It’s been months since Bruce Sterling delivered his endnote talk at SXSW, and there have been furious conversations about The New Aesthetic. If we take the replies by Watz et al on the Thecreatorsproject blog as an indication, there is a bit of dismissal of the idea from my interpretation. However, I am still drunk on the kool-aid, but why? I still believe that a cultural chord was struck that is a result of extant developments in contemporary digital art of the 2000’s that lead right to The New Aesthetic blog, or something like it. Where I and others argue that The New Aesthetic might be a non-movement, I would like to re-imagine that it is actually indicative of other cultural phenomena and New Media proto-movements. These have to do with issues of curation, precedents in New Media “movements”, and the shape of culture in New Media society. Where I think Bridle et al might have done a disservice to the idea of NA is through a partial superficiality in the case of a subject, while ephemeral, is not superficial at all.
Why? It is for the reason that in the current day and age, ephemerality is often mistaken for superficiality. Net.culture by default is mercuric, and technoculture is typified by the fact that things like the iPad and tablets have become nearly ubiquitous within two years of the technology’s emergence. This is reflected in online culture, through the torrent (pun intended) of images spilling through social media like blogs, Facebook, image boards, and tumblrs like The New Aesthetic. Love or hate it, what Bridle describes with some inarticulation is a phenomenology of this torrent of images as an aesthetic and their generation by technology.
“I’ll just leave this here” Machine Vision, New Forms of Curation, and The New Aesthetic
What do I mean by this? There are two aspects of NA that are germane to describing it – the machine eye and a particular form of human curation. The first is well documented by Bridle and the comments on thecreatorsproject – there are several flavors of machine creation or acquisition of images. As mentioned elsewhere, this includes surveillance, drone images, intentional corruption of digital media (“glitch”), and generative images, to name a few. I would also like to add the phenomena encountered through the use of search engines to correlate images, which can be considered as a form of meta-vision. All of these have been aptly described as sets of practices that are more akin to driving a nail as culture continues to fly in a ballistic arc than taking a definitive all-encompassing stance. The second has to do with mass curation in social media, a subject that has been the subject of recent books. But there is an intersection of two key elements, which I will pin together next.
Models of these forms of social curation include Facebook, “surfing clubs”, and even imageboards like 4chan.org. While considering 4chan and its reputation as being the home of the memetic dregs of the Internet, it also represents one of the purest forms of net.curation, and that is the curation of anonymity. “I’ll just leave this here” is a common comment posted by 4chan denizens who post images, but two things are manifest when this occurs. First, something is being left, and that thing was chosen as being intrinsically of some interest or provocation, thus implying intent of interest or value and therefore creates a curatorial gesture, even if it is banal. Human selection is not random, despite claims to randomness. This is evident in New Media art projects called “Internet Surfing Clubs”, which are predecessors to the NA tumblr, and so on.
The Curatorial model that the NA tumblr seems to be based on, albeit singularly rather than group, lies in collectives like Nastynets and Double Happiness. These are/were “Internet Surfing Clubs”, which drew from New Media art phenomena like Dirtstyle, early Glitch, and Digital Minimalism. These take memes, 8-bit graphics, “blingy” graphics (a hallmark of Dirtstyle) and document them in an endless blogroll, typifying the stated torrent of various images. The curatorial practice of the found varies from Nastynets archiving of memetic and glitchy graphics to Cory Arcangel’s exhibition of a “found” Photoshop preset in the “Younger than Jesus” exhibition at the New Museum. In addition, Nastynets’ blogroll was also featured in the Sundance Festival’s New Horizons exhibition in 2009. This sets up a recent precedent for Bridle, and also shows the rapid, fluid nature of social curation as a model for the first decade of the 2000’s. Another key point to consider is that when considering 4chan, Youtube, Nastynets, and so on, curation is not dead. Curation has furcated and multiplied, varying from the more traditional sorts to purely anonymous, “like” and thread-based curation, which is of a radically different form from extant models. Perhaps the “Let me just…” model of curation is divergent enough from the conventional that is sets up a cultural dissonance.
Nastynets, Double Happiness, Dirtstyle and others have purported to locate themselves as movements (the first two as “surfing clubs”, and the latter as a movement in itself), and are precedents for The New Aesthetic as a movement, although a movement that documents an ephemerality. This is in line with Marius Watz’ issue with “The Problem With Perpetual Newness” that echoes concerns with the use of “new” in a movement, including New Media and the Neue Sachlichtheit (New Objectivity), the latter of which is over 80 years old of as of this writing. New as a quality and new as a designator are often in dissonance with one another, and n this writer’s opinion are a result of a conflation rather than a misnomer. It’s a problem to call something “New” with the understanding that what one is describing is eventually going to be “New” for perpetuity.
Lastly, there seems to be a problem with the idea of NA as a movement that curatorially follows the model of “Let me just leave this here…” Historically, movements like Futurism or Surrealism are thought of as weighty, manifesto-laden projects that engage in radical social agendas. Surfing Clubs, Dirtstyle, and The New Aesthetic look comparatively frivolous. I think that the comparison between the First and what I have called the Third-Wave Avant Garde of New Media (the Second Wave being Pop, AbEx, et al) do not reveal inconsequentiality but the shape of culture.
The differences between the fin de siècle and fin de millennium are fundamental, as are those between the 50’s and 60’s and the 2000’s. What is being compared is the monolithic aesthetics of High Modernism, shifting to the shattering of those protocols by people like Hamilton and Warhol. This progresses to where there is almost a cultural plethora of brief movements and groups that pop up and evaporate. Vast concurrences and pluralities in net.culture and the hit-and-run aspect of its nature, begging us to refer once again to the difference from the monolithic nature of the museum to the rhizomatic nature of the Web, mainly reflects the shape of culture in the age of The New Aesthetic. It is ephemeral, or provides assaults/streams of images in the hundreds or thousands at a time. But there is something worth considering.
The New Aesthetic did not come out of the blue, as Watz put so well. It is the result of a series of cultural shifts and artistic projects that have been codified in Bridle, et al’s project. As I have said before, net/techno culture is developing so quickly at the turn of the millennium it has an inherently ephemeral nature, and “movements” as such represent that, as movements reflect the cultural contexts of their time. Therefore, while much of the commentary regarding The New Aesthetic hits the mark, I feel that there is also much more to it than, “Let me just put this here…” However, the nature of movements are far less monumental, as even things like Relationalism (Borriaud) and Superflat (Murakami) seem like projects. Movements like Surfing Clubs and Dirtstyle merely exhibit an ephemerality that are indicative of the cultural context of the technological acceleration of the time.
I think that is why I am still interested in The New Aesthetic. Perhaps I should remain curious for the conceptual year after the Sterling address to reflect the year that Bridle managed his blog. It seems oddly appropriate.