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Giselle Beiguelman, “esc for escape” (2004)

Research Report by Lisa Swanstrom
(created 12/15/06)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: Text Encoding | Text and Multimedia | Art Installations

Original Object for Study description

“Tell us: What was the most scary, funniest, unforgettable error message of your life?” So asks Giselle Beiguelman’s “esc for escape,” (2004) a multifaceted art project that solicits and archives error messages from computer users around the globe and re-expresses them in a variety of contexts and media. The project includes a public exhibition of error messages on electronic billboards in São Paulo, Brazil; a repository of selected error messages published on the web, entitled “The Book of Errors”; “The Monastery,” an archive of all error messages related to the project; a dvd of the project; a project blog; as well as several “trailers,” which offer ironic visualizations of various error messages by the artist. (Can this sentence be broken up into 2?) In addition to providing a playful space for people to express their most “unforgettable” error messages, the project offers a subtle–yet sustained and sophisticated–commentary about the relationship between computer code and natural language in relation to the digital age.

The project’s home page opens with a striking image–a visual companion to the error messages archived within “The Book of Errors”:

“Fatal Error,” from the Project’s Home page

In this animated .gif, the exaggerated expression of fear, even horror, on this woman’s face is further exacerbated by the violent shaking of her visage. That this effect is enabled by a browser’s capacity to loop rapidly between multiple images to create a trompe l’oeil, such that the reader is tricked into seeing persistent motion rather than sequential stills is somehow appropriate, in that one’s senses are, from the very beginning, manipulated and conditioned by the computer. The result is a (darkly) comedic and hyperbolic portrayal of what it might feel like to receive an error message such as the ones found in the “esc for escape” archives.

Beiguelman originally began archiving error messages as a part of <Content = No Cache>, an earlier project with which she examined the relationship between anxiety and technological error by posing a pointed and provocative set of questions to computer users: “Have you ever read something scary on your screen? Do you understand why programmers suppose they are programming for programmers? Do you fear error messages?” Beiguelman collected responses to this set of queries for a year but ultimately decided to redesign the work for another venue:

… new operating systems and new forms of connection inspired me to redesign the project and to update it to Windows Xtra Problems, OS X bugs and to give it a different format (a teleintervention + a DVD documentary) (from the introduction to “The Book of Errors.” )

The re-designed and re-titled project debuted as “esc for escape” at the Itaú Cultural’s “‘Emoção Art.ficial (Art.ficial Emotion) 2.0,’ …[a] laboratory of interactive media” that explores the relationship between “established and new tendencies in the field of technological art” (from Emoção Art.ficial 2.0’s home page). In conjunction with this exposition, between July 1st and September 26 of 2004, Beiguelman and her team invited error messages via the Web, SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Message Service), received them at their space at Itaú Cultural, and re-routed them for display on two electronic billboards in São Paulo.

Image of an error message displayed on an electronic billboard on Av. Paulista in São Paulo.

The Book of Errors
In addition to the live nature of the project, Beiguelman maintains an online archive of error messages collected from various contributors. Errors contained within “The Book of Errors,” range from the amusing:

403 Technophile Not Found. mezflesque.exe USA – Sunday, August 06, 2000 at 21:29:54 (EDT)),

to the perplexing:

Friday July 20th 2001 / 6pm. / french time———————————-
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to the poetic:

First snow, then silence.
This thousand dollar screen dies
So beautifully.

to the vaguely sinister:

We suggest you check you email no more often than once every 5 minutes, and we are sending this notice to you because we had observed intervals between your last two visit to us at less than 2 minutes.

to the downright disturbing:

Discussion – I_NEED_HELP
Started By: curious_person
Posted: 12/3/00 1:27A
I am a 15-year-old German girl. When I was 10 my mom found a friend and I playing gynecologist. My mom accused me of masturbating. She told me that I will have early sex and that sexuality will destroy my life. The next day we went to a gynecologist. The doctor amputated my entire clitoris and most of my labia.

