The New Aesthetic needs to get weirder

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 777 Dreamliner to contemplate?

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.

From the vantage point of alien phenomenology, I would issue several challenges to the New Aesthetic that might draw it closer to the speculative object-oriented philosophy that I advocate.

Look beyond humans and computers.

Borenstein may be right that New Aesthetic strives toward a new conception of relations between things in the world. But for now, the New Aesthetic is exclusively interested in computers on the one hand and humans on the other.

In David M. Berry's words, it "revels in seeing the grain of computation," the exhaust of computer activity that courses through the non-computational world. Some of these examples are created by humans, like pixelated pillows. Some are created for computers, like the fiducial markers that facilitate computer vision. And some are created by computers, like the satellite images that let us see a familiar world in an unfamiliar way.

These are lovely examples, but they are selective ones. It's true that computers are a particularly important and influential kind of thing in the world, and indeed I myself have spent most of my career pondering how to use, make, and understand them. But they are just one thing among so many more: airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, the Boeing 777 Dreamliner, the brand name 'TaB.' Why should a new aesthetic interested only in the relationship between humans and computers, when so many other relationships exist just as much? Why stop with the computer, like Marinetti foolishly did with the race car?

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An alien toaster pastry. Or something. flickr/newbirth.

Take the experience of objects seriously.

Despite its acknowledgement of computers as weird artifacts that have taken on lives of their own, the New Aesthetic is still primarily interested in human experience. That is to say, the aesthetics of the New Aesthetic are human aesthetics, appearances and interactions that we people can experience and that, in so doing, trouble our understanding of what it means to live in the twenty-first century.

But computers and oil derricks and toaster pastries share our universe and our century, even if their experience of that time and place is unfathomably different than our own. The New Aesthetic stops short of becoming an object-oriented aesthetics partly by limiting itself to computational media, and partly by absconding with the lessons of object-aesthetics into the realm of human concern.

Sterling criticizes the New Aesthetic's desire to make amends with the machines that increasingly rule us. "Machines are never our friends," he says, "even if they're intimates in our purses and pockets eighteen hours a day." Sterling is right, but he paints a bleaker picture than is necessary. The problem isn't that computers are going to rise up and take over, but that we do not and will never understand computers on their own terms. We will never understand them as computers. We will never understand the experience of computers as computers experience things. Nor anything else, for that matter--bats, dolphins, automobiles, or bags of Frito-Lay Garden Salsa Sun Chips.

Being withdraws from access. There is always something left in reserve, in a thing. The best we can do as humans is to respect the hidden mystery of the experience of things, and speculate metaphorically about how an object like a computer or a pound cake encounters the world.

Make collecting an aesthetic strategy.

The New Aesthetic embraces an unusual creative technique: aggregation. It rejects the demands of the manifesto in favor of the indiscriminateness of the collection. Like any mess, it's a bit ghastly to look upon. Sterling calls it a "gaudy, network-assembled heap made of digitized jackstraws." From Hummel figurines to tumblr image blogs, collecting has a long history of kitschiness.

But collecting doesn't have to be this way. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the web writ large have trained us to think of collections as eternal piles of ever-growing content. In a world where businesses small and large are built on ever-growing sets of data, we've trained ourselves to think of more stuff as better. Merely collecting things isn't aesthetics, its just avarice.

Bridle appears to abdicate his role as convener when he calls The New Aesthetic a "series of artifacts" rather than a movement, but drawing no distinction is but one step away from making any distinction whatsoever. Cataloging becomes an aesthetic strategy when it involves curation. And curating so much material for an indeterminate time doesn't really amount to curation at all.

The compendium is a better model than the aggregate. A list of things is most useful when it is large enough to show diversity and juxtaposition, but small enough to provide coherence: a tiny bestiary, not an infinite zoo.

I've suggested the term ontography as a name for creating lists, groups, or other collections of things for the purpose of documenting the repleteness under one tiny rock of existence. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory: it can take the form of lists, photographs, collections, even tumblrs, perhaps, with enough practice. Collection is aesthetically productive, but a collection that strives to trace an asymptote toward infinity creates obligation instead of clarity.

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A selection of toothbrushes held by children. From a Library of Congress collection of outdoor schools.

Make things for understanding things, not just for human use.

Most of the examples Bridle and others showcase as examples of the New Aesthetic were created intentionally. Some were found (data visualizations, tweet aggregations) some were created by accident (glitches, computer vision fiducials), and some were created deliberately (pixelated industrial designs, sensor disruption devices). Borenstein argues that New Aestheticians are most interested in the way computational objects impact our lived experience: "They want to know what CCTV means for social networks, what book scanning means for iOS apps, and what face detection means for fashion."

These applications are both sober and interesting. Our devices are not just connected to us but to one another as well. Part of the New Aesthetic involves inventing (and disrupting) the connections between computational media.

