The New Aesthetic Revisited: The Debate Continues!
Over the course of the past month, a certain corner of the internet has been ablaze with heated discussion about the New Aesthetic. It all started with a Tumblr from designer and author James Bridle, but things didn’t really get going until an essay from Bruce Sterling catalyzed the conversation. The essay prompted dozens of responses, including a few of our own, all attempting to suss out just what, exactly, this “New Aesthetic” was, how much attention it deserved, how seriously it should be taken, and what, exactly, it all meant, if anything.
We’ve been following the conversation closely, which has spanned everything from feminist critique of the machine gaze to electric anthropology to alien toaster pastry to cats (this is the internet, after all). Point is, the dialog is varied and is drawing in voices from a diverse range of disciplines that includes artists, designers, technologists, science fiction writers, philosophers and art historians. That in itself seems to lend the topic some semblance of significance.
If nothing else, I think one thing that’s clear about the New Aesthetic is that it is a thing that is happening in popular-tech culture today, whether or not we want to call it such. As technology evolves, our visual language evolves along with it, and as such, the New Aesthetic isn’t necessarily something located within this particular moment, but more so a moving target that seems to have gained some sense of cohesion at this particular moment thanks to the rapid pervasiveness of computing devices in our daily lives. The visual language that it puts forth will become engrained in our cultural lexicon and will inform our understanding of the world around us, as well as the way we shape that world moving forward. Movement or not, that much we can be certain of.
And so, in light of the New Aesthetic debates that continue to wage on all over the web, we’ve once again assembled a chorus of voices to weigh in on the matter—this time, with an eye towards demonstrating the conversation’s diversity. From serious to snarky, they’ve all got something smart to say. Enjoy and check out our previous posts on the New Aesthetic here and here. Track the conversation on Twitter with the #NewAesthetic hashtag.
Salvador Dali, Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1976
A CODE FOR THE NUMBERS TO COME
By Carla Gannis
I own a robot and four computers. I check out news on Kurzweil and the Singularity every couple of days. When James Bridle posts voxels and render ghosts and glitch photography and 8-bit GIFs as signifiers of a new lens through which we see and negotiate “reality,” I get it and I like it. Although I am too old to qualify as a digital native, Bridle’s “state of things” feels natural to me, more natural in fact than mosaics made with tesserae, points made with paint, and looms operating via binary punch cards, i.e. some of the historical aggregates of the New Aesthetic. The multiplicity of voices arising in recognition of NA’s legitimacy encourages me, more than most trending topics, to join the dialogue, contributing my voice as an artist and educator focused on digital media, and a thoroughly bionic woman.
In my attempts to thread an opinion into the discourse spooling around the New Aesthetic—a disappointingly stuffy name for a potentially vanguard development in the tweeted and post(ed)-Modern world—I find I am most fascinated by the porous relationships between artificial & natural, digital & analogue, systematized & hybrid created by and living within the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has the potential not only to confound, but collapse these binaries, and others, completely. It is that potential that excites me, as a citizen of the 21st century, and a feminist who rejects the essentialism of that ism’s second wave.
Which leads me to, glimmering from my bookshelf in its metallic dust jacket, cyber-feminist Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones, Digital Women + The New Technoculture (1997). In Zeros… Plant recounts the life of Lady Ada Lovelace, notable for writing the first computer program in 1842. Lovelace is far too often, in some circles, a starting point for conversations on the history of digital culture, but the apposite Plant/Lovelace quote below forecasts some potentialities I see in the New Aesthetic:
“She knew her work might have some influence inconceivable to her own time: ‘Perhaps none of us can estimate how great,’ she wrote. ‘Who can calculate to what it might lead; if we look beyond the present condition especially?’ And when she reflected on her own footnotes, she was ‘thunderstruck by the power of the writing. It is especially unlike a woman’s style surely,’ she wrote ‘but neither can I compare it with any man’s exactly.’ It was instead a code for the numbers to come.” (p 256)
At the moment, however, New Aesthetic seems to be all potential and style. When Bridle speaks of styles that didn’t exist in the previous world, patterns on clothes that are now pixilated when once they would have been gingham for example, I react with a flat “gee wiz." More interesting to me than fashionability is the neutrality of those pixels. They are dislocated from culture, gender and race.
