Pixel Sorting: Meeting Chaos Half-Way

By Sarah Zucker, July 2022

In the decade-plus since its inception, Kim Asendorf’s “pixel sorting” technique has entrenched itself in the culture of digital artmaking. When the code was made open source in 2012, it proliferated and mutated. Code jockeys tinkered with it, and artists took up each new variation to explore its potential for visual communication. An entire style emerged, which, instantly recognizable, became synonymous with glitch art as a whole.

And yet, there is great intentionality on the part of the algorithm’s creator. The process is clear: each line of an image is to be interpreted and its pixels sorted according to luminosity yielding a signature streaked appearance. There is no actual “glitch” in this glitch: it’s not borne of a mistake, but rather, a generative mechanism with great precision.

While this has afforded the technique great longevity in the digital artist’s toolkit, it also highlights the paradox inherent to glitch art itself: the act of creation lies in making the accidental purposeful. Glitch alone may be thought of as an error, or “a sudden short-lived irregularity in behavior” (OED). But, when making glitch art, we meet chaos half-way.

PixelPortal, Sarah Zucker, 2019

I first encountered pixel sorting around 2012, as I was a frequent lurker and sometimes contributor on tumblr in its heyday. Tumblr of the 2010s was the primordial ooze from which today’s more robust digital arts culture emerged. There was a scampishness that was celebrated as we gathered, affixed and remixed the intermedia detritus of the past several hundred years.

Nothing was sacred, and so, everything was sacred. Pixels flowed like water.

It’s no surprise, then, that a technique which made pixels fluid infiltrated the very fabric of the “tumblr aesthetic” itself. As it became more readily available as a filter in various apps, it was like a kind of shorthand for digital creators to express the mood of the times. The propensity for using the technique on photographs of nebulas sums it up well: we were dreamers, drifting through a nebulous era. By the time tumblr’s influence waned in the late 2010s, pixel sorting had entered the visual lexicon of an entire generation.

In 2017, it was used heavily in the promotional images for the film “Ghost in the Shell.” By then, it was easily understood to mean, “this is a vision of a distorted future.” The little algorithm had grown up, and was now pulling serious weight in conveying the leitmotif of an expensive major motion picture.

One could theorize many reasons as to why pixel sorting is just so darn satisfying. Looking at Asendorf’s original pixel sorted images in “Mountain Tour,” one is struck by their visceral quality. The code has intervened with these otherwise slick digital images and made them textural, their rhythmic fuzz tickling the optic nerve as it ingests them. It evokes the dithering of early computer graphics, a visual pattern all-too-familiar to those of us who danced with the file size limits of Tumblr and earlier online milieus. There is a comforting familiarity in this digital diffusion, a Proustian taste of the Net gone by.

Whether still or animated, the “downgraded” look of a pixel sorted image thumbs its nose at the parabola of computational progress. It willfully proclaims its pixels at a time when graphic imaging competes with the resolution of the human eye. It offers a reminder to cultivate and cherish our imperfections as we march deeper into the uncanny valley. To err is human, after all.

PixelPool, Sarah Zucker, 2019

I’ve used pixel sorting in a number of artworks over the years. As an artist long exploring glitch-based techniques, how could I resist this particular siren’s song? In my creations, I’ve paired pixel sorting with my VHS-based compositions to amplify the analog qualities of the medium itself. When the pixels get sorted, the magnetic banding of the tape and the moiré patterns of the screen become like undulating textiles. It’s a sublime effect – at once recognizable as pixel sorting, yet with a quality all its own through the analog pairing.

When wielding a tool pioneered by another, it’s important that the artist’s voice is amplified rather than drowned out. Pixel sorting is remarkably adaptable, affording artists the ability to tweak the recipe to their needs. This is perhaps why creators of so many varied disciplines have experimented with it over the years. Artists are witches, and we take up the wands that allow us to best channel our own magic through them.

Pixel sorting bears all the marks of a very fine wand indeed.