as a category by drawing attention the ways that intentionality and blame are ascribed to technical systems. Consider the pixel as a type of compression artefact. By changing the compression algorithm, an artist also changes the image that is produced. Pixellation unsettles our ability as spectators to perceive the visual data as a representationally recognisable object. The behaviour of pixels popcorning in the image from one moment to the next creates the impression of a digital schizophrenia, where pixels seem to scatter, breakthrough, and penetrate the digital materiality of the screen. The pixels show a moment-to-moment configuration that is not in line with regimes of representation or optical rationality. But there is no reason the suspect that the pixels are somehow glitched.
When pixels jump around onscreen from one frame to the next, they rupture the seamless visual transition that ordinarily takes place in the formal operations of logical, cinematic movement. But they are supposed to do that. A modified compression algorithm will direct the pixels to move in ways that undermine the representational coherence of the image accidentally, as an effect of the compression algorithm.
Pixellation is merely one kind of compression artefact that relies on the enduring functionality of the compression algorithm in order to appear onscreen. We can read beyond pixellation, however, to consider how compression artefacts problematise the technical accident. As with other compression artefacts, seeing pixellation as dysfunction is not a perception, but a judgement. That is, to always read the pixel as symptom of technical accident is to assign intentionality to the compression algorithm, which remains indifferent to the kinds of image it produces so long as the algorithm itself functions accordingly. Pixellation in this case is not an accident in the sense of mistake, but accident in the sense of contingent. In other words, the pixels can only be oriented to their new positions if the modified compression algorithm works. In creating compression artefacts through lossy compression, the algorithm itself must remain functional. What on first glance appears to be a materialisation of failure turns out to be a simulation of it, one dependent on the successful operations of the compression algorithmic for its effects.
Towards a conclusion
Digital media exists at the crossroads between optical and algorithmic epistemologies, and compression hacking exploits this inseparability. It is certainly possible to view compression hacking and glitch art more generally as the as a reaction against the impenetrable, black box logics of technology. By screening what looks like digital dysfunction, compression hacking alert us to the omnipresent regimes of rationality that condition our experiences of seeing. They also permit us to glimpse the algorithmic processes that structure digital images and call attention to the way that the accident can be used to (incorrectly) index blame to technological systems. It is telling that compression hacking is becoming popular now, when there is a marked ‘mathematical intensification and transformation of perception in the age of algorithmic optimization [sic]’.
We could situate compression hacking in what David M Berry calls the New Aesthetic (NA) a form of ‘“breakdown” art linked to the conspicuousness of digital technologies’. I like to think of breakdown not in the sense of dysfunction, but in the sense of take apart. Berry writes:
‘We might conclude that the NA is the cultural eruption of the grammatization [sic] of software logics into everyday life. The NA can be seen as surfacing computational patterns, and in doing so articulates and represents the unseen and little-understood logic of computation, which lies under, over and in the interstices between the modular elements if an increasingly computational society.’ 
This site is where compression hacking operates: at the seam between breakdown and break down. Compression hacking exploits the overlap between image and data to show that images of technological failure might depend on precisely the opposite of failure for their materialisation. It reminds us that theories of technology are suspect when they conflate accident with aberration, and it cautions us not to confuse human intervention with computational error. Ultimately, compression artefacts demonstrate that what looks like a malfunction may, in fact, be a sign of a smoothly functioning machine.
 Kane, Carolyn L. Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code. The University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 220.
 Parikka, Jussi, and Tony D. Sampson. The Spam Book: on Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture. Hampton Press, 2011, p.133.
 Vanhanen, Janne. “Virtual Sound: Examining Glitch and Production.” Contemporary Music Review, vol. 22, no. 4, 2003, pp. 45–52., doi:10.1080/0749446032000156946, p. 46.
 Rutsky, R. L. High Techne: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman. University of Minneapolis Press, 1999, p. 125.
 Virilio, Paul, et al. Politics of the Very Worst: Paul Virilio: An Interview. Semiotext(e), 1999, p. 89.
 Rutsky, p. 133.
 Kane, p. 219.
 Boyle, Casey. “The Rhetorical Question Concerning Glitch.” Computers and Composition, vol. 35, 2015, pp. 12–29., doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2015.01.003, p. 12.
 Hainge, Greg. “Of Glitch and Men: The Place of the Human in the Successful Integration of Failure and Noise in the Digital Realm.” Communication Theory, vol. 17, no. 1, 2007, pp. 26–42., doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00286.x, p. 27.
 Kane, p. 216.
 Berry, David M. Critical Theory and the Digital. Bloomsbury, 2015, p. 56.
 Ibid, p. 57.