In Response To Bruce Sterling's "Essay On The New Aesthetic"
“Is this a thing?” asked Matt. I was ashamed to admit, I had no clue. After all, wasn’t it my job to know about these things? How was it possible I wasn’t aware of this?
Quickly scanning Sterling’s dense, meandering essay, the best answer I could come up with was, “I think so?” Sterling appeared to be articulating a hunch many of us in the tech art community had been operating under for years and giving credence to a nascent term (ostensibly describing a fledgling movement?) that had little more than a popular Tumblr and a SXSW talk to legitimize it.
This was a good thing. To me, the idea that our dominant contemporary aesthetic is one that explores “a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between ‘the real’ and ‘the digital,’ the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine” was kind of a no brainer. We’ve been covering projects that tackle this physical/digital grey area for years, but the recent proliferation of this aesthetic in mainstream culture is what seems to give it new weight and, according to Sterling, the makings of a new avant-garde.
Sterling had some shining praise and encouragement for the New Aesthetic, as well as some biting criticism (he seemed to want to give the movement some tough love, nudging it to grow into itself, to stop gawking at tech and grow some teeth). But what the article really did was turn something that was probably a thing but not fully articulated or acknowledged into a thing that everyone is talking about. So, thanks for that, Bruce.
To that end, we’ve asked a few of our tech art friends to weigh in on the New Aesthetic and Sterling’s assessment. Here’s what they had to say:
Wall drawing by Marius Watz.
THE PROBLEM WITH PERPETUAL NEWNESS
By Marius Watz
My take on the New Aesthetic? On immediate reflection I’d say “good job” and “go easy on the drones”. But inevitably there is the jaded voice in the back of my head wanting to snarkily ask, “What took you so long?” Not “you” as in the particular group of people who curate and promote the New Aesthetic meme, but “you” as in (Western) society at large, the technology-addicted masses who want their Facebook (MTV, not so much) and smartphone bliss, yet manage to be continually surprised by the not-always-pleasant byproducts of their addiction.
There really is no excuse for being technoculture illiterate if you’re under 40 and living in the Western world. You can plead ignorance of the technological specifics, but not of the cultural effects produced by the gadgets and interfaces that have invaded your life. Technology is not something that happens to other people, nor can you escape it by hiding out in “the humanities.” To be human is to be technological.
Lacking a ubiquitous and intuitive understanding of the complex interactions between technology and human culture, sources like the New Aesthetic (NA) become golden. NA is an attempt at diagnosis of the most recent mutations of the human condition, a difficult task best attacked obliquely and from the flank, with subtle observations rather than head on with manifestos (which are not very New Aesthetic, by the way).
NA is part meme, part techno-ethnography and part Tumblr serendipity. Its art is juxtaposition: If we put this next to that and this other thing, surely a new understanding will emerge. And you know what? It works surprisingly well. Whether that success is the product of brilliant curation or the result of feverishly sign-deciphering minds scanning image after image for clues that might not be there is academic. If it works, it works.
“We need NA like we need weather vanes warning us of oncoming storms, because tech-driven cultural innovation has a nasty habit of becoming an inevitability with little regard for personal preference or even legal precedence.”
The “New” part is deceptive, however. Most of what NA offers up for examination is not all that new. Technologies like machine vision and geo-location are old by most standards. What is new is their integration into our lives to the point where we are bringing them to bed. Smartphone habituees will think nothing of installing a sleep-tracking app and putting their phone on the mattress, where accelerometers will presumably make sage observations about your quality of sleep. This is the new Aesthetic—human behavior augmented by technology as often as it is disrupted. The New Aesthetic is a sign saying “Translation Server Error” rather than “Post Office”. The New Aesthetic is faces glowing ominously as people walk down the street at night staring at their phones—or worse, their iPads.
We need NA like we need weather vanes warning us of oncoming storms, because tech-driven cultural innovation has a nasty habit of becoming an inevitability with little regard for personal preference or even legal precedence. Once conceived of, or even just scribbled on a napkin during a drunken startup crawl, it is as though they might as well always have existed.