It is hard for me to imagine a Hindi farmer wearing gingham, for example, or a Western hedge fund manager wearing a Dashiki. And if these two are male I don’t see either of them in a Laura Ashley floral pattern, but I can see both of these humans wearing pixels in the not so distant future, because pixels are ubiquitous and functional patterns embedded in the operations of our daily lives, crossing class lines, borders and most other divides. Pixels aren’t even age appropriate these days. So in “waving to the machines” and seeing through their objective eyes, perhaps there is something more humanizing than dehumanizing in the endeavors of the New Aesthetic, something finally equalizing.
I also suspect many mid-career “new media” artists who have suffered dislocation anxiety particularly embrace NA’s main premise, the “eruption of the digital into the physical," as it shatters a false dichotomy—object vs. screen—that many have been grappling with in their studios for at least a decade or two. Or three or four. Artists have been making art on computers inside and outside of the mainstream art world for some time.
This leads to other events on the horizon, artists working not only between the gaps of art and life but in between the gaps of ones and zeros and not being disenfranchised for doing so. Although there is the danger of the New Aesthetic representing only so much cool digital eye candy, NA being more than screen deep is significant, and necessary.
In order for the New Aesthetic to reach its vitalistic potential, it is incumbent upon its creatives—artists, designers, developers, et al—to keep their human skins on. Janet Murray, an early developer of humanities computing, first made the case for the expressive potentials of computing in 1997 with the publication of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
“We must return to the question raised by Aldous Huxley at the moment movies began to speak: Will the stories brought to us by new representational technologies ‘mean anything’ in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays mean something, or will they be ‘told by an idiot’?” (p 273)
The incomprehensibly vast fields of data we can lay claim to as creative fodder, by manipulating or in collaboration with machines (depending on your point of view) can result in the metaphoric wasteland or garden. Neither outcome will be engendered by our “new” technologies failing, but in our losing touch with our “old” biological technologies, the human brains (and bodies) that have given birth to ideas, constructions and sentiments for aesthetic reflection.
However, and by no means am I the first to point this out, it is problematic, at least in its manifestation at this point, to stake claims on the New Aesthetic as some sort of “revolutionary movement” heroically, defiantly, or nihilistically. Kyle Chayka articulates this point in The New Aesthetic: Going Native, “[it] is not yet an actual aesthetic movement. It’s just reality.” It is embedded in who we are. We live it. Chayka points out that unlike past revolutionary art movements, the New Aesthetic is not “shocking society” but is a response to a “shocked society.”
I agree with Chayka, there is very little shock factor in the New Aesthetic. Perhaps because I am a Gen X’er steeped in post-modern irony and deconstruction, it doesn’t shock me to not be shocked. But “shocked society” as a new defining aspect of the 2010s? We are overwhelmed, hyper-mediated, simultaneously more epistemologically connected and ontologically isolated than in past epochs, yet are we more shocked than, say, society at the turn of the 20th Century? Mary Flanagan in her essay “Play, Participation, and Art: Blurring the Edges” summarizes the shock and awe of the 1910s: “in the midst of war-torn Europe, these (Dada) artists shared a belief that such a culture that originated the horrors of war could not appreciate, indeed, did not deserve art.” (p 90)
Dada shocked a shocked society.
Glitching internet urinal by cityofsound and Marcel Duchamp, Urinal, 1917
Margot Lovejoy in Context Providers: Conditions of Meaning in Media Arts writes, “artists, then in the context of that epoch, were driven by a multitude of larger questions and goals:” and she quotes Lev Manovich, “[T]hese represented absolute values and spiritual life…representing the dynamism of the contemporary city and the experience of war; representing the concepts of Einstein’s relativity theory; translating principles of engineering into visual communication; and so on…” (p 22)
Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism all represented a “new” aesthetic influenced by science, psychology, optics and metaphysics, and their assertion on the world was steeped in revolutionary zeal.
