On That New Aesthetic
by Adam Robbert
I can’t rightly tell you what it’s about, nor can I really tell you where it’s going. But the New Aesthetic seems worthy of a mention here. Part of me is interested because it puts what media ecologists do into a new light, one perhaps more native to young cultural creatives. Another part of me is interested because a connection with object-oriented ontology has already been made, and the comparison seems apt. Most of me is interested, however, because it’s trying to describe a phenomenon that I see unfolding in San Francisco on a regular basis. Actually, it would probably be more fair to say that the people involved in the New Aesthetic are in the business of creating and manipulating new media ecologies than with studying them from an academic point of view. I think this is worthy of some attention.
The New Aesthetic seems to have its roots in London (with a tumblr as its homebase HERE) and is only making waves in the states after a showing at SXSW — the annual music, art, and technology event held in Austin, Texas every year. Bruce Sterling seems to have written the touchstone essay on the topic HERE with a range of response essays already online HERE and some further comments and criticisms HERE. In his essay, Sterling writes, “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’” and that,
This is one of those moments when the art world slides over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical. This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality. These things occur. They often take a while to blossom. Sometimes they’re as big and loud as Cubism, sometimes they perish like desert roses mostly unseen. But they always happen for good and sufficient reasons. Our own day has those good and sufficient reasons.
The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is. There are ways to make that stark, lava-covered ground artistically fertile and productive. Lush, humanistic, exotic crops will grow from that smoking, ashy techno-rubble of ours, someday. I live to think so. I’m all for that prospect. It’s exhilarating to see such things attempted, especially in a small auditorium before the straights catch on.
There’s a sense that this movement (if one can even call it that) is part of a larger effort to understand and create media in new ways. In San Francisco I find myself elbow to elbow with a technology-driven, mobile workforce. At coffee shops the city over these kids (some of them younger than me) are creating start-ups, working for tech companies, building apps, designing websites and largely designing the infrastructure that the rest of the world calls the internet. Surely this all has to do with the proximity of Google, Twitter, Apple, and the rest of silicon valley (all within an hour’s radius of each other) and so the corporate structure still casts a long shadow over the whole city.
But many of these kids are plugged into something else. It’s not just that San Francisco’s designers and programers are into technology; they’re also obsessed with retro, nostalgia, veganism, localism, camp, and low-fi photography made on HD cameras. I think there is something about this brand of urban localism (as pretentious as it can be) that’s forging an interesting connection between the DIY movement and the tech movement. It took me awhile to link my interest in media ecology with what was happening in cafés in the Mission district, but then it finally hit me — these kids are in the business of making things. I didn’t see it as such because where I see colored lines of code on a computer screen, these techies see objects and things; real entities about to be unleashed in the world.
To be sure, most of these new things are probably irrelevant pieces of cultural detritus, more junk polluting the mental atmosphere; but some of these creations will go on to implicate themselves in everything from national revolutions to philosophy movements. Ian Bogost’s programming background and his new book Alien Phenomenology: Or What It’s Like to be a Thing makes a lot more sense in this context. One commentator has already made the connection with the New Aesthetic:
The New Aesthetic is a visible eruption of the mutual empathy between us and a class of new objects that are native to the 21st century. It consists of visual artifacts we make to help us imagine the inner lives of our digital objects and also of the visual representations produced by our digital objects as a kind of pigeon language between their inaccessible inner lives and ours. It’s the trace of interaction designers, surveillance drones, gesture recognition systems, fashion designers, image compression techniques, artists, CCTV networks, and filmmakers all “wondering about one another without getting confirmation.”
That last line is a quote from Bogost’s book, an exciting new addition to the OOO canon. Object-Oriented Ontology is, like the New Aesthetic, something substantially rooted in, but certainly not limited to, the internet and I don’t think anyone quite understands what these new mediums are doing to thought just yet. We have no McLuhan of the global theory object. In the end maybe we’re not dealing with a singular movement based in London (it’s hard to suggest what “based in” even means in this context) so much as a postnational attempt to grapple with the new media ecologies we find ourselves, for better or worse, immersed in.