The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder

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The New Aesthetic is an art movement obsessed with the otherness of computer vision and information processing. But Ian Bogost asks: why stop at the unfathomability of the computer's experience when there are airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to contemplate?dutchlandscape_615.jpg

From Mishka Henner's "Dutch Landscapes" series. Via new-aesthetic.tumblr.com.

You know that art has changed when a new aesthetic movement announces itself not with a manifesto, but with a tumblr. Manifestos offer their grievances and demands plainly, all at once, on a single page--not in many hundred entries. "Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy, and slumber," wrote Filippo Marinetti in his 1909 Futurist Manifesto. "We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist." The stakes are clear: out with idleness and chatter, in with speed and violence.

You'll find no such gripes or hopes in James Bridle's modest microblog "The New Aesthetic," which has recently enjoyed considerable attention thanks to a panel at the SXSW interactive conference, a Wired essay response by Bruce Sterling, and a series of responses to both at The Creators Project--not to mention dozens more replies all around the web.

Recent noise and attention notwithstanding, compare Bridle's original, phlegmatic blog post on the New Aesthetic to Marinetti's feverish immodesty. "We want to glorify war," the latter writes, still proudly ignorant of the Great War that would turn the Dadaists against art entirely. Bridle, by contrast, doesn't exalt or rebuff, but opens up a file folder: "For a while now, I've been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future."

Here's a weird thing a computer left behind. It's a good start.

Bridle's initial collection included satellite images, superimposed digital and physical maps, physical goods that look like pixel art, and real shoes made to look as if they were low-polygon 3D renders. His tumblr--the closest thing to an official record of New Aesthetics--offers even more curiosities. A screenshot of a Flickr search for broken Kindle e-readers. A list of tweets announcing the surprising discovery that the Titanic was a real ocean-liner and not just a film. A histogram of player moods while playing Xbox Live. A Wells Fargo ATM that laments having missed a customer's birthday.

What is the New Aesthetic? One accurate answer would be: things James Bridle posts to its tumblr. Another doubled as the subtitle for Bridle's SXSW panel, and it amounts to a generalization of the same thing: "seeing like digital devices." Pixel art, data visualizations, computer vision sensor aids--these are the worldly residue that computers have left behind as they alter our lived experience: "Some architects can look at a building and tell you which version of autodesk was used to create it."

Marinetti discovered Futurism after driving his car into a ditch outside Milan. Avant-garde art used to work like that, as exception, rupture, dissidence. When it wasn't formalist, it was political--for better and for worse: Marinetti was an early affiliate of the Italian Fascist Party, while Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and their Dada compatriots made anti-art that rejected the nationalism and colonialism that they perceived to be the root causes of the Great War.

But today's world is one of inclusion rather than exception. The New Aesthetic doesn't have individual effects, but only aggregated ones, just as a technology startup can't serve a niche audience but only the largest one possible. Bridle insists that it "is not a movement." A movement draws a line in the sand, but an aggregator collects seashells. Instead of drawing up dictates he pins curiosities to his digital pinboard. In a century, art has evolved from caprice into bric-a-brac. The Futurists crashed cars; the New Aestheticians assemble scrapbooks.

There's an honesty to it. As Sterling writes, "Look at those images objectively. Scarcely one of the real things in there would have made any sense to anyone in 1982, or even in 1992. People of those times would not have known what they were seeing with those New Aesthetic images. It's the news, and it's the truth."

He's right, there's something refreshingly humble about the New Aesthetics. "Here's a thing," it says, as so many of us do when we email or tweet or blog or Facebook a curiosity. Here's a weird thing a computer left behind. It's a good start.

* * *

Yet, to my eyes, the New Aesthetic could use a dose of good, old-fashioned twentieth century immodesty. Not naïve fascism or impulsive radicalism, but bigger eyes, larger hopes, weirder goals. Sterling shares this impression: "a heap of eye-catching curiosities don't constitute a compelling worldview."

Among the Creators Project authors who responded to Sterling's essay was Greg Borenstein, an artist and researcher who currently specializes in computer vision. Contra Sterling's skepticism, Borenstein exudes optimism: "I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world."

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A magnifying glass holding a fork bent by a magician. Alexis Madrigal

In his essay, Borenstein connects the New Aesthetics to a trend in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a movement of which I myself am a part (along with Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Tim Morton). If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. OOO contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally--plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. OOO steers a path between scientific naturalism and social relativism, drawing attention to things at all scales and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much as ourselves.

My version of object-oriented ontology, outlined in my new book Alien Phenomenology, or What it's Like to Be a Thing, concerns the experience of objects. What is it like to be a bonobo or a satellite or a pixel?

There's a reason I start from aliens instead of computers, and from phenomenology instead of aesthetics. We usually understand alien either in a political or a cosmological sense: a terrestrial alien is a foreigner from another country, and an extraterrestrial alien is a foreigner from another planet. Even when used philosophically to refer to otherness more generally, aliennness is assumed to be a human-legible intersubjectivity. The other is someone we can recognize as enough like ourselves to warrant identification. 

But the true alien might be unrecognizable; it might not have an intelligence akin to our intelligence, or even one we could recognize as intelligence. Rather than wondering if alien beings exist in the cosmos, let's assume that they are all around us, everywhere, at all scales. Everything is an alien to everything else. It is ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another, but we can speculate about the withdrawn, inner experience of things based on a combination of evidence--the exhaust they leave behind--and poetics--the speculative work we do to characterize that experience.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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