A lot of talk has become of this topic amongst the tech and art worlds, and I have to confess it has been interesting to see the reaction on the topic. Something about “The New Aesthetic” ideas and discussions, for me, have been on my mind for a little while, and thought I would put them down. I’m certainly no academic and perfectly happy to be corrected if wrong (or to be completely ignored!), and I’m sure that the world doesn’t need another piece written about it. Anyway, if you are interested, carry on below …
Firstly, to those who want a general catch-up with current discussion of the subject, I would recommend reading the first half of the article “The Banality of The New Aesthetic” by Robert Jackson for Furtherfield, in particular it’s opening paragraph:
It’s a bizarre thing when you stumble upon the “new art movement” filtering through discursive chatter. Is it actually a movement, or is it simply a bunch of like-minded individuals telling me its a movement?
Behold The New Aesthetic then - a new art meme in visual culture whimsically constructed by James Bridle, which manifests itself in a Tumblr blog, a presentation for Web Directions South, Sydney and an original blog post. Recent attention to it has reached feverish proportions coming off the back of a SXSW panel in March and a generally positive endorsement by Bruce Sterling in Wired, plus some group responses on the creators project. More recently, the computational media scholar and philosopher Ian Bogost has posted his own thoughts for The Atlantic.
I do follow the the blog itself, and have even submitted a few findings myself. The idea’s spokesperson, James Bridle, is by some accounts a nice guy, and his Tumblr blog does have some interesting entries. After the coverage of the SXSW talk though, I did have an odd reaction to it. Initially, I couldn’t believe there was now a realization that ‘new’ had arrived, a fresh visual grammar born from digital technology had entered the real pheonomological realm. Something like this was apparent to anyone paying attention at least five years ago (at the earliest). Writers such as William Gibson, whose 21st century work, was documenting and crafting narratives from weird cultural phenomena from the technological and digital worlds, Douglas Coupland the decade before it. Mathematical visual experiments written in Java, then later in Flash and Processing from the Generative Art field. Playstation polygons and it’s predecesors. Faulty digital satellite / cable television. The filters from Photoshop from the mid to late 90s. The work of The Designer’s Republic. Web 1.0 maths enthusiasts creating animated GIFs. Geographic CD-ROMS. Japanese video game culture and it’s crossover to the mainstream. The webcam. Internet relationships. Internet cafes. Hell, even The Black Eyed Peas have an album cover with pixel art … I couldn’t take this seriously … the term “New Aesthetic” made me think of it as some imaginary 80s indie art-school electronic pop group with cross-over appeal … I then felt more cynical … how could a subject for coffee-session discussion, branded with a snappy book title name, in front of a smaller but more influential collection of people be considered ‘the new big thing’?
Arrogant and over-the-top I know for someone who isn’t any kind of authority on subjects like this … I thought about this and attempted reconsideration. The results are part of an internal debate, questioning my own assumptions, the circles of thought , caffeine and pauses. At best, though, it should be considered amateur punditry.
Looking at some of the discussion around it, some can be described as ‘bitchy’, and looks as if there is a division between the digital creatives and the academics - the creatives don’t want to be shoe-horned into a label, yet the academics are excited at the potential for fresh discussion. It is easy to see why both sides would react in the ways they have. I also see why there could be a need to stop looking at it with 20th century thought, as well as question my own reactions, however there maybe a case that the millennial milestone is an obstruction in perspective - much of the technology and concerns of this idea has a legacy dating from the mid-1970s onwards. Just as errors were made in art criticism at the beginning of the 20th century, there is the potential that the same mistakes could be made. An immediate example that comes to mind were the labelling of ‘Cubism’ and ‘Fauvism’ by the critics and journalists of the time, despite the fact that ‘Cubism’ wasn’t about ‘cubes’ and ‘Fauvism’ wasn’t about, errr, ‘Fauves’. Both practices had it’s bandwagoners creating work on a misunderstanding. I do feel there is a huge potential for miseducation and misrepresentation, even if it is just (at the moment) a meme.
It’s well known that it all started with a Tumblr blog, a simple space sharing of content without accompanying criticism - on the face of it could look like many Tumblr blogs out there. It might as well be called Fuck Yeah! Actor-Network Technology! or Fuck Yeah! Computational Media! for featuring such examples of GPS data visualizations, internet / real-world irony, polygon sculptures and pixel fashion, and others.
It is only the ‘About’ page that gives any indication of any motivation:
Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them.
The New Aesthetic is not a movement, it is not a thing which can be done. It is a series of artifacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our overlapping but distant realities.
To my relief, I totally agree (despite it’s reactions) that it isn’t a movement at all. However, I find the ‘The …’ aspect completely arrogant in it’s affirmation. If it was ‘A New Aesthetic’, then maybe I could be more forgiving, with a sympathetic approach to possibilities rather than an absolute.
Then Bruce Sterling, in his well-known essay for WIRED, says this:
The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”
The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.
I have to say, I don’t agree with this - it is far from “crowdsourcey”, “open-sourced” and “triumph-of-amateurs” - at the moment, apart from the blog, is really only expanded at talks in exclusive influential conferences and an informal think tank within London. As said earlier, there is much resistance of adoption by many creatives who do not see their work to be ‘framed’ within something considered an academic buzzcept which is now reduced and tagged with a #hashtag.
So, what do I think is happening now? Well, sure, it is fair to consider something happening different, particularly in the past ten years or so. My take on it, though, is not the emergence of ‘A New Aesthetic’ but an ongoing ‘discourse’ stretching back to roughly the mid 1970s, one related to developing and re-invented technology, it’s adoption, use, and understanding of it, and it’s creative or disruptive feedback, and what we are seeing right now is the product of an improved digital literacy and legacy. That, I feel, is far more important point of consideration than a juxtaposition of enigmatically connected pieces of an opaque puzzle (although I do not see a need for a black-and-white definitive answer either). If anything, what is more weirder to comprehend is discovering what can be considered technically modern was in fact practiced and researched before. Digital camoflage, device-less interfaces, GPS and wide area networks are examples of technologies emerged from the 70s. Sure, a lot of things have altered in the time between then and now, but ideas of ‘new-ness’ have to be reconsidered.
For all it’s worth though, I have to say I’m glad a discussion is taking place right now about this subject. While I have been critical and unconvinced so far by the events I have been referring to, it has made me think of what can be done now before what could possibly be needed or welcomed to bridge the gap between the creatives and the academics. My suggestion would be for a modern take on John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”, for machines in out current ‘Black Mirror’ age.
Due to time, I’m unable to cover some over areas I wished to, such as a brief technological time-line of important developments and industries which I believe have led to the current visual literacy we are experiencing, and the bias of Western influence in the findings (coverage of Asian, digitally saturated countries, particularly Japanese and Korean origin, is limited to translated news pieces), or other types of aesthetics such as Mirror-World nostalgia (William Gibson’s idea of ‘Mirror World’ is of the familiarity yet difference in foreign countries with technology, such as electric plug sockets or which side of the road to drive in), but I better leave it there. I miss sharing stuff on my Tumblr …