Yes, GPS will come storming out of the wilderness survival gear catalogue and give your mother an incredibly increased action radius. Yes, computer GUI elements will sprout legs and appear lounging around your neighborhood as though they had always been there. Yes, digital glitch is as much of a cultural artifact as the graininess of film or the bad colors of Polaroids. And that guy on the corner with the World of Warcraft battleaxe replica 1 instantly looks at home from the moment that he appears. Yes, you think, now that I see it, it makes perfect sense.
1 That would be the artist Aram Bartholl, performing his “1H” intervention.
Marius Watz is an artist and sometime curator who spends most of his time in the future, drawing with machines.
Kyle McDonald’s remix of a 3D imaging file from the RGB+D project.
THE NEW AESTHETIC: GOING NATIVE
By Kyle Chayka
Bruce Sterling’s rousing essay on the New Aesthetic (the “eruption of the digital into the physical,” as the author summarizes) is split between two different points. In no uncertain language, Sterling tells us that the New Aesthetic is revolutionary: it’s “the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality” and “a catalogue of visible glitches in the here-and-now, for the here and for the now.” But he also tells us that we don’t hold the New Aesthetic up to a high enough standard and we don’t go far enough in proving its viability. The New Aesthetic is “trying to hack a modern aesthetic, instead of thinking hard enough and working hard enough to build one.”
What does it mean to hack, or deconstruct, or remix, an old aesthetic instead of creating something new? Sterling rightly notes that the New Aesthetic blog is less criticism than it is collage, a collection of moments that look New Aesthetic-y. As it stands, the genre is a collection of data points, observations on what is happening rather than meditations on how or why it is happening, or what we can do with it. The reason for this absence, as Sterling hints at but doesn’t point out outright, is that the New Aesthetic is not yet an actual aesthetic movement. It’s just reality.
The New Aesthetic isn’t Impressionism or Cubism. Revolutionary art is not shocking and provoking society, as it did in the case of Monet and Picasso. The New Aesthetic, as it exists in drone technology and Google Maps imagery and data surveillance, represents a ground-level change in our existence. Instead of shocking society, New Aesthetic art must respond to a shocked society and turn the changes we’re confronting into critical artistic creation. Artists are only just starting to take the raw material of the New Aesthetic and aestheticize it in a conscious, intelligent way.
“The New Aesthetic, as it exists in drone technology and Google Maps imagery and data surveillance, represents a ground-level change in our existence. Instead of shocking society, New Aesthetic art must respond to a shocked society and turn the changes we’re confronting into critical artistic creation.”
What we need to do now is to go native, to stop gathering data points and start making things in the intrinsic language of New Aesthetic. Here’s my forecast for fulfilling the potential of this new medium: We will not just observe how machines act and perceive, but integrate how they act and perceive into our own sensory experiences and creative processes. As the digital and the physical move closer and closer, that combination will eventually look less like a hybrid and more like a united whole, the new aesthetic reality.
Artists are already undergoing this process, embracing the New Aesthetic as a contextual seedbed rather than a label. 3D imaging and printing is taking the machine aesthetic into physical space. Pop-up guerrilla computer networks are modulating our local surroundings. Designers are creating fashion to fight facial recognition software.
Sterling argues that we can’t depend on machines and code for our definition of beauty. He’s right, rehashing 8-bit all over again is never going to get us anywhere. But as the latest generation of artists, writers, creatives, and civilians, we aren’t letting machines pioneer the New Aesthetic avant garde: We already live it.
Golan Levin’s Eyecode, a mosaic of eyes captured from viewers interacting with his eye-tracking software to illustrate the metaphor of Argus.
STRAINING TO ENVISION THE NEW AESTHETIC
By Jonathan Minard
Visualizing our culture as a mythical being, it would look something like the god, Argus, gazing in a mirror: each of its hundred eyes straining to resolve parts of a fragmented self-image. It is impossible for us to get any perspective on our digital universe, as we all suffer from a myopic condition; glued to cluttered screens, staring at pictures taken with tiny cameras. The propagation of vision technologies has only compounded the problem.