But the 20th Century authentic shock of the new seems to not have carried over into the 21st. Perhaps shock is no longer a variable in the art and cultural equation, no matter how nostalgic some of us still are (myself included) for artistic subversion as revolution.
My point is, as creatives, as those who dally in first world problematics like NA, are we still capable of being shocked or shocking? The intersections of art & technology, the combined forces of “natural” human beings and “artificial” intelligent operators creating a hybrid world of novel experience thrills me.
Of the specific genres that Bridle selects as examples of NA, data visualization feels the most like a new(ish) aesthetic to me. But I have specific determinants for data vis being a visionary form from a humanities perspective. Can it be more than interestingly aggregated information? Does it make me feel something, think something I really have never thought before, care about its existence on the planet, as messenger, harbinger or as a beautiful wondrous resonant thing?
As it stands, the New Aesthetic succeeds in keeping us up-to-date, but there needs to be more. In 1976 Dali’s Lincoln expressed a pixellated future Dali had not seen. A movement can not merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions.
THE RASTERIZED SNAKE EATS ITS ANALOG TAIL
By Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho
Our studio operates from the perspective that all things are both digital and analog, equally existing in a sea of experience and agency. The new artworks piquing our interests today don’t do so because of false dichotomies, but rather because they let us experience the world in revealing and new ways.
We make art to understand, embed, and communicate contemporary experience. Recently, we’ve been evaluating the differential absorption of IR light by hemoglobin to infer respiratory cycles; controlling twisted nematic liquid crystal from Arduino; designing touchless interfaces using transparent conductive coatings; and developing software and techniques for ablating micron-scale graphics using an Excimer laser. Operating at this scale, where the naked eye is rendered useless by the precision of our machines, it becomes clear that we are poised for a future where the analog and digital dichotomy is nothing more than an exercise in perspective taking.
Ours are not the materials and tools that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. They are the product of new information technologies that are giving rise to new aesthetic experiences. Materials available to artists today include wood, CR-39, ribosomes, 4chan, natural language processing, and self-assembly. The possibility space for experiences emanating from this palette far surpasses that of the space predisposed by Jacquard’s textile arrays.
Two years ago we made an interactive lighting installation called Six-Forty by Four-Eighty. We made it for a very specific purpose: to communicate the potentials for visual representation in a world of amorphous computing. Our future is a place where computation will break from the golden jails of laptop and mobile phone and seep chaotically into every corner of the world around us until it is so diffuse that we realize it was actually there the whole time. We could have communicated this speculation by making a film, writing a story, painting a canvas, or choreographing a ballet, but we didn’t. Instead, we used consumer electronics—the same media that is giving rise to the very future under examination. We used this media not because it is new, but because we wanted to do more than just describe our vision: we wanted to manifest it so that people could experience it firsthand.
Crafting contemporary experience requires the combined efforts of all of us: scientists, designers, philosophers, engineers, artists, etc. If artists don’t learn how to actually implement technologies, such as machine learning or hydraulic fracturing, they will not be able to manipulate and understand them deeply enough to reveal their farthest edge states. Without the artist, our culture cannot metabolize the latent possibilities inherent in the world around us.
New Aesthetic brands experiences emerging from the interplay between pixel, bitmap file format, charge-coupled device, machine vision toolkit, networked computer, human, and drone. An interesting palette by any right, but if it will serve to define our current moment we must expand it beyond shared images. And we should do that since there is indeed something new happening worthy of a better understanding.
Sixty years have passed since Shannon and Tukey coined the word bit at Bell Labs down the hall from where Bardeen and Brattain invented the point-contact transistor. These innovations mark the origin of a bubble of alterity that has only now begun to recede. As computers have pervaded deep into our daily lives, our culture has embraced them. It has taken time, but we are now getting comfortable enough with computing that we can see past our own reflection in it. What’s new is that our prostheses have stopped chaffing and we can finally enjoy stretching them, and as we do, all the materials within our grasp are rendered anew.