In spite of this wide variety of forms–or perhaps because of them–the concept of the error message itself emerges as something whose meaning is shifting, unsettled, and quite volatile. Sometimes laughable, sometimes incomprehensible, it is nevertheless consistent in one respect: the manner in which computer code and natural language intermingle to form surprising and, at times, meaning-rich results. While error messages are usually expressed in terms of the computer code responsible for the malfunction, the “error messages” in Beiguelman’s project are articulated in language that is much closer to natural speech, thus emphasizing colloquial expression in favor of programmable code. (Can you add one sentence here explaining further the link between code and natural language in the error messages?) As Helka Harju writes in his contribution to the “Book of Errors”: “In Japan, they have replaced the impersonal and unhelpful Microsoft error messages with their own Japanese haiku poetry, each only 17 syllables, 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second and five in the third” (from the “Book of Errors”).

Consider the following “haiku” error message in light of this statement:

Three things are certain Death, taxes, and lost data. Guess which has occurred.

In this case, the typical “impersonal” or “unhelpful” error message for lost data might be something along the lines of “file not found,” “data source file not found,” or any variety of perplexing references to computer code that usually surface in such moments (see, for example, Troubleshooting Microsoft Errors for a list of common MS error messages). The rhetoric–if one can call it that–of such messages is typically heavily influenced by the code used to generate the program, in that they frequently alert the user to the source of the problem in the language of the source code (e.g., “Data type mismatch in criteria expression”), rather than to a prescriptive set of instructions outlined in natural language.

What makes the haiku error message significant (in spite of its humorous, tongue-and-cheek tenor) is that it marks a conscious effort on the part of programmers to infuse the language of computer code–characterized by logical and succinctly expressed lines of command–with poetic language–not easily characterized, but frequently associated with formally structured lines of figurative and subjective expression. Such a coupling, producing as it does such humorous results, simultaneously points to the large discrepancy between computer code and natural language, as well as to a need to work to overcome that gap.

In addition to the “Book of Errors,” the “esc for escape” site features several “trailers” for the “esc for escape” documentary, including “Illegal Operation” and “Hell.”

“Illegal Operation” features the same image from the home page, but here the image is a flash file embedded within an html page. The images oscillate between the shaking, frightened face that is reminiscent of any variety of b-movies, and an error message in Portuguese that translates as: “This program has executed an illegal operation and will be shut down.” Both images are framed by a crimson background, which, combined with the severely black-and-white face, serves to create a parodic expression of technological horror.

From “Illegal Operation”

If “Illegal Operation” offers a commentary on the link between technology, fear, and horror, “Hell” speaks with equal force on the subject of frustration. This image, also a flash file embedded within an html page, is drawn in the style of Japanese Manga, and features an enraged woman who yells “Where the hell is it?” to a man who looks upon her coldly. The reader barely has time to take this in before the image shakes and begins to pixelate wildly, until the representation breaks down completely, and the reader is left with nothing except a field of enlarged gray-toned pixels. The image then loops to the beginning, where the woman and man are reconstituted, before breaking down again, ad infinitum.

From “Hell”


The work also refers to a documentary about the project, as well as a “Monastery” section, which archives additional error messages. At the time of this writing, however, neither of these links was functioning.

Research Context:
“esc for escape” resonates well with a variety of online art installations and exhibitions that grapple with the evolving nature of the interface in response to changes in technological capabilities. Similar to artists such as Jeffrey Shaw, for example, who experiment with different project interfaces (see, e.g., the evolution of Shaw’s “Legible City” from a simple combination of joystick and monitor to its use of a single cyclist with a single screen to, finally, a group of networked bicyclists in a simulated immersive environment), Beiguelman’s web pages, flash animations, blogs, and public spaces make maximum use of the interface of the screen. Can you add a sentence amplifying here as well?) More importantly, it also fits well with other projects that point to translation challenges, overlaps, and disjunctions between natural languages and computer code (e.g., Talan Memmott’s “Lexia to Perplexia,” John Cayley’s “Translation” and “The Code is Not the Text (Unless It Is the Text)”).