The New Aesthetic brings one layer of the bigger picture into focus. Charting a major trend in design, inspired by robot-vision and computer-generated imagery, James Bridle’s tumblr archive supplies more than enough data for the theory. Responding to this monumental collage, Bruce Sterling brings a new vocabulary, and a much needed critical voice, to the conversation.
As a master of rhetoric, Sterling names the trends we had not before considered and in doing so shapes our thinking. He tinkers with language, hacking together existing terms to fashion widgets for our use.
I’d like to use this space to muse on a few of the words and concepts invoked by Sterling in his “Essay on the New Aesthetic.”
Scifi Robot-Vision Aura
Machines that perceive have a numinous presence.
A personal anecdote: One summer night in 2005, cutting across a parking lot by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, I crossed paths with a driverless humvee weaving through cones on a test course. I became chillingly aware of some entity—a ghost behind the wheel of this machine—perceiving me as an obstacle with its laser-vision (LIDAR). The red hummer (a contestant in the DARPA Grand Challenge to design a car that drives itself) had a cyclopean eye mounted on a gimbal for scanning its environment.
If you ever doubted that computer vision algorithms have an aura, watch the web documentary Robot Readable World: a montage of pattern recognition software at work. This mesmerizingly beautiful footage may change your mind. The New Aesthetic revels in a disquieting flavor of the digital sublime.
A sprawling crowd-sourced repository of digital ephemera: the New Aesthetic would not have taken shape as a relevant concept without the existence of the New Aesthetic tumblr.
The content of their manifesto exists primarily as a database of images. It is easy to critique the culture of sharing as a proliferator of vacant memes. Yet, this has proven itself as the most efficient way for networked intelligences talk to each other, and collectively generate meaning.
“The tools we make shape culture. The culture of technology is a human culture and a human experience. Reconciling with our inventions, we embrace the stylized pixel-goo as a reflection of ourselves.”
Developer and blogger James Bridle is not a lone visionary. He and his social network of tech-literate British designers swarmed the internet for content and gathered it in one place, curating links using all the social media tools at their fingertips. Sterling calls their work a “collectively-intelligent theory-object” of “shareable concepts.” So much of the actual content of the New Aesthetic is a Duchampian appropriation of computer vision demos and surveillance photos snapped by drones now part of this greater lexicon.
Image aggregation is a new form of visual research and trend-spotting reveals salient patterns in the visual culture of the internet. Through this collective looking and sharing, a scene of cultural commentators can widely disseminate a perspective.
Machines are Never Your Friend
By attributing superhuman intelligence to machines, we forget that they are still dumb tools invented by people for people—this is Sterling’s most basic point.
As Nietzsche declared “God is Dead,” Sterling will be one the first voices of our era to refute the existence of A.I.: “Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence… They lack aesthetic judgment.” He urges us to abandon our atavistic worship of false robot idols.
Many roboticists and computer scientists will take issue with this harsh put-down of machine intelligence, still in its infancy. Yet, in regard to art and design, it is true that machines are not (yet) the creators—we are.
The fact that your laptop is arguably “less intelligent than a goldfish” does not stop us from collaborating with machines to access new experiences and augment our creative capacity. Interacting with computers, with the world of information and each other through these interfaces has irreversibly transformed us.
The tools we make shape culture. The culture of technology is a human culture and a human experience. Reconciling with our inventions, we embrace the stylized pixel-goo as a reflection of ourselves. An aesthetic based on computational systems and their associated visual memes has become fashionable and beautiful, indicating a broader acceptance of digital prostheses as essential to contemporary life. That integration of visual technologies into our cultural lexicon will only continue.
Jonathan Minard (@deepspeedmedia) is a new media documentarian, and fellow in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. Current film and journalism projects focus on visionary experiments with technology. He has collaborated with James George and Alexander porter on the development of a new RGB+Depth format for making movies with the kinect.