It’s not only that humans and computers are combining agencies and creating interesting new images, it’s that an inchoate realization is in process: there is no dichotomy between human and machine, analog and digital.
Zigelbaum + Coelho is a studio founded by Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho. Operating at the intersection of design, technology, science, and art, their work utilizes physical, computational, and cultural materials in the service of creating new, but fundamentally human, experiences.
The Infinite Cat Project, Cat #1721.
BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL: DUENDE AND THE NEW AESTHETIC
By Rahel Aima
As the furor around the New Aesthetic unfurls, one of the more common gripes has been that there’s nothing very new about it. That its objects, while native to the last few decades, are not new so much as just newly catalogued. That it’s just another emergent movement or technological development that claims to have reinvented the wheel and created new ways of seeing—immaculately, as if from Zeus’ own forehead—yet mostly rehashes what has come before.
In a way, I agree. The cast of characters has rotated, but the New Aesthetic is undeniably a continuation of cinematic and literary tradition. This is not a bad thing.
In an early response, Matthew Battles compellingly framed the New Aesthetic in terms of ‘pathetic fallacy,’ or an attribution of human-like emotions to inanimate objects. It’s hard to argue with, yet equally applies to our relations with just about any technology. Just look at the way we baby our laptops’ temperature tantrums, ascribing nuance to each sulky bleep and whir. As a literary device or effect, then, it seems fairly bankrupt. Instead, perhaps we should compare the New Aesthetic to the ceremonial breaking of the fourth wall. It happened with Brechtian theatre, and later Godard and the New Wave of French cinema. A few decades later, the age of confessional media and YouTube rants dawned, and what was once a radical rupture of boundaries began to feel pretty old hat. But then the New Aesthetic and the machines got involved.
First, however, rewind back to that moment in Annie Hall that everyone loves to cite. You know the one: Woody Allen, sick of hearing a man prattling ostentatiously in line just ahead of him, gets into an argument about Marshall McLuhan, who just happens to be loitering conveniently at set left. Allen pulls McLuhan into the shot to back up his point, and then turns to the audience to complain and kvetch. The cinematic spell is broken, and our relation to the medium is laid bare. Immersion within the narrative is replaced by an awareness of watching, and being watched. Reached out and spoken to, even.
Today, machines and other unknown objects are similarly breaking the fourth wall and shattering the artifice of seamless technology. They’re turning to face us, and making pidgin efforts to communicate—with strangled sounds and cryptic markings—and waving like a Sims character who wants, no, needs something from us. Windows OSes have arguably been doing it for years, with modal dialog boxes that are swatted away as quickly as the spambots who really, really want to sell us Viagra. And these new performers have made a further leap to a new kind of reality media: a curated Tumblr. As with the technique’s previous iterations, the New Aesthetic’s breaking of the fourth wall forces us to reevaluate our tenuous relations with the characters and performers featured onscreen.
Yet somehow people don’t seem to get as excited about pictures of machines looking at things as they do about pictures of Kim Jong Il doing the very same.
Let’s return to the paradoxically endearing Woody Allen. He’s all awkward elbows and insecurities: neurotic, crotchety, and above all, credibly vulnerable. People feel like they can empathise with him. Or consider the responses to the Mew Aesthetic—surprisingly heavy on the relief. Cats with interior monologues, interacting with technology? Endearing and relatable. Less welcomed are the New Aesthetic’s drones, chatbots, and other digital analogues. Rather, its featured performers seem to produce an uneasy discomfort in many. Their inner lives are inaccessible to us, rendering them cold, alien, inhuman. Suspicious, untrustworthy, and as Bruce Sterling insists, never our friends. Perhaps it still boils down to a distrust of the possibly sentient machine.
