We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
Except for Rihanna, the room is empty. The people she’s dancing with aren’t even people; they’re projections animated on the walls of the cube behind her. She controls the space, her gaze fixed on the camera, as the setting flickers from desert to forest to nightclub. The simulation glitches, then she glitches — her position in the foreground doesn’t protect the fidelity of her image. The only person who doesn’t quiver and spike with lines of corrupted code in the “This Is What You Came For” video is Calvin Harris, who appears in one shot standing outside the VR cube — stoic, detached, motionless.
The aesthetics of computer failure have haloed computers since their introduction into the popular imagination. In fiction and in life, perfect machinery belies the flawed humanity that created it. HAL-9000 defects; the Veldt swallows its owners; human frailty replicates itself on a massive, unfeeling scale. But glitching has felt especially vital to visual media in 2016. Now that the phone you carry everywhere has the ability to capture images in hyperreal detail, our eyes grasp at the mistakes in the reproduction so that we, in our limitations, might feel reflected.
This year, music videos for Danny Brown, Zayn, and Kiiara distorted the images of their performers. Brown’s “When It Rain” filters him through a broken VHS player, Zayn and girlfriend Gigi Hadid melt together in pixelated stripes in “Pillowtalk,” and “Gold” sees Kiiara looking into a mirror while static snows over the bathroom. But few videos have explored the glitch aesthetic as thoroughly or intriguingly as those by electronic artist Calvin Harris and director Emil Nava, who continued their ongoing collaboration this year with “This Is What You Came For” and “My Way."
In both videos, Harris stands as the sole fixed point in a collapsing universe. “My Way” depicts him using a VR headset to experience a failing relationship: As the relationship falls apart, so does the world. Harris’s love interest flickers in and out of sight; she oscillates between outfits, as though the simulation can’t remember which avatar it’s supposed to use. Soon the scenery degrades, too: A vase of dead flowers falls through a table as the wood atomizes into blocks. The satellite dishes outside the couple’s house crumble. The idyllic scene turns apocalyptic, all as Harris watches without affect.
“My Way” and its video echo the mechanisms by which a relationship degrades, but it also comments on memory. Human brains are, by nature, terrible storage banks. Even memories that seem vivid dissipate over time, and sometimes we remember the mutated memories as vividly as the faithful ones. Without technology, there is no way to bottle the past; with it, we can observe our own memories diverging from home videos of the remembered event. With digital recording in crisp 1080p stored perpetually on an iPhone, the dissonance becomes all the more cruel.
Memories diverge from recordings, and in many cases, the lives of those recorded go on without you. The ex whose photos you keep in your phone will live on in a timeline you’re not privy to. To imagine that these recordings are as corrupted as your human experience of them provides relief; we want the recorded subjects to decay, to fade like a Polaroid would, to get cut through with grain like an old VHS. The unflinching image is painful to look at. The visual language of video corruption supplies an analogue to the way images change in us over time.
HD recordings of a former loved one strike another pressure point. We see a person who is no longer there like they were, but they also look into us — unaware of what’s to come, oblivious to whom we might turn into, how we might later treat them. The present self scrapes against the self who captured the recording. But in “My Way,” the remembered subject doesn’t remain naïve. The first few minutes of the video depict her looking into middle distance somewhere offscreen: not at Harris, not at the viewer. Then, as her world collapses, she wakes up. She turns her gaze deliberately into the camera. She joins Harris not only in the VR simulation but also outside of it, standing beside him while his eyes are still covered by the headset. She walks from the past into the present, ripping apart the sentimentality that shrouds his memory of her, cracking the uncanny veneer of her canned image.
“The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye; therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain,” Professor Brian O’Blivion says in David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. Thirty-three years later, the same can be said of the iPhone screen or the VR headset. We carry our phones like prostheses, feel real anxiety when their batteries run low. Their screens are body parts. In Nava and Harris’s new videos, they imagine a setting in which these objects actually behave like our bodies do: They, like we, are fragile, fallible, susceptible to time and stress and pain.
Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Charles Aaron on the war for the soul of Americana.