Adam Harvey, CV Dazzle.
WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A 21ST CENTURY THING
By Greg Borenstein
While it was heartening to see Bruce Sterling’s enthusiasm for the New Aesthetic, as a fan and contributor to the project, the part of his essay I found most stimulating was his critique of the movement. In the many responses to Sterling accumulating around the web, you can see it forcing New Aestheticians to think more deeply about what the movement means. This essay is the tentative product of my having done similarly.
The core of his complaint is that the visual objects Bridle has assembled under the New Aesthetic banner don’t add up to a coherent philosophy. As he puts it, “a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview."
I believe that Sterling is wrong. I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world. To convince you of this, I’ll make a case that the New Aesthetic strongly resonates with a recent movement in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology and that establishing a closer alliance with OOO might be a way to increase the precision of the New Aesthetic vocabulary and enrich its process by pointing towards new modes of imagining its objects of fascination.
In order to fully explain this, I have to tell you a little bit about Object-Oriented Ontology itself, which is notoriously hard to summarize. But before putting you through that, I want to try to articulate the New Aesthetic in OOO terms so that you’ll know why it’s worth doing. Here goes:
The New Aesthetic is a visible eruption of the mutual empathy between us and a class of new objects that are native to the 21st century. It consists of visual artifacts we make to help us imagine the inner lives of our digital objects and also of the visual representations produced by our digital objects as a kind of pigeon language between their inaccessible inner lives and ours. It’s the trace of interaction designers, surveillance drones, gesture recognition systems, fashion designers, image compression techniques, artists, CCTV networks, and filmmakers all “wondering about one another without getting confirmation."
That last phrase is a quotation from Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to be a Thing by game designer and philosopher Ian Bogost (most famously, the creator of Cow Clicker). In that book, Bogost cooks up his own flavor of OOO philosophy and then (amazingly for a book of philosophy) outlines methods for putting it into action by making things.
Bogost also composed what I think is the best layman’s definition of Object-Oriented Ontology:
“Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally – plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example.[…] OOO draws attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and ponders their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.”
As an artist, technologist, and designer I find this to be an extraordinarily exciting set of goals for a philosophy. OOO focuses philosophy on the task of understanding exactly the material of my work: objects and their inter-relations.
So, what, in particular, does OOO have to say about objects? How does it characterize them? Here’s the 15 second summary (if you want to start exploring OOO in more depth, Cultural Technologies’ podcast with Graham Harman, OOO’s founding father, is a good place to start):
Objects withdraw. While they can form relations with other objects, they can’t know each other completely. And an object’s identity is not exhausted by its relations with other objects. There is always some part of each object that remains inaccessible.
Given that objects exist, but that we can never fully know them, OOO advocates a philosophical process of “speculation” about, as Bogost says, “what it’s like to be a thing”. In fact OOO is part of a larger philosophical movement who’s name, Speculative Realism, derives from this very process of imaginative empathy. Bogost ends the first chapter of Alien Phenomenology with a vivid evocation of this process of speculation:
“Our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of these processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.”
If you substitute, sensors, pixels, image features, and guidance algorithms for “grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum” you’d have the perfect New Aesthetic call-to-arms: to dig out what it’s like to be a thing born of our contemporary technological era, a New Thing, and to make that as vivid as possible by amplifying the particular frequency of “black noise” these New Things emit.
Now, let’s return to Sterling’s essay. Sterling characterizes the New Aesthetic through the imagery that it accumulates, most visibly on Birdle’s New Aesthetic Tumblr:
“Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s.”
In making this list, Sterling privileges the visible objects of New Aesthetics over the invisible and algorithmic ones. New Aesthetics is not simply an aesthetic fetish of the texture of these images, but an inquiry into the objects that make them. It’s an attempt to imagine the inner lives of the native objects of the 21st century and to visualize how they imagine us.
“New Aesthetics is not simply an aesthetic fetish of the texture of these images, but an inquiry into the objects that make them. It’s an attempt to imagine the inner lives of the native objects of the 21st century and to visualize how they imagine us.”