Yet, we could take this challenge further than the New Aesthetic suggests. As it stands, Borenstein is only half right: New Aestheticians are mostly interested in CCTV for social networks for people. It's understandable; and the technologists that comprise the New Aesthetic are used to making things for people--most of them spend their days as paid consultants and designers, after all. But from my perspective as a philosopher as much as a designer, once we start paying attention to the secret lives of things, we have to resist drawing the conclusion that they exist for our benefit--even if we ourselves created them.

The things we make in and beyond the bounds of the New Aesthetic might have different goals: not art that helps us couple machines to one another, but philosophical lab equipment that helps us grasp, as best we can, the experience of objects themselves. I've called this practice carpentry, making things that speculate how things understand their world. Carpentered objects need not be fashioned from wood, but they bear the same mark of hand-manufacture, care, and craft--not just the craft of the artist, but the way that craftwork helps reveal how things fashion one another, and the world at large.

* * *

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The Tableau Machine.

If anything, the New Aesthetic is curious, and these days curiosity is a virtue in short supply. But an overabundance of caution meant to preserve that curiosity, its proponents have abandoned some of the immodesty that earned earlier artistic movements the label avant-garde.

For one part, an arbitrary focus on computational systems is to blame. In one of many nonplussed responses to the New Aesthetic's newfound status as meme, the interaction designer Natalia Buckley observes that, "we already live in the reality where digital and physical are beginning to blend." But whether one is pro- or contra-New Aesthetic, isn't it bizarre to think that digital and physical are necessary or even logical spheres into which to split the universe? Is this not just another repeat of the nature/culture divide that has haunted all of modernity?

Computers may seem to have taken over for puppies, OLEDs blinking at us longingly as if to affirm their consciousness. But neither computers nor computationalists are so special as we believe. Why couldn't a group of pastry chefs found their own New Aesthetic, grounded in the slippage between wet and dry ingredients? Computers are interesting, influential, and important, but they are just one thing among many. Just one tiny corner of a very large universe.

For another part, the New Aesthetic fails the ultimate test of novelty: that of disruption and surprise. Misguided as they may seem a century hence, avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada were not celebrating industrialism nor lamenting war so much as they were replacing familiar principles with unfamiliar ones on the grounds that the familiar had failed. The New Aesthetic is not surprising, but expected. After all, the artists now wield the same data access APIs, mapping middleware, and computer vision systems as the corporations. In some cases, the artists are the corporations.

A really new aesthetics might work differently: instead of concerning itself with the way we humans see our world differently when we begin to see it through and with computer media that themselves "see" the world in various ways, what if we asked how computers and bonobos and toaster pastries and Boeing 777 Dreamliners develop their own aesthetics. The perception and experience of other beings remains outside our grasp, yet available to speculation thanks to evidence that emanates from their withdrawn cores like radiation around the event horizon of a black hole. The aesthetics of other beings remain likewise inaccessible to knowledge, but not to speculation--even to art.

Here's an example that demonstrates the friction point between the New Aesthetic and the Alien Aesthetic: Tableau Machine, a nonhuman social actor created by Mario Romero, Zachary Pousman, and Michael Mateas in the Aware Home at Georgia Tech. Romero and his collaborators hoped to disrupt the assumption that ubiquitous computing is good for task support. Instead they created an "alien presence," a computational agent that interprets the state of a home and reports its results in the form of abstract art.

Tableau Machine is a work of computational media, there's no doubt about that. But here the computer is just that, a medium, the wood and glue in a work of carpentry that offers a speculative, metaphorical view of the home rather than the computer itself. Like many projects of the New Aesthetics, Tableau Machine uses computer vision, but it does not do so to predict or encourage particular behaviors on the part of individual human actors, nor to reveal the curious method by which a computer sees (as we see in Timo Arnall's Robot Readable World).

Tableau Machine takes for granted that the home itself is a unit, one distinct from but inclusive of its kitchen, living room, dining room, and hallways. Its creators surmise that the home can perceive, but they add an additional presumption: a home's perception is unfathomable by its human occupants. Instead of understanding it, the best we can do is trace the edges of its dark noise, producing a caricature of its experience in a form we can recognize. In Tableau Machine's case, the rendition is literally caricature, that of abstract art.

But even Tableau Machine is a transitional example--more alien phenomenology than alien aesethetics. It produces two-dimensional abstract art suitable for human consumption in order to look awry at the way a home perceives. It offers a speculative account of the experience of a home, but it doesn't quite crack the harder, weirder question, "what does a home find beautiful?"

Is such a question even answerable? If so, this Alien Aesthetics would not try to satisfy our human drive for art and design, but to fashion design fictions that speculate about the aesthetic judgments of objects. If computers write manifestos, if Sun Chips make art for Doritos, if bamboo mocks the bad taste of other grasses--what do these things look like? Or for that matter, when toaster pastries convene conferences or write essays about aesthetics, what do they say, and how do they say it?

I wonder, for example, what James Bridle's tumblr makes of all this...





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