The New Aesthetic’s Infinite Tumblr Scroll
The twilight of a late March Thursday refracted a steely haze that made all of the skyscrapers of Chicago’s South Loop blend into one plane of grey. As rain droplets just began to dot the sidewalks, lines of harried lecture-goers filed into the lobby of the Gene Siskel Film Center to sit in on the kickoff to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s spring 2014 season of Conversations at the Edge, a public program consisting of a series of talks with artists and scholars working at the vanguard of new media. Many were turned away with haphazardly taped-up “sold out” signs for the event of the evening, a multimedia-enhanced talk entitled “Genealogies of the New Aesthetic” by Christiane Paul, Associate Professor at the School of Media Studies at The New School and Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The murmuring consensus in the lobby was that Paul’s work with Internet art drew a number of the sold-out crowd, but most were there because they were eager to learn just what exactly this “new aesthetic” was aestheticizing.
The promotional material announcing the talk gave one hint to this buzzworthy phrase: a surreal, highly saturated screenshot of a suspension bridge seeming to warp and melt into the ocean surrounding a bank of rocky cliffs, taken from Brooklyn-based artist Clement Valla’s ongoing Postcards From Google Earth series. According to Valla’s explanation behind the project, these images, which he originally thought were glitches in the Google Earth algorithm, represent “strange moments where the illusion of a seamless representation of the Earth’s surface seems to break down.” He asserts that these instances are “anomalies,” rather than mistakes; they are perfectly logical, if not outlying, instances of Google’s mapping software. “They reveal a new model of representation,” he continues, “not through indexical photographs but through automated data collection from a myriad of different sources constantly updated and endlessly combined to create a single illusion. Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation.” The series, consisting of Valla’s growing collection hosted on his website, features dozens of eerily pixelated images of waterfalls draping over mountains or highway overpasses blurring into oncoming cars, each stamped with a cheery Google Earth logo.
The New Aesthetic, if it could be pinned down to any one definition, is indeed an aesthetic; a new way to see, encounter, and make sense of the world. But, this particular incarnation of the human drive to seek beauty is found through the interface of a mechanical eye and on a landscape where the physical bleeds into the digital. Examples of this envelop artworks, products, and even the nature of interpersonal relationships: devices such as surveillance television, intelligent motion sensors built into video game hardware, or satellite views of the earth engender the visual language of pixelated imagery in graphic design, the rough-hewn edges of 3D-printed objects or the voyeuristic self-actualization of the selfie portrait.
A Brief History of New Aesthetic Time
The realization of all of these signs of some subtle visual paradigm shift was conceived by British artist, programmer, writer, publisher, and technologist James Bridle in a seminal 2011 post on the blog for East London-based design partnership Really Interesting Group. It then developed as a subsequent independent Tumblr feed that Bridle continues to manage today, where he posts a wide range of native and re-blogged content ranging from news articles to fashion photographs, all falling under what he identifies as this driving “aesthetic.” It solidified into the beginnings of a conceptual discourse at a 2012 South By Southwest (SXSW) panel led by Bridle entitled “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices.” The talk, featuring Bridle along with Joanne McNeil (former editor of the New Museum’s Rhizome), designer Ben Terrett, artist Aaron Straup Cope, and creative Russell Davies, covered several bases to propose how this new way of “seeing” could be applied to art history, commercial culture, geography, and writing.
Much like Twitter blowing up and out into popular discourse after its introduction at the 2007 SXSW event, the discussion from this panel provoked a rapid explosion of reactions and critiques from tech-centered communities and media theorists as to if this proposition of a new way of seeing, applied to an aesthetic practice, warranted all of the hype. The initial hubbub has since died down and art historians, curators, and cultural theorists are taking the discourse into the realm of looking back through the lens of art and media theory. But, as the turnout at Paul’s Chicago lecture can testify, it seems that, nearly two years after the SXSW appearance and nearly three years after the initial proposition, the “movement” that was once restrained to high-flying art and technology circles is catching the eye of a public ready to explore this attempt to define a pattern that has been felt but not quite grasped; the overlapping realms of digitalized imagery being encountered within the physical world.
The description of the New Aesthetic as a “movement” is reproduced here in quotation marks because Bridle has asserted that it is neither an art movement nor a collection of artists and artworks. Instead, he posits that it is a “collection of noticed things” that are all marked by an Internet-informed language where invisible networks are rendered visible. The “aesthetics” come in because this is ultimately a visual examination of the phenomenon. These instances emerge in images and artworks in which physical renderings of digital phenomena become statements on how we can no longer see, or even understand, the reaches of the interconnected webs we have woven thanks to our hyper-reliance on machines and the forward march of technology. It is an ultra-meme that is constantly evolving, a shifting accumulation of found art that is not really art and archived in a publicly accessible online forum. While Bridle has admitted in multiple interviews that he feels the phrase “New Aesthetic” is inherently weak language that leaves the term open with gaping holes to critique, it has ultimately proven successful because it is curious and approachable; people readily come to him to ask if certain artworks, memes, or cultural movements fit the mold.
The Pixelated Eye
The waves of mainstream press coverage from writers at outlets such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and WIRED have hinted that the New Aesthetic is something akin to a contemporary version of the Surrealist manifesto with Bridle as the “Andre Breton-style” impresario behind it all. They could be on to something, for he is inherently working with wrangling conceptual vision; much like how Cubism defined Modernism, he and his “followers” are trying to hint at a foresight portending the future. While the Surrealists took the idea of the naked woman in the forest as their icon for a new way of seeing, New Aestheticians take on the idea of the drone, the symbol of what Aaron Straup Cope calls “the all-seeing data eye.” Namely, this adoption points to a systematic and symptomatic aspect of contemporary culture: that all of our interactions are being monitored by some entity, at a distance, from above and beyond. The drone is the physical manifestation of this visually absent eye, the real-world embodiment of the unseen networks that make up CC-TV loops, credit monitoring services through our banks, or the trails of interactions that we carve into our social media histories.