Accordingly, we keep these new objects even closer than friends—intimately in our pockets, and always within sight. Their biggest crime just might, however, be a lack of soul and authentic-feeling feelings; a lack of the curious quality that Federico Garcia Lorca termed duende.
In On the Theory and Play of the Duende, Lorca identifies three forms of inspiration: the muse, the angel and the duende. Of these, the duende is the form most identified with death. It is variously understood as a visceral realization of mortality, a primal charismatic force that inhabits the performer, and the most authentic, heightened expression of human feeling. It’s there in the motions of bullfighters and flamenco dancers; as well as in the “black sounds” of Leonard Cohen or swampy blues or sullen Bay Area punk. Or in Goya’s bitumens and the frenzied Sufi mystics’ cries of ‘Allah! Allah’ which whirls into the ‘Olé!’ of the bullfight, and might be one and the same. Raw and fragile, and a little crushed. As described by Lorca, it is ‘the buried spirit of saddened Spain,’ and ‘all that has dark sounds, has duende.’ He says:
“The great artists of Southern Spain, Gypsy or flamenco, singers dancers, musicians, know that emotion is impossible without the arrival of the duende. They might deceive people into thinking they can communicate the sense of duende without possessing it, as authors, painters, and literary fashion-makers deceive us every day, without possessing duende: but we only have to attend a little, and not be full of indifference, to discover the fraud, and chase off that clumsy artifice.”
While all nations and arts—visual as well as sonic—are ostensibly capable of duende, it requires living flesh. It’s essentially an embodied force—the soul in combat with bodily mortality. It’s also inextricably linked to a very human vulnerability: Lorca maintains that the duende only approaches when it senses the possibility of death. Moral and sexual transgressions have lost their cache; to transgress the human today would be to attain some kind of transhumanist mortality, become a machine. All of which is to suggest that duende is something that these new inhuman actors are, by all appearances, incapable of.
But this is where I want to disagree. The glitches, pixelation, errors, Blue Screens of Death and other slippages characterised by the New Aesthetic? They are signs of machines decaying, breaking down, and above all showing us their vulnerable side. We’re invited to question their and our own mortality, and to interrogate the blurry line between human flesh and machineflesh (and comparative corruptions). Which is to say, these eruptions of duende just might be the closest that machines can get to an almost human emotion in the age of mechanical reblogging. We might never understand or share their experiences, but the unknown objects of the New Aesthetic are doing their earnest best. The question is whether we’re willing to listen.
Rahel Aima is a co-editor at THE STATE, and currently based in Dubai. Her research focuses on the intersections of magic, radical politics and future technologies. She can also be found at Twitter, Tumblr, and Wordpress.
Harvey Nichols, Woman, 2
SURVEILLANCE IS SYMPTOMATIC OF MAGICAL THINKING. SO IS ANTHROPOMORPHISM
By Madeline Ashby
A while back, I wrote a post called The New Aesthetics of the Male Gaze, a feminist critique of the New Aesthetic. The central point there was that it has apparently taken the recent ubiquity of surveillance technology for some men to feel the pressure of constant observation that women have always been under. Later, I wrote about my own experience creating art about ubiquitous surveillance technology, and the magical thinking that conflates “surveillance” with “security”. What these posts shared in common, beyond my individual perspective, is an understanding that surveillance is about looking, and looking is powerful. As Rahel Aima wrote in her response:
The New Aesthetic is about looking, undeniably. Yet as a paginated yet endlessly scrollable tumblr, is in itself a thing to be looked at. It is about being looked at by humans and by machines, about being the object of the gaze. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body.
Aima further suggests that the allure of the New Aesthetic might be that it offers (frequently male) artists and observers the opportunity to inhabit a traditionally feminine subjectivity: the subject of another’s penetrating gaze. But I’ll go one step further and suggest that while ubiquitous surveillance does offer that opportunity, it also creates a new dialectic of subjectivity altogether. Namely, it plays with what social neuroscientists call “Theory of Mind.” ToM is the ability to attribute mental states to others. We observe others and theorize what’s going on behind their eyes. Humans have a whole sensorium devoted to just this: hearing tones of voice, perceiving the motion of eyes and lips, smelling changes in pheremones. But it’s all organic. When confronted by a machine, that system goes haywire and we start either anthropomorphizing to compensate, or tumbling down into the Uncanny Valley. The New Aesthetic seems to be an attempt to generate a third response by re-inscribing both human subjectivity and that of the machine eye.