Additionally, the work’s focus upon the strange intersections between language and code that surface when the circuit of communication between human user and computing machine goes awry is important, pointing as it does to a slippage between the language used to generate computer software and the natural language we use to talk about it.

Finally, the manner in which Beiguelman uses older media forms (e.g., film, photography, illustration, movie trailers, etc.) to elucidate changes wrought by new media practice, make this project distinct in the field of media studies, implicitly supporting Bolter and Grusin’s “logic of remediation,” i.e., the manner in which newer technological innovations borrow from and reinvent older media forms. As Marijô Zilveti writes about the project for Folha Online, even the title of the piece reflects the oscillation between old and new, in this case between film and digital artwork: “The work, whose title makes an allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, will be projected on two screens in an exposition of electronic art that will be put on in July in São Paulo ” (from Folha Online)

Technical Analysis:
Due to its multimedia nature, a variety of technologies enable the functioning of “esc for escape”: for the web, Beiguelman uses HTML to write the home page, the project description, and “Book of Errors”; for the live exhibition, she and her team accepted messages via the web, SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Message Service) and re-routed them to two electronic billboards in São Paulo; for the “trailers,” she uses a combination of photography, ink illustration, html, .gif, and flash animation; the project blog is powered by Movable Type: Publishing Platform for Business Blogs and Professionals and is hosted by the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
In addition to providing a repository of information and resources related to online reading, one of the most exigent goals of the Transliteracies Project is to build some type of heuristic or tool to help improve online reading practices. One turn this tool might take would be in the direction of information tagging, which is to say, towards the work being done to mark up natural language in such a way that a computer or computer program could do something meaningful with it. One might view “esc for escape” as a proto-experiment along these lines. While the error messages themselves are not marked up in such a way that the computer could necessarily do anything with them, they nevertheless bare traces of their social contexts. Coming from users around the world and accompanied at times by their pithy commentary, Beiguelman’s featured error messages highlight both the disconnects and affinities between computer code and colloquial expression.

Additionally, the collaborative aspect of this project is well worth the attention of the Transliteracies project. Several of our objects for study and research reports (e.g., Wikipedia, youtube.com, delicious, etc) reveal a keen interest in tracing the emerging practices and rhetorical strategies in the field of collective/collaborative authorship; in some sense, what differentiates this piece from other works is precisely this collaborative nature. While Beiguelman is certainly the master architect of the overall project–responsible for the visual interpretations featured on the project’s web site, as well as for wrangling the live exhibition and maintaining the online archive–the core of the project, i.e., the error messages themselves, represent a variety of voices and social contexts from around the world. And while the piece has no narrative arc in the traditional sense of the word, the confessional nature of many of the posts lends the work an aesthetic cohesion that is worth consideration, especially in light of its heteroglossic nature.

Resources for Further Study:
Beiguelman, Giselle. “Esc for escape.” Retrieved December 14, 2006.

Zilveti, Marijô. “Erro informata é matéria-prima de arte eletrônica.” Folha de S.Paulo. Retrieved December 14, 2006.

Questions I would like to ask Beiguelman:

How many error messages did you for the billboards–how many were displayed? How many error messages did you get total? How multinational was the project? I.e., how many countries (which ones) were represented? What is the difference between the “Monastery” and the “Book of Errors”? What kind of programming did you use to compile the error messages? What function does the blog serve at this point? Are there future plans for the project? What was your most interesting error? Most of the error messages in the book of errors are related to computer glitches–except for the one from the 15-year-old German girl. Why did you keep that one? What is the status of the esc for escape documentary?

  tl, 12.15.06

One Response to Giselle Beiguelman, “esc for escape” (2004)

  1. Publications | swanstream says:

    [...] about key artworks, objects, and technologies related to online reading. The Internet Archive “esc for escape” Google Print Inform.com “The Legible City” Sony Reader “Reading as [...]