If that is the disheartening side of the New Aesthetic, its hopeful face is that of the pixel, a unit that is nostalgic, 8-bit, and retro, but also futuristically promising to de-rez the world into a state of perpetually building and shifting between the 2D and the 3D. “It can be creepy, and it can be surveillance, or it can be a shared vision,” Bridle explains.
The Not-So-New Aesthetic
Bridle’s collection of noticed images, as Paul suggests along with her research partner on the New Aesthetic, Vancouver-based artist and curator Malcolm Levy, is not exactly new. She uses the term “genealogy” to imply that Bridle is part of a long line of artists to explore his ideas, but that his Tumblr page embodied a tipping point that transformed underlying aesthetics into a pop cultural meme. In her presentation to the Chicago crowd, she traced the lineage of Bridle’s trajectory, touching on previous generations of artists working with glitch aesthetics, surveillance imagery, algorithmic art, and 3D-rendered pixels. Two other pivotal voices, as she explained, have set the framework for the critique that defines the New Aesthetic as a discourse that is still being cross-examined today: Bruce Sterling, Science Fiction writer and forefather of cyberpunk fiction, and Curt Cloninger, artist, writer, and Assistant Professor of New Media at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
Sterling wrote a long reactionary essay to Bridle’s SXSW panel for WIRED in April 2012 that offered a combined critique, line of questioning, and proto-manifesto which subsequently skyrocketed the concept of The New Aesthetic into the public eye. “This is one of those moments when the art world sidles over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical,” he writes. “This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality… The New Aesthetic doesn’t look, act, or feel postmodern. Postmodern feels trite and dusty to this generation of artists, and they are looking for a new paradigm.” He also suggests that Bridle is akin to a new incarnation of Walter Benjamin, a “critic in an ‘age of digital accumulation,’” rather than one of mechanical reproduction: “Bridle carries out a valiant cut-and-paste campaign that looks sorta like traditional criticism, but is actually blogging and Tumblring. His New Aesthetic Tumblr bears the resemblance to thoughtful critique that mass production once did to handmade artifacts.” That is, he compares Bridle to Benjamin, but Bridle’s aesthetic has no aura.
Cloninger reacted through an editorial in Mute magazine in October 2012, specifically arguing that the New Aesthetic speaks to “evidence that technology has finally accumulated to the point of being easily and widely recognized as a collection of Tumblr images without needing to be supported or explained by any underlying theory whatsoever.” He also suggests that the New Aesthetic is made up of multiple “visual aesthetics” that are specific to each incarnation of art that falls under Bridle’s scope; glitch art aesthetics are different from Google Map aesthetics, and each have their own unique histories. Finally, he echoes Paul’s suggestion that the New Aesthetic is not new; “At best, and properly understood, it is a new way of understanding aesthetics altogether, one that renegotiates the relationship between human-subject and non-human-object. Perhaps we need a less historically-encrusted word for this ‘new’ relationship than ‘aesthetic.’ But lets keep ‘aesthetic’ for now. It forces us to revisit Kant, Schiller, Freud, Heidegger, and Whitehead; and those guys had a lot of Tumblr followers back in the day.”
These two critiques dovetail with the skepticism surrounding Bridle’s Tumblr feed as soapbox. The New Aesthetic Tumblr, as Matthew Battles of Metalab remarked in an April 2012 essay, “serves as both [Bridle’s] wonder cabinet and manifesto.” It is a data stream, a collection of assembled images and images of objects that speak to this vision. The infinite scroll of the social media micro-blogging site, a constant refresh of content, mimics the fluidity of what Clement Valla dubbed “The Universal Texture,” a visual exercise that evokes a looking “through,” rather than a looking “at,” an image and evokes a planarity with indefinable dimensions.
For the first year of its existence, Bridle opened the Tumblr to submissions but then decided to keep posting to himself. Part of the beauty of that platform is that others can openly re-blog content with extreme ease, perpetuating the sharing aspects that originally informed the site. There is inherently a strong tastemaking aspect to the feed, but, just like any other independent media stream, there are not solid criteria for critique.
The fact that Bridle is essentially curating a “movement” and also disseminating both his own art and the “vision” behind it from the curtain of a Tumblr feed speaks to a crossroads in how art is legitimized through pixels. Our entire way of seeing has become mediated through machines; just as we once learned what constituted “art” through printed magazines and newspapers, we now learn about art and artists through signals that beam online publications and social media feeds onto our devices. Technology is the intermediary force for how we encounter art, and how artists unavoidably fashion themselves.
When the gatekeeping force of publicity is left wide open on the field of hyper-dissemination through “shares” and “likes,” questions arise regarding where art placed on the Internet for discussion and critique ultimately stands. The seamless visual language of an interconnected network mimics the New Aesthetic in that it addresses the roles that machines play in our lives; no longer are they just the tools of progress, but the enabling devices of the Panopticon, the all-seeing, all-knowing invisible eye that may or may not be fashioning our behavior as digital citizens.
Just as the New Aesthetic cannot legitimize itself without its Tumblr dissemination, artists can quickly become lost within the infinite-yet-intimate scroll, the seamless visual language of an interconnected network. To be an artist in Sterling’s “age of digital accumulation” is now to offer one’s art in pixels and to place it within the mediating force of these unseen networks. Art, and artists, exist everywhere and nowhere, and belong to everyone and no one.