I say this because not only does the New Aesthetic take as given a heretofore-feminine vulnerability among the humans being surveilled, but also treats the surveilling machine eye as technologically immature and therefore morally innocent. By returning to the blocky, colourful 8-bit world that informed the childhood experience of so many artists of the New Aesthetic, they imbue the surveilling eye with a similar youthful innocence. They have looked into the black dome, and seen their own naiveté reflected in its gleaming surface.
This is another example of magical thinking at work. The same thought process that encourages us to conflate surveillance with security also encourages us to ascribe agency to machines that have none, a habit that Bruce Sterling decried at length in his original critique. As Sterling pointed out, machines are never our friends. But not, I would add, for lack of trying. Adopting the idea that “they’re not bad, they’re just programmed that way,” is a very cute way of eliding the programming itself, which is human, and is rooted in a human agenda. The Celts created art about Orna, the magical talking sword; our development of an aesthetic that does the same for twenty-first century weapons is just the next step in that tradition.
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN, will be available this summer from Angry Robot Books. Her other writing has appeared at BoingBoing, io9, Tor.com, and WorldChanging.
A NOT-SO-NEW AESTHETIC, OR ANOTHER ATTEMPT AT TECHNOLOGICAL TRIUMPHALISM
By Hrag Vartanian
The concept of a “new” aesthetic is arcane. Nothing is new anymore or can ever really be—and by “new” I don’t mean an invention (like an iPhone or translucent concrete) but the sense of something coming before another, something replacing something else in a progression that charts history as a forward thrust in society. The “new” is a refugee of the Modernist era, which hints at some of the flaws of James Bridle’s “New Aesthetic.” But before I get into specifics about this Nouveau—I’m sorry, I mean New Aesthetic, let’s get a few things straight.
Bridle is not a historian, and his memory is short — though to be fair, his own URL, shorttermmemoryloss.com, suggests as much. I don’t know if he lost his memory through smoking weed (I’ve heard this happens, but don’t ask me how, I forget) or perhaps a head injury (walking while precariously texting?), but either way, when he cites sources for the New Aesthetic, he doesn’t look back very far, preferring to see the contemporary through the lens of the recent past (which is easily Googled, I guess). In that way, his New Aesthetic is an updated sense of retro, though retro-present may be more fitting. Joanne McNeil tries to look back beyond the internet for sources for Bridle’s big, nebulous idea, but her history is highly selective and very Western.
The concept of retro is extensively explored by Elizabeth E. Guffey in her book Retro: The Culture of Revival, where she explains:
“Retro’s translation of recent history into consumable objects suggests how previous periods of popular culture and art and design can be used to characterize ourselves as distinct from the recent past.”
It’s a provocative idea, but one that highlights the weakness of this new “new.” The fact that most of Bridle’s examples tend to be products (pixel-covered pillows, planes, umbrellas, shoes … ) is telling, and even when he uses contemporary art, his choices tend to be weak and marginal examples, though with a few exceptions. Gerhard Richter’s stained glass windows at Cologne Cathedral are a standout, but Richter’s work is as much about his own body of art as any digital realities.
Bridle admits his discomfort with the label of the New Aesthetic, but it has stuck—and for good reason, I believe. The term captures the anticipation of the new that drives our consumer culture, as we wait for it every day with bated breath. Even if the New Aesthetic is “real” (whatever that means), it can only ever be one of many parallel ways of seeing, thinking and understanding.
