I’m a bit late in absorbing this one – life and work getting in the way and all that – but I’ve become more excited about the New Aesthetic. According to James Bridle, who spoke about it at the most recent SXSW conference, the New Aesthetic is an “investigation / project / tumblr looking at technologically-enabled novelty in the world”.
There’s a lengthy treatise on it at wired.com, but to me it seems to boil down to a movement where we’ve been making and using technology to help us look at the world around us, then letting its images and interpretations inform our own thinking more than we (or most of us) have realised, and now appropriating those images and interpretations in amazing new ways.
Through the eyes of machines
I know it’s a well-worn quote, but Marshall McLuhan’s words ring truer now than ever before: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
For ages now, technology has given us new eyes on our world. Whether it’s the sheer delight of zooming around our lovely planet using Google Earth, or visualising crisis relief data for Haiti to save lives, by OpenStreetMap.org and Ushahidi, there’s such a rich array of visual novelty – as James Brindle puts it – on offer. But what’s been really interesting from an artistic/visual point of view is that the digital artefacts and limitations in the images themselves have now inspired us in new creative directions.
You can see this a lot in pixelation. The limitation that computers and screens have in approximating images has spawned a huge array of creative directions. The 16-bit computer games of my childhood are their own retro aesthetic now, applied to anything from jewellery to subway stations to tattoos, in loads of groovy ways.
You can also see it in the way that 3D modelling software using polygons has been reinterpreted. These re-appropiations are visually stunning (I think), and often make quite evocative statements in themselves, about the conversation that our machines are having with us through their imagery.
The Lo Res Project illustrates this really well, especially since it’s applying the polygon effect to different types of objects.
My favourite is Eric Testroete’s papercraft self portrait (below). It not only brings the digital back into the real world, like all of these New Aesthetic directions, but it turns it into something that is hand-made and starts a new type of interaction.
Have we seen this before?
Now I’m no art scholar, but I do remember learning about the art world’s reaction when photography came along. Many artists welcomed photography as a helpmate, whether or not they would admit it to others. Others railed against it: A world history of art mentions that some linked photography with “the great industrial madness” of the time. What’s interesting is that the act of photography started to inform the way artists (in general) approached their subjects. Portrait and landscape compositions and tonal ranges gradually changed when artists began to have more and more photography in their visual diet.
And just as we’re seeing re-appropriation of digital images now, the Dada art movement re-appropriated that new kid on the block, photography. Dada had its roots in reaction to World War I, and made its messages felt through using scissors and glue rather than paint brushes, to re-present printed media material as emotive artworks. This continued with punk many years on.
I think we’ve also seen it for a long time now in architecture: I wonder how much the software itself (like AutoCAD) has informed the contemporary architectural look of clean lines and uninterrupted low-textured surfaces. Indeed, new materials, new furniture styles and new manufacturing technology have been created to reflect what architects and designers have been seeing in their software interfaces.