Moreover, as Object-Oriented thinkers, New Aestheticians are interested not just in the significance of face detection algorithms, surveillance drones, gesture recognition systems, image compression techniques, CCTV networks, book-scanning operations, satellite maps, and digital fabrication schemes for humans but they’re also obsessed with how these new 21st century objects impact the things we design and cohabitate with. They want to know what CCTV means for social networks, what book scanning means for iOS apps, and what face detection means for fashion. And again these objects are not just interesting to each other as a set of constraints and affordances for the objects’ human makers but for the hidden inner lives of the objects themselves throughout their existence.
I think the quintessential New Aesthetic project is Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle.
CV Dazzle is “camouflage from computer vision," a set of hair, makeup, and fashion designs meant to prevent their human wearer from being detected by face detection algorithms. In order to create CV Dazzle, Harvey had to develop systems that let him visualize how face detection algorithms see people’s faces. He wrote software that let him slow down the face detection process and display its internal state. The images and videos he produced in the process are not simple appropriations of the visual texture of face detection algorithm, but tools for speculating about what it would be like to be one.
Greg Borenstein is an artist and technologist in New York. He’s currently a Resident Researcher at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and recently the author of Making Things See: 3D Vision with Kinect, Processing, Arduino and Makerbot from O’Reilly. You can also find him on Twitter.
Steven Pippin, Point Blank.
THE NEW AESTHETIC NEEDS NEW WRANGLERS
By James George
Bruce Sterling’s essay on the New Aesthetic is uncharacteristically positive for the skeptical futurist. Renowned to a growing crowd of technology artists and science fiction fanatics, when Sterling says he sees something “true and real,” people pay attention. This week he bestowed his hope in the collective hunch held by this small group of British designers and creatives who feed the New Aesthetic tumblr a stream of technology addled graphic byproducts.
The tumblr is characterized by imagery sitting on the virtual/physical border. From pixelated T-shirt graphics to 3D printed fractals, the archive has gathered enough critical mass to spark the question: what exactly is this emerging aesthetic?
In addressing how we should define the New Aesthetic, Sterling’s essay leaves us with fewer options than with which we started. He critically dismisses glitches, render ghosts, and retro 80’s pixel art as empty. The challenge is to develop the hunch into something mature, something that is more avant-garde and less ADHD. He’s giving the movement some tough love.
The crux of what he thinks is interesting comes down to this: we are surrounded by new hardware and it’s doing some unpredictable and provocative things. Our technological world is producing some fascinating imagery that tells the story of how our lives are changing in profound ways. If the New Aesthetic is going to be the narrator of that story, it needs some focus.
If artists and technologists want to be the wranglers of Sterling’s “cat herd” there are a few problems with their current modus operandi. Sterling’s critique is not subtle: stop gawking sci-fi robot-vision screen captures, slapping labels on them and presenting it as an aesthetic. That inclination is a natural first step towards understanding. In order to make meaningful progress, creatives need to invest in learning how these systems function and take a critical stance. Doing this will require closing Google Chrome for a few hours and picking up a book on machine vision. Or befriending some non-artists outside of the creative class. People already versed in machine language need to be convinced that the tumblr is onto something.
“Our technological world is producing some fascinating imagery that tells the story of how our lives are changing in profound ways. If the New Aesthetic is going to be the narrator of that story, it needs some focus.”
Consider when an aspiring New Aesthetician stumbles onto a website of demonstration videos for some next generation surveillance system and responds “Here is some ‘New Aesthetic!” Traditionally, they could just harvest the videos into another collection, repeating Timo’s Robot Readable World computer vision amalgamation. In this scenario the surveillance company has no idea that they are contributing to an ongoing dialogue and the appropriator has no influence over those images. They are capturing specimens to fill a robot zoo.
