— molly w steenson (@maximolly) April 7, 2012
So now we’re seeing augmented reality, we’re seeing Kinect, we’re seeing Geoloqi and the Internet of Things, and yes it all feels very “now” but it doesn’t feel that much like the future because it’s just taking too long for technology to catch up to our imaginations.
Klint Finley, The New Aesthetic and Future Fatigue
I think Molly and Klint are wrong, but also right.
The New Aesthetic isn’t a movement in the sense of a school or a group¹, which might be an impossibility now, in the networked age. There’s nobody who identifies as a New Aesthetic artist (or at least, nobody that I’ve seen who’d claim the label, and anyway, artists tend to resist pigeonholing). That’s probably because, yes, it’s an externally defined set of things (with James Bridle as its loose decider-in-chief), and also because it doesn’t just include art. I doubt the photographer or designer of these items (plucked from the NA tumblr / scrapbook) thought of themselves as being part of a school any more than the designer behind the Bjorn Borg geometric underwear did, but they seem to fit anyway.
Perhaps the art critics who are now posting around the subject will decide that it is actually a group, or they’ll dismiss it as just a collection of unrelated stuff. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, yes, the New Aesthetic isn’t so much about the new as the present, and the reality catching up with the visions of the future that have been part of science fiction (and wider (pop?) culture) for years. That said, to me, it’s still exciting, because so much of society is stuck in a complex loop of nostalgia. As Phil Gyford said,
We don’t want people in fifty years’ time to think of 2011 in terms of what we were nostalgic for. That would be like only remembering the 1980s for Levi’s 1950s inspired adverts rather than for, say, DX7s and ZX Spectrums.
Let’s face it, much of pop culture (let alone high culture) hasn’t realised we live in a differently-mediated world. Instead of writing plots that realise everyone has a mobile phone (let alone a smartphone), lazy writers have failing batteries or “signal jamming”; something like the way the BBC/Moffat Sherlock uses on-screen overlays for SMSes feels like it’s smart, when it should perhaps be inevitable. (At the same time, the most popular UK TV export to the US recently? Downton Abbey, set a century ago.)
Meanwhile, Gibson’s near-past novels still feel like science fiction, while modern literary fiction is either ignoring technology in the present day or resorting to historical fiction (the winner of more recent British book prizes than I care to think about).
Against this backdrop (especially in Britain, where nostalgia runs rife, be it for the Victorian “glory days” of Empire, the standing-alone defiance of WW2, or the white-hot technological future of concrete, Concorde and the APT²) the new aesthetic - whether it ends up being long-running, coherent, or otherwise “successful” - is perhaps worth celebrating as a radical seizure of the present, which even if it’s not looking forward, is at least something compared to getting trapped in an eternal past.
¹ At some point I need to consider the net.art group and what they mean and imply for the NA. I’m not quite there yet.
² I’m as guilty, if not more so, of falling for the allure of this retro-future as anyone.
This week has seen an explosion of writing about James Bridle’s new-aesthetic project (if one may call it that), from Bruce Sterling’s essay, through calls to politics, references to art history, and riffs on music. Finally, today, there was a collection of responses from several artists on the Creators Project blog (as referenced here earlier).
I found that interesting, because when I visited the Creators Project show in San Francisco in the middle of March, I found it one of the biggest outbreaks of new-aesthetic I’ve seen in a while; probably since decode at the V&A in late 2009 (although Talk To Me definitely had its moments too). In particular, there were a number of works - Strata #4 by Quayola and Overscan by Sosolimited spring to mind - that seem to me to really sum to embody parts of the NA “thing”, whatever it is.
Strata #4 is a work that uses scans of Flemish classics in the collection of the Palais de Beaux Arts in France as a starting point for an animation based on polygonal deformations. It’s probably easier to watch the video, but it certainly ties in to the sort of low-res rendering some have connected with NA. Meanwhile, Overscan was easy to overlook, as it’s designed for a bar, not an exhibition space. It consists of five screens, one showing live TV, with the other four processing that data in different ways: showing visualisations based on word usage (from the closed captioning / subtitles), face detection, image manipulation, and so on. It’s a lovely piece that, like Strata #4, is easier to watch than describe.
That’s just two of the dozen or so projects that were on display, which (naturally) varied in quality, longevity, and impact, but which generally felt like some sort of now, if not some kind of future. Some of the friends I went with were annoyed that the event had been bundled with talks and music, but I think my regret was that this wasn’t an exhibition that ran for a couple of months in a museum (SFMOMA, or perhaps San Jose’s Museum of Art) so that there would be time for word of mouth to get people interested.
Perhaps the point of this is that the collection of new-aesthetic works and influences on Tumblr is a recognition that this stuff is already out there, and that if a curator (as in, someone actually employed by a museum, as opposed to the looser internet definition) decided to organise an exhibition at an established venue, the work needed would be out there. There’s already a movement- it just didn’t have a name.