It’s rather telling that Bridle is a designer. Designers are communicators, but not in the way that fine artists are (I don’t believe in strict divisions, but there is a divide nonetheless); they’re communicators in the way marketers are, in that they package the world for ease. Don’t get me wrong, I like easy, but the aesthetic here is one mostly of style and not content. The world they imagine already exists, and it doesn’t look forward but back. Unlike the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who took the science of optics and color and used it to transform art, imagining a world that others didn’t see, the New Aesthetic and its acolytes (if I can call them that) don’t look forward or transform. Instead, they appear to mimic and quote — cough retro cough.
What’s more, to call something a “new aesthetic” would suggest that it supplants something that already exists, but our world is too fragmented for this to happen. To project our visions onto machines is to erase our differences. To allow machines to see us without acknowledging our biases, since we’re the ones who made them, would suggest that identity doesn’t matter. And yet, I would argue it matters more than ever. Nowhere in the discussion of the New Aesthetic does identity play a role. Perhaps those pixels Bridle sees everywhere evoke Islamic tile work, or Appalachian patchwork quilts, or the mosaic of multiculturalism (I’m Canadian, so I had to throw that in). Bridle, by his own admission, is obsessed with the Telehouse server farm in the UK, which is decorated with a pixelated wall. It’s an example of form following function … where have I heard that before?
It’s a tad bizarre that Bruce Sterling, in his much-quoted Wired essay, “An Essay on the New Aesthetic,” compares this idea manufactured by British media designers to those of the Futurists, Impressionists and Cubists. He writes, “There truly are many forms of imagery nowadays that are modern, and unique to this period.” Modern? Even the usage of the word feels like a throwback to another era. Sterling places the New Aesthetic in London, though Bridle never couples geography with the idea. Sterling’s biggest contribution to our understanding of the New Aesthetic is his suggestion that the Modernist project is for the New Aestheticians (can we make it a noun?) “like their Greco-Roman antiquity,” by which I assume he means what Greco-Roman antiquity is to the foundations of Western Civilization, or maybe Euro-American civilization. And, he adds, it’s a generational thing — a young, Western one, it seems.
Where Sterling really goes off the tracks is in his characterization of the New Aesthetic as some sort of avant-garde, while almost apologizing for the oddness of the term to our contemporary ears and eyes. Avant-gardes don’t exist anymore and haven’t for decades. Sterling is a difficult writer. His ideas meander, much like Bridle’s notion of the New Aesthetic. Maybe, in fact, there is no meaning, because it’s only a style; not an aesthetic in the broader sense, but one limited in scope to what has already happened and lacking an ability to dream into the future.
Which brings me to my final point: the false bravado of the New Aesthetic. It’s making a splash but why? Eight-bit looks back to an era where that level of resolution was cutting-edge, pixels highlight the shortcomings of some machines now that we have better ones, blurred objects on digital maps don’t do anything more than fences and barbed wire circling forbidden zones do, and angular camouflage doesn’t really have anything to do with the digital (something McNeil and Sterling both admit). So what’s left?
What if pixels — to take one aspect of the New Aesthetic — today are what chrome and plastic were to the 1960s or the ship-inspired Art Deco of the 1930s? What if the Hawk-Eye analysis in Cricket matches what Bridle cooed about in his talk during Web Directions South 2011 isn’t really any different than photo finishes in horse racing? What if his Where the F**k Was I? book is just tedious and not really very interesting, because I don’t really care where his phone thinks it was?
This repackaging of the digital into the next hot thing echoes our pop-tech culture that promises another life-changing device, app or service every month. It’s this month’s Tumblr, which is last month’s Instagram, or was it next week’s Pinterest? I don’t mean to be flip—wait, I do mean to be flip, and, to quote Gertrude Stein, who wrote about her experience looking for her childhood home in Oakland, California: “there is no there there.” I consider the internet my home in a way that no place has ever been. Looking closely at the New Aesthetic, I’m not sure where the “there” can even be.
Hrag Vartanian is the editor of Hyperallergic and the owner of a brand new tumblelog called The New New Aesthetic that will begin making fun of, he means critiquing, The New Aesthetic on May 6, exactly one year after that tumblelog began.