For the New Aesthetic to have a critical influence, the gap between artist and technologist needs to be bridged. In the example above, the artist could contact the chief technologist describing their fascination. They could order the camera, plug it in, point it at the house cat or a make sci-fi master piece with it’s data. In doing so, the fascinating tracker symbols will dance in response to an input its engineers had not anticipated. Deeper insights will be revealed resulting in the potential for a more focused aesthetic understanding of our technological environment.
Sterling’s call to action mirrors the thesis of media theorist Vilém Flusser’s 1983 book “Towards a Philosophy of Photography." Defined therein, the experimental photographer is one who breaks the camera to get new undiscovered imagery from it. In doing so the artist “creates a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses.” What Flusser called an experimental photographer we may now call a New Aesthetician. They are the curious tinkerers who take nothing at face value, reinterpreting the technological landscape as a tool to tell the story of the world right now.
James George is a Brooklyn based media artist and software developer.
MIchael Jackson doing the robot during a 1973 performance of ‘Dancing Machine’ on Soul Train.
PERSONIFYING MACHINES, MACHINING PERSONS
By Kyle McDonald
A number of the criticisms in “An Essay on the New Aesthetic” are very welcome. For example, it seems clear that “accumulative” network culture has made the New Aesthetic metaphysically incoherent compared to a more traditional critical model. And I’ve never understood how “render ghosts” fit in. They were missing from the original ‘mood-board for unknown products’ post and have been mostly absent on Tumblr.
But most of the other complaints stem from a limited interpretation of what the New Aesthetic could be. Sterling complains about how AI is a failure, and that computers “lack cognition.” That if the New Aesthetic is about “seeing through the eyes of machines,” then we’re expecting machines to “make sound aesthetic judgements.”
But it’s obvious that machines can’t make aesthetic judgements, and I don’t think the New Aesthetic is ignoring this in favor of a helpful design fiction.
I think the New Aesthetic is not about treating machines like ourselves, “projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built.” The New Aesthetic is about treating ourselves like machines, and falling in love with the emergent forms of purely functional design. If Postmodernism rejects the functionally-driven design of Modernism, the New Aesthetic is a “Semimodernism”: it embraces the formal results of functional design but ignores the motivation.
We aren’t making voxel sculptures because we want to “[make] the machines our friends,” we’re making them because we think they’re beautiful. And they’re exciting, or interesting, or, at least, easy to make. The computer didn’t make these judgements, and we’re not claiming that a computer would “like” the work. We just mined the design constraint from the engineered devices that permeate our contemporary life. The low-poly shoe was not designed with graphics card memory optimization in mind, it’s just embracing the limitations that we’re familiar with and have grown to love.
“We aren’t making voxel sculptures because we want to ‘[make] the machines our friends,’ we’re making them because we think they’re beautiful. And they’re exciting, or interesting, or, at least, easy to make. The computer didn’t make these judgements, and we’re not claiming that a computer would ‘like’ the work. We just mined the design constraint from the engineered devices that permeate our contemporary life.”
The New Aesthetic observes the byproducts of functionally-driven design and appropriates the emergent aesthetic. Not because the machines “picked” it, but because we see the common themes, and find them beautiful. We see the square pixels, the 8-bit color palettes, and we embrace them not for their function but for their beauty.
This starts to make sense of Sterling’s other major criticisms, regarding glitch, satellite views and “retro” graphics. Half of the New Aesthetic Tumblr seems to be about identifying themes that emerge from functionalist design (especially computational design). They sit there collecting dust, just waiting to be appropriated. Then the other half of the entries are about labeling the eventual appropriations as such. A glitch isn’t inherently “New Aesthetic,” but it certainly becomes that when appropriated. Just like the voxel sculptures, glitch revels in the visual result of a functional system purely for its aesthetic merit.
Similarly, satellite views maybe be ancient, but when the patterns of circular irrigation start to remind us of our familiar pixel grid, we make connections to visual design. We borrow the aesthetic of satellite views for our work not because we’ve been counseled by the machine, but because we have personally judged the results of this functional system as beautiful.
The New Aesthetic favors the results of functional design as aesthetic. In this sense, the New Aesthetic goes much deeper than raster image processing, much less machine vision.