— 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.
A couple of weeks ago, I popped along to the fourth installment of Muni Diaries Live, a series of talks about the San Francisco public transit (to use the American English) system.
I certainly found it interesting, even though the venue was slightly too full to make it really enjoyable. The talks covered the gamut from sex, to violence, community, songs (in the style of a sea shanty), comedy, and even a segment from the outgoing head of PR for the system. All of the speakers (performers?) were fantastic, even the brave members of the public who had a couple of minutes each after the interval.
The whole thing felt deeply, deeply different to anything I’d imagine in London, where the Tube has (with a very few exceptions) attracts what interest it does from, frankly, engineering nerds. (I count myself firmly in this category.) Perhaps it’s because it’s reliable, and covers most of the city more or less comprehensively. Possibly it’s the famous English reserve, where even after a few minutes stuck in a tunnel the most that’s acceptable is a loud tut or sigh. (It’s the done thing to ignore kids with mobile phone speakers, too, no matter how annoying they are.) It might even be that we just price the crazy people out of the system.
In contrast, in SF it sometimes seems notable if a train deigns to turn up. The buses are full of talkative… eccentrics, let’s say, and the cut-back Metro system means they run at capacity more often. The combination of a lack of engineering variety and a more storied life inside the vehicles seems to have left the city with a heritage of talking about the strange thing that happened the last time you dared to set foot on the 14 Mission.
It’s an interesting change for me, as I struggle to learn anything at all about the Breda-built LRVs that took over from Boeing’s awful mid-’70s stock, and all the more odd given the otherwise deeply geeky outlook of parts of the city. Still, file it under “just another difference.”