The Real New Aesthetic
I’m fascinated by the New Aesthetic. And yet, I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is. I suppose any aesthetic movement defies a crisp definition. Can you really tell where Impressionism ends and Postimpressionism begins? The crude definition I’m happy with for now is that the New Aesthetic tries to capture the ways in which the world of the digital ethereal spills into the world of the physical material.
There are problems with pegging your aesthetic to technology though. It moves too fast. For example, the earliest NA pieces were heavily influenced by digitization and quantization, the fundamental process by which physically continuous objects are ingested into the discrete digital universe. The pixel became a common NA artistic element.
Of course, with the spread of high-resolution retina displays, the pixel is now a quaint artifact of the previous decade.
The NA movement has adapted though. It’s current thrust seems to be moving away from literal digital graphical views, and instead interpreting the ways in which machines read our world for their own purposes, recognizing streets, objects, faces and barcodes.
Retro New Aesthetic
In an ironic twist, the NA has taken a retro turn, trying to bring crafted old-school analog warmth to our cold mass-manufactured digital devices. They are warm organic shells for cold steel.
The prime example is the USB Typewriter. At nearly a thousand dollars each, they are priced like pieces from an art gallery too.
Will your typewritten words feel more organic if their conduit is one of these wooden keyboards, “made from a single piece of wood to preserve wood grain across shell and keys”?
Or consider the smartphone, our umbilical to the digital matrix, made out of bamboo:
That is going to fit into one’s cabin in the woods so much better than the glass-and-steel iPhone.
What we make, makes us
Where does this go next? The most promising direction seems to be how our physical world is carved, sometimes literally, by our digital understructure. Kevin Slavin does a wonderful job of explaining that in his TED talk:
But algorithms can carve more than just our physical world. They can shape us, as humans.
If you carry this line of thought to it’s logical conclusion, the next step is inverting the machine-human relationship to where people become parameters for algorithms. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a crude first version of that vision. There are plenty of scenarios where human brain power is cheaper than burning CPU. RPC is the abbreviation for “remote procedure call”, but it could also mean “remote person call.”
Our algorithms shape us, and they shape our culture. Would you really ever have seen that niche documentary or gotten into that indie band if Netflix or Pandora had not recommended them to you? Would you choose them? Is the machine aiding or subverting your free will? If recommendations are perfect and encompass everything, not just movies and songs, what does free will even mean?
Those are the questions the NA has to deal with. It has to define what art is in a world where humans make machines and machines make humans and the digital and physical have no clear boundary.