Most AFC readers have probably heard some of the responses by now to this year’s South by Southwest panel “Seeing Like Digital Devices” in which British technologist James Bridle presented his New Aesthetic project. For the past year, Bridle has been compiling a Tumblr of images, mainly of satellite photos and colorful design objects which look like they’ve been run through a computer (have obvious pixels), alongside emerging trends which humanize robots. Together, things like pixelated camouflage and Transformer porn cartoons illustrate an android’s vision of the world.
The New Aesthetic took off soon after, thanks to a response essay to that panel by respected tech writer Bruce Sterling, hailing it as the new avant-garde. His case for the New Aesthetic as a legit movement was helped by the fact that Bridle’s fellow panelists included a bevy of art-tech public intellectuals: Rhizome Senior Editor Joanne McNeil, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Senior Engineer Aaron Straup Cope, Wired UK Contributing Editor Russell Davies, and the UK Government Digital Service’s Head of Design Ben Terrett.
Sterling’s essay provoked months of more response essays, and responses to those responses. On average, the New Aesthetic seems to get more of a rise from technologists, less with artists, and least with art writers. Critics mostly agree that something’s happening, but feel that the New Aesthetic doesn’t ask the hard questions (Gannis, Chayka, Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho). It needs to get weirder; it needs to move past shared images; it needs to go native; it needs focus. Art writers in particular knocked its remarkably short memory. The arts community seemed nonplussed by the idea of creating a new worldview based on a collection of images. As tech-minded artists like Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho and Carla Gannis have pointed out, art already does that.
After a few months’ lull in the dialogue, Rhizome’s Joanne McNeil arranged another panel at the New Museum called “Stories from the New Aesthetic”. Its makeup showed how much the ongoing public discussion has impacted the project: all three speakers were on the previous talk, at SXSW. Tickets were sold out for a largely student-aged audience. “Artists are starting to make things that look like the Internet,” I heard one someone explain behind me, thus providing my only primer (the handful of people I met afterwards hadn’t heard much more than that). Like Bridle’s essay earlier this year, panelists wandered through the garden of the Internet, cherry-picking what fit the theory; the discussion felt similar to the tailoring of a Tumblr or Pinterest experience. As such, they all looked and sounded the same. Artists were rarely mentioned, but there were a lot of Streetview screenshots.
Aaron Straup Cope (whose full talk you can read here) loosely structured his presentation around the idea that programming reveals something about our own motives. Self-driving cars would have to be preventatively-programmed, for instance, while Siri leaves room for the illusion of new interactions. Looking through technology opens up our view of the world, he argued, pointing to how Instagram filters compel people to post more photos.
But then he extended the idea that we’re just barely keeping on top of technological advancement with the implication that robots can actually see:
There is a larger question of whether our willingness to allow the robots to act of their own accord on [looking for patterns] constitutes de facto seeing but, by and large, we continue to actively side-step that question.
But Cope didn’t have any proof of artificial intelligence, beyond the existence of drones— apparently, self-evident because they appear to drive themselves. As new media documentarian Jonathan Minard, among others, has pointed out, the New Aesthetic’s intrigue hinges on imagining that you’re seeing these images through the sentient eyes and mind of a robot, as though the webcam is looking back. When recalibrated as the human images which these are, we just end up with far more shitty photos and less privacy.
Joanne McNeil (full talk here) described the psychic space created by machines, as revealed in things she did on the Internet, like posting a photo of a jellyfish as a location on Instagram, or fantasy images that are a result of computer programs, like a realistic rendering of a seemingly infinite bookshelf. McNeil mentioned projects like Dora Moutot’s “Webcam Tears” and Clement Valla’s collection of Google Earth glitches (also part of the current show “Collect the WWWorld” at 319 Scholes), but they were treated as vessels to look at Internet trends, rather than intentional creative acts. Like Cope, she flipped between slides of what the camera sees (Google Street View interiors) and dead-on images of the lens: again, literally assigning the camera a personality.
McNeil held no reservations about her motive to promote the project, concluding: “It’s not radical to point out that the digital and the physical co-exist and that they’re layered upon each other, but it is still unusual, and it’s something that we’re experiencing right now….and it’s why I think the New Aesthetic project is quite valuable.” But if we’re going to declare Bridle’s project as significant as the change it documents, then the same could be said of any number of documentary projects—people who are collecting Occupy Wall Street photos, for one. That’s wishful thinking—people rarely get what they deserve in the art world—but you can expect people to deliver. McNeil’s in the business of promoting artists.
New Aesthetic founder James Bridle then seized the stage: wildly gesticulating, he poured forth a double-time of storytelling and slides, interjecting things like “and yet, and yet, and yet!” I get now why Bruce Sterling described the New Aesthetic as being in its “evangelical, podium-pounding phase.”
It’s important to note that, since the SXSW panel, Bridle has been making less of a logical observation than a visceral appeal. He thinks of a Kafka quote in terms of Tumblr:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
You can experience an elite revolution, in other words, without doing anything. The New Aesthetic promises a Whitman-esque romp into the endless scroll, over the pop fetishization of the pre-computer age.
That zeal came through in the sermon. He started out by lecturing us on what he sees as a widespread reluctance to embrace the inevitable. “Nobody talked about the smell of the book until people started worrying about e-books,” he said.
…even though those things were completely irrelevant, but we had nowhere else to put our fears about what actually might happen…that we identified the cultural importance of literature so closely with a physical object that we could only tie it to its physicality.
He told us that, when it comes to books, what people really care about is: the ability to discuss them, to keep your place, a sense of ownership, and the souvenir of your experience with them. E-books, according to Bridle, “haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
But herein lies the problem with the entire panel: no matter how robotic we’re striving to be, market research doesn’t substitute for human experience. Maybe it doesn’t make as much sense to own a physical copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, but the act of reading an e-book is more than gleaning necessary information from row after row of code. Like any object, the book can also be a gift, an heirloom, an antique, a physical record of someone’s life. All that physicality is inconveniently sentimental.
E-books were just one example of how we’d better get with the program before technology eclipses us. Here, Bridle told us about code/spaces: a name professors and co-authors Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge gave to physical locations like airport waiting rooms or the Amazon warehouse that are organized by software, without which, they become totally useless. But should the power shut off as it did a few weeks ago, I still managed to find the temporary subway shuttle without my phone; I asked someone.
Then another slideshow of New Aesthetic-y stuff. Bridle mentioned Clement Valla, who he’s a “huge fan of,” possibly because Valla’s collecting map glitches, which Bridle half-jokingly described as “one of the largest New Aesthetic artworks ever.” Ha, ha. He’s recently filed Sandy images under that moniker, as well. “It doesn’t matter that most of these things are banal. That’s kind of the point,” he told us. Computer systems are so ingrained in our way of seeing the work that the point is to examine how we’re looking, not the actual products of looking. It was the only statement he made that night that showed signs of even searching for revelation, let alone finding one.
But even that is more of an observation than a takeaway. As artist and digital media professor Carla Gannis wrote of the New Aesthetic back in May, “A movement cannot merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions.”
That future materialized in one of Bridle’s more memorable quotes: “Opinions are non-contemporary.” That’s a funny idea to table amongst a panel of speakers who all happened to share one, very strong opinion. Nobody’s changing their mind about what they like; Bridle’s vision seems to diminish empathy more than anything else. Luckily, we were all spared the Q&A, as rows of the audience stood up and walked out as soon as the lights went up.